Last night I watched a very enjoyable documentary put together by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on Science vs Religion and was inspired to explore some of the things raised in a blog post.
It’s great to see debate on such a controversial topic. It’s one that has always intrigued me and, this summer, I read Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great”. This was a book so atheist that it challenged even my position as an agnostic!
I found much of the programme thoughtful and found myself agreeing with Lord Sacks a lot more than I had expected. However, the opening narrative made a comment that I simply can’t agree with:
for centuries religion and science stood happily side by side. But in the last few decades that relationship has broken down.
This is fundamentally not true. All that has changed in the last few decades is that now religion has to make its case rather than science. Numerous scientists were persecuted for making discoveries that went against religious teachings and much discovery was stifled by the shackles of religion. Lord Sacks says:
We’re living in an age of unprecedented scientific progress.
It is the freedom from religion in recent times that has helped such a period of discovery. These discoveries in turn have made religion have to defend itself more and it was great to see Lord Sacks make his case for religion in such a reasoned open manner.
How vs Why
The central theme of Lord Sacks’s argument was to “challenge the assumption that science and religion cannot coexist”. He suggested that this is because they answer different questions and should therefore work in partnership. Science answers the question of “How” things work but religion answers the question “Why”.
I think this is a nice way of thinking about things. It is difficult to see how science could ever answer the question “Why” to its full extent. As an example, how many parents have played this “Why” game with their children at some point? What starts as a straightforward question to answer, quickly becomes difficult when the child responds “Why” a few times!
Religion is also touted as being the answer to “how to live your life” providing a moral code and direction. The stories of the bible (and books of other religions) provide examples of such morals to lead your life by. I have no problem with this. However, the bible is not the only place to find good moral codes.
Many Hollywood movies have lessons of morality embedded within them (and in fact the moral is often the basis of the storyline). Recent Census collections found large numbers suggesting that their religion was Jedi. The Star Wars trilogy provides several examples of morality as the classic “good vs evil” set of films. So, if religion is a moral code, who can argue with Jedi as an option?!
It is the concept of literal stories vs symbolic stories that is where I felt Lord Sacks started to lose the argument with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins repeatedly asked whether Lord Sacks thought a particular event actually happened and he was not able to give a straight answer. It is this sort of true faith in events with little evidence that will always set apart the mind of a scientist that looks at evidence from the mind of a religious person. Indeed at this point of the programme Lord Sacks conceded that they would never agree on the point that children should choose their own beliefs and not be assumed to be part of the same religion as their parents.
It is my mathematical mind and the number of beliefs that exist that really make me the agnostic I am. I find it extremely difficult to understand how anyone can be so certain that their one small branch of faith is correct in every detail and not doubt whether maybe someone else has it right. There are 6 major religions. Ignoring all the branches of these and all the smaller religions, and also assuming one of them has it right, the odds are still 1 in 6.
How much money would you put on those odds? I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on it!
Can religion and science coexist?
I can absolutely accept that religious beliefs have a place in the world to answer those difficult “why” questions. But when you get into the detail of any religion it gets rather more difficult a proposition. It is then that certain aspects of religion like circumcision, not eating certain foods, wearing certain clothing etc. look more like outdated mechanisms of control rather than anything meaningful. And it is this control of the faithful and inherent trust of anything said that means all organised religions have the potential to be dangerous.
Why not live life by the common moral code underlying all religions and enjoy the numerous stories and rich history they bring without worrying about details that have no real basis in fact. Let’s embrace the new knowledge that science brings. And let’s also have faith but in our own way.