How to Reconcile Science and Religion

04/12/2012 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2012

Last month in these pages, Jason Rosenhouse wrote about reconciling science and religion. In his concluding paragraph he said,

Many Christians have resolved [this issue] to their own satisfaction. The literature defending "theistic evolution" is large and erudite. I can understand, though, why so many people are not impressed with such efforts... They seem like so much armchair philosophy, as though the writer thinks the task of reconciliation is accomplished when a logically possible scenario containing both God and evolution, no matter how implausible, is produced.

He's right. If one approaches science and religion as logical systems that must be rationally reconciled, then reconciliation is really hard. In particular, if one approaches any religion scientifically, as a set of logical propositions (and nothing more) and considers them as so many data points (and nothing more), then reconciliation is probably impossible. Even if it's not, whatever meta-system that emerges is likely to be a monstrous and uninspiring thing.

On the other side, many religious people tend to think of science as essentially religious in nature. These folks think believing in evolution (say) requires faith just like believing in Jesus Christ (say) requires faith. But that's just not true, unless one stretches the word "faith" until it means nothing at all.

Both sides, it seems, are trapped within their native categories. Many scientists think religion is just science done badly, and many religious people think science is basically a religion.

But science and religion have different languages. They use them differently and for different ends. The cultural divide is deep. This is not to say that science and religion have nothing to say to one another; after all, we live in one world. But careful translation is required. And even then, there are no perfect translations.

But there are plenty of horrible ones. During my time as the chair of a college physics department I directed a search for a new faculty member. And, to my surprise, some foreign applicants simply ran their CV's through online translators before sending them to me. The result was comical. A translation had occurred, but one could not discern -- at all -- the original intent of perhaps three out of four sentences. The applications were nearly pure nonsense.

Often, when I read or hear scientists on religion or religious believers on science, I get the sense that a similar kind of flatfooted one-to-one translation is lurking somewhere behind the words. Truly bilingual people are hard to find, perhaps because the two languages, and the perspectives that inspire them, are so different.

Science's categories are products of its frontal vision. They are (relatively) well-defined. And science progresses by narrowing its focus, by dividing the world into parts. It puts those parts back together, to be sure, but it never takes its eye off distinctions.

On the other hand, theology's categories are (relatively) poorly-defined, its vision anything but frontal. We cannot address God directly, but always obliquely, always indirectly. The language of theology reflects its object's shifting presence in our lives: glancing, peripheral. That's just the nature of the thing: Once you nail it down, it's dead. Or, as a friend of mine once put it, "Any box you put God in becomes a casket."

A story may help illustrate. As an astronomy professor I spent many nights under the sky with my students, pointing out stars and planets and other cosmic doodads. Often the students would strain, trying to see dim stars I could see easily. This is not because they were blind or my vision was excellent, but because there's a trick to it. To see a dim star you can't look straight at it. But once you relax and look a little to the side of it, it pops clearly into view. Of course once this happens you reflexively focus on it again and it disappears. You must relax your eyes and learn to trust your peripheral vision. You almost have to stop trying. It's very frustrating to novice skygazers, who have grown up believing that the best way to see something is always to look at it.

It's just not so, and the language of theology is grounded largely in peripheral vision. It is not poetry exactly, but it's more like poetry than anything else. It can't be forced, it can't be manipulated, and it's anything but explicit. Meanwhile, science clips along with its direct, fact-filled, straightforward prose. Science's accessibility is its great gift, but not all knowledge is like this.

A good translator invites science and religion to the table and seeks common ground. This requires social savvy as well as knowledge of the relevant perspectives and languages, because this is not merely an intellectual problem; it's also an identity problem. The translator's hardest job may be getting the strangers to look each other in the eye, to see each other as human, which of course means to consider a reality outside their own. Then and only then can specific language problems be addressed.

It's not an impossible task, but it sure isn't easy either. It's enough to make one hope for a new language, a lingua franca that can bridge the chasm between science and religion. Just a dream? I don't know, but for today at least, here's my advice on how to reconcile this pair: with patience, sensitivity, and a really good translator.