Science, Ethics and Religion: Partnership or Incompatibility?

There are few more contentious issues in the fields of theology and science than the interaction between the fields of theology and science, as well as among their respective and manifold subfields. Stereotypically, ‘believers’ are cast as ignorant and fundamentalist in their anti-intellectual espousal of religion as the only answer with the Bible (or some other sacred scripture) serving as the guidebook par excellence and the literal instruction of God.

Likewise, ‘scientists’ are painted as unapologetically ‘secular’ with no time for superstitious and dogmatic faith claims that betray ignorance, while at the same time engaged in the esoteric practice of academic irrelevance — no longer a part of a practical enterprise of scientific experiment, but comfortably reclining in the elitist bastion that is the Ivory Tower.

Neither picture is quite accurate, blurred and out-of-focus due to the incorrect use of not-so-accurate lenses.

This perennial conflict, a seeming battle of worldviews, has again occupied a place in my mind today because of an essay I recently read by the esteemed physicist Freeman Dyson titled, “Can Science be Ethical?” which was collected in his 2006 book, The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review of Books, 2006). Although I have often reflected on this matter as it is something that is of great interest to me, particularly from a theological perspective, Dyson’s remarks in this little essay are worth sharing and considering in some detail.

Dyson is no stranger to success and controversy for that matter. Perhaps one of the greatest living physicists, he received his first professorial post at Cornell University without holding a PhD. He is one of the founders of the science that allowed for the harnessing of Nuclear energy for civilian and commercial use, as well as the namesake for a number of significant theories and formulae in physics. He is the recipient of almost every single honor in his field, and in other fields, except the Nobel Prize — something about which many of his colleagues have commented, suggesting that the Nobel committee has time-and-again “fleeced” Dyson (to quote on Nobel Laureate).

Although he never earned a doctorate, he has since made up for it with 21 honorary degrees and, while not a Nobel, he is the 2000 recipient of the renown Templeton Prize in the Field of Science and Religion, the highest-paying of the international prizes (more than 1.5 million). Oh, he’s also a member of the Royal Society.

Anyway, enough CV talk; the question he is interested in discussing is whether or not science in se can be ethical? What underlies this concern is the apparent dependence on external criteria, oftentimes dismissed by some scientists, that adjudicate ethical behavior from the unethical. In other words, ethics tends to be the realm of the religious, the would-be antagonist of science. What can be done about that?

Dyson suggests that social justice is the connecting principle that offers something of a bridge between the two fields. This is how he introduces the idea:

As a general rule, to which there are many exceptions, science works for evil when its effect is to provide toys for the rich, and works for good when its effect is to provide necessities for the poor…’toys for the rich’ means not only toys in the literal sense but technological conveniences that are available to a minority of people and make it harder for those excluded to take part in the economic and cultural life of the community. “Necessities for the poor” include not only food and shelter but adequate public health services, adequate public transportation, and access to decent education and jobs.

Dyson offers a critique of science that implicated contemporary “pure science” as well as “applied science.” The pure sciences have fallen victim to a self-perpetuating circle of irrelevance, to an extent that Dyson (who rightly passes as a ‘pure scientist’) says, “the main social benefit provided by pure science in esoteric fields is to serve as a welfare program for scientists and engineers.”¬†Similarly, the applied scientists are likewise culpable, if for their greed and focus on profitability over serving the good.

“The free market will not by itself produce technology friendly to the poor. Only a technology positively guided by ethics can do it,” he writes.

At which point Dyson elicits the assistance of an ally once considered an enemy: religion.

It we are wise, we shall also enlist in the common cause of social justice the enduring power of religion. Religion has in the past contributed mightily to many good causes, from the building of cathedrals and the education of children to the abolition of slavery. Religion will remain in the future a force equal in strength to science and equally committed to the long-range improvement of the human condition.

Dyson is correct. While it may be difficult to see over the fog of anti-religious scientists fighting with anti-intellectual believers, Truth speaks above the battle and reminds us of the importance of engaging both traditions. Like anthropology and history, two disparate academic fields that can learn from one another while remaining independent, so too science and religion can meet and still remain separate.

I am convinced that it is not the content that prohibits better communication and engagement between science and religion, but attitude on both sides. The intellectual (or spiritual) hubris of each field blinds its adherents to the reality that the other is not the enemy, but a partner in betting understanding our world and experience.

One Response to “Science, Ethics and Religion: Partnership or Incompatibility?”

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing this outstanding scientist’s insights!

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