05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Science Vs. Religion: What We Need Is Conversation

Sam Harris won't give up venting and fuming over religion. He forgets, perhaps, that smoke gets in your eyes; it clouds perception, fogs thought. His take on religion is puerile, as is that of religious literalists and those whose cosmic-scientific vision eliminates the possibility of surprise or the advent of the unknown or least expected.

Rather than argue, as Harris does, that science and religion are inherently in conflict, I propose conversation. The word "conversation" is derived from the Latin conversio, which means turning around. When one enters into conversation, the only risk lies in seeing the subject from another point of view. The payoff is seeing the question more holistically, more fully, and perhaps more truthfully.
French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat, who was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2009, offers a contrast to Harris' fierce hostility toward religion. Award organizers said his work in quantum physics reveals a reality beyond science that spirituality can help to partly grasp. In his writings, d'Espagnat asserts that modern quantum physics shows that ultimate reality cannot be described. Although he is non-religious, he embraces mystery, writing that it "is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being."
D'Espagnat's approach to spirituality evokes that of the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, another Roman-Catholic-turned-atheist. Comte-Sponville maintains that spirituality, free from any particular religious doctrine, is integral to human existence. The buoyant quality of his affirmative celebration of human experience perhaps owes itself to the deep humanist tradition in Roman Catholicism, which arises from its central teaching of the Incarnation and places great trust in a form of human experience in which spirituality -- call it mind, or brain, or soul -- operates positively. This vein of thinking in turn owes itself to its classical intellectual heritage: the original post-Gospel Christian thinkers and writers were, for the most part, Roman and Greek scholars who, in becoming Christian, brought with them a body of pagan philosophical and moral treatises. The humanistic wisdom they imparted became the intellectual framework for the Gospel message.

While free from the potentially limiting sphere of religious doctrine, Comte-Sponville admits that life is expectantly spiritual. His Little Book of Atheist Spirituality says all that Harris sadly misses and denigrates.