Religion has no bone to pick with science
ROCKS OF AGES SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN THE FULLNESS OF LIFE By Stephen Jay Gould Ballantine 243 pp., $18.95
Make no bones about it, Stephen Jay Gould has found religion. The popular paleontologist hasn't embraced any particular creed. That would violate his self-proclaimed tendency toward atheism. He has done something more transcendent. He has recognized religion for what it essentially is - a major mode of thought that helps us cope with the bewildering universe in which we live.
Professor Gould sees science as a complementary mode that describes the natural world and how it works. It traces cosmic evolution and dates our arrival. But it can't give us a sense of purpose or define our duty to each other, to our planet, which we now dominate, or to life itself. That, Gould asserts, requires the methods and traditions of religion in its fundamental role, which includes "all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people."
We need both thought modes - what he calls these "rocks of ages" - to live fully today and to meet the challenges of the coming millennium.
That's a grand vision, but what's new? Thoughtful scientists and theologians have acknowledged this partnership for over a century, as Gould himself points out. What goaded him to fire up his word processor is media hype about "the war" between science and religion and about scientists finding God in nature.
There is no "war." If science had a religious enemy, it would be dogmatism that would force science to describe nature in terms of some specific doctrine. Dogmatism lost that battle. Science and religion form a partnership based on mutual respect for, and understanding of each other's distinctive nature. What works in one domain won't work in the other. This is Gould's central theme.
Science can discover how to clone animals. But it can't settle the issue of how to use that knowledge. The moral discourse can put limits on human experimentation. But it can't specify how babies develop or plants grow. Science and religion with their distinctive goals and methods cannot fuse. Yet they intermingle at every twist and turn of human experience.
This leads to Gould's major peeve. Trouble erupts in the partnership when practitioners in one domain try to extend their methods and biases into the other "magisterium," to use Gould's terminology. Religious censorship of science is the classic example. But the reverse offense is more prevalent today. Sometimes scientists act as though their expertise entitled them to a special voice in setting public policy and morality. It doesn't.
And too often, the news media overplay the scientist-finds-God theme. The awe inspired by Hubbell Space Telescope pictures, the wonder of living organisms' exquisite adaptation to their environment lie within the beholder. They are not an objective property of scientific knowledge. Matter's modes do not reflect the hand of deity. As Gould notes, we should stop seeking spiritual truth in material nature and instead look within ourselves.
Gould makes his points with authority, insight, and his trademark good humor, although he sometimes waffles on to the extent of overkill. Verbal economy is not his style.
Nevertheless, his thought-provoking, entertaining essay defines a basic necessity. If we are to survive into the distant future, we must learn to manage our planetary environment in sustainable fashion. We need guidance from both science and religion to do it.
*Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.