How science and religion are one

Like faith in God, faith in scientists has its roots in the Hebrew Bible

By Steve Fuller, July 1, 2010

Today, relatively few scientists - or even scientifically minded people - are inclined to cite a religious basis for their views. Yet the modern world's commitment to science has its roots in the Bible and specifically in the story of Abraham.

Imagine an extra-terrestrial explorer who learned that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is the dominant scientific account of life on Earth. ET would probably infer, in keeping with the theory, that humans hold in highest esteem knowledge that promotes sustainable lifestyles for both themselves and the other life-forms with which they share the planet. But ET would be dead wrong. We would not be where we are today - for both better and worse- if Darwin adequately explained the human condition.

We most esteem knowledge that aspires to a unified understanding of everything. Consider the march of mathematical physics as the gold standard not only of science but of human achievement in general over the past 400 years. It has produced the incredibly wide-ranging yet exact theories associated with Newton and Einstein, while periodically jeopardising the long-term survival of Homo sapiens in terms ranging from ecological degradation to nuclear annihilation. And all too often the same people have been responsible for both the achievements and the risks.

Our perverse approach to knowledge may be understood by turning to the peculiar combination of faith and boldness that characterised Abraham. In old age, Abraham heard God's call to uproot his family to settle in a foreign land where he fathered a child whom God then demanded as sacrifice until seemingly reversing his decision at the last minute. Thus, Abraham became the first patriarch, a title he enjoys in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

While all religions contain creation stories that can be easily interpreted as making proto-scientific claims, the story of Abraham epitomises the unique relationship between God and humanity that explains the peculiar course that science has taken.

Humanity, in this relationship, is not simply a part of nature but what nature is ultimately all about. We are not only divinely created but also created in the image of God. This allows, at least in principle, direct communication between God and humans, which has served to ground even secular ideas of language as signifying our species' privilege in nature.

The fact that Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions are defined as being "of the book" is not trivial. To appreciate the revolutionary 17th-century idea that nature is a book that God wrote mathematically one needs to suppose that God's language is one that humans are specially equipped to decipher. The incredible fecundity of this idea for the history of science - most recently in terms of "cracking the genetic code" - suggests that there is something literally true about it.

But, at the same time, such linguistic creativity also means that we mere humans, like Adam, can get things horribly wrong. The history of modern science is full of such grievous errors - but also of recovery from them. Now, nearly a century on, it is easy to forget the soul-searching that followed the First World War, when the Kaiser had predicted that Germany's scientific superiority would ensure its military success. The result was the most devastating war the world had yet seen, courtesy of such innovations as aerial bombing and chemical gas.

Yet, in the end, while Germany paid dearly, science went forward. Some may argue that Germany paid too much and science was let off too easily. What is striking is that faith in science always manages to trump its destructive manifestations. The Second World War is an even more obvious case in point. ET would marvel at the diminishing impression on public attitudes of that conflict in relation to the pursuit of bio-engineering and nuclear power.

None of this should discourage our faith in science as the vanguard of human achievement. However, if we are to continue in this faith with the necessary responsibility, it is important to appreciate its distinctiveness - as well as its source, which is the sense of perseverance in the face of adversity that has been so characteristic of Abraham and his followers. In this respect, the lesson for ET is that the scientific world-view marks not a break from, but an extension of the religious world-view.

Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His thesis is developed in his new book, ‘Science: The Art of Living’ (Acumen).

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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