The Challenge of Our Times: The Integration of Science and Religion
There is arguably no more important and pressing topic than the relation of science and religion in the modern world. Science is clearly one of the most profound methods that humans have yet devised for discovering truth, while religion remains the single greatest force for generating meaning. Truth and meaning, science and religion; but we still cannot figure out how to get the two of them together in a fashion that both find acceptable.
The reconciliation of science and religion is not merely a passing academic curiosity. These two enormous forces -- truth and meaning -- are at war in today's world. Modern science and premodern religion aggressively inhabit the same globe, each vying, in its own way, for world domination. And something, sooner or later, has to give.
Science and technology have created a global and transnational framework of industrial, economic, medical, scientific, and informational systems. Yet however beneficial those systems may be, they are all, in themselves, devoid of meaning and value. As its own proponents constantly point out, science tells us what is, not what should be. Science tells us about electrons, atoms, molecules, galaxies, digital data bits, network systems: it tells us what a thing is, not whether it is good or bad, or what it should be or could be or ought to be. Thus this enormous global scientific infrastructure is, in itself, a valueless skeleton, however functionally efficient it might be.
Into this colossal value vacuum, religion has happily rushed. Science has created this extraordinary worldwide and global framework -- itself utterly devoid of meaning -- but within that ubiquitous framework, subglobal pockets of premodern religions have created value and meaning for billions of people in every part of the world. And these same premodern religions often deny validity to the scientific framework within which they live, a framework that provides most of their medicine, economics, banking, information networks, transportation, and communications. Within the scientific skeleton of truth, religious meaning attempts to flourish, often by denying the scientific framework itself -- rather like sawing off the branch on which you cheerily perch.
The disgust is mutual, because modern science gleefully denies virtually all of the basic tenets of religion in general. According to the typical view of modern science, religion is not much more than a holdover from the childhood of humanity, with about as much reality as, say, Santa Claus. Whether the religious claims are more literal (Moses parted the Red Sea) or more mystical (religion involves direct spiritual experience), modern science denies them all, simply because there is no credible empirical evidence for any of them.
So here is the utterly bizarre structure of today's world: a scientific framework that is global in its reach and omnipresent in its information and communication networks, forms a meaningless skeleton within which hundreds of subglobal, premodern religions create value and meaning for billions; and they each -- science and religion each -- tends to deny significance, even reality, to the other. This is a massive and violent schism and rupture in the internal organs of today's global culture, and this is exactly why many social analysts believe that if some sort of reconciliation between science and religion is not forthcoming, the future of humanity is, at best, precarious.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "RELIGION"?
The aim of this book is to suggest how we might begin to think about both science and religion in ways that allow their reconciliation and eventual integration, on terms acceptable to both parties.
Of course, this reconciliation of science and religion depends, in part, on exactly what we mean by "science" and "religion." We will actually devote several chapters to just this topic (Chapters 11, 12, and 13). In the meantime, a few crucial points should be noted.
Defining "religion" is itself an almost impossible task, largely because there are so many different forms of the beast that it becomes hard to spot what, if anything, they have in common. But one thing is immediately obvious: many of the specific and central claims of the world's great religions contradict each other, but if we cannot find a common core of the world's great religions, then we will never find an integration of science and religion.
Indeed, if we cannot find a common core that is generally acceptable to most religions, we would be forced to choose one religion and deny importance to the others; or we would have to "pick and choose" tenets from among various religions, thus alienating the great religious traditions themselves. We would never arrive at an integration of science and religion that both parties would find acceptable, because most religions would reject what was done to their beliefs in order to force this "reconciliation."
It will do no good, for example, to claim, as many Christian creationists have, that the Big Bang suggests that the world is the product of a personal creator God, when one of the most profound and influential religions in the world, Buddhism, does not believe in a personal God to begin with. Thus, we cannot use the Big Bang in order to "integrate" science and religion unless we can first find a way to reconcile Christianity and Buddhism (and the world's wisdom traditions in general). Otherwise, we are not integrating science and religion; we are simply "integrating" one narrow version of Christianity with one version of science. This is not worthy of the term "integration," and it is certainly not an integration that other religions would find acceptable.
Thus, those who wish to advocate one particular form of religion -- whether it be a patriarchal God the Father, a matriarchal Great Goddess, a fundamentalist Christianity, a mythological Shintoism, a Gaia ecoreligion, a fundamentalist Islam -- have often taken various modern developments in science and attempted to show that these developments just happen to fit with a (very generous) interpretation of their particular religion. This will not be our approach. Because the fact is, unless science can be shown to be compatible with certain deep features common to all of the world's major wisdom traditions, the long-sought reconciliation will remain as elusive as ever.
So before we can even attempt to integrate science and religion, we need to see if we can find a common core of the world's great wisdom traditions. This common core would have to be a general frame that, shorn of specific details and concrete contents, would nonetheless be acceptable to most religious traditions, at least in the abstract. Is there such a common core?
The answer, it appears, is yes.