Robert F. Harris
Science And Religion: Conflict Or Complement?
Many years ago, in what may seem unlikely circumstances, I had a religious experience. I was a medical student at the time, sitting in a pharmacology class where the lecturer was talking about the mechanisms that generate electrical potentials in nerve cells. Electrical activity in neurons depends on the rapid diffusion of charged particles from inside to outside the cell. Musing on this fact, I started to realize how pervasive are the bodily processes that depend on diffusion. I thought of how the oxygen we breathe into our lungs moves by diffusion into the blood, from which it diffuses again into cells all over the body. We swallow nutrients into our gut where, digested, they diffuse across the intestinal membranes into the circulating blood and, like oxygen, eventually diffuse into every individual cell. Metabolic wastes diffuse from cells into the circulation and are eventually excreted from the body by way of diffusion processes in the lungs, the kidneys, and the skin. These processes are basic to all living things.
I thought of how the molecules of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and the many other substances that are involved in these processes were originally formed in the heat and pressure at the center of stars. They get to us through diffusion after stars explode and release their contents
into space. The stars themselves were formed from matter that diffused out of the Big Bang and later condensed. When we die, the decay of our bodies releases our constituents to diffuse through soil, water, and air to join the other organizing processes that constitute the ongoing self-creation of the universe. So will my own body, when the time comes.
Then came a marvelous moment. I suddenly knew that my dispersing atoms would then belong in these ongoing processes of exchange and utilization. Indeed, I was already a part, had always been a part, of this great exchange. I was already welcome within a great circulation, participating in the cycles of dispersal and condensation and dispersal that constitute the pulse of being. I felt a powerful connection between these cosmic events and me, a feeling initiated by my awareness of the universality of diffusion processes, but suddenly of much greater immediacy and significance than those bare facts I belonged in the world. I had my own place in its spatial immensity and its temporal endurance. I was in a family, at home with all the entities, living and not, that share this origin story and exchange the particles and energies of our interdependent existence. I was especially linked to the other living creatures in the story, to other human beings, and most especially to the classmates seated with me in the lecture hall.
This last bit is important, since at the time I was struggling with whether I actually did belong, in that classroom, in that class of high-achieving students, in that high-powered medical school, even in the medical profession. I had come from a family in which my mother had only an eighth grade education, my father a high school diploma. Many of my classmates came from families where there’d been physicians for generations. Or academicians. I had done my undergraduate work at a Jesuit university in the Midwest—a good school, but not in anyone’s top tier. My med school classmates mostly came from Ivy League schools or the west coast powerhouses of Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. So my sudden sense of belonging, while it had a cosmic reference, was of great local importance to me. I felt that I was accepted by the universe, even loved, although I did not think of the universe as a person. But my sense of inclusion was palpable, and it enfolded my classmates and me and all other living things. And I felt immense love in return.
Many would not call this experience “religious,” and trying to identify what defines the religious is what this essay is about. I begin with this experience because it’s what I thought of when I came across an article by Stephen J. Gould, the evolutionary biologist and popular essayist. Writing in 1997, addressing the often contentious relationship between religion and science, Gould proposed that science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria”—domains of authority--with science devoted to the study of factual truth, and religion devoted to matters of morals and the meaning of life. Gould said that each made its own particular and independent contribution to mankind’s inquiry into “deep and unanswerable issues.” In 1999 he added that each domain has its own aims and methods: “tools” for approaching issues, “rules and admissible questions,” “frames” around vital questions, and “criteria for resolution.” For science, the criterion is “factual demonstration”; for religion, “compromise and consensus.” Using the Latin etymology of the word “religion,” which is “binding together,” Gould said that the religious domain includes “all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.” Crucially, his idea of what is religious also includes the “sense of wonder.”
His essay was persuasive and affecting, offering sympathy to both sides and clarity in what had seemed to me to be a confused and unnecessarily divisive discussion. So I was surprised to learn that he had been clobbered by critics, especially by respondents from the “scientific” side.
Among the most emphatic was Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who is an outspoken atheist. In a 2012 article, he cockily dismissed Gould’s idea as “a cowardly flabbiness of the intellect.” He based this opinion on the fact that religious authorities often do make specific assertions about scientific matters, and so he claimed that the two domains cannot be said to address separate questions. He gave the example of Pope John Paul II, who acknowledged that evolution explains the origins of species but still contended that only the direct action of God could have created the mind of man. Dawkins’ 2008 book drew other examples from claims made by American Protestant fundamentalists in the debate between creationism and the theory of evolution.
I’d hoped to see how Gould had rebutted his critics, but it seems that he hadn’t. I couldn’t find that Gould had made any response at all. I thought his ideas were right, and his critics mistaken, so I set out to find justification for his position. I had to agree that some religious claims, such as John Paul’s, or that the world was created in six days, violate the boundaries of Gould’s magisteria. But I realized that Gould is not trying to describe the actual behavior of religious people; he is trying to identify the defining characteristics of religion. He too would agree that many of Dawkin’s examples represent religion’s unwarranted incursions.
The problem with Dawkins is that he fails to distinguish between religion itself and the particular assertions of some religious authorities. In fact, he only ever considers Western institutional religion. It’s easy to assume that religion is just whatever we grew up with. In my case, this was a devout Catholicism that I’d abandoned a few years before medical school. Dawkin’s favored version is American Protestant fundamentalism. Further, Dawkins assumes that the main, or indeed the only, function of religion is to explain natural phenomena that are otherwise unexplained. For him, religion is a set of assertions about the causes of things. Ironically, the fundamentalists agree with Dawkins on this point. Like Dawkins, they emphasize the idea of God as a causal agent, the basis of an explanation of how things came to be as they are. This guarantees conflict over whether it’s the explanations from revelation or from science that are to be taken to be true.
My own childhood immersion in Catholicism, its prayers and rituals, had taught me that religion is not just a collection of articles of belief. I agreed with Gould that what matters are not particular factual assertions, but rather different ways of apprehending the world, different aims and methods. So my question became whether there is an articulable difference between science and religion in their aims and methods that could define their domains.
Start with science. In general terms, its aim is to explain the workings of the observable world. Its methods include the systematic collection of shareable observations, the formulation of generalizations and causal explanations of these observations, the derivation of predictions from these formulations about consequent events, and a commitment to test the accuracy of these predictions against further observation. Its particular statements of fact do not make science what it is. What science is depends instead on the methods it relies on to support whatever factual assertions it turns out to make.
As for religion, I thought Gould had it right that its aim is to answer questions of meaning. He also said that it employs special “tools,” but he didn’t specify what these are. My first thought was that the basic religious tool is the close reading and interpretation of sacred texts, texts that are taken to contain revealed truths and to ground any reliable knowledge of the world. But this doesn’t hold up. In Christianity and in Judaism, for example, there is a wide range of opinions about whether scripture should be taken literally or metaphorically, about whether scripture is intended to be an actual description of historical events or a set of stories to illustrate spiritual meanings and moral principles. There is even an ancient and respected tradition in Christian theology, the “negative way,” which maintains that no positive statements can be made about God because any attribution limits his infinity. In this tradition, even statements such as “God created the universe in six days” are idolatry, the unsupportable elevation of a human interpretation into a claim that qualifies and therefore limits God’s freedom of action. Similar traditions exist within Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
Even Buddha, in the Diamond Sutra, warned his followers not to rely too much on scripture, and encouraged them to trust instead the experiences they gleaned from their own practice. In his 2005 book on the subject, the Dalai Lama said that where science and a Buddhist text appear to contradict each other, the text must yield. To these examples from the so-called world religions, we should add the local religious practices of smaller communities throughout the world, including preliterate indigenous peoples who have no scriptures at all. So even though reading scripture is a central practice for many believers, reliance on a scripture is too narrow to define a religious method. And what gives rise to scripture itself?
We need a better story of what religion is. Scholars have struggled with how to define it, with how to find a frame broad enough to include the many forms that religion takes and yet narrow enough to distinguish it from other modes of apprehending the world. They’ve by no means reached any agreement, but I’ve culled a sample of definitions that seem promising. In anthropology, I found Clifford Geertz: “A religion is: a system of symbols which acts to…establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by…formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and…clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that…the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” From Emile Durkheim, the sociologist: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." From William James’ classical psychological work: "[Religion is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." From Paul Tillich, the Protestant Christian theologian: "Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself provides the answer to the question of the meaning of our life."
Interesting. None of these definitions refers to God, and none takes religion to be primarily an attempt to explain the causes of natural phenomena. These descriptions suggest that a significant emotional experience is crucial in any religious formation. Geertz refers to “moods” established by symbols, but how can a symbol create a mood except by evoking some prior meaningful experience? Durkheim’s definition doesn’t allude to experience, but his conjecture of how religion arises in archaic societies relies heavily on it. He surmises that groups of hunter-gatherers, during extended communal events with vigorous drumming and dancing, experienced ecstatic states of union with one another and with world. From these experiences, “sacred” because so different from everyday life, people developed the idea that a “spirit” had visited the group, and they began deliberately to dance and enact other rituals to call the spirit back. James, on the other hand, does refer directly to an experience, that of apprehending oneself in relation to the divine, which he defines to be whatever refers to “primal reality.” Tillich gives an especially vigorous description of the experience of “being grasped” by an ultimate concern, aptly conveying the emotional intensity involved.
These scholarly accounts jointly suggest that what defines religion is finding ultimate meaning in the world, and that such meaning is found within lived experiences that touch a deep pulse of emotion. What is uniquely religious is the feeling of going so deep and so wide as to encompass “a general order of existence,” and that the encompassing is so profoundly emotional that it carries “an aura of factuality” and exerts profoundly lasting effects on an individual’s attitude toward the world and on their actions within it. All this would certainly show up in experiences that that are thought to be about God, but are in no way limited to God. Indeed, these definitions bring back my experience in pharmacology class as a potent example.
These observations suggest that we should anchor our ideas of the religious in experiences that provide a sense of meaningful connection with all that exists. Taken together, the features of being profoundly moved by some unexpectedly significant direct experience, subsequently privileging this experience as an object of reflection and inspiration, and creating symbols, stories and rituals to express and renew this experience, do comprise a way of apprehending reality that contrasts with that of science. Findings like those of Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who studied a group of American Evangelical Christians, support this view. In her 2012 book she wrote that, for this group, “religion is not about explaining reality but about transforming it; finding reasons to trust in the goodness of the world in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.”
But I realize that many believers would not would agree that finding meaning is the “aim” of their religious commitment, that it captures what motivates their religious belief. I know that their conscious motivations are quite varied: to serve God and others; to seek salvation; to maintain a personal relationship with Jesus, to name but a few. And yet the pursuit of any of these aims could be said to locate the believer in a meaningful relationship with a coherent world. This suggests we should use the language of “function” rather than “aim” to describe the distinction between science and religion. Various beliefs and conscious aims can serve the same function of providing meaning to life. The function of science is to deepen understanding of observable events and processes in the world: the function of religion is to provide deep and affirmative meaning in a world where the potential for alienation is always present. I think most scientists would accept that my description of the function of science also describes their conscious aim in undertaking the work, but this isn’t necessarily true of religious practitioners. The variety of aims and operations that belong to religion are broader in scope, vaguer in outline, more inescapably private, and more difficult to pin down than those that characterize science.
Many philosophers would say that the kind of unifying experience that I’ve described is what happens in finding beauty. That it’s what constitutes aesthetic perception. The unifying “tool” is necessarily the imagination, not in the sense of a faculty for constructing imaginary entities, but in the sense of that illuminating faculty that enables us to transform and integrate the otherwise fragmented aspects of the world into a new and absorbing configuration. This makes religion akin to poetry. Like poetry, religious perception is a reconfiguration of bare facts under an aspect of enchantment. A religious reconfiguration even makes use of the tools of poetry: metaphor, symbolism, allegory, myth. Like poetry, the value of any particular religious
experience is measured by how effective it is in transmuting the mundane into the personally transfigurative.
Metaphor is the transmuting agent here, both in generating a religious experience and in communicating it. In my case, I use words like “welcome,” “belonging,” “accepted,” and “loved” to describe my experience, words usually reserved for experiences involving other people. I didn’t have any notion that I was in contact with a personal entity, yet these are the words that best capture my inner experience. They are only metaphors. And metaphor, though it’s the best we have to communicate subtle qualities of experience, can also lead astray. Other language I’ve used here is also misleading. Words like “seek,” “bring together,” and “integrate” suggest that I was a conscious agent in generating the experience, but my experience didn’t feel in any way active or willed. This is typical. Religious experiences are invariably described in passive terms, as something that just “happened.” Theologians honor this under the rubric of “grace”—something given to us, unearned. But poets also describe receiving poetic images, or even whole poems, without awareness of their own constructive contribution.
So is religion just poetry? No, surely not “just.” Important markers distinguish it. One is its inclusiveness. The religious imagination encompasses our lived relationship to the world as a coherent whole and to what is ultimate within it. It includes grappling with the meaning of life and death. Another marker is that the experience commands the conviction that it is “right” or “true.” Probably because the experience is so inclusive, the accompanying emotions so intense, and the sense of coherence so conducive to belief, a religious experience brings along the “aura of factuality” that Geertz mentions. And finally, a religious experience transforms its recipient.
Tillich, in an essay on religious art, defines it as art that evokes the injunction, “You must change your life.” He lifts this language from a Rilke poem about seeing a bust of Apollo. The injunction to change is more like a call than an imposition. It’s an integral, automatic response to a person’s transformed experience of the world, so that the new behavior expresses the implications of the new experience. Extending Tillich’s insight from art to aesthetic experience in general, I think we should say that an aesthetic experience is religious if, along with being sufficiently inclusive and intense, it leads to a significant transformation in how we live. This transformative efficacy justifies Gould’s assignment of morality to the religious domain. To have known with certainty that we participate in a unification of the world’s disparate events and entities into a transcendent whole is to be drawn to live in a way that honors and preserves our participation. The moral authority of religion derives from an imperative inherent in an experience, rather than from pronouncements by the hierarchy of a religious institution.
I’ve continued to speak of religious experiences in a way that does not depend on the presence of God, but I don’t mean to exclude this. I want only to emphasize that God-experiences too have the qualities of answering cosmic concerns, of bearing emotional intensity and conviction, and of altering the course of lives. These considerations allow this account to be consistent with what we know of institutional religions. Stories of religious beginnings usually emphasize some powerful personal experience: Moses and the burning bush, Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Jesus fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry, Mohammed in Hira cave receiving the Quran. For an experience like this to give rise to an actual religion, its features and lessons must come to be shared within some community. The religious innovators and their first disciples, those whom we’ve come to recognize as the founders of world religions, accomplished the feat of binding together a community of believers. These founders gave voice to new ways of envisioning the world and our human place in it that answered an insistent human need for coherent meaning. They found ways to evoke a similar experience in others, by representing their experience in statements of belief, in metaphors, in stories, and in effective symbols, rituals, and practices. These become the shared language of a new community, a new religious institution capable of providing its members with meaning-giving experiences. The continuing authority of the resulting institution ultimately rests on whether its beliefs and practices reliably produce a religious experience in its members and thereby provide them with a trustworthy ground upon which to base their continuing lives. Gould’s description of “compromise and consensus” as part of religious “method” becomes relevant when we think about how a religious community sustains itself as it evolves and confronts new circumstances.
Ironically, the means of expression and communication so necessary in the formation of a community also give birth to the dangers we associate with institutional religions: the dangers of rigidity, of hollow formalism, of legalism, of self-righteousness. Because any human institution is vulnerable to these ills, the major religions have seen the periodic emergence of reforming voices, often urging a return to the deep values of the founders when these are felt to have been lost. Sometimes reforms generate new practices or formulations of belief that those outside the religion, as well as those within, can agree are progressive. Other times, reforming efforts bring about an ascendant fundamentalism that appears to be regressive.
And what about fundamentalism? At first it doesn’t seem to fit my theory of a defining religious experience. It seems that a fundamentalist substitutes a restrictive allegiance to a static text for the expansive liberation of religious experience. But this needn’t be so. Among Christians, many self-professed fundamentalists describe the feeling, sometimes datable to a particular experiential moment, of a personal relationship with a transcendent God in the person of Jesus. For them, it is the experienced presence of a loving Jesus that constitutes the coherent unity of the world and guarantees their place in it. In this Christian context, there’s often the added quality of redemption from a sinful nature. Having had an experience of love and redemption, believers depend on a variety of practices for its prolongation and renewal, but essential among these, for many, is reading and reflecting on the words of the Bible. What defines the fundamentalist response is to believe that this effect depends on the Bible’s being literally true in every assertion. We would be foolish to expect a person who feels this way to relinquish their defining emotional experience and its essential rituals of maintenance in response to any merely intellectual argument.
When I recall again my experience in pharmacology class, I’m impressed once more with how well it fits the description of religious experience that we’ve been generating: a sense of joyous connection to the cosmos, grasped as a coherent whole; gripping feelings of homecoming and relief—redemption?—in relation to this connection; an unshakeable conviction that the connection was real and true and the emotions were warranted; a recognition that the experience stood apart from the everyday; a sense of being located with respect to fundamental existential concerns, including death; and an irresistible personal transformation as I was drawn to treat my fellow cosmic travelers in ways that embodied the spirit of what I’d experienced. The experience of God that I’ve imagined for the fundamentalist would have these same qualities.
Sitting in that class, I felt a deep sense of acceptance, coming even from my erstwhile distant classmates. My estranged relationship with these colleagues was transformed within an
enriched sense of what Gould called “universal fellowship.” I was drawn both to honor and to further actualize my new sense of kinship with the world and with them. While I was already friendly with some of my classmates, I took another look at those who had seemed more intimidating. Where I had seen them as aloof, even contemptuous, I could now imagine that they were simply dealing with their own insecurities. I could entertain the possibility that the aloofness of some others was a response to my own reserve. I made friendly overtures to a few, and found that they responded in kind. Having been enriched by a gift, I felt a new generosity towards people in general, a wish to gift them in turn, and a deepening commitment to medicine as a field where I could do this. I don’t mean to imply that my alienation was completely healed, but it was suddenly ameliorated. I doubt that any of my classmates were aware of any great change in me, and yet something genuinely new was opened in me and for me. Even the amelioration was not permanent, since I found I had to renew my sense of belonging over and over in new experiences. But now I had some tools to renew it.
To recognize experiences like mine as religious may help to bridge the divide between those who see themselves as religious and those who do not. Dawkins himself recognizes certain non-institutional experiences to be religious. He gives the examples of feeling at one with the universe, and of awe at the beauty of nature. He refers to these as instances of “Einsteinian religion,” since Einstein described himself as immensely moved by the beauty of the natural world, especially by the elegance of its mathematical laws. Like Einstein, Dawkins endorses experiences of “pantheistic reverence.” But Dawkins ignores the continuity between his reverential experiences and those that inspire conventional religious practice.
He also fails to recognize that the experiences of awe and beauty reported by scientists are not intrinsic to their scientific work. Awe and the perception of beauty require an additional imaginative act, implicitly performed but not necessarily recognized, on the part of the scientist who experiences them. It takes an act of imagination to transform the facts of scientific discovery into a source of deeply felt personal meaning. The transformation is what marks the experience as religious.
In class, I wasn’t aware of performing a creative act; instead, something unexpected just happened to me. Nevertheless, it’s clear that I somehow moved from unadorned scientific facts to an imaginative construction of their significance for me. In retrospect, I see that the resulting experience required a selection and an organization of the contents of my scattered thoughts. To find a unity among the many entities, locales, and divergent scales of time and spatial dimension that my associations were conjuring, my mind had to chance upon the metaphor of diffusion as a thematic organizer. Some synthesizing process within me took this theme, mobilized prior knowledge, and integrated theme and knowledge with current personal concerns, when neither theme, knowledge, nor concerns had been active in my conscious thoughts before the experience. Even though I felt the whole process as happening to me, the imaginative action is clear.
To understand the religious in terms of meaning-giving experience allows us to clearly distinguish science and religion and also clarifies that religion is a positive agent in human life. Where Gould saw the life-affirming qualities of religion, Dawkins has focused only on the evils done in its name. Dawkins’ focus is shared by many who hope to put an end to religion all together. But I don’t think we can attribute these evils to religion per se. Religion becomes destructive only when institutional religion achieves political authority, where dogmatic belief exercises coercive power. Dawkins is right to oppose this kind of coercive power, which causes real suffering and thereby shows itself to be lacking in actual religious feeling.
I see the opposition between scientific and religious claims as a political clash between institutions jealous of their authority. These institutional clashes themselves are neither scientific nor religious. They represent unwarranted encroachments, a lack of respect for how science and religion actually work and what they each actually can and cannot do.
I’m convinced that even when there is genuine conflict between particular religious beliefs and particular scientific findings, the human concerns and personal experiences that motivate the contentious religious beliefs are not themselves in conflict with science. To recognize this is to recognize the possibility that we can bring these contrasting ways of engaging the world into collaboration along a well-demarcated border. The human search for coherence and meaning will not go away, no matter how far our sciences advance. Properly interpreted and thoughtfully practiced, science and religion complement each other. The ideal of a just and culturally harmonious world is a religious aspiration; science can provide some of the tools needed for its realization. At least that’s what experiences like the one in my pharmacology class have led me to hope and, indeed, even to believe.