Magazine article Science & Spirit

War of the Worlds: Maybe the Best Way for Science and Religion to Coexist Is Independently-Each Providing Powerful Answers to Distinct Sets of Questions, Neither Expected to Fully Accommodate the Other. Maybe the Differences between the Two Are Simply Irreconcilable

Magazine article Science & Spirit

War of the Worlds: Maybe the Best Way for Science and Religion to Coexist Is Independently-Each Providing Powerful Answers to Distinct Sets of Questions, Neither Expected to Fully Accommodate the Other. Maybe the Differences between the Two Are Simply Irreconcilable

Article excerpt

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The daddy longlegs clinging vertically to my bathroom wall is a marvel of airy symmetry, its tiny head perched delicately at the center of eight arching limbs. A moment later, struck by the back of my hand, it lies crumpled on the floor. I'm sorry, but I don't like spiders in the house.

In fact, as I learn the next morning, it wasn't a spider I killed, an Araneida, but a member of a parallel order, Phalangida--one that lives by eating spiders, including the annoying little ones that bite. My reflexive action was stupidly self-defeating. But my remorse runs deeper. I feel guilty for destroying this elegant arrangement of carbon molecules, and I can't quite understand why. I don't feel a thing when I pull horsetail and cheat grass from our meadow or massacre a swarm of box elder beetles with laundry soap. I am glad when the cats kill a grasshopper or a mouse; indifferent if their prey is a sparrow; sad if it is a hummingbird. There is no definable moral calculus here. All organisms, I know, are nothing more or less than intricate, intertwined chemistry, products of an evolutionary process that is purposeless and blind. Yet I find myself behaving sometimes as though the world were crawling with spirits. I, the materialist, am making godlike judgments as to what has a "soul," whatever that means, and what deserves to live or die.

A believer might say I am wrestling with something "spiritual." I cringe when I hear the word, coming, with all its musty connotations, from the Latin spiritus, meaning "of breathing" or "of wind." People once thought invisible beings swooped through the trees, bending the branches, propelling leaves and dust. They believed the rhythmic inhalation of these spirits--respiration--animated the body (from the Greek anemos, which also means wind).

We know better now, but the word refuses to go away. "Spiritual" has come to mean the opposite of material: incorporeal, undetectable, unmeasurable--and so, as far as science is concerned, unreal.

These thoughts have come to occupy me after my return from a summer journalism fellowship at Cambridge University devoted to the topic of reconciling science and religion--an idea that has puzzled me since I came across it years ago at a similarly inspired event in Berkeley, California. Science is about what you can prove. Religion is about what you believe. It follows that there can be many different religions, but only one science. So what is there to reconcile?

Science can, of course, study religion, using neuroscience and evolutionary theory to try to explain why people hold religious beliefs. Geology and archeology can refute the fundamentalist teaching that the Earth was created just a few thousand years ago or the Pueblo Indian belief that people emerged fully formed from a hole in the ground somewhere near Espanola, New Mexico. Reconciliation comes as science subsumes religion, as it steadily has been doing for hundreds of years.

It is conceivable that a very different kind of reconciliation could come about: In a stunning reversal, religion might one day subsume science. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Hopi--one of the world's religions, or some hybridization, would turn out to be true. In a great spiritual awakening, every being on Earth would experience a divine, unifying vision--revealed truth. There would be no more need for scientific investigation.

But neither of these outcomes is what the reconcilers have in mind. They seek a way to bring science and religion back together. The idea sounds almost medieval, as when the Scholastic philosophers, taking as a given the existence of the Holy Trinity, elaborately attempted to join reason and faith--an impossible task that led, after a thousand years of circular logic, to the religious and the secular going their separate ways.

Reconciling science and religion would mean reconciling materialism and spirituality--a universe of physical causality with some kind of spirit world. …

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