Going Beyond Belief — Philip Hefner

Philip Hefner

December 14, 2006

Both the New Scientist and the New York Times reported on the symposium entitled "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival," hosted by the Science Network, a coalition of scientists and media professionals convening November 5-7 at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. They were there to address three questions: Should science do away with religion? What would science put in religion's place? Can we be good without God?

A number of the most articulate anti-religious self-proclaimed atheists were among the stellar group of scientists assembled there. Physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg spoke of religion as a "crazy old aunt, who tells lies and stirs up mischief," but whom he will nevertheless miss when she is gone. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins confessed that he is "fed up" with the tendency to respect religion, especially by secularists. A number of their peers took strong exception to the anti-religion message, including biologists Joan Roughgarden and Francisco Ayala. Anthropologist Melvin Konner asked sarcastically, "Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?"

The New Scientist report spoke of the "fervour of a revivalist meeting ... [with] no hallelujahs, gospel songs or swooning, but plenty of preaching, mostly to the converted, and much spontaneous applause for exhortations to follow the path of righteousness. And right there at the forefront of everyone's thoughts was God."

How ought people of religious faith respond to such a trend as that which surfaced at the Salk Institute? Here are a few suggestions:

First, believers should not let appreciation of science be diminished by what must be called the hysteria of militant anti-religious scientists. They must recognize that science can contain God's revelation and that it has brought enormous benefits, along with its dark side. The "Beyond Belief" message is no excuse for anti-science or pro-Intelligent Design responses by religious communities.

Second, there is legitimate critique in the anti-God message. Probably all believers are ashamed by some forms that faith takes. And they know that going "beyond belief" to the "God beyond God" has been a religious theme, beginning for Christians with Jesus. The history of Christianity is one of struggle against the seductions of the inferior gods that too often have earned worship: nation, race, pleasure, and wealth.

Third, the faithful should recognize that the scientists at La Jolla were not of one mind. Roughgarden, an Episcopalian, took issue sharply with Weinberg. Konner, who professes no religious faith, characterized the animus of the meetings as a "den of vipers." It is especially important for religious communities to speak out with balance and mature understanding — if for no other reason than for the sake of the more balanced and mature views of the scientists who do not fall in line behind Dawkins and Weinberg. Millions of those scientists, of course, are in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples every Holy Day. The classical virtue of hospitality, even to the hostile ones, must be evident among believers.

Fourth, particularly for the sake of the scientists in our communities, the faithful must make clear that they recognize the challenge of science to traditional religion, and that they will engage that challenge as a whole community — scientists and non-scientists shoulder-to-shoulder — without responding in kind to the cultured despisers.

Finally, believers tend to be concerned with the wholeness of the body politic. There was a kind of "devil may care" tone among those in La Jolla who wielded the baseball bat against religion. Religion and science are both so fully embedded in American life that any warfare between them, let alone the attempt to eradicate one or both of them, will deeply rupture the fabric of our society. Whatever challenges religious communities face, the aim is to heal society, not fracture it.

In an ironic turn, Neil Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, spoke passionately about his calling to become an astronomer. It was not God who called him, but "the universe," when he was a boy visiting a planetarium. He and most of his hearers considered this to be an anti-God affirmation; introducing God into his vocation would stifle his quest for knowledge, he said.

Is such a testimony really that far removed from authentic religious expression? After all, the "call of the universe" is a very big — even metaphysical—idea; it is not more believable than the idea of a call from God. For a rigorously trained scientific mind to speak of a calling from the universe is no less a confession of faith than to invoke a calling from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The streams of religion and science run deep; both are driven by a strong sense of calling, and both are fundamental to American life. This being the case, might we not do better to drop the baseball bats and start talking?

Streaming videos of the proceedings of the "Beyond Belief" conference are accessible at:
The New Scientist article on "Beyond Belief" may be accessed here:
The New York Times article "A Free-for-All on Science and Religion" by George Johnson is available to "Times Select" subscribers here:

Questions concerning the relations between science and religion will be further addressed at an upcoming conference sponsored by the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago Divinity School. "Physics, Philosophy, Physiology: Three Paths, One Spirited Product" will take place on Friday, January 26, 2007, in Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. For further information, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/conferences/ph3/index.shtml.

Philip Hefner is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and editor-in-chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.

Philip Hefner