scott_atran's picture
Anthropologist; Emeritus Research Director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris; Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford; Author, Talking to the Enemy
Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)

Ever since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, scientists and secularly-minded scholars have been predicting the ultimate demise of religion. But, if anything, religious fervor is increasing across the world, including in the United States, the world's most economically powerful and scientifically advanced society. An underlying reason is that science treats humans and intentions only as incidental elements in the universe, whereas for religion they are central. Science is not particularly well-suited to deal with people's existential anxieties, including death, deception, sudden catastrophe, loneliness or longing for love or justice. It cannot tell us what we ought to do, only what we can do. Religion thrives because it addresses people's deepest emotional yearnings and society's foundational moral needs, perhaps even more so in complex and mobile societies that are increasingly divorced from nurturing family settings and long familiar environments.

From a scientific perspective of the overall structure and design of the physical universe:

1. Human beings are accidental and incidental products of the material development of the universe, almost wholly irrelevant and readily ignored in any general description of its functioning.

Beyond Earth, there is no intelligence — however alien or like our own — that is watching out for us or cares. We are alone.

2. Human intelligence and reason, which searches for the hidden traps and causes in our surroundings, evolved and will always remain leashed to our animal passions — in the struggle for survival, the quest for love, the yearning for social standing and belonging.

This intelligence does not easily suffer loneliness, anymore than it abides the looming prospect of death, whether individual or collective.

Religion is the hope that science is missing (something more in the endeavor to miss nothing).

But doesn't religion impede science, and vice versa? Not necessarily. Leaving aside the sociopolitical stakes in the opposition between science and religion (which vary widely are not constitutive of science or religion per se — Calvin considered obedience to tyrants as exhibiting trust in God, Franklin wanted the motto of the American Republic to be "rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God"), a crucial difference between science and religion is that factual knowledge as such is not a principal aim of religious devotion, but plays only a supporting role. Only in the last decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly acknowledged the factual plausibility of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. Earlier religious rejection of their theories stemmed from challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. Separating out the core of the material world would be like draining the pond where a water lily grows. A long lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive.