Science, Religion and Threats to Humanity

Fraser Watts Science, Religion and Threats to Humanity
Share this post

I have worked in science and religion for the last 25 years. However, in many ways, I feel dissatisfied with the field, and with my contribution to it. Humanity is facing a series of urgent threats, and they mostly involve some combination of science and religion. In each of them (in slightly different ways), there is a component concerned with science, or at least empirically-based rationality. There is also a component concerned with ‘religion’ broadly conceived, or at least with morality and spirituality.

There is often a problematic relationship between the two, or at least a need to find a way to integrate these two very different mind-sets. Working on this is what is, for me, what most needs to happen in work on science and religion. I can make this more specific by taking a number of examples.

Many take it to be self-evident that science sets the gold standard of human rationality. However, there is a growing distrust of science, even antagonism to it. Often that opposition is intertwined with religion. The opposition to evolution among fundamentalist Christians is one example. From an Islamic perspective, science itself can seem like a tool of Western imperialism. It is reasonable to object to the extreme faith in science that can be called ‘scientism’, but humanity needs a healing of these attitudes to science, to find a middle ground that eschews both scientism and irrational opposition to science. Because religion is so intertwined with opposition to science it can play a role in the healing of attitudes to scientific rationality.

More generally there seems to be a growing rift between empirical rationality of any kind and other ideological or gut-level commitments. That is seen in the political struggle between liberal values (linked to globalisation) and populist values that give priority to local identity, in ways that can over-ride empirical considerations. Populist commitments can lead people to vote for policies that are unworkable, and which will make their situation worse. They either don’t see that, or don’t care. Religion, in different forms, is intertwined with both sides of this debate, and finding a way out of this dangerous polarisation cannot ignore religion.

There are also applications of science that represent a threat to humanity. One of the gravest problems facing humanity at the moment is the way we are fast making our planet uninhabitable. The science supporting that claim seems pretty clear but is widely ignored. People find various rationales and ideologies to support that denial; but, even among people who recognise the dangers in principle, there is a sense of myopia or hopelessness that stands in the way of any effective action being taken. It seems that it will take some kind of quasi-religious conversion on the part of global humanity before there is effective action. Rational arguments are not delivering; it is a spiritual crisis, a crisis of attitudes and commitments. The science has taken so far, humanity now needs to build on that in a way that is quasi-religious.

There are also issues about applications of science that pose a threat to humanity. In addition to the threat that economic development poses to sustainability, there is the particular issue of nuclear weapons, which could, at a stroke, destroy much life on our planet. Emergence from the cold war has led to a complacency about that danger, but nuclear proliferation is making the danger of a nuclear catastrophe very real. Again, drawing back from this brink doesn’t seem likely to happen as a result of rational argument, but will require some kind of quasi-religious conversion.

It seems that humanity is being called or challenged to develop some new sense of the sisterhood and brotherhood of all humanity. There is a kernel of commitment to that in most of the world religions, and most of the world’s population have some kind of religious commitment. However, humanity urgently needs a new internationalism, a new kind of commitment to global humanity. At the same time, people’s hunger for a sense of local identity is palpable. Religion is intertwined with that sense of identity. It seems that both local and global identities will need to go hand-in-hand, and that religion is the discourse most likely to be able to hold the two together.

These are some of the issues that need to be addressed from the converging perspectives of empirical rationality and religious commitment. Focusing on this would lead to a new phase in work on science and religion. There have been so few efforts to work in this way that it is hard to indicate the vision without resorting to hand-waving. It would be a much more practical phase of work on science and religion, one that really tried to make the world a better place. Compared to this, much discussion in science and religion, like how to reconcile laws of nature and divine action, seems like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.

So far, philosophy (or sometimes history) has been the main mediating discipline in the exchange between science and religion. If this new phase of work gets off the ground I think the human sciences will play a key role. The social sciences can study the broad social trends I have been sketching out here. Psychology can address the problem of integrating the very different mind-sets represented by empirical rationality, and the kind of intuitive gut-level values and commitments of which religion is the principle manifestation. This is a problem that needs to be tackled much more urgently and effectively if humanity is to survive its current threats.