I have just finished reading James A. Michener’s book, Space. Published in 1982, the semi-historical novel follows the development of America’s space program from the acquisition of the German rocket scientists at Peenemünde in 1945 to the flyby of the planet Saturn by Voyager 1 in 1980.
After the highly successful moon landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the public’s interest in science waned, and was replaced by a wide-spread return to fundamental religion.
In my opinion it is regrettable that the interest in science was replaced; I believe that science and religion can flourish in complementary harmony.
The biblical writers were performing exactly the same sort of activities as those of today’s scientists. Using the resources at their command, they were looking at the ongoing flow of the Universe, and trying to make sense of it.
Their tools for physical measurement consisted of a straight edge and a compass – there were no clocks, thermometers, or telescopes. Computers, particle accelerators and interplanetary probes were 2,000 years in the future. Even the mathematical zero was 1,000 years away, and the scientific method had to await the arrival of Galileo in the early 17th century.
In common with today, they did have one outstanding piece of equipment: the human brain. Although they were exploring the same world as that of today’s scientists, they had to approach it from a completely different viewpoint. Lacking the tools to investigate the “hard” sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. - the biblical writers attributed their interactions to the will of God.
But it was through the study of human behavior that the Bible became primarily an Ethics book, and its teachings are still relevant today.
One major obstacle to the mutual accommodation of religion and science is a principle that very few people realize: The only thing we can understand about the universe is what we can say about it. Both approaches are trying to do the same thing – describe verbally what is going on.
Religion expresses what is going on by means of stories. What is Genesis but a story about the origin of the universe? What is the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness but a story about the activities of their ancestors? The Bible abounds with stories – remove the stories and there is no Bible. Their truth is in their insights into human behavior, good and bad.
But science also expresses what is going on by means of stories. What is astronomy but a story about the movements of the entities in the universe? What is particle physics but a story about the basic constituents of matter? Remove the stories and there is no science. Their truth is in the discoveries about the physical behavior of the universe.
Most people have no trouble agreeing that while the other guy’s stories are just that – stories, which may be false – my stories are absolutely true.
Religionists need to realize that the scientists’ stories about the physical world provide more guidance in day to day living than the statement, “It is God’s will.” Scientists should admit that their investigations give no guidance regarding ethical behavior.
Although the stories of religion and science are valid and acceptable in their respective worlds, they are open to question in the world of the other.
The individual who understands that can accept both premises.