Science and religion aren't enemies. A healthy conversation between them offers valuable lessons.
For the past 15 years, I have spent one week a year in a small seaside village in South Devon, England. This quaint and quiet spot contains my favorite beach in the world: The Ness Beach. One of my preferred childhood pastimes was pacing back and forth along this strip of sand searching for sea glass. I wondered, were any of the hundreds of pieces I collected over the years once part of the same object?
As I grew up, I began to devote my life to the study of philosophy, particularly how the philosophical ideas contained in science and religion can interact with one another. The academic practice of science and religion is much like the practice of collecting sea glass, and both can teach us important lessons about how to navigate the complexities of modern life.
Before the Scientific Revolution and the dawn of Enlightenment thinking, Western intellectuals took a far more holistic approach to the development of knowledge. Great thinkers like Newton, Galileo, and Descartes, were polymaths—they studied mathematics, geometry, physics, philosophy, and yes, even theology, under the name Natural Philosophy.
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Natural Philosophy, like a vase, once had the capacity to contain a great volume of material before it was broken into smaller pieces. The academic subjects contained within it became more specialized, and as they did so they became more disconnected, shattering the vase, resulting in fragmented discourse. What once fit easily together now seems like it never could have been part of the same greater whole.
This has led scholars such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to pedal a narrative of conflict between science and religion, as though they were not united at some point in our relatively recent past. This is a mistake.
Here are three benefits of conversations between science and religion:
- Expanded worldview. Including insights from as many different areas as possible is the way to have a richer understanding of reality. The holistic is often preferable to the granular.
- Hidden insights. When you probe a little deeper, that which seems diametrically opposed may not be so different. Just as science and religion grew from a common root, so, too, may people with whom you disagree share more similarities with you than differences. They, too, are searching for authentic life—it’s just that this looks different for different people.
- Engagement with friends and foes. With the ebb and flow of time, disciplines will undulate in and out of focus. The same is the case for worldviews, political commitments, and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes different ways of seeing the world will be closely intertwined, at other times they may seem miles apart. This doesn’t mean they cannot be brought back together. Feuds between foes can turn into conversations with friends.
As a child, I wandered along the Ness beach collecting sea glass in the hope that I might find two pieces that once fit together. As an adult, I traverse the contoured and variegated landscape of science and theology, hoping to reunite these past bedfellows, and maybe, just maybe, bring fresh insights along the way.
We can all learn something from this practice about reducing compartmentalization, increasing our willingness to compromise, and the importance of conversation.
Read Emily Qureshi-Hurst's interview with S&H on science and religion.