Thoughts on Science and Religion
The Elephant is Clearly Like a Rope!

Notes from a talk given occasionally:
Virginia Chapter, American Chemical Society
Richmond Episcopal Clericus
Randolph-Macon College, Ashland, Virginia

Dr. George F. Spagna, Jr., Department of Physics

Consider the following debate: The Theologian confronts the Scientist, saying, "Your viewpoint ignores the great spiritual truths, and has nothing to say about the true nature of reality." The Scientist responds to the Theologian, saying, "Your viewpoint is sheer superstition, and you have nothing of value to say about the true nature of reality." Writing in the American Journal of Physics, Michael Shermer ( Publisher of Skeptic magazine) divides the world into two camps. In one he places the religious viewpoint along with pseudoscience, astrology, New Age, and psychics. In the other he places "skeptics, materialists, and scientists." And what does he have to say of these two groups?

"The difference between these two loosely bound groups is in our method of thinking and where we find hope. The first group is willing to use the benefits of science and rationality when convenient, and dump it when it is not. Their hope lies in this-world or the other-world, in the here-and-now or the there-and-then; whatever works at the moment. For this group, any thinking will do, as long as it fulfills that deeply rooted human need for certainty." 1

I trust that I am not the only one mildly disturbed by such a viewpoint. Dwight Neuenschwander responded in the same journal recently:

"Shermer pronounces all religious persons as 'willing to use the benefits of science and rationality when convenient, and dump them when it is not.' One might distinguish between "dumping rationality" and "using the right tools to fit a given question." A perspective that admits only scientific interpretation to all questions seems excessively narrow.

Might Skeptic's own principles alert us to the limitations of science as well as religion, and to the possibility that both might be necessary for a complete picture of life in all its dimensions? ...

... Where one cannot know the answer to a metaphysical question in terms that oblige all reasonable observers to agree, one has the liberty to make a personal choice about what to believe. Of course, honesty and rationality demand that one's faith be reconciled to knowledge, and not the other way around. But one would think that the skeptic, of all persons, would be the first to apply knowledge with a spirit of humility, realizing the finiteness of the human mind.

The light of skepticism must be turned on any claim to a monopoly on truth. Thus it seems overly zealous to dismiss all religion, without qualification, as belongingin a zoo of 'weird things.'" 2

Well, the Theologian and the Scientist are me. The person of faith and the skeptic are me. And they are, I suggest, each of us. Watch a child constructing his or her world - they are all scientists, they are all theologians.

Recall the old story of the blind men who were asked to examine an elephant and determine its true nature. One, reaching out to touch the elephant's leg described the elephant as being like a tree trunk. Another, pressing against beast's side, declared that the elephant was like a wall. Yet another found the trunk and said the elephant was like a snake, another found the tail and said the elephant was like a rope. All were correct, yet none were right. At the outset I will suggest that understanding science and religion is like being one of those storied sages: both correct, but neither has a complete lock on Truth. Indeed, I am the first to admit that I am grasping the elephant I cannot see.

Much of what I say here is anecdotal. In particular I will try to relate examples to illustrate my point. There is great peril in this approach, since the choice of examples can be used to make whatever point I choose. Selective use of data is something to be condemned in science as well as religion - but here you must trust me to be selective without undue bias.

My students will tell you that I am a practitioner of pedestrian's history - with apologies to both historians and pedestrians. I am more concerned here with connections between ideas than with historical accuracy. Indeed, many notions expressed herein are best tolerated as a work in progress.

Religion may be viewed as either personal or institutional. Typically, though not uniquely, we find an underlying belief in God (or gods) and in the active participation of the deity in the physical universe. For my purposes, we may take this as an underlying paradigm of the religious experience. And where does such belief come from? Typically, we learn the religion of our parents - I count myself a Christian in part because my parents were Christian. Had I been born in Iraq, son of Muslim parents, I would follow Islam. In India, I would likely be Hindu. Although there may be some degree of gate-keeping for admission to some religious groups, the selection criteria often seek to include rather than exclude. Religions tend to cast their nets wide to include even more people, to share a faith story with the wider world.

And just what would the religious individual claim as the task of being religious? That task, whatever it turns out to be, is dictated by the underlying paradigm. There is an obligation to live one's life according to the dictates of faith, but once Truth is revealed, all further questions are tested against its standards. The nature of the universe is given, so there is no need in the religious context for further inquiry. The underlying reality is not to be questioned.

Science starts with a different underlying paradigm: that the Universe is comprehensible, but that comprehension derives from inquiry and investigation. One learns science from scientists, and there is a great deal of selection; gate-keeping is mediated by the "required prerequisite course" seeking to exclude all but the most rigorously qualified. Science, like religion, may be individual or corporate. Understanding the nature of the universe is the goal, not the starting point. The task of seeking Truth and the methods which are acceptable for such inquiry are dictated - not the answers. The scientific enterprise measures its success in progress towards understanding, but with the underlying conviction that the answers will never be complete. Indeed, successful research is most often that which raises more questions than it answers, since new questions beget new research.

From our comfortable perspective in the Western world, in the late 20th century as measured by that same Western world, we are most inclined to note the history of science and religion in terms of conflict. The classic confrontation between Galileo and the Church might lead us to believe that conflict is inevitable. This may have been an accident of timing, since the scientific revolution coincided with the Reformation - at a time when the Church could brook no challenges. However, another school of thought suggests that the Reformation helped to trigger the scientific revolution. The truth? Probably both are correct, yet neither is right. Certainly the great scientific strides made by Islamic civilization, with the full blessing of their religious leaders of the day, belie the notion that science and religion must inevitably be at odds. Without an institutional distinction between the pursuit of knowledge and its own teachings, Islam gave its followers both incentive and inspiration to explore all fields of inquiry. Mohammed himself blessed the pursuit of knowledge.

Who was Galileo? Born in 1564, the same year as William Shakespeare, an able mathematician, teacher, inventor, and tireless self-promoter. Working in the open city-state of Venice he was able to conduct his research with financial backing from the city's merchant rulers. Indeed, we can credit him with inventing modern science: propose an experiment, seek funding, and publish results giving credit to one's patrons. Taking advanage of superior glass making, he was able to convince the merchant princes that he had invented a telescope, when in fact he stole the idea from Flemish spectacle merchants. The advantage of a telescope was obvious to his patrons, since the ability to see what ships were on the horizon would allow one to make a killing on the local commodity exchange!

Galileo, perhaps solely for reasons of curiosity, turned his telescope on the sky as well. And saw things never seen before - and worse for him, he wrote and talked about what he saw. In particular, he wrote that the Copernican world-view, which had been expressly forbidden by the the Church, was indeed correct. He then made the mistake of leaving Venice for Florence, where the Inquisition could reach him.

What was the official conflict? According to the Office of the Holy Inquisition Galileo had challenged Church authority by teaching that which was forbidden. The writings of Copernicus, which placed the Sun at the center of the universe rather than the Earth, were banned. Yet here comes the red-headed mathematician from Venice, espousing the same theory, and telling people that if they would only look for themselves, they could judge for themselves. And, most importantly, he wouldn't stop when he was told to stop! The conflict was not about Truth at all, but about authority and who exercises that authority.

It's also about the nature of inquiry itself. Religious study, I suggest, consists essentially of two activities: prayer and meditation, and the reading of Scripture. Prayer seeks to open a channel to the Divine, and asks for the revelation of Truth. Scripture lays claim to being the written form of what? Revealed Truth!

Galileo's mistake may have been his naive belief that he was so important that he could challenge the Church with impunity. Worse, for him, was that he all but called the Pope a simpleton in 1632. Pope Urban VIII used to be his friend, Maffeo Barberini. Galileo presumed too much on that friendship. The real clash was one of personalities, not doctrine. But, because it played out on a doctrinal stage and because the Church won the day, free scientific inquiry followed the Protestant Reformation north to England, Germany, and the Netherlands. In other words, instead of extending its authority, the Church lost influence and authority as science and protestantism grew together.

Of course we all know the ultimate outcome. In its effort to assert authority the Church lost whatever control it had over the course if inquiry into the nature of physical universe. As the newly-awakened enterprise of science solved one puzzle after another, the religious outlook was forced to retreat into a strategy which has been called searching for the God of the Gaps, i.e. claiming for God only that left unexplained by science.

Then came Darwin. Evolution could be seen as an attempt to extract God from the gaps. Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics alike retained belief in the special creation of humankind. Religious fundamentalism and strict literal interpretation of translated scripture, when forced to play by the rules of science, failed the test. The answer to authority is evidence. Evolution is a fact.

And so the main-line churches accepted an allegorical interpretation of scripture on the Creation - even Galileo had argued that while the Bible could not be untrue (when its true meaning is understood), it is undeniable that it is often very abstruse. It can say things other than what the translated words appear to mean. Not so the fundamentalists. Remember our earlier assertion that the religious paradigm begins with Truth. Firmly held belief beats evidence any day, and not just in religious matters.

Remember "Cold Fusion"? Or, better still, the tale of the eminent astronomer who reported the phenomenon of intermittent flaring of phosphorus emission lines in the spectra of certain stars. Other observers failed to duplicate these observations, but eminence conveys its own degree of authority over evidence. Papers were written to explain this mysterious phenomenon. Doctorates were likely awarded. Then a light leak was found in the spectrometer, and the eminent astronomer's nervous habit of lighting his pipe while working was recalled. You see, scientists are people, too. They often proceed by faith and are sometimes willing to ignore the evidence. They sometimes ascribe authority to things other than the evidence.

The fundamentalist challenge to science continues today. We have all heard of challenges to the inclusion of evolution in textbooks, of various Institutes for Creation Research. These institutes proclaim their charter to collect and evaluate only that evidence which supports an alternative to the modern scientific views of evolution and cosmology. Their stance is perfectly supportable under the banner of academic freedom. But it is not science, because of its deliberate, selective exclusion of part of the evidence. We are told that evolution is "just a theory" - usually by people who do not understand how the word is used in science. Theories are not guesses, but rather the best working synthesis of the available evidence into a picture of the way things work. They describe what and how, not why.

Reasonable men and women of faith and of science would agree that there are some questions which science cannot answer. Questions dealing with the existence of God or the purpose of life are beyond science because they are not testable by any finite set of hypotheses. Religion can tell us nothing of the structure of DNA, the relation of gravity to time and space, or the underlying quantum physics of black holes. Perhaps it's not a simple matter of asking different questions, but of examining completely different parts of the elephant.

Herein lies a possible synthesis: begin to see Nature as having a single, underlying unity while resisting the urge to declare a priori what that unity is. I suggest that this is a view which both communities could accept. Further, I suggest that we accept that complete knowledge of the Universe is not possible, either in the religious context or in the realm of quantum indeterminacy.

There is a lovely saying from the Baha'i faith, that science and religion are like the wings on a bird on which the human race will ascend. With only the wing of religion it is too easy to fall back from enlightenment into superstition. With only the wing of science we have only soulless materialism. I am struck by the resonance between this outlook and that of Albert Einstein. He said that, "Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame."

References cited:

  1. Michael Shermer, American Journal of Physics, Vol. 64, No. 10 (October, 1996). 1229-30.
  2. 2. Dwight Neuenschwader, American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, No. 4 (April, 1998). 273.

Copyright, 1998. George F. Spagna, Jr.