On the Influence of Religion
(Final Essay Topic #2)
The renowned physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson once said, “Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.” While this is an admirable, even noble insight into the intersecting realms of science and religion, never has the nature of the relationship been agreed upon. At their worst, the multitude of conflicting viewpoints have led to innumerable conflicts, oftentimes terribly violent and long-lasting.
As people look toward an uncertain future, they almost can’t help but wonder how things will change. For example, will the incredible growth of science perhaps someday supplant the role of religion? Or—as some ask it more broadly—as science progresses, what will become of religion’s influence? Will it decrease, increase or simply remain the same? The matter has sparked countless debates and predictions, but trying to make a case for any of the three basic choices doesn’t yield insight into the underlying issue, and none of the three options is really defensible. An alternative, and perhaps better, answer is simply “none of the above.” After all, looking at science and religion throughout history clearly shows there have always been periods when the influence of one waxes or wanes in relation to the other. What can be done is to consider the nature of the relationship, and reaffirm the importance of the role religion needs to have in science and in society.
As stated, one of the problems with trying to predict the future of religion's influence is that none of the basic answers ("it will gain influence"; "it will lose influence"; "it will stay about the same") would be an argument capable of being defended. There really is not solid evidence, either from history or elsewhere, that would lend itself to a claim about what is to come. Certainly, both science and religion have always been influential, but throughout the course of history, the predominance of religion has ebbed and flowed, as has that of science, and oftentimes the resurgence of one’s influence correlates with the fade of the other’s. (But that does not mean that one must necessarily decrease while, or because, the other one increases.) What’s more, it seems all but impossible to make a forecast so broad that it could equally blanket all religions—or it would have to be so overgeneralized an argument that it would have little to no meaningful insight. The realm of religion is almost inconceivably vast—to try to sufficiently address the entirety of religion within a simple argument is, quite simply, an impossibility.
It is worth nothing that, though evidence of its applications can be seen as far back as the ancient civilizations, for a long time science wasn’t referred to as such, or considered a field of study unto itself. Nor was it divorced from religion until about the last few centuries. History does, however, provide many examples of the fluctuation that has almost always characterized the influence of religion and science. One example is the Enlightenment, the 18th-century intellectual and philosophical movement that embodies the words of Protagoras of Abdera, the ancient Greek philosopher: “Man is the measure of all things.” This says that man’s identity doesn’t come from a Creator, and therefore, man determines what is true or just. The Enlightenment, which saw great advances in science, was “marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas” (Merriam-Webster) and held that all could be explained through rational analysis and reason.
Enlightenment had its origins in France and remained highly influential there, as it did throughout much of Europe, explains the Traditions & Encounters textbook (G-2). It exemplifies the religion-science “ebb and flow” by the increase of science’s influence and by the rejection of religion’s role. Enlightenment thought, which held that only man determined morality, extended to the French Revolution, a violent, amoral period of conflict, which in part “represented an effort to put Enlightenment political thought into practice” (Traditions 816). The Revolution was the source of significant cultural change and even improvement, though its means were unbelievably brutal and bloody. (To be fair to the French revolutionists, the church hierarchy was corrupt and thereby failed to provide a moral compass.) The Enlightenment’s influence on the Revolution, however, shows the consequences that befall a society that functions without the moral framework of religion.
By contrast, the Wesleyan revival taking place in England roughly around the same time also effected many improvements without shedding any blood whatsoever. The movement had its origins in England and was primarily started by John and Charles Wesley. In the “Introduction to the New Edition” of a book titled The Country-Parson’s Advice to His Parishioners, Rev. George B. Koch discusses the Wesleys and the small group of evangelicals to which they belonged. He says, “In addition to their lengthy opposition to slavery, much of their money and attention was focused on local missions for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, foundlings, sailors, Germans, Russians, Spaniards, and many more” (17), adding that they displayed “a vigour and passion for God [that] was virtually unknown in the church of their day, as it is in ours” (18). This same revival was also responsible for the British Parliament’s abolition of slave trade in England and, eventually, the abolition of slavery itself in the United States. The Wesleyan revival stands in stark contrast to both the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the violent revolution that its purely secular values helped create.
Initially, perhaps, it may seem irrelevant to use an extended discussion of two historical periods as a way of discussing the nature of the role of science and religion and the amount of influence each one has. But consider this: First, the fact that two completely different types of change were being effected—within relatively close chronological and physical proximity of each other (the 18th century; France/England)—attests to the constantly shifting dominance of science or religion. In fact, it shows that this “ebb and flow” both occurs intermittently (the roles have changed back and forth, over time) and is far too varied to be predicted, even geographically. That is to say, the multitude of factors exerting influence on this relationship would render any prediction completely unreliable. Something else worth considering, though, is that the first example cited—Enlightenment and the French Revolution—is simply one instance among countless others of the fact that the powerfulness and influence of science’s progress, if left unchecked by a religious or moral compass, can often and very quickly lead to brutal, needless actions. This is not to say that religion is not also misused as an excuse for violence and terrible decisions, but the second example cited—the Wesleyan revival—shows, essentially, that religion has a great deal to offer that science alone cannot provide. Such examples of each continue to prove true today.
The ongoing dialogue between two schools of thought (religion and science) are essentially being debated by the intellectual and philosophical “descendants” of the Enlightenment / the French Revolution, and the Wesleyan revival. Much of the scientific, Humanist Manifesto-type worldview that exists today has its roots in Enlightenment thought; American Protestantism traces its roots back to the Wesleys. These two movements exemplify the “debate” that still continues today, and the Enlightenment / Revolution still serves as a reminder of the importance of religion’s role.
The nature of the relationship between science’s influence and religion’s influence is intricate but relatively easy to understand. Science is, almost by its own self-definition, amoral; religion is inherently moral. Pure science can raise new ethical questions, but it can’t answer them; it is ethically neutral, and it does not and cannot provide any guidelines, because it is not inherently “aware” of ethical concerns, and religion and morality are not scientific constructs. Religion’s role may be described as a moral framework for answering the ethical questions that science poses. Even when religion or science is bringing itself negative publicity or doing a poor job of explaining itself, it still perpetuates the debate and keeps it alive in the public sphere.
There seems to be a relatively prevalent belief, including among scientists, that science will ultimately displace religion as the former is “perfected.” Their conclusion is that science will ascend, becoming more broadly successful, while religion permanently descends. This conclusion, though, contains a hidden and unstated premise, one that religionists certainly would not accept, which is the assertion that either there is no God or if there is, He is not involved in humanity’s affairs. This premise is necessary for the argument’s conclusion. If the premise is wrong, the conclusion is unproved. If there is a caring God, He wouldn’t allow human history to progress without him. The premise is unprovable. Scientists can deny all they want that there is a God, but if they’re wrong, they can’t stop His influence.
Science left unchecked can run amok. If this were a world without religion, then in a sense the only way for the world to progress would be a sort of Darwinian nightmare of survival of the fittest: If there were only science and its advancements, not religion, people would eventually realize the need to—and surely they would choose to—“establish” or “invent” a religion—or something akin to religion, anyhow—so as to keep science in check and prevent its advancements from being used by the strong to control or crush the weak. Ultimately, it may be said, morality comes from religion, not man ‘thinking in a vacuum’ about what he wants. Furthermore, we do well to keep in mind that like everything else, religion and morality both come from God—not from man. A very famous man once wrote:
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (Jastrow 106-7)
The quote comes from Dr. Robert Jastrow, in his book God and the Astronomers. Dr. Jastrow is a scientist, former director of NASA, and the recipient of the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement. His quote shows that even science is finally conceding that religion does have far more merit and more truths than science once believed. One cannot claim to know what will become of religion’s influence, but as science fails to provide answers to greater questions and also comes to admit certain truths long proclaimed by religion, it becomes more and more evident that anyone who asserts that science will “win out” is a person who fails to realize the significance of religion’s influence. Perhaps the most important thing people can do is never lose sight of why the influence of religion is so fundamentally important. We lose our way without it. The influence of either science or religion at any given time cannot be measured or foretold, but both science and religion are worldviews that have something to contribute that the other cannot offer—which is why one can never attain complete dominion over the other. Albert Einstein once said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Religion and science are windows that both look out on the universe before us, and maybe we’re still learning how to pull up the shade.