Theõrίa presents: Religion in the Modern West

What distinguishes religious belief from scientific knowledge? Does religion have anything legitimate to say about science, and vice versa? What are the (supposed) differences between these two realms of understanding to begin with? On March 28th, Building 21 hosted Kenneth Miller and an accompanying panel of curious minds to explore such questions. Miller, a biologist affiliated with Brown University, has spent a significant portion of his career thinking about and publicly advocating against the instruction of creationism within American public school curricula. This fact becomes more interesting when one notes that Miller also chooses to identify himself as a Christian. I found myself somewhat surprised to learn about the presence of these two facets of Miller’s life, something which perhaps attests to a greater shared assumption that ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ outlooks are incommensurable. Publicly, Miller has advocated for the instruction of evolution within public education: something which he has pursued by writing a science textbook, and by speaking on behalf of teachers and their right to teach evolution to school boards throughout the United States.

One consideration which quickly emerged in Miller’s address pertained to the matter of distinguishing the categories of ‘science’ and ‘religion’. Miller gestured towards the notion that scientific and religious modes of inquiry are similar, in that they both endeavor to explain or articulate the causal forces behind otherwise unknown (or unknowable) phenomena. However, the two perspectives might be said to differ with regards to their epistemological approaches towards that which is unknown. Whereas science views the unknown as something which changes in accordance with the uncovering of different pieces evidence and technological advancement, religion approaches the unknown as something more static, something which is not meant to be known. Miller reasoned that both epistemic positions can be recognized as logical in their own right, and that both can be said draw upon ‘faith’: (Christian) religious faith indicating a trust in the efficacy of forces and realities beyond those of one’s own subjective life, and scientific faith referring to a trust in the idea that the world can be made intelligible, and that the human mind can serve as an instrument to make this happen. Similarly, there are limitations to the capabilities of both dispositions. “Religion appears where science ends,” Miller related, venturing further to suggest that rather than considering how the two exist ‘against’ one another, that it would likely prove more productive to explore the common human desire for knowledge that they both reveal.

In what ways are these two epistemologies commensurable, and how might their overlap shape the ways in which we contend with our present lived situation? Miller concluded his remarks by speaking to the ways in which both religion and science act as counterparts in the process of making society. Just as scientific inquiry provides new knowledge, so too does religion address the challenge of integrating this knowledge into a cohesive ethical framework. As scientific research continues to deepen our understanding of pressing challenges such climate change and genetic modification, religion will likewise play an important role in underscoring the particular moral and social questions that this exploration brings. The two can be said to relate to each other insofar as they identify not merely what there is to know, but also what is to be done with what is known. Quoting Einstein, Miller remarked, “There are only two ways to believe: that nothing is a miracle or that everything is.” This enchanted approach towards learning seems to undergird Miller’s life and scientific work, as he finds inspiration in the recognition that science and religion respectively make possible what the other cannot.

Ty Cary