Science and Religion portrayed to be in harmony in the Tiffany window Education (1890).
In response to Alhazen’s views covered in my last post, Professor Darrell Arnold penned this thoughtful reply.
You make various points in your post, underlining the value of a religious, or perhaps we should say spiritual, mindset. Your main point seems to be that scientific and religious explanation, or religious life, inhabit different domains and fulfill different needs. And you argue, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I agree with you that religion in some cases serves functions that you allude to. Some people are deeply committed to religion because they see it serving fundamental needs that science doesn’t serve. These are needs for a personal sense of connection with something greater than themselves or for connection to a caring community.
However, religion all too often it doesn’t seem to serve those purposes at all. For Jason, for example, and clearly for many others, religion has largely been oppressive, undermining free-thinking and even empathy. Jason may wish to speak for himself. But his experience of religion doesn’t appear to be like the one you talk about. His experience is that his religion supported racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and more. Further, it didn’t support intellectual development or curiosity. Rather, it claimed a dogmatic solution to every problem. Jason’s experience with religion is similar to that of many others. Now having this experience, are you suggesting that Jason or others like him should nonetheless continue to look within religion for some reserves of truth because those are uniquely provided by religion?
I do not doubt that some — with strong religious impulses — feel a need to continue on some kind of religious quest, and possibly to rely on religion to address some of life’s questions that evade science. Various people seem to me to do this with a spirit of honesty. But I guess I don’t think religion is necessary for these purposes — as the source of connection or meaning, or for building community, or certainly for ethical action.
I do think one of the issues with secularism is that it often does not do a very effective job of helping to meet some of the needs that religion does meet for some — of providing a sense of purpose, or a sense of belonging within the world, or a sense of community. This failure means that some secularists retreat from their communities and only are concerned about taking care of themselves. This doesn’t seem to have afflicted Jason. But in any case, I don’t agree that religion is the only way to address those failures. And in fact, many forms of religious life don’t solve but exacerbate the very problems mentioned. Think of the high incidence of suicide among transgender and homosexual religious youth.
Looking at the demographics of global population growth, I don’t expect the eclipse of religion anytime soon. So I hope that religions more seriously take up the needs that you mention than they now do and that they play a less adversarial role with science. If there are two domains, religion, too, needs to respect the one of science.
Unfortunately, a look at demographics doesn’t lead me to think that religion will generally develop in these ways. Rather, it will develop much more in alignment with the way that opponents of religion see it working. It will all too often continue to offer simplistic dogmatic answers to questions scientific and non-scientific. It will all too often continue to defend bigotry, homophobia, and xenophobia in the name of God and truth. It will offer insular communities. For that, I’ve little hope that the world will become increasingly secular, with populations of people with mindsets apparently similar to Jason’s, such as we find in Scandinavia. That’s a pity because it is, on the whole, those nations that have the most social forms of political and economic development and that have taken up climate change and environmental concerns seriously.
I’m with William James that religion meets a unique need for some, one not met by science. These tolerant forms of non-dogmatic religion will surely play a role for many in our immediate future as well. But many of the most humane people I have known have found no need for the kind of experience of the transcendent that James talks about. And they’ve no need for the kind of malformed community that religions all too often form.
For some of those, forms of community are lacking. Secularists need to do more to facilitate such forms of community and to emphasize possibilities for collective action in organizations like the Sierra Club or other such groups. The world we also be a better place if more people did what John does and tried to write clearly and approachably about questions of meaning from a secular perspective, so that those who find that religion does not resonate with them have some non-religious insights to draw on — the way apparently Jason has — in ways that give them a greater sense of a meaningful life. One of the most regrettable realities is that when people are going through individual crises, it is often fundamentalist religions that are first available to offer them (thoughtless) answers and entry into (malformed) communities.
To get back to your baby/bathwater analogy — if an analogy of that sort is appropriate, I’m not sure how much of religion is in the bathwater. Maybe meaning and value beyond instrumentalist reason are. But this, it seems, can be found in various ways.