Science &/or Religion?

Science &/or Religion? – a Debate

This is the transcript of the talk I held this morning at the „International Congress on Science and Religion: a 21st Century Debate“ in the Sigmund Freud University here in Vienna.

Let’s say this right at the beginning. The dialogue between religion and science is, from a Christian perspective, EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. The object of this talk is to show why and how this is so. As a priest, I am frequently confronted with this topic. Yet I find that talk of the relationship faith-science is really talk on the relationship between faith and reason. To say it up front: in a Christian world view, faith and reason need go hand in hand. To use an image of John Paul II.: they are as two wings of an airplane…cut one off, you’ve got a problem.

Historically, from a Christian perspective, the ushering in of the enlightenment came with the story of the three kings coming to see the baby in Bethlehem. Why? Because all of a sudden, religion was saying, it’s not the stars and some unknown hidden powers that influence our destiny, but it is rather the other way around… a rationality – the „Logos“, influences the stars.

In this sense, Robert Barron, Bishop Elect of Los Angeles, would say: „To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science, namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is marked, through and through, by intelligibility.  If the world or nature is considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it, or perform experiments upon it.  But a created world, by definition, is not divine.  It is other than God, and in that very otherness, scientists find their freedom to act.  At the same time, if the world is unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, since all science is based upon the presumption that nature can be known, that it has a form.  But the world, precisely as created by a divine intelligence, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore, and experiment.“ Yes, there were great thinkers of the Middle Ages from the Islamic tradition, think of Averroes that brought Aristotle to Europe… yes, we can speak about the scientific advancement of ancient China or Egypt. And yet, it is probably no fluke, even though we could discuss this, that scientific thought in the modern sense of the term, had its strongest cradle experience and growth precisely in Christian Europe.  As Barron goes on to point out….“Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe—were devoutly religious. More to it, two of the most important physicists of the 19th century—Faraday and Maxwell—were extremely pious, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory was a priest“ (Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic Priest, formulated the big bang theory)!

The point is: God is not in the middle between the strong and weak nuclear forces, the law of gravity, competing for a place within the universe… you won’t find God that way …it’s what Robert Barron would say: God is an answer to another type of question, the question as to why is there something rather than nothing. And affirming the radical distinction between world and God opens the way for scientific thought.

Now, I am going to say something very provocative, but which underscores the importance in my opinion, of why the dialogue religion-science is so necessary: If there is no God, there is no real freedom… why? because then all is the result of mere blind necessary forces and processes, freedom is just apparent, not real. And if there is no freedom, then there is no love, and hence no mercy and hence no forgiveness…this degenerates into the dehumanization of the world as there is no justice without mercy (viscous circle of violence where everyone demands their „rights“)…  And if there is no freedom, there is no responsibility and that becomes extremely dangerous for a society: My parents made me do it, my cultural upbringing, my hormones etc. etc. but that leads to an extreme immaturity at best and to dictatorship at worst. There is a direct proportion between these two: freedom and responsibility. Sorry for this example. I am Canadian and on our ranch when the bulls broke out so that we had calves at -50 Celsius, we were extremely upset, angry. But we didn’t take the bulls to court, nor stick them into prison. Why? Because there was no responsibility, because there was no freedom. And the greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility…for example, the company boss has much more responsibility than the secretary, because his freedom of action within the company is much greater…we could here also talk about the correlation of responsibility-freedom-and bring in a third element, which is love, as love presupposes freedom, but that goes beyond the scope of this talk.

Now let’s take another step… I have just affirmed that „There is no freedom if there is no God, that there can be no freedom if God does not exist, freedom presupposes God as if not there is only necessity, blind forces at work in this universe“ so we can make another very provocative statement: „If there is no God, there can be no rationality.“ – And again, I don’t want to impose this idea on you, I am just proposing it, hoping you would sit on it for a while, give it some thought. And yes: I am more than glad to discuss and argue about this later if you like: „no God, no rationality“ – there can be no real rational thought if you get rid of a transcendent God, as it is the capacity of grasping reality and facing it up to the horizon of the absolute, which characterizes rational thinking, which in turn makes freedom possible, If there is no higher power, no God, than ultimately everyone is his own God, then there are no standards beyond one’s own needs and caprices and whims that determine the truth of things, there are no universal truths, and if there are no universal truths, then there can be no science but no values such as tolerance either, because tolerance only has value above and beyond what two different individuals might think it or want it to be. Tolerance has a content: the dignity of the human person. But if there are no universal truths, then neither is it true that tolerance is and should be a universal value… and that is dangerous. It seems like a paradox and, in the modern context, counter-intuitive, but yet: you cannot defend tolerance without defending truth, the truth and universalness of the value of tolerance and the absolute truth of inviolable human dignity.

Leszek Kolakowski`s comment on the theme, published post mortem in the German newspaper “Die Welt”, and which is one idea I want to take from Bishop Lackner:

„Evidently, individual high moral standards can be maintained while being non-religious.“ I would say, this is true, there are plenty of atheist or agnostic friends of mine, who inspire through their upright moral standards and living of values, so yes, agreed: „Evidently, individual high moral standards can be maintained while being non-religious.“…but Kolakowski goes on to say, „That civilizations too are able to do so, I doubt. What reason would there be to heed human rights and human dignity without religious traditions? What is human dignity from a scientific point of view? Superstition? Viewed empirically, people are unequal. How can we justify equality? Human rights are an unscientific idea.”

I am not saying it is impossible, but it becomes extremely difficult to argue the case for inalienable human rights and for inviolable human dignity without God, without a higher power that gives recognition of value to human dignity independently of individualistic considerations or interests. Departing merely from that, which is empirically given, where is the problem of the harvesting of organs of political prisoners (as some horrific reports from Eritrean refugees attest)? How do you move from „something“ to „someone?“ and that this „someone“ is inviolable? On the mere level of empirical science, it’s impossible, as the question of value is not a question of empiric science but of philosophy. But for the same reason, for any science to claim with certainty that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth is an argument that has cut of the branch it was sitting on. But I’ll paddle back to that later.

Sciences has an incredibly important role when it comes to religion. Because it is science that constantly makes the believer face his belief with reality as it is…not as he would like it to be. And it is a corrective of religion, saving it from all forms of fideistic sentimentalism, it upholds and reminds religion of its duty to seek truth, not just mere feeling, to argue the reasonability of his faith.

And here the question can be posed, what dialogue is possible with a religion that denies the possibility of rational thought in its own realm? The most basic rule for rational engagement is that common ground be found, upon which can be built. But the most basic principle of thought is what the Greeks called the principle of non-contradiction. This cellphone cant at the same time be a cellphone and an elephant…perhaps one day the elephant eats the phone and somehow manages to digest it and the telephone becomes part of the elephant… but right now, they can’t at the same time be the same thing, black can’t be at the same time white, my shoes cant be at the same time my car. This is what the Greeks called the principle of non-contradiction. But if a religion starts saying God can make square circles, that is the end of rationality. Then there is NO common ground for discourse. That doesn’t mean there can’t be other approaches, serving, witness, but rational argument is not one of those possibilities. Is that a problem? YES! As, where religion loses its contact with reason, it loses contact with reality and is in danger of becoming fundamentalist and dangerous. But my point is, the same thing can happen to science! Where science no longer allows itself to be led by principles that are higher than itself, which are its own ceiling hook upon which it hangs, or where these values are frowned upon as limiting scientific freedom, there science can become dangerous. Let’s think back in this country 75 years. Let’s look at Sinai today…or the harvesting of human embryos for scientific research.

I think here faith can help, as it takes us away from what Pope Francis calls the „technocratic model“. Faith, at least from a Christian standpoint – I imagine the Muslim world would see it similarly – looks at reality not as something to be manipulated but has a „receiving approach“ – and what I mean by that is that there is a contemplative attitude… what is reality telling me rather than what can I make reality say, irrespective of any other considerations except those within the scientific discipline itself. …Religion can help here to say…let’s slow down the process a little…let’s give this some thought. How does impact the environment, the people around us…what long terms effects will this have? Let’s look at this globally, in a bigger context, in an interdisciplinary fashion, let’s make sure we are not forgetting something, not leaving out a part of reality that we really should be looking at. Is it not all too true that all too frequently that behind this call for freedom from religious and moral considerations in the name of science, this claim that religion limits the freedom of the sciences, is hidden just totally the opposite? It’s not that science is being manipulated and leaned into by religion, but rather, it’s a particular company or financial interest that are pressuring and manipulating science. We all know how difficult this is….I don’t want to make light of the pressure that is put on scientists…. For example a seminar I was involved including the executives of a big bank in Germany… did a weekend in ethics….“we don’t invest in arms of questionable governments….“ was the common consensus, until one of the group said: come on, let’s be honest, it all depends on how big the battleship is.“ I don’t want to demonize finance or business or science. Please don’t get me wrong. All I am saying is that it is precisely in moments like this, that the voice of religion needs to be heard in public discourse. It is here that religion can help science from degenerating into reductionist ideology, where one gets so focused on one’s own specialization, that all other considerations are forgotten or everything is explained from this vantage point….like in „Catholic“ Rome in the 70s, when courses on logic and sociology had „das Kapital“ as their primary textbook, as even logic and sociology was studied from the vantage point of Hegelian Marxism.

Religion can be a corrective of science wherever science sees itself as the highest norm, forgetting that it too depends on higher principles for its method and being. Religion can remind empirical sciences that there are areas of knowledge, which are not within its scope of knowledge, for example the question of value. Of course, the sociologist might make studies into the empirical fact of the values of a certain culture, a psychologist might work with certain values in his therapy, the neuroscientist might investigate what goes on in the brain when values are in play….but that doesn’t answer the questions why a value is a value… Shame. Tolerance. Respect. Justice. Mercy. Or take once more human dignity. Empirically, the law of the inviolability of human dignity is written nowhere on the human person’s skin. On the surface, it could appear to be like the law of gravity, which also is not written in big letters on the falling apple. But it is a different type of knowledge that is not just based on empirical recognition of fact. That the apple falls is a given. Here it is just a matter of the recognition of a fact. With human dignity however, it is a matter of recognizing a value that speaks not merely to the intellect but also to the will, to volition. It appeals to freedom and hence to responsibility. The questions of value are questions of philosophy and I would argue, ultimately, they are religious Questions. …here lurks the danger of pseudoscientific attempts to explain things, which are not within the realm of empirical science. Like the historian answering questions of astrophysics. In other words, the point is, that it seems silly or ridiculous to claim that there is no reality other than that, which I can weigh or look at through a tele- or a microscope. Science itself depends on non-empirical principles, like that the world itself is soaked in intelligibility, to even function. It has the danger to become fundamentalist there, where it denies this fact and steps outside its own boundaries.

I don’t have to explain to you that the globalization of knowledge and the speed of information has exploded in the last 50 years. Of course, this has many advantages. But like everything, the flip side is the danger of a certain tiredness in the seeking of knowledge. There are so many theories about just about everything, like what’s the point? With Thomas Kuhn’s „The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“ and Quine, radical relativism has even arrived to logic and to science itself. Science here falls into the danger of no longer asking what is it but what works, irrelevant if it has any truth or any value as these are things you can’t know anyway, and hence falls into the danger of becoming victim of pressure and interest groups…. The „pensiero debole“ movement was the equivalent of that in philosophy some years ago. Religion here can and in, my opinion, should have the role of holding up to man a mirror of himself and reminding him of the greatness of his intellectual capacity. Religion, paradoxical as this might seem, has the role of defending reason and rationality.

The basic point I am trying to make in this whole presentation is this: The human person, cultures and societies need two wings to fly through life safely. These wings are faith (and by extension religion) and reason (and by extension science). You get rid of one in favor of the other, you create a very dangerous situation. They are like correlative values, values that should not be in competition but rather serving one another mutually in order to stay on course. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to the discussion…. 

The „International Congress on Science and Religion: a 21st Century Debate“ took place in the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna from the 27th-29th of August, 2015. I was asked by Archbishop Franz Lackner to represent him at the Congress, as the bishop himself was unable to deliver the lecture he had originally planned. Taking the basic thought from the Archbishop’s talk – the symbiotic relationship that Catholic Christians see between faith and reason, I decided to develop these ideas in the way just presented. The talk sparked a huge amount of interest across the borders of cultural, scientific and religious background. I was amazed and enriched by discussions with an Iranian agnostic Astrophysicist, a believing Muslim woman from Morocco on the role of religion in guiding reason to discover aspects of authentic femininity, a psychiatrist from New Zealand, a biologist from the Czech Republic, a Catholic Theologian from Loyola University in Chicago (just about to read her considerations on time), a diplomat from the American Embassy and others, some of whom want to keep up contact. My conclusion: very encouraging to see that this dialogue is worth while! 

Titelbild: ©kikkerdirk / 


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