Science vs. Religion: Mending the Great Schism
This presentation aims to illustrate that science and religion are fully compatible with one another—that the friction we see between them is simply a misunderstanding of their true relationship . . . which implies, of course, that they actually do have a relationship. But is this true? Are science and religion related to each other in some way . . . in any way at all?
I contend that the answer is yes and that their relationship is much closer than you might think, even if many people among the traditional faiths are failing to recognize this.
Let us begin by noting a similarity between them, that both science and religion seem to be in the explanation business. Do you agree? In my opinion, both of them seem intent on telling us things that are true about the world.
But, as I’m sure you’re well aware, sometimes they disagree with each other, which is no doubt why our intellectual heavies have been weighing in on this dispute for quite some time.
Einstein is saying that scientific truth-seeking is akin to religion . . . that without one, you really don’t have the other in any quality sense.
Even the Pope mirrors his sentiments.
The Pope is saying that science and religion can team up to add value to each other, suggesting that the two together are better than either one alone.
And who doesn’t love Ray Bradbury?
However, as we’re about to see, the explanation business has led to people taking sides.
Mr. Krutch is clearly favoring science over religion as offering the more truthful set of explanations . . . and so, too, is Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Now, as I was looking for quotes from the opposite perspective, and by that I mean quotes favoring religion over science, I met with a curious circumstance; I did not find any that were fully committal. All of them were weak challenges to specific scientific claims, like evolution, global warming, and carbon dating. In fact, the best I could find were statements like the ones we just saw from Einstein, the Pope, and Ray Bradbury, in which each of them merely granted some legitimate ground to religion.
This one-sided nature to the quotes is interesting to me: religion is denied, sometimes harshly, but science never gets entirely dismissed. . . . But really, is this so surprising, because who can outright deny all of science? Just look at the technology surrounding us . . . like the device you're reading this on.
Which brings me to the current state of the friction between the two. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a popular, modern-day astrophysicist you might recognize.
And try this one.
Hostage negotiations? Fighting? . . . Clearly, the rhetoric can get heated.
Thus, at this point, I’m going to change tack. My plan is to develop an example using the evolution of language that I believe will help to explain what has actually happened to the concept of religion over the centuries. We begin by discussing the term etymology.
Etymology is the study of words. In particular, we’re going to be considering that every word has a point of entry into a vocabulary, and that once a word arrives, its meaning can change over time. But before we go on, let’s take a step back and ask a fundamental question: What is a word?
Answer: A word is a packet of meaning . . . a symbol in the mind.
Now, we all know what it’s like to have words rattling around in our heads and flowing into our ears and spilling out our mouths . . . but consider this, what would it be like to be missing just one of these words?
You may have heard this, that the native Inuit language has fifty words for the types of snow, but not a single word for snow in general. Likewise, the Indigenous people of Tasmania have a word for every type of tree in their environment, but not a single word that just means tree.
Why is this important? What’s the significance of missing a general word for snow or tree?
Well, it means that these cultures had yet to sort through the complexities of their world and lump its features into categories. Just compare that to the layers-deep Biological Classifications of our modern scientists.
"Kids prefer candy over fried green spinach" -- it’s a handy mnemonic device to help us remember the lengthy heirarchy: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.
It was a 4th century BC Greek philosopher, named Aristotle, who published the first known classification of everything whatsoever. He gave us the words genus and species.
But make no mistake, these two words did not mean exactly what they mean today. Aristotle merely introduced them. I’ll be returning to them shortly.
Which leads me to the next process of etymology: after words arrive, their meanings can change.
Let’s look at the evolution of the word man.
"Wife-man is Old English for woman. And it just so happens that weapon-man dropped the weapon to become simply man. Therefore, man comes in two genders: a wife-man and a weapon-man." --Sunrise Over Disney (p. 317)
As you can see, the word man meant human . . . and sometimes it’s still used that way today.
Here’s another example, this time from the female-side of things.
"Girl — A child or animal of either gender; something worthless. A knave girl is a young male. A gay girl is a young female." --Sunrise Over Disney (p. 318)
Arriving in the 13th century, the word girl referred equally to animals and children, both entities being less valuable than a human adult (from the adults' point of view).
But then, by the 1530s, the female gender had taken sole ownership of the word girl, which sadly persisted in carrying its "something worthless" connotation; by 1668, girl was slang for a female domestic laborer, and in the 1700s, it was slang for a prostitute.
Let’s turn now to the evolution of a few words that have religious ties.
Goodbye: This is not a religious word, is it? Well, not anymore. But it began as "God be with you."
And what about holidays? This too is a secular word now (as in the "4th of July Holiday"), but it began as "holy days."
Now, let’s take a look at the word Catholic. Certainly this one is religious, correct?
"It seems the Christian references are hard to avoid [as in goodbye and holidays] . . . unless, of course, you pick a clever word like Catholic. . . . Catholic meant universal in early Greek, and as you may know, the early Christians were a fragmented group, eventually reigned in under a universal orthodoxy . . . and the term universal, or Catholic, just happened to stick." --Sunrise Over Disney (p. 315)
Hmm . . . So the term Catholic didn’t really begin with a religious connection at all.
And things just get more interesting from here.
Next, we have the word religion itself.
Early European explorers found that the native populations they encountered had no concept of religion, despite the fact that these natives spent much of their time worshipping gods and performing elaborate rituals. . . . Of course they had no concept of religion! . . . In the world of these natives, there was only one religion, and that was their own. Why would they create a word—a category—for something they had only one of. It would be like inventing the word tree in a world that has only Sugar Maples in it. Or recall the Eskimos; they still didn’t have a word for snow, even though they had 50 varieties of the stuff. Therefore, the concept of religion was a meaningless, incomprehensible abstraction to them. By contrast, though, the European explorers came from a land of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others. It made perfect sense for them to have a catch-all term when referring to belief systems in general.
It’s at this point that I give you the specific definition of religion I'm using in this presentation: it is "any belief system in general." And when I say this, I mean that there are as many religions in the world as there are people in the world, because everyone, no matter what faith they may profess to be, has a unique belief system when you actually drill down into the details. Therefore, my definition of religion includes every variation of every formal and informal religion, including every anti-religion.
And returning to etymology, the word religion had an obligingly abstract early meaning. It developed from a Latin word, religare, which meant simply "to bind or to tie."
Now, let’s turn to the human soul. It might surprise you to know that the word soul had a very literal meaning around biblical times, because the people of that time were, themselves, very literal in their thinking. And, as one might guess, any language is a reflection of the people using it. These people could attach a profound spiritual significance to the most mundane of activities. Case in point, the word soul meant nothing more than "breath." So, think about it: when a person died long ago, it was their breath that left their body, not some abstract soul. The halting of breath was the obvious outward sign that a major change had occurred, a change we now know as death. The word soul has simply evolved to carry forward the spiritual significance that was once associated with that equally significant loss of breath.
And best of all . . .
For those of you who don’t know, Yahweh (written YHVH) is the most sacred word for God in Judaism. But it, too, began with a very simple meaning, and that meaning was "I am."
Now, I find it curious that the most exalted word for God (in the first religion approaching monotheism) derives from an archaic form of the verb "to be": hawah. It’s a mere declaration of an individual’s existence, and to me it’s a clue that this was the time in our history when humans were experiencing their first glimmers of self-awareness. Again, these people of the Old Testament Times were very literal, because they had yet to advance to being anything but.
Now, we move to the evolution of another word: motion.
Remember Aristotle: the creator of the words genus and species? Well, he was famous for something else, too. Aristotle explained how the world works, and his ideas made good sense to the people of his time, just as they would make good sense to a four year old today.
"Aristotle explained that the world is built in layers. The bottom layer is the ground—the earth. The next layer is the water of the oceans, lakes, and streams. Then comes the air. And finally, above all three, comes fire, most notably the sun. Each layer has its proper position among the four and is constantly striving to get there: fire reaches for the sky; air climbs through the water; streams seek the valleys; and rocks always return to the ground when thrown.
Did you notice my careful choice of words? The fire reaches, the bubbles climb, the streams seek, and the rocks return. Each of these actions is a human thing to do: It is people who reach, climb, seek, and return. People do these things on purpose. And so did Aristotle’s fire, air, water, and earth. They behaved deliberately, just like people.
Here’s the idea of Aristotle’s time that lies dead and buried in history, merely echoed within the development of today’s children. The people of Aristotle’s time believed that everything which could move or change was alive. Stars, clouds, and boats were just as alive as animals and people. All of these objects had a life . . . a spirit . . . guiding them. For instance, it was the spirit in the tiny acorn that swelled it into a mighty oak tree, and it was this same spirit that changed the color of its leaves each year before casting them away. If an oak tree dropped an acorn on your head, it was trying to tell you something.
It sounds crazy, I know. But there’s a good reason the people of Aristotle’s day thought this way. The reason has to do with words. Words help us to make connections in our minds . . . and for what it meant to be alive in the time of Aristotle, there were no distinct words to separate the concepts of life, movement, and change. All three ideas were helplessly wrapped together into the meaning of a single word: motion." --Sunrise Over Disney (pp. 412-414)
I know it’s probably impossible for us to imagine what thinking and communicating would be like in a world where things that are alive and things that change simply number among those things that are in motion. But let’s give it a half-hearted try.
Instead of saying "Ahh, it’s good to be alive," say "Mm, it’s good to be in motion." Or, instead of saying "the only constant in the world is change," try saying "the only constant in the world is motion." Neither phrase is likely to resonate in modern ears.
Recall again that Aristotle gave us the words genus and species, both of which today refer to living things. However, in Aristotle’s time, everything was alive, so those two terms could be applied equally to anything that fit a certain relationship. For instance, it would have been nothing unusual to say that a house is a species of the genus building. So, as you can see, the meanings of genus and species didn’t really change all that much over time. Rather, the two words simply adhered to a narrowing definition of what it meant to be alive.
But then, about two thousand years after Aristotle, the concept of motion began to split.
"The grottoes of Saint-Germain existed in France about 400 years ago. They were built into the tall face of a terraced garden along the Seine River. The grottoes were lit by torches and connected underground by vaulted galleries.
King Henry IV commissioned a skilled fountaineer to pipe gravity-fed water into the grottoes and use it to power sculptures. These sculptures were extraordinary: they played music on mechanical instruments; they simulated the sounds of birds and people; and most remarkably, they moved. One bronze statue, named Perseus, descended from the ceiling to slay a dragon rising from the pool. And some of the figures were activated by hidden plates on the floor . . . like the bathing Diana, who hid her nudity behind rose bushes when visitors approached.
These grottoes existed in the 1600s—a time when some people were growing restless with the ideas of Aristotle. The concept of motion was beginning its fateful split from the concepts of life and change. The split was far from clean, however. You see, the animal- and human-looking forms within the grottoes were a curious mix of creature and machine. On the one hand, they could move and make noise, but on the other, they were obviously bronze and man made. How were these animated figures different from real animals and people? It was a question puzzling thinkers of the time, as more and more machines of all types appeared throughout Europe to do the work of men. The parallels between machines and creatures led to a logical conclusion, which proved to be an awkward early step toward separating living and non-living things, because the man pictured above classified animals among the non-living.
To Descartes, animals were simply hydraulic machines, driven by pull-cords, piping, valves, and ventricles. The screams from the animals on his dissection table were no different from the hisses and whistles of the water-driven birds in the grottoes. It would take time to weed out the distinctions between living and nonliving things." --Sunrise Over Disney (pp. 417-420)
In summary, here’s what happened to the concept of motion.
In the beginning, a single word meant life, movement, and change, such that there was no distinguishing between them. But now, it’s as if motion is the flag of Italy, and we can at last see it divided into its three constituent color spaces: red, green, and blue. They still add up to the same thing—the flag of Italy, or that original concept of motion—yet each of them has its own unique look. (Please note that the white of the flag is rendered by combining red, green, and blue light, like with a projection television.)
Now, just as the realm of motion was undergoing this split from one to three, so too was the realm of religion.
A few more quotes will help here.
Note that Mr. Diderot is making a connection between religion and philosophy.
Again, a relationship is being drawn here between religion and philosophy, as if religion actually turned into philosophy. . . . But wait . . .
Okay, so now we have a person comparing science and art to religion. Where did philosophy go?
And now Goethe is going so far as to say that science and art are the defining attributes of someone with religion. Again, where’s the philosophy? What happened to "religion ending and philosophy beginning?"
Well, strangely enough, the explanation for all of this has to do with an understanding of experts.
"In the 300s BC, the Greek thinker, Aristotle, struggled to explain the movements of the heavenly bodies. He did it, though. And here’s how. He devised a system of 56 transparent spherical shells for the heavenly bodies to ride upon. These shells rotated like nested soap bubbles, with the earth on the innermost sphere. The stars rode together on the outermost one, while the rest of the spheres explained the complicated motions of the sun, the moon, and the five known planets of the time. This theory of the universe prevailed until the 1500s AD.
"And now I’m going to tell you a name you maybe haven’t heard before: Aristarchus. Aristarchus was another Greek astronomer, and he lived in the century following Aristotle. Aristarchus proposed an alternative design for the universe, one that did away with the complicated spherical shells of Aristotle. But Aristarchus’s idea was rejected. You see, his theory suggested that the earth was in motion as a satellite of the sun. Outrageous! Everyone knew the earth didn’t move—you could feel it was standing still.
But Aristarchus was right. . . . Or was he? How do we really know the earth travels around the sun? Certainly our senses don’t confirm an earth racing through space at thousands of miles per hour and spinning like a top on its own axis. So why do we believe it?
The answer is experts. Experts are the people we rely upon to validate or refute new ideas. The experts in Aristarchus’s day favored Aristotle’s theory. It would take nearly two thousand years before pioneers like Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would daringly challenge the conventional wisdom of the experts and once again propose Aristarchus’s hypothesis.
So, just who were these experts rejecting the new theory? Why didn’t they consider the four men I just mentioned as experts of science alongside themselves?
The answer is simple: there was no such thing as an "expert of science." The established panel of experts came from a single discipline, unable to recognize that it was in the process of dividing into three separate fields of study—Science, Philosophy, and Art. To these experts of old, all three topics were intertwined under a single heading: that of Religion.
Now, here’s the key. Religion dictated that rain and a good harvest were rewards for good behavior, inspiring rituals of music, dance, chant, and sacrifice. Likewise, Religion dictated that famine and disease were punishments for bad behavior, inspiring more rituals of music, dance, chant, and sacrifice. The Science of the weather . . . the Philosophy of good and bad behavior . . . and the Art of rituals were all seamlessly fused. In fact, well into the 1800s, the human vocabulary continued to muddy the distinctions, calling Science both "natural philosophy" and "industrial art."
People did not see the transition happening before their very eyes; they did not see their panel of experts dividing into three disciplines.
The splitting of the panel inaugurated the long and painful struggle between Religion and Science, each of them vying for the chair of the presumed one-expert panel. Religion suffered most, losing control over governments and forcing itself into the seat with Philosophy. Poor Art wasn’t even considered a contender.
The experts of Science still dominate the panel. It is they who tell us the earth revolves around the sun, and we believe them because they supply a wealth of convincing evidence to support the claim." --Sunrise Over Disney (pp. 384-386)
So, here’s what I’m saying: the concept of religion is like the concept of motion; greater human understanding has transcended the one and turned it into three.
However, this flag analogy is not powerful enough. We need one that gives us better insights.
Let’s try this. Here is the worldview of a newborn baby, or of any creature that is not self-aware.
The inner mind-space is dark, like this image; the creature has no idea it’s alive. Now, think what this means. It means that the eventual light coming to this picture can’t even be conceived of. Because, if you’ve never seen the light, then how can you possibly know you’re staring into darkness. You can’t. You simply don’t know that sight is a possibility.
But light is on the way . . . or shall I say, "Let there be light."
The first glimmers of self-awareness coincide with the birth of the world’s earliest major religions (of the non-pagan sort), spanning the time frame between 2000 BC and 500 BC in the eastern hemisphere. These religions were Judaism in the Middle East, Hinduism in Central Asia, Buddhism in India, and Confucianism in China, with each of them having its own stories of awakening . . . like Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which opened their eyes to the fact they were naked . . . and like the word "Buddha," which was a title, not a name, meaning “one who is awake,” as in, having “woken up to reality.” Self-awareness means awakening to the sound of your inner voice.
In a modern child, this awakening is marked by the Terrible Twos, but just a few thousand years ago, it was the state-of-the-art in intellect for human adults.
And who knew things could get even brighter still? If you’ve never seen anything but dim light, how can you be sure that brighter light is even possible? Again, you can’t.
So here’s where things get interesting. As more light arrives, it is clearly advancing through a dark medium. This is a huge leap in perception, and here’s how we can interpret it.
Humans have been standing at the end of a pier, staring down at the water on a dark night, with no ability to see below the water’s surface. In this analogy, the water and darkness are hiding the truth from view, and humans have no idea there are even truths to be found there. They are merely programmed to be looking, as the "meaning machines" that they are.
But then, a crescent moon appears and sheds light on the water; our human friend can now see into a shallow region below him. Self-awareness has arrived, and religions step in to offer explanations for the complicated world people find.
Again, these onlookers don’t know that more light is coming.
Yet, this is exactly their future. The waxing moon casts its light ever deeper, revealing a host of new insights, beginning around 1500 to 1600 AD.
So, let’s summarize. While Religions ruled, there was only a dull gray region near the surface . . . and why would anyone assume there were any other regions to be found at all? But now, with greater illumination in the upper region, and with the mirky region slipping lower, it becomes obvious that we’re actually advancing into a darkened region that extends beyond. We’ve gone from knowing one region to knowing three.
And here’s the beauty of the analogy.
If your definition of Religion is narrow . . . meaning it only belongs to the murky region that initially brought it about, then it’s easy to argue that Science forced Religion downward to stay in the gray region, now thought of as Philosophy.
But, if your definition of Religion is a little wider . . . meaning that it is meant to include the entire region of light, no matter how bright that region becomes, then Religion should include both Science and Philosophy.
But there’s one more interpretation, and I believe it's more accurate. It requires that you consider paganism as a Religion, and if you’re willing to do that, then the dark region we’re calling Art was the basis for all "understanding" among our pre-conscious ancestors. Art was their religion. (And please note that subsequent religions didn’t deny Art either. Just look at the great temples and cathedrals of the world and the artwork that adorns them.)
Religion, therefore, should embrace every truth to be found, whether seen or unseen. The problem with our conventional religions is that they sometimes deny "seen" truths in favor of "unseen" ones.
But don’t take my word for it. . . . Consider this.
Just who were the people who drove Science into the territory of Religion in the first place? . . . And this is a classic irony. It turns out they were the people with the education, wealth, and time to tinker (if they were so inclined). They often came from the clergy itself. . . . This really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Here’s a piece of artwork from the 13th century AD, which depicts God creating the universe using geometric and harmonic principles. To seek such principles was to seek and worship God. Therefore, for most medieval scholars, such knowledge was a direct link to the divine.
Intellectual pursuits, then, were often religiously charged. Meaning that inquiry was not a heresy.
Well . . . until it was.
Because the results could be quite troublesome.
Here’s a fun fact: Wikipedia has a webpage that lists the names of 236 Roman Catholic clerics who, over the centuries, have advanced various fields of study . . . and that’s just among that group of Catholics.
So, what I’m saying is, that in many cases, it was the tireless, relentless truth-seeking of the faithful that brought on the splintering of Religion. And this is my argument for why the friction between Science and Religion is a simple misunderstanding . . . it’s because Science, Philosophy, and Art are actually meant to be the subcategories of Religion itself. When Religion denies any piece of hard science, or any piece of luminous philosophy, or any piece of art at all, it denies a piece of itself—which I contend is a patently foolish thing to do.
And if that’s not convincing for you, then how about this? If Religion is truly the quest for ultimate meaning, then shouldn’t it want all of the available information . . . the information that Science, Philosophy, and Art have to offer? I believe it should.
So, here’s my message to the wayward faithful: Religion . . . through its science, philosophy, and art . . . built this luxury cruiseliner. But if those faithful don’t soon climb aboard, they’ll be drowned in a rising sea of knowledge.
Let’s turn now to a protestant named John Bascom.
John Bascom was a philosopher and clergyman who served as the president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1874 to 1887. He was also a professor of mental and moral philosophy, publishing a number of books during his career.
One such book was his 1871 publication, Science, Philosophy and Religion. The title was a perfect example of the intellectual wrestling match between the experts, coping with their split from a one- to three-member panel. I suspect, however, that the long-standing dispute will eventually resolve itself peacefully with a simple and agreeable change to the panel’s letterhead: Religion will become the name for the organization; and Science, Philosophy, and Art will become the Board of Directors. Even Bascom’s own words hint at this underlying truth. On page 292 he writes:
I’d like to close now with two more quotes, which I believe capture the optimism I feel toward the future of religion . . . a future I believe we’ve been marching toward for a long time.
For a summary graphic, please click here and scroll to the second page.
If this explanation of the relationship between science and religion rings true for you, I hope you'll share it with others.
- L.N. Smith
Titles from L.N. Smith Publishing
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by Rob Flanigan
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Sunrise Over Disney
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The Redesign of Tomorrowland
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Grand Unification and
The New Look of the Atom
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