Liberating Science

The fact that prominent scientists occasionally take time from their busy schedules to fire off a broadside against religion and religious believers freely bare their fangs at science shows that we need some efforts at reconciliation. I am reminded of schoolyard bullies when specialists in either realm make claims of exclusivity. Religion and science are both here to stay, and they’d better learn to get along. I just finished reading the remarkable little book The Sacred Depths of Nature by biologist Ursula Goodenough. While declaring herself a non-theist, Goodenough, the child of a Methodist minister, preserves a profound respect for the sacred in a concept she calls “religious naturalism.” Her brief book, which a colleague compared to a daily devotional, contains more good sense than all the enraged professionals bellowing at each other from either side of an unbreechable gulf. Uncompromising in her science, Goodenough is not suspicious of the human religious impulse, but embraces it in the expressions of nature. It is an approach I found liberating and amazingly conciliatory. It lacks the territoriality of Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) and preserves the integrity of the human person in all its complexity.

The day I finished the book the headlines of the paper announced the premature death of Sally Ride, another woman who moved science in the right direction. Ride’s sister is a Presbyterian minister, while Ride herself was a physicist as well as the first American woman in space. Aboard the space shuttle Challenger, she made history also as the youngest American in space. Typical of the imperialist national attitude that unfortunately still reigns supreme, space had been tacitly declared a man’s world. Sally Ride shattered that glass ceiling at 17,500 miles per hour. Even so, change seems to have decelerated once again to far below sub-orbital speed. Religion is partly to blame. A deep component in our culture, religions in the western world have traditionally asserted male superiority. Even those who claim God to be sexless can’t really conceive of a big person without some gender. The day after her death and the headlines had shifted from mourning to astonishment that she was gay.

The loss of Sally Ride is a loss to science, for she was in the heaven formerly occupied by God, showing women the way. I am, however, comforted by the efforts of Ursula Goodenough to keep the dialogue open. Too often, it seems, that conflict is the cost of disagreement. One of the observations of astronauts is that long periods confined with the same small coterie of people lead to inevitable disagreements. The question facing us all—for our planet is not so large after all—is how we will choose to deal with differing worldviews. It was declared that science would eventually bury religion, once reason had taken hold and superstition had run its course. Although the grave was dug, it has never been filled. Maybe we should all read the sensible approach of Goodenough and just be glad that we’ve all had a chance to be here at all. And remember Sally Ride as a fearless explorer, a hero rather than a spectacle.

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