Finding Connections Between Religion And Science

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Finding Connections Between Religion and ScienceMcGhee Orme-JohnsonDecember 18th, 2008MQP in ReligionProfessor Eddy & Professor Smith1


AbstractCurrent debates about the relationship between religion and science often present thesetraditions and practices as ways of understanding the world that are hostile toward ordisconnected from each other. By primarily looking into the works of Daniel Dennett andWilliam James, we investigate ways in which religion and science exhibit both rationaland irrational characteristics, particularly morality. Going further, new speculativearguments open up new possible connections between religion and science, includingways their conversations can add to each other. Two of these areas are faith and the soul,which indicate potential common interests for religion and science. As a consequence,they may not only be coexistent but constructively connected.i

IntroductionIn considering any topic, the first question that is always asked is why discuss thistopic in the first place. Discussing the relationship between religion and science is noexception. For a long time, there has been a debate going on about what constitutes therelationship between religion and science, and if there is a relationship between the two atall. This debate is important because both religion and science are important aspects ofsociety. There are those who would find religion and/or science to be a source of truth.Finding religion to be a source of truth could be called having faith in religion. For thosewho have faith in religion, they could draw their morals from it. Finding science to be asource of truth could be called having confidence in science. Those who have confidencein science could have their morals influenced by it. How an individual sees the rationalitywithin religion and science and the way they relate to each other will affect society,because the way you act towards others will be affected by your morals. There are manyopinions on the subject of religion and science, which offer many different perspectives.My discussion here is by no means meant to end the debate, which will most likelycontinue forever. I suggest that not only do religion and science have a relationship, it isshown through constructive connections. To clarify how I see these connections betweenreligion and science, I will first discuss various concerns scientists may have aboutreligious people and vice versa, which will allow for the rationality of religion andscience to be examined. Then I will explain some new arguments about religion andscience that open up the possibility for new connections between the two because thesearguments create areas of common interest.There are several ways to look at the religion and science debate. One view is thatreligion and science should be held completely separate from each other. That is, theyoffer different sets of answers to the same questions. This would indicate that religionand science couldn’t be compared because they do not agree. One thinker who argues thisidea is Bruno Latour. Latour is a contemporary author who is a sociologist of science. Inhis essay “‘Thou Shall Not Freeze Frame,’ or How Not to Misunderstand the Religionand Science Debate,” he argues that science and religion are so different that there is no“point of contact” between the two. He states that religion and science have two1

completely different purposes. According to Latour, religion is interested only explainingthe here and now. That is, religion is not about understanding the supernatural, but isabout eliciting a response in the present. Conversely, he sees science as serving to notactually explain anything directly, but as something that uses experiments and theoriesthat offer larger, indirect explanations that go beyond what is in this world. That is, itoffers explanations that are bigger then what it is studying. From this, Latour suggeststhat there could never be a relationship between religion and science, because they areseeking completely different things. He even says that calling them incommensurablewould be a mistake, because they cannot be put in relation enough to be deemedincommensurable (Latour, 32, 35-36). That is, there is no characteristic of religion orscience that can be compared with the other. Latour argues that to compare religion andscience would be detrimental to both because it would force science to try to explain thehere and now and religion to explain what goes beyond. To Latour this would distort bothscience and religion, defeating the purpose of studying either (Latour, 36-37). Latour byno means sees religion and science as opposites, because that would indicate that theycould be considered incomparable. He sees them instead as separate aspects of society.The first aspect of Latour’s argument to be noted is what he suggests religion andscience seek to do. This is important, because his whole argument against theconvergence and connection between religion and science is based upon this aspect. Butthe difficulty in saying what religion and science seek to do is that there is no definitiveanswer. Religion and science serve different purposes to different people. As such,Latour’s view is only one way of describing the purposes of religion and science, andthere could be other views that allow for more of a compliment between religion andscience. I would suggest that religion and science have different purposes than whatLatour suggests. In my opinion, religion and science both want to explain how the worldworks. This means that they have similar purposes, which would mean that there could bea way for religion and science to be connected.Even if religion and science seek to do different things, this does not mean thatthere cannot be comparison and convergence between the two. Latour seems to implythat to him a connection between religion and science would involve comparing the two,whether or not this comparison resulted in them actually being incommensurable. Despite2

having different purposes, there can still be commonalities between religion and scienceoutside of their purposes that create a connection through comparison. One commonalitybetween religion and science has to do with morals. As I have already suggested, bothreligion and science can influence one’s morals, either directly or indirectly. Latour’ssuggestion that religion and science serve different purposes does not negate thisstatement. If religion and science can both influence moral outlooks, there will be aconversation between them because their morals could be compared. Additionally, aconnection between religion and science would not just entail understanding thecommonalities and differences between the two, but also how the two could support eachother. In Latour’s argument, the differences between religion and science would aid in aperson’s full understanding of the world and beyond. As science can only be used toexplain large, indirect concepts, religion would be used to explain the smaller, moredirect concepts. That is, science offers explanations that can be applied beyond thecurrent situations, whereas religion explains what is happening only in the present time.This would bring both science and religion into a person’s life and would create arelationship between the two where one answered what the other could not. Therefore, Iwould suggest that even if one accepts Latour’s estimation that religion and science havedifferent purposes, it does not exclude a possible connection between the two in how theysupport each other.There is another thinker who offers a view about the differences between scienceand religion, and that is Stephen Jay Gould. In his book The Hedgehog, the Fox and theMagister’s Pox, Gould defines science as the study of the natural world and how itworks. Religion, on the other hand, is concerned with ethics, meaning and the way welive our lives, as well as the questions that arise from dealing with these ideas. As such,there is no actual conflict between science and religion because they are two differentthings (Gould, 87). Further, in his book Rocks of Ages, Gould equates religion andscience to oil and water - there is no overlap between the two. This is not to say that thereis no relationship between the two; Gould suggests that in the area where science andreligion interact, they have a relationship. But Gould says that science and religion are“absolutely inseparable, but utterly different” (Gould, 65-67). Gould’s argument suggeststhat religion and science have different purposes because religion dictates our moral3

outlook, while science simply explains the world around us. This means that though theycannot be separated, religion and science are completely different aspects ofunderstanding. I think that Gould’s argument that religion and science have nocommonalities is disputable. There are commonalities between the two because bothoffer the concept of having confidence or faith, and both attempt to explain the soul. Iwill go into further detail about these concepts in a later chapter, but it is important tonote here that there is convergence between religion and science because these are areasof common interest. I suggest that to have faith or confidence in religion or science is todraw truth from it, and there are those who draw their truths from religion or science, orboth. The soul, an originally religious concept, is being studied as a possible materialobject, something that is subject to scientific law. Religion and science then have theseareas of convergence in their understanding. I would agree with Gould that religion andscience are inseparable, but I would suggest that this inseparability comes from theconvergences between the two that are caused by these commonalities.Bruno Latour offers an argument for what constitutes the purposes of religion andscience, and argues that because of these purposes religion and science do not have aconnection. Stephen Jay Gould says that while religion and science are inseparable, thereis no convergence between the two. I have suggested ways to understand their argumentsand still allow for a converging connection between religion and science. It is importantto note that there are many ways of looking at the possible connection between religionand science, both for and against. I argue that there is a converging connection betweenreligion and science. There are some concerns science has about religion and vice versathat would make a connection between religion and science difficult because theseconcerns affect how the rationalities of religion and science are viewed, but if theseconcerns are appeased then connection between religion and science is actuallystrengthened. The concerns I will be examining are fanaticism and morals in religion. Inaddition to these concerns, there are also commonalities between religion and science thatshow how the two are intertwined around certain concepts, which offer a new way tounderstand the connections between the two. The commonalities I will be discussing arethe idea of faith in religion and confidence in science, and the idea of the soul as areligious object that can be scientifically studied.4

Throughout this paper, I will be primarily, though not exclusively, focusing on theideas of William James and Daniel Dennett. Both of these thinkers are important figuresin philosophy, and offer thoughts on the concerns and commonalities that exist betweenscience and religion that I previously mentioned. Dennett and James would see that thereis a connection between religion and science, though what each believes that connectionis differs between the two. William James is a key philosopher from the turn of the 20thcentury. He approaches religion as something that does not require an organized group orchurch. James also states that people who are religious believe in some sort of divinity,but he does not go as far as to call it God. As such, James could allow agnostics into hisdefinition, and depending on the scope of the word divinity, allow for atheists as well(James, 47). Defining religion in such a way was radical, because James is suggestingthat one does not need a church in order to be religious. James’s book The Varieties ofReligious Experience has been influential for many authors since its first publishing in1902. In his book he offers not only this definition of religion, but also how heunderstands science, fanaticism, morals, where one finds their source of truth and thesoul. Through James’s discussion, I will show that he sees religion and science as havinga convergence, via the idea of the soul, and how he discusses fanaticism. I will also usehis discussion of religious morals and religious faith to show his views about religion as apositive aspect of society, which will indirectly support a connection between religionand science.Daniel Dennett is a contemporary thinker. He often references James in his work,but reframes his ideas to fit his own, to more or less successful results. In his bookBreaking the Spell, Dennett differs with James’ idea of religion not requiring anorganized group, or having a God. Dennett defines religions as a system within society.The subscribers to this system believe in some sort of deity or deities, who they seek toplease and gain support from (Dennett, 9). Defining religion this way not only juxtaposesDennett against James, but it also shows what Dennett finds important in religion as well.He is interested in the concept of a God and church as being key parts of religion. Inaddition to identifying religion, Dennett also identifies science, fanaticism, morals,sources of truth and the soul. Additionally, he engages some of James’s ideas throughquotes. Dennett’s concern about fanaticism and faith in religion is detrimental to a5

connection between religion and science, but his views on morals in religion and the soulwill show how religion and science can have similarities and be constructively connected.Within the topics I am discussing, Dennett and James have similar and differingopinions. They both identify religion and science differently. They have different viewson fanatics, morals in religion, faith and the soul. Dennett and James’s opinions on thesetopics offer a full look at two different perspectives on the issue of religion and science.By comparing and contrasting these perspectives, it can be seen how my own perspectiveis supported by some of their ideas, and diminished by others. But before delving intothese topics, it is important to understand why they are important to the religion andscience discussion.In my first chapter, I will offer identifications of religion and science. Theseidentifications are important for several reasons. The first is that while identifying eithermay initially seem obvious, both religion and science mean different things to differentpeople. This means that there would be several possible identifications, which could alterhow the religion and science are seen to connect. As I have mentioned, Dennett andJames have differing identifications of religion, Dennett focusing on the societal aspectand James focusing on the individual aspect. They also have different views of science.James views science in the way it is affected by the views of the individual. Dennettlooks at science in the way it has benefited human kind. For both, the way in which theydefine science can seem to relate to the way they define religion, in turn affecting the waythey view the how religion and science connect. It is therefore important for me toidentify religion and science for myself, so that my meaning of them will be clearthroughout the paper. Additionally, identifying religion and science will allow me toshow what I find to be necessary components of both. I think both religion and sciencewill offer explanations of the world, and have some influence on one’s morals. Myidentifications will also effect how I see religion and science relating to each other,because they will offer some convergence between the two through their commoncomponents. This convergence will offer some compatibility and hostility betweenreligion and science. This will color how I view the relationship between religion andscience, because my identifications will show that the two can connect and converge.6

Upon defining religion and science, my next step will be to discuss what Iconsider a key concern that many people have about religion, and that is fanaticism. Insociety, fanatics can often be viewed as representing the religion of which they claim tobe a part, which can have a detrimental effect on how a person sees religion in generalbecause of the irrationality of fanaticism. Fanaticism is a large concern Dennett has aboutreligion because he sees all fanatics as irrational, and it makes him concerned about allreligious people. This will effect how he sees religion and science. He is concerned thatbecause fanatics are irrational and fanatics draw their beliefs from their religion, religionitself could be irrational. Since Dennett sees religion as something potentially irrational,he believes that one should not draw one’s morals from religion. Conversely, James triesto defend fanaticism as not being necessarily a negative aspect of society. He understandsthat some fanatics are dangerous, but that most are harmless. There are also some fanaticsthat James would consider as positive members of society. It can be further said that thesepositive fanatics to James would still be dangerous to Dennett. Because of fanaticism’saffects on religion, science and morals, it is likely that fanaticism would color how oneviews the connections and convergences between religion and science. It is alsoimportant to discuss that fanaticism is not a complete representation of religion. Themajority of members of most mainstream religions are not as intensely devout as theirfanatical counterparts. Both Dennett and James speak of these people; Dennett calls thosewho are not fanatics but are still religious moderates, while James refers to them as thehealthy-minded. It is important to note here that Dennett considers these moderates to bepositive representations of religion, but James does not, as he believes they do not takereligion seriously. James sees sick-souled and sainted

Religion and science serve different purposes to different people. As such, Latour’s view is only one way of describing the purposes of religion and science, and there could be other views that allow for more of a compliment between religion and science. I would suggest that religion and science have different purposes than what

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