In a recent blog posted on the Huffington Post web site (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/connor-wood/do-science-and-religion-c_b_9829960.html), blogger Connor Wood suggests that the recent increase in what might be termed ‘tribalist’ violence is the result of people losing a sense of connection with their past. Wood also states that, in Western societies, science has become a source of moral authority and guidance, rather than just a means by which we examine and explore the nature of things. Science, Wood goes on to say, “points almost exclusively at the future.” Religion, in contrast, links us to our past. Thus, the erosion of religion and the continual rise in science have left us disconnected from our past, and that disconnection has led to a loss of cultural identity. In an attempt to regain what we have lost, some people have fallen into the ‘tribal’ ways of being that we see in conflicts around the world (and even in the politics of western countries).
While I am sympathetic to much of what Wood says in this blog, and I think that there is an unstated premise in what Wood writes that religion still has an important social and cultural part to play in human societies, he makes some assumptions with which I take issue. The first of these is that science and “progressive rationalism” (as he calls it) is an unambiguous moral good. Many scientists would argue that science in itself is morally neutral. And it is sadly the case that science can be used for immoral purposes, such as to allow a few to gain wealth at the expense of others, or to gain power or control over others. Similarly, liberal society can be extremely illiberal when it encounters people who don’t fit its model (think of the recent burkini ban in France). Terrible atrocities can and have been committed in the name of furthering scientific knowledge (the Tuskegee Study being one example). Wood’s argument that, “Liberal modernity’s optimistic, humanitarian, can-do spirit is inspiring, and its universalism envisions a world without tribal warfare or irrational hatred,” seems to suggest that religion doesn’t share this vision. I think that’s a fundamentally flawed assumption. First, the idea that science and technological progress should seek to benefit all society has its roots in Christianity. Sir Francis Bacon (15611626) declared that science should be used for, “the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.”
That such a vision for the use of science should develop out of the Christian tradition is no surprise. Christianity has always had at its heart the vision of humanity as one family, all of us children of God. In his speech to the Areopagus in Athens, recorded in Acts 17, Paul refers to humanity as a single family, “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…” (Acts 17.26a). This is, I would suggest, at least in part what was responsible for early Christianity’s move out of Judaism, to become a proselytising faith, welcoming the Gentiles. Because Christians sought to bring together this one human family and to move beyond the tribes and divisions that human beings had created for themselves, all were welcomed and all were to be considered on an even footing (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.” (Galatians 3.28).
I agree with Wood that we need both to reach for a better future and remain connected to the past that has shaped us, but I don’t think that science does one and religion the other. Sciences, such as cosmology, archaeology and geology, and evolutionary biology, help us to understand our origins and where we have come from, as a species and as societies. As well as looking back to the past, religion, including Christianity, looks just as much to the future. When Christians say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for God’s kingdom to come on Earth. God’s kingdom is one of peace and justice, where all life can flourish together. When we say this prayer, we aren’t trying to divest ourselves of responsibility for the creation of this kingdom on earth. On the contrary, by praying, we commit ourselves to the project under God’s leadership, direction and inspiration. The Church of England has incorporated this forward-looking commitment into its recollection of the past in one of its Eucharistic prayers , which ends with the words:
Help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.
If science has a vision of itself as moving us forward, providing benefit for all humanity, this is something that has derived from the Christian tradition. And if religion has the power to help us connect to our past, so science helps us to grasp where we have come from. Although we seem to take a different perspective on things, I hope that Wood would agree with me on one point: Science and religion are both valuable, and society needs both.