I read Philip Meyer’s essay on science and religion in USA TODAY (February 25, 2008) with a great deal of sadness. “Religion,” Mr. Meyer wrote, “is about the mystery. Science is about figuring out what works in the material world. There is no danger that science will ever deprive us of the mystery.”
Mr. Meyer’s uses the analogy of a circle to explain his position. Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Everything within the circle is the realm of science. Here we use the scientific method where we seek to validate or disprove various ideas and hypotheses. Everything outside the circle is the realm of religion. Assuming an infinitely large piece of paper, as the circle of science and reason grows, the outside mystery remains in tact.
The problem with his analogy and with his reasoning is that he limits religion to the realm of unreason, and, as the circle of science grows, it is saying that the realm of religion is actually the realm of ignorance or the not-yet-known. While Mr. Meyer’s analogy does allow religion to continue, it does so only in the area of that which cannot be known. Religion is reduced to pure fantasy and speculation, forever retreating against the advances of science.
This kind of thinking lumps religion with every pseudo-science and wacko theory people can think of. While some may find it comforting to place Christianity, for example, outside the circle of knowledge, others will be troubled that Christianity is forced to share its realm with astrology, Scientology, ghost hunters, and psychics. As bad as this sounds, it gets worse.
To make his point clear, Mr. Meyer shows how a young earth creationist who believes that the Bible shows the earth is only 6000 years old can get along with a geologist who can prove that some rocks are 3.8 billion years old. All the creationist has to say is that when God created the earth 6000 years ago He made the rocks 3.8 billion years old. Since the geologist cannot prove that God didn’t do as the creationist says He did, the science of geology is no more or less valid than the theology of creationism. This is insane.
If the only criterion for determining what is true is the inability of science to prove it false, then all untestable ideas from astrology to the Flying Spaghetti Monster are equally valid. And while this may salvage religion, the religion it saves is a joke and largely irrelevant to life.
Science and religion can work together. Science can help religion see what is; religion can help science see what it might mean. Meaning and wisdom are the focus of religion, and these need reason no less than science. Splitting religion and science into two camps does a disservice to both.