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Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship

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Reason to Hope: A New Deal for Religion and Science

"[The 21st] century will be defined by a debate that will run through the remainder of its decades: religion versus science. Religion will lose." --John McLaughlin, TV talk show host

Former priest John McLaughlin is hardly alone in his pessimism about religion's future. A spate of bestsellers -- "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins; "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris; and "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by the late Christopher Hitchens -- argues that religion, as we've known it, no longer serves the needs of people with a modern education and a global awareness.

Books like these have spelled out religion's shortcomings and I see no point in piling on. Rather, in a series of posts, I'll make the case that, in the long view, both religion and science come off as godsends (forgive the pun). And that, looking ahead, both are indispensable to letting go of old predatory practices and creating a fair, just and peaceful world. If religion can see its way clear to making a mid-course correction and science can get off its high horse, John McLaughlin's prediction could be proven spectacularly wrong.

Many of the voices now being raised against religion are over-confident and patronizing, rather like those of trial-lawyers who feel the jury is in their pocket. Perhaps that's because they are increasingly preaching to a public alarmed by clerical abuses and fundamentalist zealotry. Contemporary religious leaders, painfully aware of the relationship between public participation and institutional viability, realize that religion is in a fight for its life.

I realize that this terrain is full of landmines. In the hope of defusing a few, let me acknowledge at the outset that the word religion means different things to different people. To some, it's knowledge and wisdom; to others, superstition and dogma. To some, it's worship; to others, wonder. To some, religion is salvation; to others, it's seeking. To some, religion is of divine origin; to others, it's man-made.

I use "religion" to refer loosely to the metaphysical, moral and transformational precepts of the founders, prophets, saints and sages of the major religions. The focus of these blog posts is neither the theological doctrines associated with particular faiths nor the liturgical practices characteristic of various sects. Rather, the goal is to present a unifying perspective on the findings of religious and scientific inquiry.

Then, since the divergence between science and religion no longer serves either, I'll address the obstacles that have kept them from developing a "beautiful friendship" and describe the pay-off we may expect once they're both on the same side.

Science gives us reason to think we can vanquish famine, disease and poverty. Religion heralds "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men." Neither of these venerable institutions can deliver on its vision without help from the other, but together there is reason to hope that they can. As partners, science and religion can make the golden rule largely self-enforcing, and hasten our arrival into a world wherein everyone's dignity is secure.

I know this sounds utopian, but wait and see. Developments in both science and religion have laid the foundation for a new synthesis. Ending centuries of fruitless squabbling and initiating a beautiful friendship is at last possible. If you'll suspend your skepticism long enough to follow this series of posts, I think you'll agree. And if you're not persuaded, you'll at least come away with some new questions.

The next post tells what hooked me on these issues in the first place: the incompatible notions of truth advocated by my two schools -- sunday school and public school.