NPR logo The Hidden Dimensions Of Science Vs. Religion


The Hidden Dimensions Of Science Vs. Religion

If science v. religion has nothing more to offer, we must we must create a new way of thinking about their relationship. iStockphoto hide caption

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Have the extremes of the Science vs. Religion run their course?  Is it time to step beyond the vision of Science and Spirituality as a one-dimensional spectrum?  Is it time to say to those who fight from the poles of that spectrum “enough!” and move on?

This question drew sparks in the science blogosphere, last month.  I was glad to see the issue raised.  The extremes of the science and religion debate have had their say. They offer little to us anymore but a tired standard that fails to meet the most important challenge of our moment – the need to create something new.

In struggling to meet our challenge, we might call on a metaphor from science itself.  To overcome the exhausted linearity of the science and religion debate we must, literally rise above it.  We must go orthogonal and find another dimension for the discourse.

The poles of the debate are well known.  On one side are the religious fundementalists brandishing scripture like bullies and willing to force their particular interpretations of their particular religions into textbooks and courthouses.

On the other side are … what? As an atheist myself, finding the right term is difficult but come to rest on strident atheists.  Rather than offer my own definition of the term I'll turn to Albert Einstein.  It was Einstein who railed against “the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source.  They are creatures who — in their grudge against the traditional 'opium of the people' —cannot bear the music of the spheres.”

Of course the point must always be made that in domains of politics and policy strident atheists are infinitely more tolerent and less damaging than the gang hanging out at other end of the spectrum.  But when it comes to the very real issue of imagining a language for reimagining culture, their stridency utterly fails to help us.

And help is very much what we need.

The religion and science debate is not just an academic exercise in polemics.  We were born into a moment when the very project of civilization seems precariously balanced by the very behavior of that civilization (6 billion people and counting…).  A look at the long sweep of history reveals the creation of new cultural forms will not simply be a matter of technology.  The human world we build is established in mind and heart and spirit.  It will come down to what we hold sacred. Yes those words spirit and sacred must be included however you choose to define it.  And there, right there, is where we are called to rise above the polarities.

We do not yet have the language to express ourselves when we seek to both honor the practices of science and the experience of life justly called sacred.  We do not yet have a vocabulary that can acknowledge science and its ethic of investigation as a bulwark against prejudice and bias while simultaneously acknowledging the existence of other “ways of knowing” beyond the deployment of reason and empirical investigation.

Thus we must go orthogonal.  In mathematics orthogonality refers to line elements or vectors which are perpendicular, i.e., forming right angles. To move orthogonally to a line, like the linear spectrum of fundamentalist vs strident atheist, means to move into a new dimension.  It means to move into a new space.

Metaphorically it means to rise above.

This is what our time calls from us.  The extremes of the science vs religion debate hold nothing useful anymore.  But the middle ground is simply that – a midpoint between two exhausted vocabularies.  What we need is our own most cherished resource – human creativity.

Can we see what is best in existing traditions and ask why they remain inspiring?  Can we see how science has freed us and ask if that capacity can be broadened and still allow humility.  Can we honor our experiences of life’s sacred character without holding jealously to creed and dogma?  Can we understand how science too calls us to those experiences?

In short, can we create not just middle ground but new ground.

In short, can we find nothing less than higher ground?

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