Defending Religion

This column ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on December 4, 2006. It also headlined the main UPI website’s religion section that day.

I no longer feel the need to defend God. It seems to me that God is fairly well beyond the reach of human ill-will, and even if God were not so remote, God hardly would need my help in the face of a human assault on the Divine Person.

But religion is different. Though entirely related to matters divine, religion is an human endeavor subject to the frailties and failings of such work as comes from the imaginations of imperfect minds. It is easy to criticize religion. Though I am a religious person, and though religion, in many ways, has come to define who I am, I have been among religion’s critics. However, from time to time, I am moved to say a word or two in defense of religion, an activity that, in the end is probably less a defense of religion than it is an apology for who I am as a religious person.

Such was my reaction to an article published in the New York Times on November 21, about a conference entitled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”. The conference was held early in November at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and according to the Times the event disintegrated into a relentless barrage of rhetorical over-ripe tomatoes, hurled back and forth between religious adherents and the detractors of faith, with a distinct advantage going to the secularists.

According to the Times, the conference participants’ barbs against religion included Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg’s assertion that “the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief,” and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that the religious education of children is “brainwashing” and “child abuse.”

My interest piqued by the Times story, I surfed my way to the conference’s website where I found and watched long portions of the event’s lectures. It’s clear to me that the event was an organized opportunity for science to deliver unto faith what George W. Bush might call “A Thumppin’.”

There was a lot of talk about the superiority of science, not just as a method for observing the universe but also for providing meaning and morality. Religion frequently was panned as being a primitive nuisance, better at making war than furthering the work of the human mind.

Here’s what I wish I could have said to the scientists in defense of religion—that often flawed, terribly confusing, frail, human endeavor that, for better or for worse, has filled my life with wonder:

Until the secular scientific community can produce a human with the compassion of Mother Theresa or the inspirational humanitarian leadership of Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi, or the Dali Lama, I cannot share Dr. Weinberg’s assertion that religious belief is a nightmare.

Until I am given evidence that science ever has inspired music that can compare to a Bach cantata, I will maintain that the world needs religion and will reject Richard Dawkins’ suggestion that the religious education of children is abusive.

It is true that religion has earned a well-deserved bad reputation for inspiring humans to wage cruel warfare upon one another, but science has enabled us to kill with unimaginable ferocity, and there is nothing particular to science that inspires the forgiveness and reconciliation necessary to make peace. That’s the work of religion.

Let me be quick to say that religious dogma has no place in the laboratory. Any faith that fears scientific discovery and the free exchange of ideas is like a garden that fears fertilization. Religion needs knowledge of every kind to keep it healthy and honest.

At the same time, I have a hard time imagining that scientists like Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins have not found their lives enriched by the gifts of religion. Is it possible that they have not stood in wonder before a canvas by El Greco? Have they remained unmoved by Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail? Have they never felt the grace of compassion or kindness from a stranger?

Even the non-religious enjoy the benefits of faith. Belief is part of what makes the world a better place. Surely even the most secular of scientists can recognize that a life unwilling to accommodate both empirical knowledge and the beautiful mysteries of faith is a life bereft of great happiness.

4 thoughts on “Defending Religion

  1. Ben,

    Three cheers for a wonderful commentary!

    As one who has spent a lifetime synthesizing science and faith into a life and career path, I ask you allow me to paraphrase your words into some personal observations.

    Is it is not also true that science should have earned a well-deserved bad reputation for inspiring humans to wage cruelty of all sorts, not merely war, upon one another? NAZI Germany, the U.S.S.R. – Marxism being “scientifically true,” justified sending dissenters into a Gulag of “mental hospitals,” as they must be insane to disagree – and various cruel eugenics crusades come to mind.

    Can it not also be said that, any science that fears spirituality and the free exchange of all ideas is like a garden that fears fertilization? Does science not need knowledge of the human experience of every kind, to include spirituality, to keep it healthy, honest, but most importantly, humble?

    Best regards,

    Randy Shadoe

  2. “Let me be quick to say that religious dogma has no place in the laboratory. Any faith that fears scientific discovery and the free exchange of ideas is like a garden that fears fertilization. Religion needs knowledge of every kind to keep it healthy and honest.”

    This would be nice if it were true, but it’s simply not the reality we live in. I’m a firm believer that religion enslaves the minds of its followers with the fear of hell, hindering them from searching for answers elsewhere. You are a religious minority. There are still a vast number of people in the world that will never touch a book by Dawkins or Harris for fear that it is blasphame or that it will shake their faith. Religion has steadily blocked or thwarted scientific advances, while steadily denying their truth or validity. God is the easy comforting answer to a difficult question that man has been faced with. To cover ourselves in the warm embrace of delusion, however, is not beneficial to mankind’s enlightenment. As people steadily fight against stem-cell research, I have to bang my head against the wall and scream to the invisible. Religion and God, must defend themselves if for no other reason that they continue to shape what people will live, die, and sometimes kill for. Certainly something of such importance must have some sound defense other than the comforting false truths of blind faith.

  3. Dear Alpha,

    Thanks for the post.

    You and I share a distaste for the harmful and destructive ignorance that has marked too much of humankind’s religious experience. But that’s only half of the equasion. Would you want to live in a world that didn’t include Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, Ghandi or Martin Luther King?

    To judge religion on its negative manifestations alone is like judging science as evil because it has given us the nuclear bomb, and techonology that has lead directly to global warming.

    Here’s my Calvinist prejudice: everything humans do has the potential to go wrong. This applies as much to religion as to science. Human endeavors also have the potential to be wonderful. Weather in science or religion I’ll try to place myself in the second category, and I know you will too.

    Best to You,

    Ben

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