Where Science and Religion Collide?
A discussion with a friend of mine (thanks go to Gavin) has led me to think a little more deeply about the relation and conflicts between science and faith.
I have always maintained that these two fields of human thought do not contradict each other in the sense that they are very much separate disciplines and have their formulations developed and maintained in different manners. Science, for example, deals with fact, empiricism, and knowledge. Faith tends to deal with matters of value, experience, and morality. My opinion has always been, and continues to be such, that although these two schools are self-contained within their own right, it is quite feasible to see them as complimentary to each other if viewed in the right way.
Hearing the views of someone from a secular viewpoint always challenges me, and yet in a very good way. In the same way that science can make no progress if it constantly focuses on old knowledge without endeavouring to break any new ground, so religion will become stagnant if its proponents do not open themselves up to similar levels of questioning and seeking. In this sense, I am not merely talking about seeking new revelation from old knowledge (though that is very important as well), but also using the gift of reason bestowed upon humanity in order to determine what new revelations might be given to us by God today. I feel that religious faith, in much a similar vain as science, must be looked upon as a continual progression toward improved understanding. If we believe in God, then we must accept that He alone is perfection whereas the rest of us are limited to the shackles of our own finitude.
Secularism tells me from its own perspective that the position of God and/or divinity is not only highly improbable, but also largely irrelevant. Therefore, the things in life which we consider to have meaning, such as ethics, morality, and spirituality, may all be explained away by a matter of genetics and survival. As cold and dispassionate as such a philosophy might be, secularism argues, it is nonetheless how existence is and as such we ought to seek in constructing our own happiness, survival, and meaning.
The bemusing factor in all of this is that I actually agree to a certain extent. As a person of science and one who values rational, objective enquiry, I wholeheartedly accept that evolution and the development of humanity as described in contemporary scientific terms constitutes the best reflective understanding of our existence that can be attainted at the current time. I am quite open to acknowledging that all of my intellect, self-awareness, imagination, conceptualisations of morality, and sense of meaning, are all qualities which developed as beneficial evolutionary traits and which even now we utilise as a means to propagate the survival of ourselves as well as our own species, albeit on a subconscious level without our direct realisation.
Should any of this conflict with a state of spiritual faith? I don’t believe it should. If it does, then we should have to re-examine the credibility we give to a transcendent nature, as well as to the God we believe created us. After all, She would have to have, in one way or another, bestowed upon us all of the faculties common to humankind that we now possess. Does it really matter if we were created as Adam and Eve in a direct, immediate sense, or if we arose as the result of a series of gradual phenomena and scientific processes which culminated and, indeed, provided us with our human machinations? If I am to believe that God is seated upon the throne of eternity, being unbound by time and space, I am hard pressed to think that it makes one iota of difference to Him whether Adam and Eve came about in an instant, or if all humanity is the collective result of natural selection and speciation.
Another problem, however, is if religion and morality is simply a matter of conditioning and learning in the same way we would have to learn and be conditioned about any other discipline, then where does that leave the viability of such beliefs? After all, in the same manner that animals are unable to conceive of anything higher than their own immediately perceived reality, then why should it be any different for humans? Why should we feel, even if there is any reality beyond the realm of human perception, that this can be experienced by ourselves anymore than fish in a pond could experience the variety of perception and imagination available to us who peer down upon them?
The key difference, I feel, comes from the very self-awareness with which we have evolved. Our sentience exists on a much more complex level than those within the rest of the animal kingdom, and as such we have the power (gifting?) to conceive of higher realms even if we cannot perceive them in their fullness. It is within our grasp to have a concept of ultimacy in a way that is simply not within the realm of animal sentience.
Secularism might argue, how does that make the existence of transcendent reality any more tangible, or even give proof that we can tap into it? Well, it doesn’t; but it offers the possibility that the transcendent can be experienced, even if this occurs in a very subjective manner. We might not be able to experience such a level of reality in fullness, in the same way we perceive and learn about our own sphere of perceived reality, but the very fact that we can conceptualise it may mean that we can experience it in part, in but a tiny perhaps infinitesimal reflection of what actually is. In relation to my own faith, I would say this is quite probably an important facet of prayer; inasmuch as it is communication with the Living God, it may also be considered as an expression of the human self-awareness to align itself with the infinitude that it conceptualises in part. An endeavour, as it were, to reach into the depths of objectivity as far as our own limitations will allow us.
Then of course, comes the big question: why should any of this really matter? If we are given to understand that the transcendent, or God, can only ever be experienced in a highly subjective manner, then why can we not simply feel content to live our lives as we are immediately aware of them?
The answer must come from the idea that the expression of religious faith as a subjective reflection of objective reality is not an endeavour which is conducted in vain. The central theme of the Christian faith is the concept of love, and from this love, the concepts of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and every quality in which we look beyond ourselves and embrace the entirety of humankind. The perception of an all-loving God must not be separate from humanism. We cannot on the one hand say that we believe in a loving Creator if we then in turn say that it does not matter to be concerned about the state of humanity. If in pains we seek out to make ultimacy our concern, then the painful concern for the whole of humankind must be a necessary condition of such seeking.
I feel that this points to the two main laws that Jesus gave humanity: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your strength, and all your mind; and then, love your neighbour as yourself. There are three targets of love in those laws: God, neighbour, and self. The expression of love toward all three is the reality of love itself. Even if, in scientific terms, true altruism cannot exist in the sense that we never realistically do anything out of entire selflessness, then the expression of religious faith does not conflict with this idea. Loving ourselves and being at peace with ourselves, is on equal a level of importance as the same goal for God and humanity. But in a similar vain, our slavery to the instinct of human nature is something spiritual faith assures us we can break in order to express loving selflessness toward all members of the human race, even as God loves them all.
All of this, of course, with the help which comes from above.