Post-Industrial, Peace-Seeking Religion; or, Science With Purpose

August 23, 2009

Author Robert Wright has posted a long op-ed piece to the New York Times, A Grand Bargain Over Evolution, in which he discusses how the militant fringes of science and religion could come to a detente over the question of evolution. For example, he discusses how the religionists, who rely on the argument that the moral sense must have been injected directly by God, need to pay attention to recent research in evolutionary psychology that demonstrate how this could have come to be.

"Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible."

On the other hand, the scientists need to realize that the sense of purpose is embedded and highly-compatible with the scientific endeavor.

"Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale."

Indeed, in my mind the only religion worth practicing is one that "foster[s] social cohesion... on a global scale," one that actively works with science rather than actively (or passively) against it. And science, institutionally, needs to grow out of its adolescent rejection of parent religion, accepting that the religious sensibility can help provide for the common weal.

In terms of religion, my interfaith encounters have introduced me to people of all major faiths whose outlook is one of global social cohesion. In fact, that was the point point that brought us together. In science, there too are outliers who vocally support an integrated viewpoint -- but I haven't met many of them. Most of the people with whom I have worked, in science and engineering, are indifferent at best to spirituality (and issues of justice and morality in general). Sure, they may have cared on a small personal level, but not on a socially-constructive level.

Yet ask anyone, and I suspect most people at some level will agree that everyone deserves to be given a chance to fulfill their aspirations. We need to spend more time being integrative, and less be disintegrative and divisive. One manifestation of that will be when the fundamentalist in religion embrace the teaching of evolution in schools and the fundamentalists in science embrace the the notion that religion helps people lead better lives. The religionist doesn't have to believe in evolution, and the scientist doesn't have to believe in God – but they should each give the other plenty of space to exist in harmony.