A Place for Religion in Science?

By Pollack, Robert | Cross Currents, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

A Place for Religion in Science?


Pollack, Robert, Cross Currents


As Director of the Columbia Center for the Study of Science and Religion I am often asked, what is "Science and Religion?"

Is it, or can it become, a real field? Or is it just a phrase, no more than a trivial coupling, clever but sterile? It's easy to think of such couplings: "Chinese and Latin" is not a field, even though both deal in matters of syntax, grammar and meaning. "Math and Music" is not a field either, even though both deal in the harmonious relationships among symbols.

"Science and Religion" both deal with explanations and underlying mechanisms, but if one can say "so what?" to either of the first two pairs, why not say it about this third? Are the shared attributes of science and religion rich enough to outweigh their manifold intellectual, emotional and intentional differences?

I say yes. I think it not because of my religion--I came very late to life as an observant Jew, and I am acutely aware of the partial nature of my observances--but because of my science. From the 1960s through the 1990s my field was one whose name--molecular biology--now stands as a model of a field with a well-defined agenda. But until the 1950s the notion of coupling the study of molecules--specific structures assembled from specific atoms--with the study of any aspect of life itself was as novel as the notion today of science and religion being, or becoming, a field, whether scientific religion, or religious science.

Until then, molecules were nature, and biology was mystery. The factors of inheritance?: totally mysterious. The way in which a body and brain emerged from the descendants of a single fertilized egg cell?: totally mysterious. The way in which living and dead are different?: totally mysterious.

There were many founders of this new field whom I know well, and of those Jim Watson is the one I know best. His really important book was not the self-serving memoir "The Double Helix," but the earlier, 1965 single-author textbook, The Molecular Biology of the Gene. In it he made the case that DNA resolved all these mysteries and many others; he pretty much single-handedly gave my generation of scientists the idea that any mystery could be understood through a proper manipulation of the proper molecules.

Not that I am saying, nor does he claim even today, that all mystery has been resolved, only that its resolution may be best sought in the chemistry of the molecules of the living world. I am saying that science and religion invite a comparison to molecules and biology, but with the addition of moral norms.

Why do we ask what is right? How do we know which answer to believe? What difference can any answer make, in the span of a necessarily mortal life? Those non-scientific questions did not then appear, nor do they now appear, to be mysteries that may yet be resolved by molecular biology. Rather, they seem to emerge in most of us in what is a wholly unscientific but necessary way; in their absence a person will be freed from the necessity to ponder them, at great risk to one and all. Molecular biology must nevertheless continue to ignore these matters of moral norms, which leaves science with a gap that bothers many molecular biologists and others who cannot see why these questions of norms are not being acknowledged.

Any current issue of molecular biology or any other science, placed in the context of moral norms, is therefore no longer simply a problem in science, but rather, it becomes a problem in science and religion. There are two ways for this to happen: either it becomes a problem in religious science, or in scientific religion. The latter seems to me much less interesting than the former. A good example of scientific religion would be the futile attempt to pin religious meaning and purpose on the facts and evidence of natural selection, even though the mechanism of natural selection is demonstrably devoid of moral content.

Religious science on the other hand is simply what happens when one introduces the notion of moral norms to any current scientific agenda, and sees how that agenda might change. …

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