It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Sunday School, I had noticed, everyone had noticed, that the commandments, precepts, and rules that were taught there were often disregarded, not only by scoundrels and criminals in the news, but by some of the very people whose job it was to teach us these morals.
Upon detecting hypocrisy in the messenger, my impulse had been to throw out the message. But I couldn’t quite shake the golden rule. Its symmetry gave expression to an intuition that ran deep: that I shouldn’t expect to be well-treated by those whom I treated poorly; that I should afford others the dignity I sought for myself.
My take-away questions from Sunday School were:
1. Why are moral precepts—even those that everyone accepts—widely ignored?
2.Why has “peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men” not been realized?
I wondered about this gap between the ideal and the reality as World War II raged, as the Holocaust was revealed, and as Japan surrendered to American atom bombs. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that religion’s most serious short-coming was not that it harbored “deniers” of well-established science models, but that it had not found a way to realize its own aspirational goals.
For example, the golden rule was suspended when it came to so-called “Negroes” (they were not allowed to own homes in my town), the mentally handicapped (a boy with Down Syndrome hung around my school’s perimeter, but was barred from school property), homosexuals (a boy we thought “queer” was humiliated), and poor, overweight, unstylish, or “dumb” kids were often subjected to ridicule.
At college, when I argued that life might someday be created in a test tube, I was mocked as a “heathen” and a ridiculed as a “mechanist.” When I responded with insults of my own, the result was a shouting match.
Later, I wondered if “getting even” gave me a pass when it came to obeying the golden rule. After all, they had hurled the first insult. But then hadn’t I upped the ante? The logician in me noticed that the golden rule, like the best rules in physics, allows for no exceptions. It didn’t say anything about who went first. Did that mean that retaliating in kind was wrong?
Finding an answer to this question took decades, and I’ll come back to it after addressing an even more fundamental, methodological question, a question that no discussion of religion and science can ignore.
Are There Really Two Kinds of Knowledge?
In the mid-1960s, stirred by the passions of the civil rights movement, I left physics to play a part in the reform of higher education then sweeping the country. Overnight, my life took an activist turn toward issues of equity and justice. Though exposure to the golden rule had predisposed me to sympathize with those demanding equal rights, I did not trace my political ideals to religion.
I’d spent most of my time since Sunday School in pursuit of scientific truth, where evidence is king. During that time, my skepticism toward the faith-based claims of religion had grown stronger. But in my political work, I couldn’t help but notice that the reformers I worked with often invoked religious teachings to good effect in support of the goals we shared.
By the mid-seventies, the transformational energy of the sixties was spent and, seeing no chance for further reforms, at age thirty-seven, I left academia. The bitter academic politics of that period had left me bruised and burnt out. In search of a less contentious way to bring change, I wondered if the world’s holy books contained anything that might have helped me be a better leader. In particular, Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Vedanta, were drawing attention from Western seekers, and the word was that they offered a more tranquil, enlightened path to personal and social change.
Before I could take in anything positive from religion, Eastern or Western, I had to deal with the negative. Yes, some churches had provided a home for leaders of the civil rights movement, but it seemed to me that if institutional religion practiced what it preached, it could have done a lot more to oppose racism and done it sooner. What more obvious violation of the golden rule could there be than a segregated America?
My old questions about religion’s ineffectiveness were joined by new ones concerning its exceptionalism. What if religion defended its teachings in the same way science does—by marshaling evidence, making predictions, and testing them against outcomes? What if religion applied its teachings to its own practices? What if seemingly utopian prophecies like “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” were regarded not as naive pieties but rather as testable predictions of a state of social equilibrium toward which humankind was muddling?
It seemed to me that, with a few changes, religion could stand up to the criticisms of non-believers, regain the respect of its critics, and be the transformational force its founders and prophets had envisioned. In this re-visioning, the parts of religion that are counterfactual or unproven could either be dropped—as science jettisons theories that don’t hold up to scrutiny—or retained as speculation, metaphor, or personal preference. After all, anyone is free to believe anything, and most of us, including scientists, discreetly exercise that right in one area or another.
Fast forward thirty years. The twenty-first century has brought an avalanche of evidence, and official admissions, of religion’s moral lapses. Extreme ideologues and fanatical true believers continue to tarnish the religious brand. When religion aligns itself with discredited science, its losing streak is unbroken, and where educational levels are on the rise, religion is in decline. This wouldn’t matter if religion had succeeded in imparting its most important teachings, but the golden rule is still widely flouted, and “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” remains a distant dream.
Sometimes, when you can’t get from A to B, it’s for lack of a steppingstone. In that spirit, it seemed possible to me that for religion to realize its vision of peace on Earth, it may first need to make peace with science. The goal in these posts is to show that religion and science can indeed co-occupy that steppingstone of peace, and from it, deliver on their complementary promises.
Although grievances leap to mind when we consider making peace with an old foe, ultimate success depends on identifying not where each side is wrong, but where each is right.
Current attacks on religion are ignoring the fact that it got some very big things right. However, religion must take responsibility for much of the criticism directed its way because its spokesmen have repeatedly failed to distinguish between its great discoveries and its mistakes. Not only have some religious leaders ignored compelling evidence, but they, like the leaders of secular institutions, have often failed to live up to the standards of behavior they espouse. Nothing undermines authority like hypocrisy.
Paradoxically, science makes even more mistakes than religion; but it saves itself by being quicker to recognize and correct them. Niels Bohr, the father of atomic physics, ascribed his breakthroughs to “making my mistakes faster than others.”
The difference between science and religion is not that one has “babies” in its bath water and the other doesn’t. The difference is that science drains its dirty bath water faster, leaving its gleaming babies for all to admire. As the American scientific statesman, James B. Conant, said:
The stumbling way in which even the ablest scientists in every generation have had to fight through thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks.
In what follows, I’ll try to give both religion and science their due without soft-peddling their differences. Signing onto a new deal will require adjustments from both of these venerable antagonists.
The principal tool needed to end the historical enmity between science and religion, though nothing new, goes by a name that may be unfamiliar. It’s called model building—“modeling,” for short.
In ordinary language, models are representations of an object, a phenomenon, or a person or group that describe or prescribe the behavior of what’s represented. Some models take the form of stories, rules, or codes that show us how to behave. Hence the phrase “model behavior.” Other models take the form of explanations or theories that tell us how nature behaves, for example, Bohr’s atomic model. These days one does not start a company without first creating a business model.
A model is a representation of an object, phenomenon, or person that resembles the real thing. By studying the model we can learn about what it mirrors.
When we ask if there are two distinct kinds of knowledge—scientific truths and religious truths—we’re really asking if the same methodology can unlock the secrets in both realms. In forthcoming parts of this series, I’ll try to show that the tool of modeling, coupled with demystification of the discovery process, provides a conceptual framework broad and deep enough to unify science and religion.
I begin with a look at some models from science (part 4), then examine some models from religion (part 5). Once we’ve identified what’s of lasting value—that is, the time-tested teachings—in both traditions, the next step is to spell out their complementary roles in addressing the life-threatening challenges facing humankind.
[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]