01/28/2011 08:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Meeting of Science and Religion in Real Life

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." --Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

Many see the meeting of science and religion as a meeting of ideas. Biologists propose evolution and believers counter with creation. Physicists say "Big Bang" and pastors say "God's handiwork." Science is theories, religion is theology; sometimes the ideas put forth by each mesh, and sometimes they grind.

This sort of scheme is the basis of a lot of what is written about science and religion, by both those who see the two as warring, and those who see the two as compatible. Sam Harris adopted it in his essay here in the Huffington Post, "Science Must Destroy Religion":

Religious faith -- faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. -- is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas.

So, too, Christopher Hitchens who wrote that:

Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious, and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Richard Dawkins also maintains that the issue is ideas. "Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth," he writes, and these foolish truths are what gum up the real truths of science.

Once you see science and religion principally as bodies of ideas, the obvious thing to ask about them is whether or not these ideas fit together. Thus, even the brilliant philosopher of science, Alan Plantinga, writing on "Religion and Science" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy concludes that "perhaps the most salient question is whether the relation between religion and science is characterized by conflict or by concord." Is there or isn't there "an escalating war of ideas" between the two?

But the thing is, though both are rich with ideas of all sorts, neither science nor religion is mostly about ideas. These grand and impossible abstractions -- science and religion -- are about more than theories and theology. Each also describes exquisitely complex practices, prescriptions and proscriptions of behaviors and attitudes, communal institutions, structures of authority, canonical texts, rules for deciding what is to be believed and what rejected, sanctioned forms of communication, rituals, traditions, calendars and seasons, and more.

Science is often taken to be a bunch of rarefied, bespectacled, ethereal, elegant E=mc2 codifications. In fact, it is much broader, including scientific practices and scientific technologies (through which most of us experience science most immediately) as well as science funding and science teaching and medicine and psychiatry and a hundred other paths by which science and scientists wend their ways into our lives.

Religion is often taken to be a compendium of religious dogma championed by beshrouded men in odd hats and vestments and collars who tsk tsk about the decline of traditional values. In fact, it is much more than that, including patterns of language and liturgy, stories we tell our kids, foods we make, how we mark birth and marriage and death, how we understand sickness, what songs we sing when and why, and a hundred other paths by which religion wends its way into the lives of those who embrace or reject it.

All this being the case, the meeting between science and religion is rarely a meeting about ideas at all. Conflicts about evolution and intelligent design dominate headlines, but they are rarely, if ever, the most important story to tell about the relationship between science and religion. In fact, even when a conflict about science and religion seems to be about ideas, usually it is at the same time also about something else altogether. Obviously, these meetings are often about politics. Equally often, they are about identity, autonomy, authority and manners. They can be about economics. They can be about knowledge and what counts as reliable knowledge. Who is an expert and who is a charlatan.

Sometimes, though they seem to be about abstract ideas, meetings of science and religion are really about how best to bring up your kids and how to be a mate. Or about whether and when and how to have sex or use drugs. Or about what counts as health and what counts as illness. Or about whom one should turn to for advice when facing a problem. Or about how to entertain yourself and how to spend your money.

A few days ago, Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement about social networks like Facebook, called "Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age." The Pope's tone is one of reflection and careful measure, and he finds online things to admire and things to avoid. He sees in the Internet "a new appreciation of communication itself, which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations." At the same time, he finds in posting and Tweeting and poking a "tendency to communicate only some parts of one's interior world" and a "risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence." Life online shakes up life as we knew it, raising important questions:

Who is my "neighbour" in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world "other" than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting?

What makes this document moving is the fact that in it Pope Benedict tries to make sense of how the vast changes quickly wrought by scientific technologies affect the lives of our kids and our own lives, how they might bring people together or keep them apart, how they add to our loneliness or subtract from it, how they allow us to find meaning and love, or prevent us for this. What makes it moving is the Pope's certainty that "the truth of Christ" and "the task of witnessing to the Gospel" are affected by the Internet (and other technologies served up by science), alongside his wavering and worried uncertainty about just how they are affected. The Pope knows that social networks answer a "desire for relationship, meaning and communion" that are the soul of what it means to be human, and he knows that at the same time they provide new ways for people to bully and berate one another, another human tendency.

Even more than tired polemics about Darwin, this is where science and religion meet in ways that matter, behind the locked bedroom door of a teen at a screen, waiting, forlorn, to be friended. Meetings of this sort reflect no "great war of ideas." They are something more delicate than that, far from headlines, taking place at a scale more human than seminar room polemics, with stakes that are, in the end, higher.

Over the next months, I will present in a series of essays examples of these other sorts of meetings of science, technology and religion: on Wall Street and Main Street, in bedrooms and boardrooms and examination rooms, in bistros and bodegas, in short, in all the places where, as a matter of course, we live our lives.