For whatever reason, the “religion vs. science” debate has been the center of attention lately, in social media and in general media. The most recent example was a piece in the Guardian about Richard Dawkins on a radio show, making broad generalizations about how many “Christians” are secular (and therefore in his opinion not “Christian”), and how many couldn’t name the first book of the Bible. The host then said that surely Dawkins could give him the full title of Darwin’s “Origins of the Species”, and after saying “of course”, he couldn’t do it. In the estimation of the writer, this was a stab at the arrogance of Dawkins.
I have always found Dawkins to be arrogant, and his tone makes it hard for me to take his arguments, which may or may not have some legitimacy, very seriously. Still, the Rabbi writing the column mixes up “secularism” and “atheism” in the same way that Dawkins does, ironically enough. One need not be an atheist to be a secularist. Secularism prefers no viewpoint on religion, rather than “no religion”. By preferring no viewpoint, you should (ideally) allow people in society to espouse whatever belief they choose, with special preference for none.
This is all introduction to the point I want to make in this post—“religious” believers of all stripes have more in common with “atheists” and others who might fall into a rational, skeptical, and/or scientific worldview than they realize.
First, like a good scholar and social scientist, I think it’s important to define terminology; the consequences of not doing so can be demonstrated in the article mentioned above. The key definition we need here is for the term “religion”. As any student taking an intro course on the study of religion will know, this is not as easy to do as it first looks. When I am in Britain and tell people that I teach religion, they automatically assume that I am some sort of Christian theologian. My teaching has nothing to do with theology, but that is the first association. Certainly in terms of “atheist” vs. “believer in religion”, there is an assumption that a being is involved, generally described as a deity or “god” (capital and lowercase). Again, not true. There are religions that are, strictly speaking, “atheistic”. They don’t have a belief in a personal “God”. As Joseph Campbell said (and I will quote him often), “God is the ultimate human metaphor.”
No, religion is not (necessarily) about “God”. Atheists do not believe in any god or religious system, and yet by definition (of religion) they do have something in common with the religious, as I will explain.
“Religion” comes from “religere” the Latin word that means “to link back” or “to tie back”. One of the most universal symbols of mankind in some form or another is the circle, or mandala. You see it in all cultures, and it is metaphorical of some kind of unity. If you look at world myths about origins, many of them talk about a unity that is broken. In Genesis, Yahweh separates “the light from the dark”. There is further separation in the myth of Adam and Eve—they are metaphorically one with “God” in the Garden of Eden, then through the woman, they enter a world of suffering and difference (knowledge of “good and evil”). This again is a metaphor for life—we are born through woman (unless you’re a seahorse) into a world where we see difference and separation. “This” is distinct from “that”.
So—“religion” is about getting back to the “unified” state, hence its association with “union with God” and other such metaphors. Alan Watts had a wonderful phrase for it—“dismemberment and rememberment”. This is a very Eastern conception. In the West, the dominant Christian myth says that man is “sinful” and must be “redeemed” through Christ to have union with God (and God and man are of separate substances). In the East, everyone and everything is already “divine”—we have just forgotten, and the job of the guru or spiritual teacher is to “wake you up” and make you remember. Hence—“dismemberment and rememberment”. Obviously there are other religions and variations, but they all point to the notion that we are separate, and need to be One.
What does that mean? If you don’t believe in God in a literal or metaphorical sense, then it has more to do with what it takes to get along with everyone in our global society. The notion is that you view everyone “as a god” (again, metaphorically speaking), and you respect everyone equally. There should not be divisions based on race, nationality, religion, gender, or anything else. These are false divisions, “pseudospeciations” (to use Erikson’s term). So—for the atheist, it is also ultimately about harmony between peoples—they just don’t use religious mythology or metaphor to seek that harmony.
Religion and myth, according to Campbell, have 4 functions—to negotiate the unknown, to provide a cosmology, to provide a social structure, and to provide individual guidance. In a secular world (and not necessarily atheistic), science tends to provide these things rather than what we think of as “religion”. So, I have always seen religion and science as performing the same function—they provide us with tools for negotiating our world, and negotiating the unknown. Causation is not an absolute fact, but we are as reassured by it as the religious believer may be assured that his or her deity is looking after them. We look for “reasons” why things are the way they are. The difference is that science examines the visible world, and religion tackles the unseen world. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use the methods of science to prove anything about an “unseen” world. The closest we get to that is analytical psychology.
One of the big bones of contention for atheists is how many cruel things are done in the world in the name of religion, how many restrictive laws are put into place for something that is a matter of belief, and one not shared by society as a whole. This is certainly true, and you could point to many examples—the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, terrorist acts of Islamic extremists, and that’s just for starters. There are even more mundane laws, like forbidding gay marriage, which has no compelling rationale in a secular society—it is a matter of codified religious dogma.
That said—there is also such a thing as bad science. Western Esoteric scholar Egil Asprem did a great blog posting recently on the subject of bad science. Results can be faked, studies can be biased, even at top universities. Can people be harmed by bad science? Absolutely. A good example is the flap over autism and vaccines. Even after it was proven that the study making that connection was faked—and that Andrew Wakefield had a financial motivation in putting out that study—many parents still steadfastly cling to the notion that vaccines may cause autism, and want to refuse to get their children vaccinated. The result? Diseases that had been wiped out by vaccinations are now making a comeback, and children are dying. All because of bad science.
Now, just because there is a lot of bad science doesn’t make science or its methods “bad” by default. Neither does the existence of “bad” religion make all religion “bad” by default. The thing that bad science and bad religion have in common is the negative side of human behavior. Religious authorities can be controlling and power-hungry (and therefore excessively dogmatic and officious), and so can non-religious authorities. Sometimes the problem is outright sloppiness or laziness, also a human trait that is not limited to one’s worldview. But it is the person or persons involved that are the problem, not the method.
My point is not to demonize religion or science and/or non-religion. Both have their place, and when used rightly, can balance each other out. In the second episode of the Power of Myth, Bill Moyers’s first question to Campbell is, “Why myth (or religion, my parentheses)? Why should I believe in any of it?” And Campbell’s response: “Well, my first inclination is to tell you go on, live your life, it’s a good life, and you don’t need this. You should never believe in anything because you feel you ought to, or it is believed to be a good thing. But I do think that with the proper introduction, you might find it grabs you.”
It might, or might not. The bottom line is that as human beings, the best parts of us are looking to live together harmoniously, to have mutual respect, and for everyone to have equal opportunity to fulfill their own potential—to be free and happy. We all are interesting in knowing, and in minimizing anxiety of the unknown, and our means of doing that will depend on our experiences. It doesn’t matter what worldview you espouse. Your preferred point of view will depend on your experience, and no one likes their personal worldview structure to be violated, no matter how well intended, hence the intensity of feeling on both sides. There will always be a tension and struggle between opposing viewpoints, and humans often behave in ways that are less than humane. But the ideal goal is still worth striving for in spite of the mythology you choose or don’t choose. And in the final analysis, for everything we know, there are a million things we don’t know or understand, and maybe never will. Whether you prefer a purely rational/material worldview or one that involves some type of “religious” view, the best thing is always an open mind.