There’s a movement afoot to frame science/religion discussions in such a way that those of who believe that the two are incompatible are labeled as extremists who can be safely excluded from grownup discussions about the issue. It’s somewhat insulting — to be told that people like you are incapable of conducting thoughtful, productive conversations with others — and certainly blatantly false as an empirical matter — I’ve both participated in and witnessed numerous such conversations that were extremely substantive and well-received. It’s also a bit worrisome, since whether a certain view is “true” or “false” seems to take a back seat to whether it is “moderate” or “extreme.” But people are welcome to engage or not with whatever views they choose.
What troubles me is how much our cultural conversation is being impoverished by a reluctance to face up to reality. In many ways the situation is parallel to the discussion about global climate change. In the real world, our climate is being affected in dramatic ways by things that human beings are doing. We really need to be talking about serious approaches to this problem; there are many factors to be taken into consideration, and the right course of action is far from obvious. Instead, it’s impossible to broach the subject in a public forum without being forced to deal with people who simply refuse to accept the data, and cling desperately to the idea that the Earth’s atmosphere isn’t getting any warmer, or it’s just sunspots, or warmth is a good thing, or whatever. Of course, the real questions are being addressed by some people; but in the public domain the discussion is blatantly distorted by the necessity of dealing with the deniers. As a result, the interested but non-expert public receives a wildly inaccurate impression of what the real issues are.
Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.
That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.
How great would it be if we could actually have serious, productive public conversations about the implications of these discoveries? For all that we have learned, there’s a tremendous amount yet to be figured out. We know the rules by which the world works, but there’s a lot we have yet to know about how to live within it; it’s the difference between knowing the rules of chess and playing like a grandmaster. What is “life,” anyway? What is consciousness? How should we define who is a human being, and who isn’t? How should we live together in a just and well-ordered society? What are appropriate limits of medicine and biological manipulation? How can we create meaning and purpose in a world where they aren’t handed to us from on high? How should we think about love and friendship, right and wrong, life and death?
These are real questions, hard questions, and we have the tools in front of us to have meaningful discussions about them. And, as with climate change, some people are having such discussions; but the public discourse is so badly distorted that it has little relationship to the real issues. Instead of taking the natural world seriously, we have discussions about “Faith.” We pretend that questions of meaning and purpose and value must be the domain of religion. We are saddled with bizarre, antiquated attitudes toward sex and love, which have terrible consequences for real human beings.
I understand the reluctance to let go of religion as the lens through which we view questions of meaning and morality. For thousands of years it was the best we could do; it provided social structures and a framework for thinking about our place in the world. But that framework turns out not to be right, and it’s time to move on.
Rather than opening our eyes and having the courage and clarity to accept the world as it is, and to tackle some of the real challenges it presents, as a society we insist on clinging to ideas that were once perfectly reasonable, but have long since outlived their usefulness. Nature obeys laws, we are part of nature, and our job is to understand our lives in the context of reality as it really is. Once that attitude goes from being “extremist” to being mainstream, we might start seeing some real progress.