At odds with science & religion
By Kara Witt, PH.D.
The dysfunctional relationship between religion and science is a matter that has so gripped the attention of our collective consciousness that it has become almost impossible to ignore. Whether we identify as atheist, religious, or something else entirely, we cherish our worldviews. When others criticize them, we take it to heart.
Science, according to the late Sir Karl Popper, is a method that limits itself to testing falsifiable hypotheses. Spirituality, on the other hand, is something that gives us meaning, hope, strength, and integrity when fear fills our hearts; when moral dilemmas rob us of rest; and when the incremental losses and disappointments accumulate and interact as we approach life’s end. Why, then, is there conflict between them? Why are they at odds with one another?
Professor Mark Berkson addresses these very questions—and many more—in his renowned courses at Hamline University, covering topics such as “Religion and Science,” “Buddhism and Psychotherapy” and “Death and Dying.” To our great good fortune, he has graciously agreed to discuss this topic with Minnesota Good Age.
KW: What is the relationship between religion and science? Why are they at odds with one another?
MB: There is not one single type of relationship that religion and science have. There are many different ways that they can be related. The one that you refer to in your question focuses on the areas in which religion and science are at odds. One of clearest examples of this is the clash between evolution and creationism (or “intelligent design”).
To be more accurate, we should not talk about a conflict between science and religion, but rather about conflicts between people—those who hold certain kinds of religious beliefs and those with a scientific perspective. We should also recognize that there can be tensions that arise within individuals, between their scientific and faith-based perspectives.
KW: How do we do that?
MB: Well, we have to be more precise about where the conflict lies. Many people experience no conflict between the two perspectives. There are plenty of devout Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on, who have no problem reconciling the findings of modern science with their religious beliefs and practices. Conflict arises only with certain kinds of religious perspectives. I think it’s more accurate to say that there’s a tension between science and those religious perspectives characterized by literalism (a form of interpretation that understands the language of the Bible as literal; e.g., Adam and Eve were two actual people who lived in a garden; Noah had a very big ark that carried two of each animal, etc.) and also by complete textual inerrancy (the belief that the Bible is accurate and true in every way, including in the areas of history, science, geography, etc.).
KW: Is this a prevalent belief?
MB: No, most Christians don’t read the Bible this way. Some reject total inerrancy, seeing the Bible as fully reliable only when speaking of spiritual, theological matters, but not in areas like science, history, etc. The biblical authors were, in the minds of many Christians, limited human beings communicating their experience of the divine as they encountered it.
In addition to the rejection of total inerrancy, many Christians read much of the Bible as expressing profound truths about the human condition, the experience of divine reality, and the power of love and compassion, in inspirational, poetic, metaphorical language. It needn’t be the case that every story and passage be literally true for the text to convey great truth about the human condition and divine activity in the world.
If religion and science each addresses concerns in their own realm, we could make great use of the insights of both in our lives. The problem today usually arises when religious claims (usually literal interpretations of scripture) conflict with scientific claims about the natural world.
KW: It seems that each perspective could learn from the other.
MB: Yes. Religious people should pay attention to scientific discoveries. As they learn about the world, they might need to revise their cosmologies, understandings of human nature and the mind, etc. Scientists can also bring their methodologies to the study of religion and provide valuable new understandings. For example, studies of the effect of meditation on the mind and emotions, or of the effect of prayer on well-being have yielded fruitful insights about religious practice. At the same time, scientists should learn about religion, not only because doing so teaches one valuable things about the peoples and traditions of this world (and is fascinating), but also because religious ethics can contribute in many ways to scientific conversations. Scientists can develop powerful technologies, but science itself cannot tell us whether or not they should be developed or ever used. Think about the cloning of human beings, the development of bioweapons, and so on. Religious traditions are deep sources of wisdom.
KW: And there you have it—or, at least part of it. Next month, I will continue this discussion with Professor Berkson, touching on the mounting evidence that the practice of religion is good for physical and mental health.
Dr. Kara Witt is a psychologist in the Twin Cities. Comments? Questions? You can reach Kara at firstname.lastname@example.org.