I had just finished giving a talk on my book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate and was taking questions. Since the book was my attempt to find a different language for speaking about science and the domains of human spiritual endeavor I had come to expect a certain degree of hostility from both of the well-polarized camps. Articulating the roots of, and transcending, that all-too-familiar polarization was exactly what I was exploring with the book. Still, I was taken back by the explicit form the next question took.
“Cut to the chase”, said the older man standing with the microphone.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Cut to the chase.” he repeated
“What are we chasing?” I asked again
“Does God exists or not?!”
I stopped for a minute and silently wondered if he really wanted an answer. More importantly, I knew that any answer I would give would not end his, or anyone else's, debate. And that, exactly, is the problem with the “traditional” science vs. religion debate.
Somehow we have gotten used to thinking that “Science and Religion” can only mean addressing the question: Can Science prove or disprove the existence of God? But is God’s existence really at the heart of all discussions of Science and the character of life we call Sacred?
I think not.
First of all, not all religions have a conception of a single, willful, omnipotent, sentient deity. Buddhism is one clear example. Hinduism can arguably be added as another. Thus, making Science and Religion into Science vs. God means eliminating a large fraction of humanity from the outset.
Indeed even within a single religion ideas of what He/She/It is, and how He/She/It acts, can differ considerably between sects and creeds. Consider the difference in official attitudes on God and Evolution between the Catholic Church and the some American evangelicals. Even within a single religion like Christianity there is enough diversity to make the debate about God and Science an exercise in hitting a moving target.
On top of all this diversity in ideas about a sentient Deity (or non-sentient Deity, or no Deity at all), the debate about the nature and existence of God predates science. Even with science it is not likely be resolved anytime soon and this is the main point. There really is nothing anyone can say to make a confirmed believer into a nonbeliever or an adamant nonbeliever into a believer. Its just playing to the polarized
For these reasons and more we must get past forcing all discussions of Science and the Sacred into the narrow hallway of God: Yes or No? Chaining down the discussion this way ensures that all the interesting, vital things that could be explored are missed and our opportunities are missed with them. All the necessary conversations about what we value and what we hold to be sacred are lost in the static. All the potential understand about our place the fabric of Being, and the meaning our own narratives of belonging are drowned out in partisan sniping. More importantly, all understanding of how these narratives, which science now helps to provide, are lost in an impossible standard of impossible proof which neither science or religion can provide.
I am an atheist but I do not begrudge people their belief in deity. It is one honest response to the experience of life’s profoundly sacred character. The dedicated effort of honest scientific inquiry is another form of response. That some respond to their experience with a belief in Deity is not the problem.
Intolerance is the problem. The rejection of science as a means of understanding aspects of the world is the problem.
As long as people understand that their way is not the only way and refrain from forcing non-evidence based modes of knowing on others then we have much yet to explore. There is a rich, vital and necessary discussion of Science and Spiritual Endeavor before us. Answering the unanswerable question of Gods’ existence is not a necessary precondition for taking on that necessary challenge