Do Science and Religion Conflict? Yes – And It Matters

Source: Huffington Post

Is there a conflict between religion and science? Some say yes. Others say no. Regardless of their answer, nearly everyone thinks that the relationship between faith and science has to do with competing knowledge and truth claims, where science says one thing about the world and religion says another. But what if the main tension between science and religion is about something else entirely?


In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that ours is a remarkably peaceful era. He may be right, but economist Robert Reich has warned that a “new tribalism“ is undoing centuries of progress toward a more united world. Conflicts are simmering everywhere. From the reignited Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East to rising right-wing nativism in the West, the powers of ethnic jingoism and irrational loyalty are making a comeback, pulling apart transnational fabrics and sending shock waves through the established order.

But what’s the appeal of tribalism? Why are people choosing Balkanization over a peaceful, interconnected world? Cue the science-religion conflict. In Western societies, science is a de factosource of meaning and moral authority. Writers like Sam Harris and Michael Shermer pen bestsellers about how science is a source of moral guidance. Just thinking about science can make peoplebehave more morally and fairly. But in its role as a moral ideology, science points almost exclusively at the future. Advocates for scientific humanism write disparagingly about the past, if they write about it at all. For them, science promises the ceaseless forward march of progress.

Yet here’s the thing: homo sapiens needs more than a progressive future. Researchers have found, for instance, that even knowing the stories of family ancestors is one of the single best predictors of adolescent mental health. Psychologists such as Erik Erikson have argued that carrying on cultural traditions is a basic psychological need. But traditions, by definition, aren’t oriented toward the future. They’re rooted in the past.


Recently, I took a walk to the top of Fort Hill in Roxbury, Boston. In the Revolutionary War, this hill was occupied by a British fort marking the edge of the occupation of Boston. Now it’s a park with spectacular views of the surrounding New England hills. Standing there, it’s easy to imagine the years rolling backward, to a time when red-coated British soldiers manned the fort and woodsmoke and farms dotted the horizon.

As I imagined this, a sudden sense of meaning swept over me. The painful history of my country came alive. It became more than an abstraction. It was a living memory.

This first-person plunge into the imagined past made me feel unexpectedly rooted. Secure. I wasn’t celebrating the moral wrongs of America’s past – slavery, warfare – but I was, temporarily and imaginatively, inhabiting an age whose echoes had decisively shaped my own. It made me feel connected to some larger cycle. Inspired.

But along with this flush of comfort came a realization: this almost never happens to me.

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