In a recent article in The New Yorker entitled “All Scientists Should be Militant Atheists”, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss penned a scathing essay disavowing any relationship between science and religion.
He wrote, “It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting… Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend…If that is what causes someone to be called a militant atheist, then no scientist should be ashamed of the label.”
His pointed critique was in part a political broadside, the latest salvo in the ongoing war between the Intellectual Left and the Religious Right. Much of the article was devoted to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis and same-sex marriage, a topic over which neither science not religion can credibly claim ultimate authority.
As much as Dr. Krauss would like us to believe otherwise, the centuries-old dilemma of the relationship between science and religion still exists. Moreover, there are exceptions to his assertion that contemporary scientists have no time for religion, notably among his fellow physicists.
Earlier this year, Dr. Charles Townes died. A brilliant physicist who won the 1964 Nobel Prize for his invention of the laser, Dr. Townes was a deeply religious man. He also won the 2005 Templeton Prize for “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”. (Other dual winners of the Nobel and Templeton include Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama).
Interviewed about his religious belief, Dr. Townes once observed, “Science is an exploration of what things are like and how they work. Why they are that way is more a religious question. And the two are complimentary. I think they are both important. Why did the universe begin? Why is the universe here? Why are we here? And why did the laws of science come out they way they are so we could be here. I think the apparent friction between science and religion is kind of artificial. I see no real friction between the two but some people want to make it that way. We need more integration between the two in the future. We need to be more open-minded and deeper in our thinking.”
The world’s greatest 20th Century scientist, Albert Einstein, expressed a similar sentiment, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Einstein struggled his entire life with the fundamental relationship between the two. A secular Jew, he abjured formal religion, but never approved of those who used his views to endorse atheism. Oxford Professor John Hedley Brooke, a specialist in religion and science, and expert on Einstein, said in the Guardian, “Like other great scientists Einstein does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him. It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions … but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion.”
Ironically, Dr. Krauss once wrote a biography of a giant of American physics, Richard Feynman. Yet Krauss’s New Yorker polemic ignored the spirit of a 1956 speech Feynman delivered at Caltech. In “The Relation of Science and Religion”, Feynman, also a secular Jew and celebrated iconoclast, said, “Although science makes some impact on many religious ideas, it does not affect the moral content. Religion has many aspects; it answers all kinds of questions…about what things are, where they come from, what man is, what God is – the properties of God, and so on… the metaphysical aspect of religion. It also tells us another thing – how to behave. Leave out of this the idea of how to behave in certain ceremonies, and what rites to perform; I mean it tells us how to behave in life in general, in a moral way. It gives answers to moral questions; it gives a moral and ethical code…Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure – the adventure into the unknown,… the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it – the humility of the intellect.
The other great heritage is Christian ethics – the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual – the humility of the spirit. These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea… How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?”
Krauss aside, nearly sixty years later, Feynman’s questions about the unsettled question of the interplay of religion and science still resonate.
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