Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Asking different questions in science and in reigion
I once taught a course with a colleague from the GVSU Philosophy Department titled Ways of Knowing: Science, Mathematics, and Religion. We explored the science method of discovering knowledge primarily through empirical means, experiment, and measurement. Mathematics, however, does not use an empirical method or measurement. Euclid did not discover that triangles had 180 ͦ by measuring a whole lot of them and making a conclusion. No, mathematics discovers by logical proofs. They are different ways of knowing.
Likewise, religious knowledge does not come by empirical method or logical proof, but by experience and by participation in a community. In a similar manner we learn a language, appreciate a sunset or powerful piece of music, and experience love. We don’t learn by empirical measurement, experiment, or logical proof. These are different ways of knowing.
For decades I have also been involved in science and religion dialogue and find many similarities to that in our interfaith dialogue. Some people insist that science and religion are incompatible and pursuing one necessarily involves rejecting the other. Loud voices such as Richard Dawkins, a biologist and outspoken atheist, see no possible peace between these two ways of knowing. Unfortunately, there are religious voices that also say when science discovers something that appears to conflict with religious teachings, then the science must be rejected.
This conflict position is sometimes described as the warfare between science and religion. We recognize, however, that this is just a metaphor. No one expects chemists to pick up guns and attack Congregationalists or physicists to engage in battle with Presbyterians. On the contrary, those of us who have been involved in science and religion dialogue find much benefit in looking at the ways in which these two ways of knowing can be mutually beneficial. Just because the two pursuits ask different questions does not mean that they cannot engage in fruitful dialogue and actually learn from each other. In fact the various disciplines of science themselves ask different questions and yet often learn from each other.
In a similar way, there are those who would insist that religions are necessarily in a conflict with each other and there can be no fruitful conversation between them, believing one requires rejection of the other. Unfortunately, the warfare term here might not be a metaphor when some extremists feel a religious duty to enforce their position through violent means. There is no question about the potential harm that can come from religion, especially when some believe that all religions can be put in one of two categories: 1) my religion and 2) all of the other, false religions.
On the other hand, to say that all religions are essentially the same can also be dangerous. Professor Stephen Prothero, from Boston University, in his book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter, recognizes the important differences in doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience and law. He also argues that each religion asks different questions and to ignore that reality is “dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue.” (Our interfaith book group is beginning this month to discuss Prothero’s book. See information below.)
The various sciences likewise ask different questions: Physics is interested in the fundamental concepts of matter, energy, force and motion; biology is concerned with life and living organisms; psychology seeks to understand mind and behavior; formal sciences like logic and mathematics look at the processes and conclusions from formal reasoning. Prothero suggests a similar distinction among religions and the questions they ask: Judaism is primarily concerned with how one should live; Christianity seeks salvation from the results of sin; Islam teaches submission as the response to an omnipotent God.
The sciences benefit from their various pursuits by asking different questions and developing different approaches, and yet they learn from each other. Perhaps religions can affirm their own insights while at the same time learning from the questions and practices of other faith traditions. That is the goal of our interfaith dialogue. We deepen our own beliefs when we engage with others and learn from their insights, knowledge, and experience.