Books on Science and Religion #33: We Pause and Consider

Books on Science and Religion #33: We Pause and Consider

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Feb 8, 2015

It is week #33 of our review of the modern literature on science and religion – and a good time to pause and take a perspective.

I want to consider two things in today’s blog:

  1. The basic question that this literature seems to be addressing, and
  2. The impression that this literature conveys that logic and reasonableness seems mainly on the side of those who embrace both science and religion.

The Basic Question

The underlying question that this literature is almost always addressing seems to be the following:

What is the best way to achieve significant and important goals of health and good functioning for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for our societies, for our environment, for all the life on the planet, and for progress of the world of humanity?

QuestionBoth the books for the unity of science and religion and the books against the unity of science and religion – the later exclusively being against religion as opposed to being against science – pose this question, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. This a significant point of unity! At issue, then, is the best way to achieve these goals.

The argument, it seems clear enough, boils down to something very simple. Should we have religion or not? (There is never an argument in the literature we are reading against having science. Even arguments against evolution are not arguments against science! This can be seen by looking at both creationist and intelligent design arguments against evolution – both are framed in terms of questioning the correct scientific description.)

The Dalai Lama, in his wonderfully-entitled Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, summarizes the anti-religion arguments splendidly. Let me quote him at length:

… as science began to advance rapidly in Europe, there was a move toward greater rationality. And this rationality involved, among other things, a rejection of what came to be seen as the superstitions of the past. For many radical thinkers from that time to our own day, the adoption of rationality has entailed a rejection of religious faith. The French Revolution, which expressed so many of the new ideas of the European Enlightenment, is a good example of this, with its strong anti-religious element.

Of course there was also an important social dimension to this rejection. Religion came to be regarded as conservative, tied to tradition, and closely associated with old regimes and all their failings. The legacy of this history, it seems, is that for more than two hundred years, many of the most influential thinkers and reformers in the West have viewed religion, not as an avenue to human liberation, but as an obstacle to progress. Marxism, one of the most powerful secular ideologies of the twentieth century, even denounced religion as the “opium of the people”—with tragic consequences, as communist regimes forcibly suppressed religion in many parts of the world.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole WorldAccording to the Dalai Lama, we must look to recent European history to understand the arguments against religion:

It is a result of this history, I feel, that in the West the idea of secularism is so often understood as being antagonistic toward religion. Secularism and religion are often seen as two opposing and mutually incompatible positions, and there is considerable suspicion and hostility between the followers of the two camps.

The arguments against religion, viewed thus, are understandable:

While I cannot accept the suggestion that religion is an obstacle to human development, I do feel that, in the context of history, anti-religious sentiments may be understandable. History teaches the uncomfortable truth that religious institutions and adherents of every denomination have been involved in exploitation of others at some stage or another. Religion has also been used as a pretext for conflict and oppression. Even Buddhism, with its doctrine of nonviolence, cannot escape this charge entirely.

The conclusion I come to is that the arguments against religion are best understood as arising from historical circumstances that led to those making the arguments concluding that religion was out of date and a barrier to progress.  Add to this the underlying tendency to demonize those whom you are opposed to – a fault that Europeans religious and anti-religious alike seem to be especially prone to – and you have the essence of the case against religion. The rest is conjecture, ideology, theorizing, and brainstorming interpreted by those doing the brainstorming as scientific fact.

The Impression that Logic and Reasonableness Seems Mainly on the Side of Those who Embrace both Science and Religion

In the literature we have been reviewing, what stands out is the reasonableness and logic of those authors, often distinguished scientists, who embrace both science and religion. They tend to have humanitarian and world-embracing perspectives, a familiarity with the diversity of the world’s religions, knowledge of the world’s sciences, informed perspectives on the history of the interaction of the two (meaning that they typically understand the different strands in the enlightenment and in various bifurcations and movements in the religious traditions of the world.) And this same breadth of perspective is often found in the moderate atheists and materialists who maintain an objective and open-minded approach towards social and individual phenomena that may not be fully to their taste but whose reality they want to understand.

Does this sound too positive? Am I being too selective in my reading?

Dalai LamaThis is the 21st century and I am describing the thinking of people who are informed and comfortable with all parts of the human experience – science and religion, spiritual needs and material needs – in an age that has witnessed a century of chaos, war, and disintegration associated with the rise and enormous influence of materialist ideologies. This is a time that sees continuing and growing failure to address material inequalities, racial inequalities, religious inequalities, and environmental problems, an age that is witnessing the spread of a consumer culture that praises selfishness and desire as a social good.

And this is an age where – through the internet, through the unprecedented expansion of learning and scholarship, through the streams of refugees and the diasporas from broken and war-torn regions – we have more access to knowledge and information than we ever have had before. And it is also an age that has an inexhaustible hunger for spiritual growth and an age that has rediscovered religion (both the good and bad of it!).

We are in a different time.  We now know enough, including enough history, to recognize that the faults of religion that once so incensed people were very real, but also artifacts of the time and the place. And the systems of government and governance that replaced religion and affiliated religious systems were often much worse than what they replaced.

Those who reject religion, it seems to me, see it monolithically, as if it were somehow one big concrete thing where religion everywhere were the same. This simply isn’t true. There are many, many flavors and types of religion. People can even make religion out of science! Or they believe that belief in God is illogical and conclude that it forces people to be illogical. But this simply isn’t true. The world’s greatest scientists have believed in God and they have proven themselves logical. Or they believe that science has proven that all of life is material and that belief in God is the view that reality is more than what is material, therefore wrong. But, science has not proven that, it is only a surmise, a belief.

Rejection of religion may well be valid as a personal option. But when a thinker goes further and decides that everyone else must accept their personal conclusions as valid universally, then they are trespassing into the realm of imposing belief on others. It was precisely this in 18th century religion that so incensed people.

For all these reasons, those who reject religion as wrong are making a different argument than those who reject religion privately.  They are making the same claim, in essence, that those who persecute people who don’t believe “correctly” are making – they are attempting to enforce ideological purity.  And it is this imposition – with all that it entails of fanaticism, illogic, and demonization – that gives such a strong impression of lack of logic and reasonableness.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we will continue our review of the history of atheism and the book


This is the 33rd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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