Religion is often seen as an impediment to science. Think of the arguments that creationists pit against evolution. Some scientists have suggested a kind of necessary apartheid between the two. A recent statement from the National Academy of Sciences argues that "science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience." In his recent book, "Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life," evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould concurs, arguing for "non-overlapping magisteria."
But it seems clear to me that, although sometimes troubled and often misconstrued, the relationship between science and religion is more complex and potentially more promising than America's perennial arguments over creationism suggest. While it is true that science (with its emphasis on testing hypotheses to achieve proof) and religion (with its appeal to ritual and spirituality) represent quite different aspects of culture, there are benefits to seeing them as symbiotic. I'd go so far as to suggest that finding ways for science and religion to work together may be vital for our future.
Thrill seekers may scale Everest, bungee jump off the walls of Yosemite Valley and dive with the sharks, but scientists are humanity's greatest adventurers. They are descending into the depths of the unknown, uncovering the mathematical foundations of the cosmos, deciphering the molecular cryptography of genes, unveiling the inner activities of our brains. They are picking their way along the edge of the universe, using their telescopes to explore an infinite ocean of planetary worlds. Along the way they have given us one techno-miracle after another: radar, plastics, antibiotics, vaccines, high-yield grains, satellites, MRIs, the Internet. An infinite treasure trove of further discoveries lies ahead.
Just as each of these discoveries has transformed human experience in the 20th century, we can expect others to reshape the 21st, the 22nd and, for that matter, the 4,725th. It is impossible to anticipate where these changes will lead--what good and what evil might come of each. The ever-accelerating adventure makes for an intoxicating ride. Questions of where we are and where we should go need to be addressed.
Today, we hold the keys to our own destiny as never before. Biotechnologists are exploring ways to stop the aging process. Computer scientists may learn to build intelligent beings like ourselves. Physicists even dream of creating new universes. With such God-like power comes both great opportunity and great responsibility.
That's where the role of religion comes in.
First, science needs religion because, as Einstein put it, "Religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame." Consider the very real prospect that biomedical technology could cure aging in the 21st century, perhaps allowing beneficiaries to live for 500 years or more. Should scientist plow ahead with that technology? Or should they hold back to consider the possible consequences? What would be needed for humanity to adapt to such an astonishing possibility? For a planetary scientist such as myself, who measures time not in years but in millenniums, the questions are more far-reaching: Might it even be possible to inspire a transformation in the human spirit so that radically extending our lifespan would be a blessing to us all, rather than a curse? It seems clear to me that, as never before, finding aspects of shared moral and spiritual purpose for such an undertaking is crucial. Religion can and must respond to this and other massive challenges posed by science.
Second, over the long term, science needs religion to help persuade people that the scientific enterprise is a noble endeavor, worthy of their support. Many people get cold feet, for example, about genetics research that ranges from agricultural genetics, to recombinant DNA, human genomics and stem cell research. They always will react with Frankenstein fears if they are not persuaded that the scientific enterprise is closely bound together with a humanism that respects and protects the dignity and worth of human beings.
Third, religion can inspire scientists with a vision of what is most valuable and worthwhile in the scientific enterprise. Take just one example: Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, has stressed the importance of developing a cure for malaria. The disease is not an economic priority for pharmaceutical companies; very little money has been invested in creating a vaccine; malaria is very rare in the United States; its victims are mostly poor, typically children and pregnant women in Africa. Yet it infects roughly half a billion people--almost 10 percent of the world's population--and kills more than a million a year. Varmus's humane leadership is supported by an ethical culture that has been sustained over the millenniums largely by religion. That kind of moral vision is needed to ensure that the continuing adventure of science is guided toward such humane ends.
Scientists often find it difficult to address topics such as vision and purpose, that are not intrinsically scientific. But the dialogue between religion and science is spreading. It is one that we at the Templeton Foundation have been trying to foster. One pioneer in this movement, Ian Barbour--a physicist and winner of this year's Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion--worked under Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago just after World War II. Barbour's experience with the astonishing power that nuclear science had unleashed led him to study theology, and to engage others in getting beyond stagnant and ill-informed scientific criticisms of religion and the religious criticisms of science.
It is dangerous to dismiss religion as a negative artifact of humanity's pre-rational past, as many people do today. Roughly 100 million people have died during this century alone in vast political experiments that presumed this belief to be true. Our scientific and technological creativity hurtles forward at a rate that is both wondrous and worrisome. We need to think carefully about where we are going and what our most important purposes are. There are no easy answers. But religion can help us to pose and debate those questions.
Charles Harper is a planetary scientist and executive director of the John Templeton Foundation, which is dedicated to exploring the relationship between science and religion.