By Anthony Egan SJ
Let us consider today a community, once heavily persecuted but now the establishment; a community of contemplation and action on behalf of humanity, driven by flashes of insight backed up by systematic hard work; a community that has sought the good – and sometimes made terrible mistakes.
No, not Christians or any other faith, but scientists.
The scientific method – hypothesis, experimentation, verification etc. – has become the default way of generating knowledge and new technologies.
Despite unfortunate by-products like nuclear weapons, science has made our world a better, safer place overall. Many political observers even note that it may be that the existence of nukes prevented a third world war. Scientific advances in medicine, even in the poorest countries, has dramatically reduced infant mortality, eliminated killer diseases like smallpox and drastically limited the lethality of others.
Of course there have been unintended consequences: rapidly rising population and degradation of the environment by pollution-inducing technologies causing climate change. Yet here too, the scientific method’s inbuilt commitment to revisiting hypotheses and self-correction have offered ways to address these crises.
So why do many religious communities resist science or treat it with suspicion?
First there is the claim that scientist are ‘playing God’, manipulating the natural world in their own image. But everyone plays God: every time one takes a headache tablet, goes for a winter flu jab, plants crops in an area where they don’t grow naturally, to name but a few. If we are to be consistent we should do nothing: become migratory hunter-gatherers. And die young and hungry.
Second, there is the claim that science has gone too far, that it is out of control. Whose control? And by what criteria should we judge too far? Scientists set controls. No respectable research is done these days without ethics clearances, the latter obtained after systematic, careful and often tedious review by peers and representatives of the wider community, subject to state and international laws.
Third, one hears that science is anti-religion, Godless. This is partly true: though many scientists have personal religious beliefs, the scientific method holds to no religious creed because its primary concern is exploration of the natural, material world. Many scientists, including believing scientists, object to religious people giving supernatural ‘answers’ to questions that short-circuit or deny research-based evidence.
I don’t blame them. We in the religious community need to look to our theologies to see what has gone wrong. Science blossomed in medieval Muslim cultures and in many eras of Christian Europe. It only broke down (and then only in parts) when religion lost its political dominance. Secular governance and the scientific method fed off each other. Religions struggled to come to terms with this. Fundamentalism is its tragic result.
Instead of retreating into condemnations of science, religions need to engage with science and with their own theologies. On the latter we should ask ourselves how far our doctrines are framed in pre-scientific language and need updating or revision.
I honestly don’t see how we can avoid this if we are to survive in the Third Millennium.