As science has advanced, religious believers have been increasingly threatened by the fact that religion may become irrelevant in the sense that god is not actually required for anything, other than to provide comfort to those people who fear death and feel the need to believe in some powerful deity. The response has been to assert that religion and science do not conflict because they provide answers to different kinds of questions. In effect, they are said to occupy different niches in knowledge space. Over time, a cottage industry has grown up devoted to finding different ways to state this single idea. So now we have statements such as that science addresses ‘how’ questions while religion addresses ‘why’ questions or that science deals with questions that have a material basis while religion deals with non-material moral and ethical questions, questions of meaning, etc.
In a recent online debate one saw other variants of this with Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, being quoted as saying that “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
This sound good (at least to the accomodationists who want to think that science and religion are compatible) until you stop and think for a moment and realize that it has no content. After all, anybody can ascribe meaning on anything. What makes religious people think that the meaning they bestow on things should be taken any more seriously than any other claim to meaning?
Religions have for a long time got used to making assertions about morality and meaning in the name of god or their holy books and having people accept it as having authority. Religious people tend to think that anything that science cannot give a glib answer to is something for which we should accept religion’s glib answers. As the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip astutely points out, what gives religion its edge over science in the popular mind is that is that it has been allowed to make stuff up.
For a long time this practice went largely unchallenged except in a few intellectual circles, but the new/unapologetic atheists have refused to abide by this polite fiction that religion provides specific insights and answers to deep questions that are inaccessible to other forms of inquiry. They have posed the question of why should we take seriously religion’s answers to the ‘why’ or moral or ethical or meaning questions. They refuse to grant religion a privileged role in addressing any question and because they have taken their challenge out of purely academic and intellectual circles and into the popular public sphere they have caused turmoil. Religious leaders are unsettled by having their authority challenged and being asked to provide reasons as to why their assertions should be taken any more seriously than the ranting of any random person in the street who claims to hear divine voices in his or her head.
What should not be allowed is for apologists to postulate unchallenged that religion is the place that one should go to as the source of meaning and morality, and they should be asked to justify why the answers to such questions could not just as well have come from some non-religious source such as the study of psychology or the social sciences or cognitive science or neurology or evolution
Another claim of religion is that it is the source of wisdom. Sacks says, “There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live.” Mary Midgley, a frequent writer on religion, says that ‘real wisdom’ can be found in the Bible. But what exactly is this wisdom of which they speak? When pressed, the answer that is provided is usually some variant of what is known as the Golden Rule, that one should treat others the way that one would wish to be treated. But this precept transcends any particular religion and is something whose value and utility also arises quite naturally out of evolutionary thinking, so claiming that it is an insight arising purely from religion cannot be justified.
It is not that wisdom cannot be found in the Bible (or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita). Of course it can. Real wisdom can also be found in complex works of literature, including Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Tagore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. People from all walks of life who have thought long and hard about the nature of the human condition are bound to come up with insights that are meaningful even if not always original.
Religious apologists should be asked what is it that lifts religious insights above those emerging from any other deep thinker. The answer is, of course, nothing. And there is certainly nothing to suggest the usually banal insights that it does come up with originate from the kind of entity that most people identify as god.
POST SCRIPT: Religion! What is it good for?
Replace ‘war’ with ‘religion’ in this Edwin Starr classic and the song still makes sense.