Okwaisie: Science and religion can, should coexist

By Daniel Okwaisie Columnist

The role of religion in developed, progressive societies is frequently up for debate. The past few weeks saw extensive media coverage of this tension, even beyond the yearly “war on Christmas.” Yesterday, The New York Times wrote that Indonesia, one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia, is modifying its elementary school curriculum to eliminate science and social studies classes to increase religious instruction. The new curriculum highlights an ideological difference between those who would rather focus on scientific and secular studies to bolster the country’s growing economy and those who would rather that students receive more instruction in traditional ethics and character development.

A very similar ideological difference was underscored in the United States in 2012 when the Texas Board of Education was petitioned to ban “critical thinking skills” from their public schools. The religiously influenced petitioners believed critical thinking instruction should end because it has no purpose but to modify students’ behavior, challenge their fixed beliefs and undermine parental authority. The consequences of eliminating critical thinking skills from public school curricula could extend to college and the workplace, where the ability to think critically is an asset.

Science and religion can peacefully coexist if we agree that both can help provide answers to the many questions we face as human beings. These schools of thought can be used to reinforce each other, as it is possible to embrace science without shirking one’s religious beliefs. Countless religious traditions, like Catholicism, Judaism and Hinduism, have embraced science as one way to understand reality.

We could completely discard religion if science could tell us it had all the answers we need, but it cannot. Science has dealt in particular with the “how” of life and left anyone who wants the “why” unsatisfied. For instance, it is OK to tell us about how the whole universe was a compressed mass and then exploded to bring everything into existence. But pose the question, “What is the purpose of life?” or “Why do we exist?” and many scientists might revert to the answer that we just exist as a consequence of matter.

The standpoint that humans exist as a consequence of nature overlaps with another philosophical option between religion and science. Nihilism is the secular philosophical standpoint that there is no inherent purpose or meaning in life, thus people construct their own purpose.

However, for many, this answer just doesn’t cut it, given the deliberate and intelligible manner in which life works. Although many other alternatives to nihilism exist, religion historically has proven an especially popular method of soothing the curious mind regarding the deep philosophical questions to which the accuracy of scientific processes will always lack a definite answer. Many religious schools of thought provide a sense of comfort that secular philosophies might not.

Clearly, this tension can affect many aspects of day-to-day life, both in the U.S. and abroad — even in government. Last summer, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that he got on his knees and said a prayer for rain during a drought in the Midwest that held many farmers and their crops hostage for a number of months. Tom Flynn, the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, charged that prayer doesn’t work and that Vilsack’s praying constituted the government practicing religion and wallowing in superstition. Talk about overreaching. It’s understandable that the Council for Secular Humanism doesn’t believe in prayer, but the secretary, who has the right to pray, is an unnecessary overextension that keeps science and religion from coexisting.

Religious people sometimes also create a barrier to philosophical coexistence. The incident in Texas is a perfect example of this type of situation. But when did it become a sin to think critically? Many scientists, such as Einstein, balanced religion, science, skepticism and intensive critical inquiry into one cohesive belief system. The fear on the part of religious parents and politicians that teaching science strips people of their faith — as in Texas — or the belief that decreasing science education to focus on morals will improve society — as in Indonesia — are unfounded. People give up their faith because they want to, not because they are taught science, and people can find many paths to morality and improving society.

Science and religion can and must peacefully coexist. Schools should give kids the chance to insert answers for the numerous questions we face as human beings without limiting their critical thinking. And for groups like the petitioners in Texas who fear that science erodes faith, I entreat them to consider a quote by one of the greatest scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, who believed in a God of “actions, creating, preserving and governing all things … according to his good will and pleasure.” An increased understanding of other points of view can best help societies to thrive and move forward.

Write Daniel at [email protected].