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"Science Works. Religion Doesn't" What Does that Even Mean?

Friday, July 16, 2010 3:00 AM Comments (156)

A correspondent of mine, all agog for the New Atheism, spouted the hackneyed slogan “Science Works.  Religion Doesn’t” some time back, along with the claim that “all religions claimn exclusive possession of the truth”.  My reply:

No small part of the problem with this sort of sloganeering is that there is a marked laziness on the part of critics of “religion”. They seem to have only the haziest notion of what they mean by the word. I’m afraid I find a similar haziness in your remarks. What do you mean by “religion”? If you mean “the worship of a deity or deities” where do you put Buddhism in that? Some people would class Confucianism as a religion. I would not, since I think it is basically an ethical code. In the Catholic tradition, “religion” has a very precise meaning. Saying “religion doesn’t work” would, in light of that particular meaning (namely, the practical observance of one’s duties to God and neighbor) be a nonsense saying since “religio” is all *about* doing the works God requires such as clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, etc. Religion has, in that sense, worked extremely hard for centuries. But by the same token, not all of Catholic faith consists of “religio”. The tradition is too big for that. In addition to work, there is contemplation. Indeed, some of the contemplation gave rise to the sciences because the West came to the settled conviction that the universe was knowable because both it and we were the creation of a God who made us intelligent and it intelligible. (Note before jerking knee: I am not speaking here of “Intelligent Design” but of the philosophic matrix from which the sciences arose.)

Of course, I doubt that by “religion” you mean Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy or liturgical duties to God. I suspect you mean something like “Religion doesn’t work at telling us anything about the physical universe”. But then (at least from a Catholic perspective), that’s sort of like saying Jesus would have been a bad bowler. So what? The purpose of the revelation is not to give us scientific information any more than to give us bowling tips. It is to give us information we need in order to come to the knowledge of God. It was the devout Catholic Galileo who reportedly said that the Scriptures tell us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.  That’s not to say that science doesn’t matter to the Catholic faith.  The Catholic Faith says (in flat contradiction to some religious traditions) that the universe matters intensely since God took on a body of matter in this universe of time, space, matter and energy which he himself had made. Because of that, the West adopted the fundamental attitude that Science was a Good Thing because God spoke through creation. If another religious tradition has been adopted, such as gnosticism, our culture would have never developed the sciences at all, because the whole scientific enterprise would have been regarded as a waste of time since (in the gnostic view) only the spiritual matters and the physical world is a snare, a work of an evil god or an illusion.

That’s why it’s such a waste of time making general statements about “religion” vs. science. Which religion do you mean? “Religion” in the sense of “belief system” teaches and says anything and everything. But then, so does “science” depending on when and where you encounter it. “Science” has taught the four humors, steady state theory, geocentrism, the existence of ether, and the existence of Piltdown Man. Rejecting Science tout courte because of this is ignorant and ill-advised. All depends on specificity. And it is at this point the laziness toward defining “religion” tends to kick in and there is much hand-waving as the critic says “All religions make exclusive truth claims and they all say they are the truth.” Actually, even this is not true at all. An ancient pagan could have (and often did) subscribe to any number of cultic observances and felt no obligation to give exclusive allegiance to any of them. Again, we are back to “what do you mean by religion?”

It would be an interesting problem, if people could approach it dispassionately. Unfortunately, so much of the conversation is conducted largely on the level of bumper stickers.

Two final points: it is typical (and telling) that most discussion of “religion” is primarily focused on the ethical. Most people have the notion that “religion” is primarily about the question “How shall we then live?” That is certainly important, particular since, as the past century of horrors (courtesy of a science unhinged from the revelation of Christ) has proven, our species is frequently incapable of even elementary morality. But morality and ethics are ultimately a secondary consideration when it comes to Christian faith. The primary consideration (from a Catholic perspective) is “Who is God and what is our relationship with him?”  “How shall we then live?” seeks to address not the greatest commandment (Love God) but the second greatest (Love your neighbor as yourself).  To be sure, the two commandments are inextricably bound up together, but they are still distinguishable and they are still in their order for a reason.

This leads to my second point, which is that you seem to me to equivocate in your “Science works/Religion doesn’t” scenario. As you admit, science is no guide to morality. And as I freely admit, “religion” (including my own) is no guarantor of moral goodness. People retain free will.  But the fact is, of course, there is a choking cataract of testimony from people in various religious traditions that their religion “works” in the sense of answering the question “How shall we then live?” Obviously, I believe, as a Catholic that my tradition “works” best in this regard, but that’s beside the point here.  For given the extremely hazy definition of the term “religion” that you seem to vaguely have in mind, it seems to me to be rubbish to say “Science works/religion doesn’t” when you acknowledge that Science (and particularly Science wedded to a shallow atheist materialist philosophy) can’t possibly hope to answer questions like “Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Where am I going?  How should I live?”  Indeed, atheistic materialist science often has “worked” only in the sense of saying “You are not a who at all. You are a what: a finely tuned bag of chemicals that comes from chaos, lives by pride and death, and is destined for oblivion.”  Such nihlist philosophy, wedded with technology has made it extremely easy to slaughter vast numbers of people at once and lay waste to large portions of the earth’s surface in a flash.  After achieving this task, all atheist materialist science can offer survivors is the chance to commit suicide in the despairing conviction that all their sufferings are pointless vibrations of raw nerves in a mindless void of time, space, matter and energy.  That may “work” in terms of achieving an end (just as the great scientific advance of Zyklon-B “worked”), but I think throwing over the hope of the Resurrection in favor of such gleaming efficiency is still wanting in logic.

That said, however, I will not go further since, as I say, slogans like “Science works/Religion doesn’t are a total waste of time until critics of religion get a clear and workable definition of what they mean.  In the case of that empty piece of cant, each and every word needs to be carefully defined.  But there is a direct inverse proportion problem at work that makes it sure such a project will never happen.  Namely, those who are most inclined to worship the intellect anre least inclined to use it—and vice versa.  “Science works, religion doesn’t” is a bumper sticker that Intellect Worshippers slap on their cars.  It is not something that anybody who is actually serious about thinking would ever say.

Filed under intellect worship vs. intellect use

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.