02/11/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

A New Deal for Religion and Science

This is the 14th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.

2012-07-18-AndromedaGalaxy.jpgThose who argue that religion should be counted out are overlooking the role that religious leaders played in overcoming segregation in America, repealing apartheid in South Africa, and ending the communist dictatorship in Poland and Central Europe. That religion has not always lived up to its own ideals does not mean it hasn't also made important contributions to social justice.

Religion is a repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, and a purveyor of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can legitimize patterns of indignity; premonitions of a fairer world are then strangled in the crib. While the heavy hand of tradition saves us from our worst, too often it keeps us from our best.

Tradition and precedent, sometimes bolstered with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the 20th-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues of race, gender, marriage, divorce, birth control and sex. After decades of debate, new values gradually displaced older ones in the public mind. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly look not to their church, synagogue or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics. This same trend is now becoming visible in the United States.

When either science or religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine -- no matter if it's left or right -- it weds itself to the biases of a particular time. That is what Soviet supporters of Lysenko did in the 1930s. It's what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked religious beliefs in support of the state's nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda.

Likewise, when religion attaches itself to particular social or political models -- for example, racial segregation or sexual mores -- it eventually loses relevance in those domains. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with the ship when it sinks. The nineteenth-century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, an early champion of Darwin's theory of evolution, pointed out that, in just this way, "Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed." Untold suffering is often the result of such partisan mistakes, and they are avoidable.

For example, when Alfred Kinsey's studies on sexuality revealed the full range of human sexual behavior, we had two choices. We could label some of the behaviors that came to light "perverted," and try to suppress them. Or, we could look upon the behaviors that Kinsey's research revealed as falling within an enlarged domain of "normal" and modify our prescriptive models accordingly. The advent of reliable birth control only intensified the pressure to revise traditional sexual norms. The ensuing sexual revolution suggests that the public is moving toward a new consensus on sexuality.

What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about broadening the definition of marriage to include partners of the same sex? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much as disagreements over slavery and, a century later, segregation, were decided. As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned and instead other religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.

If barring same-sex marriage is viewed as an infringement on the civil rights of homosexuals, then the tide of history suggests that these barriers will fall. Despite frustratingly slow progress and numerous setbacks, it's hard to find examples of campaigns for equal minority rights -- that is, movements to end second-class citizenship -- that do not ultimately succeed. In the long run inclusiveness beats exclusiveness; dignity for all trumps indignity for some. Religion could as well lay claim to this general insight (which it co-authored), and consistently champion the indignified, as give its blessing to one or another kind of second-class citizenship.

The movement toward more inclusive, participatory models of governance shows no signs of abating in the 21st century. Protests for dignity and democracy have erupted in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and across the United States in the form of the Occupy Movement.

Let's take a moment to consider what it would take for religion and science to end their stand-off and support each other's role in the pursuit of universal dignity.

Moral laws can be seen as intuitions, based on observation, that are then elevated to absolute truths. It's the elevation to absolutes that leads to trouble, not the intuitive guesswork that's common to discoveries of all kinds. So, one way to resolve the perennial war between science and religion is for religion to accept science's methodology and defend religious precepts much as scientists defend theirs. In such a framework, both science and religion would reserve the right to speculate and, before expecting others to accept their findings, they'd assume responsibility for demonstrating the validity of their ideas and theories by marshaling evidence for their support.

Such an understanding does not preclude specialization. Religion is free to imagine new worlds and to suggest things it cannot prove. Guessing the answer is a respected way of doing science and so scientists don't have a leg to stand on when they dismiss religion as guesswork.

First you guess. Don't laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it's wrong. That's all there is to it.

--- Richard Feynman

Science tests these guesses and intuitions against the evidence. Religion can do no less.

Under the terms of this deal, religion would be more humble about its teachings, acknowledging that they are sometimes wrong. When a hypothesis is disproven, religion would gracefully accept the result and propose something else. When science confirms one of religion's guesses, it gives credit where credit is due for having "divined" the answer before it could be established beyond doubt (that is, verified to the satisfaction of investigators who were initially neutral or skeptical).

In time, science and religion would come to see each other as complementary aspects of a common truth-seeking strategy. Religion specializes in identifying cutting-edge, revelatory insights into human psychological and social dynamics (seemingly out of thin air, but actually, intuitively, after close observation). For its part, science specializes in testing these insights against the evidence, and either disproving or confirming them. Both vocations are at liberty to encroach on the other's traditional turf.

Under this arrangement, science and religion would likely retain something of their traditional flavors, but gradually each would incorporate into its practice the others' perspective. With the roles of science and religion clarified, their relationship would be characterized by mutually respect and collaboration. On matters for which there is insufficient evidence, people would be free to disagree. The difference, though, is that they would cease to berate and demean each other.

By interpreting religious principles not as holy, inerrant writ, but as fallible truths that are discovered in the same way as other truths, religion can defend itself against accusations that it is another self-serving institution, and, by assuming a leadership role in the transition to a post-predatory world, help realize the prophetic vision of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.

For centuries, religion has served peoples' emotional needs with its art and music, its theater and counsel. This will no doubt continue. But, as dignity's defender of last resort, a new revivifying role for religion can be envisioned. In it, religion would:

  • Provide a forum for debating and disseminating proposed models of morality
  • Research and develop models that extend dignity to people subjected to indignity
  • Facilitate society-wide and world-wide conversations aimed at defining exactly what is meant by "equal dignity for all"--until a broad consensus is achieved
  • Assume the role of coach to organizations as they bring their practices in line with dignity-affirming values
  • Support the dignity movement as it did the civil rights movement
  • Teach the latest findings on the workings of the mind and the dynamics of self-transformation
  • Offer enlightenment and creativity training (analogous to literacy training)
  • Support scientific and spiritual seekers by reminding them of the mythic nature of the quest for truth
  • Imagine better futures -- such as the brotherhood of man -- and ennoble our quests to actualize those dreams

With the advent of a beautiful friendship between science and religion, there is indeed reason to hope.