Revaluing the Values of Science, Religion, and Education

The idea that science and religion are enemies is a most unfortunate and misleading result of some of what happened during the widespread discussion of evolutionary theory. There were leading scientists who opposed Darwin’s theory, and there were leading churchmen who sided with them. On the whole, as scientific opposition faded, so did that of the mainstream churches.

However, there was considerable popular resistance to this acceptance, and many who refused to accept the idea that the human species had evolved from nonhuman ancestors appealed to the Bible as giving a different picture. Contemporary Fundamentalism owes its form and power to this controversy, and although the leadership of the major Protestant denominations refused to oppose the scientific findings, there were break-offs of opponents. Also, what had been fringe groups became much stronger as popular resistance to the new understanding found a home.

A biology teacher in Tennessee taught Darwin’s doctrine and was prosecuted by the state. This trial has often been interpreted as a battle between science and religion, specifically Christianity. The truth is that the biology teacher was an active Methodist layman encouraged by his church to teach the truth as he saw it. I have been a part of Protestant churches for 90 years, chiefly Southern Methodist, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and American Baptist. I have yet to meet anyone who spoke up about her or his opposition to science. Of course, I have read about people who hold that we Christians should take as authoritative the statements of the Bible that differ from what scientists teach. I am not denying the existence of opposition to science that appeals to the inerrancy of the Bible. But to take that minority voice — expressing popular rejection of understanding humans as a species of animals — as representing “religion” in general, is deeply offensive to many religious people, including me.

Sadly, the university culture is deeply influenced by this myth of the warfare between science and religion and very proud of the victory of science. It typically harks back to resistance to changing from a geocentric cosmology to a heliocentric one. Specifically, it focuses on Galileo’s difficulty with the church. The Vatican had its own scientists, and these refused to look at the moon through a telescope. They opposed Galileo, and Galileo was put under house arrest for erroneous teaching.

But viewing this as a conflict between science and religion is misleading. Throughout the Medieval periodm and still at the time of Galileo, most scientists looked to Aristotle as their authority. Aristotle taught that the heavenly bodies had a perfection lacking on the Earth. Galileo wanted scientists to see that this is not the case. It is quite correct that the Pope supported what he took to be the best science of his time. For that, he (I do not think religion in general) might be criticized. But there is nothing in the Bible to support the Aristotelian doctrine that Galileo threatened.

Now, the Biblical writers certainly did reflect the Earth-centered cosmology that was virtually universal until modern times. The long process of decentering the Earth and reducing it to a minor planet circling a minor star in a minor galaxy certainly affects us at the level of our religious self-understanding. What is important, I think, to accurately gauge the relation of science and religion in the West, is to recognize that through the centuries when the church could have intervened in the development of a radically new cosmology, it did not do so. No scientist was punished for his scientific work.

This is not because the church was wonderfully tolerant. Philosophical and theological challenges were often violently opposed. Thousands of women were slaughtered as witches. My point is that in a context of church violence against those accused of wrong thinking, no one was killed for teaching the new science. The evidence suggests that the church respected science and allowed profound challenges to the given worldview to take place when it was promoted by science.

Prior to Darwin both church and science accepted a dualist approach. On the theological side, Christians spoke of two ways in which God is revealed. One is the Bible, God’s word. The other is through nature, God’s creation. The founder of my denomination, the Methodist, provided his followers with introductions to science to enable them to appreciate the revelation of God in nature. On the secular side, the philosophy of Descartes was very widely accepted. He taught that there is, on the one side, a completely material and mechanical nature. And there is, on the other side, a completely spiritual human soul.

Now, having minimized any opposition between Christian leaders and science, I want to identify a controversy that is relevant to our current relationship. As I have said, Descartes taught us to view nature as matter in motion. Above all, there is nothing purposeful about it. No purpose was involved in its coming into existence, and neither it, nor any of its parts, including animals, behave purposefully. Everything is explained as machine-like or clockwork.

When Darwin showed that we humans are part of nature, there were two options. One could say that humans are also totally constituted by matter in motion and our behavior is explained mechanistically. Or one could say that, we now know that there is more to nature than Descartes recognized. We know that we have purposes and that these affect our behavior. We can now recognize that animals also have purposes that affect their behavior. This second option calls for re-thinking the natural world as a whole, so that our inclusion within it can make sense.

There were scientists who supported this second option, but, if we speak of science as a whole, we have to say that it did not take on the task of rethinking nature and how to explain it. As expressed in the great majority of courses in science in modern secular universities, it followed the first option. The scientific study of human beings employs the same assumptions and methods as science developed in the study of what it understood to be purposeless nature.

When this is challenged, it is generally justified by appeal to Kant. For Kant mechanistic science is the only way to pursue the collection of accurate information, whether about human beings or about the rest of nature. Kant, of course, thought that, in addition to collecting factual information, we need to reflect extensively and intensively on practical matters. Here, quite different questions are asked, and a quite different method is employed. For Kant, this is of at least equal importance with expanding factual knowledge.

Most universities still give a nod to practical questions. The humanities can discuss meaning and purpose, even if these are not factual matters. The professional schools attached to universities certainly deal with practical questions. But the heart of the great universities today is devotion to value-free research. There is very little attention given to values or moral decisions or questions of meaning. The role of the humanities is fading.

My argument is not with science. Groups of scientists often give creative leadership to society because of what they have learned. The ecological movement has that name because it was led by ecologists who in the 1960s had become deeply disturbed about what is happening to the ecosystems they studied. Climate scientists have given much the same kind of leadership more recently. It is clear that many scientists are not value free. They care about what happens to the world. But many scientists use rhetoric that tends to support the idea that “value-free” work is the best and most important. What is missing is a recognition that education should not be value free at all. It should be oriented to improving the world as a whole.

So, what is my criticism?  It is that many scientists accept the world view long associated with science, that everything can be explained without involving values, that values don’t really matter and can be left out of education without loss. Educators have accepted this perspective, which is not inherent in science and is disastrous in schooling as a whole. When values are not thought about, the one value that comes to the fore is money. Today, people seek schooling in order to compete in a capitalist society. Nations support schooling so that they can compete in a capitalist world.

I am voicing a criticism from the perspective of humanists and religious communities in general. Many scientists are humanists or members of such communities. It is not a criticism of science except that the neglect of values is often justified by appeal to the worldview with which science has associated itself, a worldview that thinks everything can be explained without any reference to values.

Now my major focus in this post is on a criticism of religion. Just as I do not think that science as such requires the mechanistic worldview that now dominates the university, so also I do not believe that religion as such necessarily has the characteristics of which I will accuse it. But the word “religious” points in this direction, and all too many religious people and communities exemplify it.

One can say of human beings generally that some of their beliefs and practices and attitudes are formed uncritically and strongly resist criticism. For example, most of us think that our own nation and its culture are the norm by which others are properly judged. We may say that this is a religious attitude toward our nation, and indeed I would say that nationalism is the real religion of many people.

However, the Abrahamic traditions have taught that there is a higher authority than national culture. This may lead to some criticism of nationalism, but it often is entangled with nationalism. It can intensify the sense that our culture is best, it is “of God.” Others, we tend to think, are not only inferior, they are also disloyal to God. Religion can intensify this dangerous aspect of human nature. In the United States we call it American exceptionalism. By giving sacred status to our beliefs and actions, we put them beyond criticism.

All of us cling to what we have learned and resist significant change. Information that requires reordering our priorities is unwelcome. When we identify our existing beliefs as religious, we often intend to justify our resistance, making it still more difficult to adjust to changing situations.

Further, religious beliefs often involve explanations that cannot stand up to close examination. They posit forces or agents whose reality is highly dubious. They lead to expectations that are rarely fulfilled. They orient people to another world rather than this one. The more religiously these beliefs are held, the more thought is distorted, and the less relevant one’s actions will be to the real needs of the world.

After having opposed the idea that science and religion have been enemies, I have now shown how, in fact, the positions of many scientists and of many religious people do clash. Scientists often deny that values play an important role in the world and discourage attention to them. Religious people often cling to beliefs and practices that are false and damaging, and resist criticism in the name of their religion. These scientists and these religious people do clash.

As we celebrate Earth Day and long to strengthen the forces that work for a sustainable and enjoyable world, we must reject both this kind of science and this kind of religion. We need a science that recognizes the great need for people to value the natural world and commit themselves to preserving and renewing the home they have so deeply damaged. That requires the serious acknowledgment that values are critically important explanations of how people behave and what is necessary for our healthy survival. Also, we need a religion that calls for constant self-criticism as well as the same commitment to preserving and renewing our earthly home.

Some believe that science as such is bound up with the mechanistic worldview that makes commitment of this kind meaningless. Some believe that to be religious is inherently to fail to be self-critical about one’s beliefs. If we choose to use language in that way, then we need to move beyond what we now call both science and religion.

I believe, however, that all we need is to reflect more deeply on science and religion. Science claims to be open to evidence and to adjust itself to what that evidence supports. I do not believe that scientific research supports the seventeenth-century worldview with which science still often identifies itself. That world view was developed before we knew about either quantum or relativity theory, and it does not fit well with either. The evidence again and again is that animals and plants and cells and molecules and genes and quanta do not function like machines. It is past time for change. I believe the resistance to change shows that the clinging of so many in the academy to this outdated worldview is actually a religious matter. But I will not pursue my criticism here.

Again, my focus is on the religious side. Consider what we usually think of as “religions.” Most of them trace themselves to great thinkers of twenty-five centuries ago. Some were in Greece, China, and India. Others, whom we call “Abrahamic,” were in Israel. None of these founders were “religious” in the sense discussed above. Quite the contrary. They were revolutionary, and they called on their followers to continue the revolution against the patterns of thought dominant at their time.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Enlightened One or Buddha, is the single most influential figure in the first group. His thought and practice were profoundly radical at the time. To this day they remain radical. Buddhist enlightenment liberates from all clinging. Thus, it cuts in exactly the opposite direction from what today makes “religion” resistant to the beliefs and commitments that are so urgently needed. To call on Buddhists to cease to be “religious” in the destructive sense is to ask them to take their own beliefs with greater seriousness. Many Buddhists are already engaged in this activity. If authentic Buddhism is an example of “religion”, religion can play a very positive role. In fact, although many people who call themselves Buddhist may still identify with beliefs and practices that are unhelpful, truly faithful Buddhists are already making a great contribution to what is needed.

Historians understand that the Abrahamic traditions expressed themselves, around the same time as Gautama, in the “prophetic” tradition. The word “prophet” in many people’s vocabulary has come to mean one who predicts the future. The ancient Hebrew prophets did often warn that if Israel continued on its idolatrous course, it would be destroyed. Sometimes the predictions took on specificity along these lines. Other predictions assured people that, even though Israel would be defeated in battle and its leaders sent away, eventually God would restore Israel. So, it is not wrong to understand that prophesy includes predictions. And it is true that the prophets whose writings are preserved in the Bible are those whose predictions, in a broad sense, turned out to be correct.

However, what distinguishes these prophets is not their successful predictions but the basis on which they were made. The majority of Hebrews at the time thought that their God was very powerful and that, if they made the right sacrifices and obeyed the rules, God would protect them. The Biblical prophets replied that ceremonies and animal sacrifices were of no concern to God. What God wanted was justice, and that meant especially an end to exploitation of the poor and mistreatment of widows and orphans. Whereas in most cultures at the time the king was the supreme object of loyalty, the prophets called for loyalty to the God of justice and, from that perspective, they often condemned earthly rulers. Sometimes we describe “biblical prophecy” as “speaking truth to power,” a dangerous activity.

Centuries later both Jesus and Muhammad stood in the prophetic tradition. In so far as Christians and Muslims take seriously the teaching of their great founders, they will be critics of the way today wealth and power fail to serve the poor and oppressed. They are likely in our country now to predict that the ever-growing gap between the superrich and the powerless poor will lead to disaster for all. This judging of what is by God’s norms of justice will certainly not support the kind of religiousness that blocks the changes we need. There is a kind of religiousness that must be overcome in order to move forward, but that religiousness is found both inside and outside the communities typically identified as “religions.” The basis for criticizing this damaging religiousness is found within the religions themselves.

Now let us imagine a great alliance. This would include all those scientists who are more interested in truth and saving the world from self-destruction than in maintaining a seventeenth-century metaphysics. It would include all those members of traditional “religions” who are serious about following the founders and the great teachers of their tradition and therefore adapting their teaching to the new realities of today’s world.

I worry that I may be depicting current religious communities too positively. Please understand that I recognize that much that we find there is religious in the negative sense. The Hebrew prophets were a small minority in their day; those who work hard to follow them are a small minority today. Most people in most churches reflect a mixture of influences, and those who are ready to make major sacrifices in order to follow their great leaders are few and far between. For most church members, their business associations and their political affiliations are at least as important as their churches in shaping their values.

Nevertheless, the image of these religious communities in contemporary universities and societies is so bad, that I will take one more step in displaying the positive side. What we need is an inclusive vision of what we hope for. I believe that Laudato Si, the encyclical of Pope Francis to which my colleague contributed, is the best example we have of what we need. He sketches what it will mean to reorder the world around the goal of “integral ecology,” that is, understanding nature ecologically with human beings as fully a part. The pope did not suppose that the accumulated wisdom of the Catholic church sufficed to formulate this message to the world. Indeed, the accumulated wisdom of the church points to the need for learning from all who can teach us rather than for sacralizing one tradition.

My celebration of the great achievement of Pope Francis does not imply that his encyclical stands in isolated glory. He very carefully showed that it grows out of encyclicals by earlier popes. He also recognizes that the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople has been a great leader in action and speech. Protestantism is highly fragmented, but Protestant communities have joined with the Orthodox churches in the World Council of Churches. In 1972 it called for developing societies around the world, based on justice, participation, and sustainability. In the subsequent forty-six years, it has produced many statements that call for the kinds of changes so well-articulated in Laudato Si. Buddhists have organized themselves in “Socially-Engaged Buddhism” to demonstrate how their tradition contributes to what is needed. I do not believe any other sector of contemporary society has done as well as the great religious traditions.

Critics of the religions often depict their relations with one another as highly contentious. There are certainly many problems, but the overall picture is much less contentious and much more mutually supportive than the secular public supposes. In the past century, interfaith activities have greatly advanced. In most communities in the United States today, when Muslims are abused, their major support comes from local Christians and Jews. We can work together on the problems of the world.

The more difficult task is to work with the many Americans who do not affiliate with any tradition but who may care deeply about the healthy survival of the planet. In this regard, we need a lot of help. We must try to persuade people that they can work with us out of their own values without fear of being coopted or indoctrinated.

One indication that we can join forces with people who are not part of a traditional religious community comes from China. The Communist Party of China has written into its constitution the goal of becoming an “ecological civilization.” The Party has been open to help from the Center for Process Studies in Claremont in developing the idea. In May 2018 we will hold the twelfth International Forum for Ecological Civilization in Claremont primarily for Chinese Communist guests. Anyone is welcome to come and learn how we understand “ecological civilization.” The similarity with the Pope’s “integral ecology” is striking.

Because Marxists are organized as Marxists, and because they actually have developed, like many of us, out of the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, it is easier to work with them than with major bodies of American scientists. The Marxists do not consider themselves “value-free”; so we can work with them in our shared hopes for the development of a society that can survive and grow despite now-inevitable catastrophes.

The organization with which we would love to join forces, the one that could represent the scientific community, is the university. The obstacle is its rejection of any goal or purpose other than the increase of information. I believe that many, many scientists personally reject the ideal of having no values, no commitments beyond science itself. So, I do not give up on joining hands with universities to work together for an integral ecology or an ecological civilization. Before humanity destroys itself, I hope universities will decide that the value of preserving the human species is not to be dismissed out of contempt for all values. Indeed, it is fully worthy of the commitment of all of us.

Let me conclude with a suggestion of something that we could do together – something that badly needs doing. I do not consider that what I am proposing is a partisan matter. I think most Democrats and most Republicans want information about new chemicals and other products available to the public. Sadly, the government organization that had been charged with this responsibility has been greatly weakened, even dismantled. Very few would claim that we are now well-informed and well-protected. Some Republicans prefer that things of this kind should be done by the private sector, and that is what I am proposing.

For a program of this kind the most important consideration is gaining public trust. It is important that those who are doing the research themselves have no stake in what they find and that they be free of pressure from their funders. It is also important that their honesty and objectivity be clear to others. On the whole, religious organizations, with all their problems, are not likely to be viewed as having major financial interests in the outcome of research on these matters. Especially, if many such organizations independently participate, the likelihood that they would all have a stake in the outcome (other than the desire to protect people and nature from damage) would be small. Accordingly, I believe that religious organizations could play an important role in organizing scientific research and disseminating information about the outcome.

It would be good to get the support of societies of scientists that are not funded by the sort of corporations that are producing what is to be tested. I feel sure that this is possible, but it must be done carefully to avoid both the actuality of distortion and any appearance of it. Of course, individual scientists must do the research, and since finances for this operation will be limited, I suggest that much of the work should be done by retired scientists. We will need the use of laboratories, probably those of universities. It may be difficult to find universities willing to take the chance of supporting research damaging to the income of great corporations. But I dare to believe they do exist.

The corporate world that profits from public ignorance has control of the mainstream media. This means that the dissemination of findings will be difficult. A good deal of money may be spent in counter-propaganda. Here, the hope is that religious communities will themselves not be swayed by this propaganda and will use their means of publicizing. I expect that environmental organizations, and those concerned with health, will also help to disseminate results. Surely there are also some scientific organizations that will risk the wrath of funders. Unless censorship is imposed, the web is a powerful resource to circulate information that the corporate-controlled media suppress or deny.

This whole operation will have no enforcement capacity. However, its dissemination of the dangers of some drugs and insecticides, etc., would reduce demand. Corporations will get a bad name if they frequently are found to lie about their products. Before going into production, some of them will want to get the green light from our testing. If scientists, religious communities, and educational institutions work together on this major problem for all citizens, we need not be powerless. We can advance the common good even in a money-mad society.