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April 8, 1997

WHAT IS RELIGION?

[Editor's note: The following is an except of Dr. Richard Sneed's presentation at the Harbinger symposium, "RELIGION & SCIENCE: The Best of Enemies - The Worst of Friends," on April 3.]

by Richard Sneed

The evening's program is designed to demonstrate the real polarity between religion and science, and why they need to keep talking to one another.

I will speak about religion in general, as an historical and psychological phenomenon.

I will suggest that religion is an ancient and respectable explanation for the world and our place in it, but that it is not the only one.

I will suggest that religion does not have all the answers because it is by no means clear that it has asked all the questions, and asked them properly.

I will suggest that the dispute between religion and science is very much like a sibling rivalry, and that the two are very similar in many ways.

Finally, I will argue that it is time that both listen and learn from each other instead of taking infantile potshots at each other.


One way of describing religion is that is was humankind's earliest attempt to try to understand the world and our place in it.

Early people clearly saw a bewildering, dangerous, and chaotic world and through a mixture of fear, awe, curiosity, and instinct for survival, looked for ways to explain and comprehend their surroundings. It is natural to fear what is not understood, so by trying to understand the world better, it would be feared less.

The search for understanding was undertaken by observing, theorizing, observing some more, and offering tentative explanations. Whatever was beyond our imagination was quite naturally explained as being the work of something beyond us.

Humankind has changed but little, for we still use this strategy, and apply it to every aspect of our lives; we are always seeking to know.

Notice I have not spoken about faith. Religion is not the same thing as faith: faith has many definitions. Tonight, I suggest that faith is both.

Faith can be defined as (1) the impulse to believe in the absence of some evidence or explanation, and (2) the act of accepting such evidence or explanation because it seems reasonable. Faith is a rational activity: it requires thought for accepting and understanding.

I want to distinguish between the act of believing in something and that of which one believes. My believing in something does not make it true, and is different from whether or not it is actually true.

A fact is a fact is a fact; my belief in its truth has nothing whatsoever to do with its actual truth.

It has been said that the world is made up of facts, not things. One way of understanding this is to realize the world is what we individually and collectively know of it.

No one that I know of claims to know all there is to know about the world. It is probably impossible. I regard that as a good thing; I would hate to know all that there is to know.

The human mind is restless and imaginative. We humans are capable of amazingly creative acts, and our compulsion to know, to learn, to explain, and to understand is what gave rise to much of human society.

Historically, religion was the explanation for the world, for the cause and effect activity in the world. To our curious minds, there simply had to have an explanation for every natural phenomenon. If it was beyond us, and the event still happens, its cause must be beyond us. It is a short step to supernatural agency.

As events became more complex, the explanations required much study and training. Religion, as a discipline, became the systemic attempt to provide explanations for the way the world works.

This is also a good definition of science, and there is a good reason for it: Science and religion, as intellectual activities, are not as distinct as we may think. The academic pigeonholing of religion and science is a very recent event. It was not until the late middle ages that science was studied by itself; prior to this, science, was called natural philosophy, and prior to that it was a branch of theology. Only in the last couple of centuries was it possible to "major" as it were in, say, chemistry. Before this, the science were called "speculative physics," that is the study of the natural world.

Religion is a science in a sense, as it is a speculative enterprise. It has rules, procedures, methodologies. They have changed in form but the structure remains.

Most of the finest scientists of history have been adherents of one religion or another, for most sensed intuitively that science is fallible because scientists are fallible, and further that science has limits.

So I would argue does religion. The complexity of both religion and science makes it impossible to master both. But, that does not mean that they are mutually exclusive. Indeed, I think that they should not be because they cannot be.

I have suggested that methodologically, religion is a science. I also claim that, in some ways, science is a kind of religion. It has saints such as Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. It has a priesthood, the senior scientists. It has doctrinal authorities, the Nobel laureates. It has prophets like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. It has heretics, the person who transplanted monkey heads. Science has sacred texts. It has rites and rituals: study, research, internships. It has its PR types such as Carl Sagan. Both have fundamentalists, literalist, evangelicals, and mainstreams. This is partly why encounters between them cause so much fire to fly: It is not because they are so different but because they are much alike.

A fundamental tenet of science is that acceptance of some claim must be properly tied to the evidence. If accepting the truth of the evidence is distinct from his actual truth, then science is a belief system, and an imperfect one at that.

What I am suggesting is that controversies between religion and science are so intense because they are family squabbles. And like most sibling rivalries, what is sought is not accommodation and compromise but competitive advantage. Most human disputes are like this: The Israelis and the Palestinians don't want peace, they want advantage. They don't talk to each other but yell at each other.

Neither science nor religion is perfect because they are human artifacts, and we are imperfect. Both can make foolish mistakes. In religion there was The Inquisition; in science, there was phrenology. It is true that the bloodiest wars in our history were religious in some fashion , but priests don't forge swords, and monks don't develop weapons.

Both religion and science might be well advised to pause from their polemics, to remove the logs from their own eyes before pointing out the splinters in each other's.

What I am suggesting is that instead of condemning each other for being narrow-minded and dogmatic -- which can be true of both -- they should listen, for once, and learn. You can learn nothing from someone else unless you listen to them. What is needed is humility and courtesy. Science is a bit better at this: listen to the hedging of NASA scientists in explaining the potential of life on Mars.

It is a mistake for religion to score science; it is equally a mistake for science to score religion. Scientific explanations need not diminish the awesomeness of the natural world. Nor should religion postulate a God behind it all. It is useful to distinguish between religion and science, between faith and fact, but do not divide them. The worse "sin" we can commit is not to listen to each other at all.


"RELIGION & SCIENCE - the Best of Enemies, the Worst of Friends" is funded by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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