Religion and science are twin beacons of humanity

Published 7 October 2007
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Published in The Times, 7th October 2007

In 1997 a group of scientists issued a declaration in which, among other things, they argued that “human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals. Humankind’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul”.

Is that all we are? Where, on this definition, will we place the book of Psalms, King Lear, Monet’s water lilies or the Bodleian Library, Oxford? Where will we locate the individuals who risked their lives to save lives during the massacre in Rwanda, or the Buddhist monks today who confront the military regime in Burma in the name of freedom? Do we adequately capture the parameters of the human spirit by reducing it to “electrochemical brain processes”? Clearly not.

The declaration is guilty of an elementary mistake of logic, the genetic fallacy, the belief that because Y “arises from” X, Y is no more than X. An oak arises from an acorn, a butterfly from a caterpillar, but they are not the same things. Music arises from a disturbance of airwaves, but that does not make music mere noise. Everything that lives can be traced back to the first ribo-organisms. But that does not mean that all forms of life are essentially the same.

Any account of the human condition that reduces the human spirit to an accidental by-product of evolutionary pressures tells less than half the story of who we are. We may be — on this, the Bible and neo-Darwinism agree — “dust of the earth”, the reconfigured debris of exploded stars. But within us is the breath of God. Scientists call this “emergence”: the process whereby systems of self-organising complexity yield something new, more than the sum of its parts. That is where religion and science both began: when life became conscious, then self-conscious, then able to ask the question: “Why?”

The current argument between “religion” and “science” is deeply unnecessary. It involves a caricature of religion and a parody of science. It is structured around a set of absurd oppositions, between science and superstition, reason and revelation, knowledge and wishful thinking, as if scientists and religious believers were incapable of realising the limits of their respective domains. We need both: science to tell us how the world is, religion (and philosophy) to tell us how it ought to be.

In Judaism we have a special blessing — it goes back some 2,000 years — that we say on meeting a great scientist. Religion is not, or should not be, opposed to science. On the contrary, it is part of God’s gift to humanity of insight and understanding. That, for us, is what the Bible means when it says that the human person is “in the image and likeness” of God. What we disagree with is not science but scientism, the belief that what we can see and measure is all there is.We are objects, beings in physical space, subject to the same causal laws as other biological organisms. But we are also subjects, capable of thought, speech, self-expression and imagination. All life is mortal but only humans contemplate their mortality. All genes produce other genes, but not all yield creatures capable of love, Shakespeare’s sonnets or the Song of Songs.

One of the most glorious periods in European history occurred when religion, science and the arts came together in the Renaissance. Its manifesto, Pico della Mirandola’s Oration of the Dignity of Man, was a deeply religious document. In Italy it gave rise to Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Brunelleschi; in England to Francis Bacon, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Milton. This was religious humanism at its best.

Then came the confrontation between the religious authorities and Galileo, and the synthesis was lost. Religion and science began to go their separate ways, to the detriment of both. We need to declare a truce in this war between two equally quintessential aspects of the human condition.

Religion and science are like the two hemispheres of the brain, one analytical, the other integrative, one speaking prose, the other poetry. Religion without science is blind to the workings of the world. Science without religion is deaf to the music of creation.