The contemporary public discourse on science and religion is stuck in a quagmire that contributes little to the betterment of the world. On one side of the quagmire are proselytizing materialists who point to the most spurious expressions of religion as evidence of the incompatibility of science and religion. On the other side are apologists for superstitious beliefs that reflect a hopelessly outmoded conception of religion which is indeed irreconcilable with science.
What is needed is a new discourse on religion – a discourse that embodies the same kind of critical scrutiny and self-reflection that science has benefited from over the past few centuries.
The advancement of science has been driven, in part, by an ongoing discourse on science that has placed increasingly stringent demands on what kinds of knowledge and practice can legitimately claim the name “science.” Even though the discourse on science is still evolving, and interpretations vary around the boundaries, the discourse has already provided many important insights that help people distinguish legitimate science from pseudo-science, or junk science, or any of the spurious things people have historically done in the name of science, such as horoscopes and astrology.
This self-reflective discourse on science has, for the most part, been thoughtful, searching, public, and sincere – at least among scientists, educators, philosophers of science, and others who contribute to the discourse. At its heart are questions such as these:
What is science? What do we need from science? What do we expect or demand from those who claim to be practicing science? And what criteria must be met in order to merit the name science?
In other words, the discourse on science has, for several centuries, focused on what science ought to be in order for science to contribute to the advancement of civilization.
In contrast, a similarly thoughtful and self-reflective discourse on religion has not yet adequately developed. To encourage this, we need to begin asking a parallel set of questions:
What is religion? What do we need from religion? What do we expect or demand from those who claim to be practicing religion? And what criteria must be met in order to merit the name religion?
In other words, the discourse on religion needs to focus on what religion ought to be in order to contribute to the advancement of civilization, in the same way the discourse on science has.
Does flying an airplane into a building full of people, in the name of religion, qualify as legitimate religion? Or is this junk religion? Can insults, hatred, and xenophobia ever be considered a legitimate expression of religion? Or are they a complete perversion of religion? When self-interested congregational leaders claim to be the exclusive or final repositories of religious truth, should we accept these as legitimate religious claims? Would we ever accept such claims if they were made in the name of science, which requires humility, an open mind, and ongoing investigation of reality?
Clearly, we need to reframe the discourse on religion if we are interested in the genuine investigation of reality and the advancement of civilization. Rather than endlessly arguing “for or against religion,” why not foster thoughtful discourse on what we mean by religion and what we need from, or demand from, religion?
If we’re not yet sure what demands we should place on religion, then it’s time to begin that conversation. As a starting point, these are a few I suggest:
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be fully compatible with, and complementary to, science.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be unifying rather than divisive.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be concerned with the cultivation of ethical character and conduct.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be directly concerned with the exigencies of the age we live in – which include learning how to live together in peaceful, just, and sustainable ways as members of an increasingly interdependent global community.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must foster a constructive sense of agency and change.
Personally, I’m not willing to grant the name “religion” to any phenomena that does not meet these demands. And I know growing numbers of people who are beginning to apply similar standards. Only as this discourse on religion expands will religion begin to mature as an essential system of knowledge and practice, in the same way that science has.