This blog has a “science and religion” theme because it is helpful for a blog to be focused: you can’t take on every issue at once. Of course science and religion do touch on pretty much every issue, but when they are mentioned together this tends to focus on interest in rationality and the questioning of religion.

There are three types of issue that tend to come up in this area.

A. What happened?

The first area is debates about this or that aspect of the natural world, such as variation and natural selection, or the primordial structures that gave rise to the cosmic Big Bang, or what can be learned from neuroscience, etc.

B. What is wise?

The second area is the question: what is a mature, responsible, wise and intelligent outlook on the whole of the natural world and human life in it, including its spiritual dimension?

C. What is good?

The third area is moral and ethical dilemmas, especially in things such as human embryo research, efforts to adjust the human genome, climate change, ecology, and beginning- and end-of-life dilemmas.

I am interested chiefly in B. If we get B right, then A will resolve itself and C will be handled not perfectly but as well as we can manage, in an ongoing process of learning.

In this blog I am trying to present various pointers and aids to people who are interested in B. I am mostly trying to be positive about what I think is right, rather than attack what I think is wrong. However, for the sake of clarity it will be necessary to go on the attack every now and then. For example, I oppose the idea, widely touted, that reason and rationality are more fully embraced by atheism (at its best) than by theism (at its best). This is simply untrue.

The Sudoku puzzle pictured above illustrates the relationship between science and religion in the following way. First, it is the same puzzle, and the answers are not furnished at the outset. All the puzzle-solving elements involved in scientific inquiry are included in good religion because, quite simply, science is part of good religion: it is the part suited to discovering the structures of the physical world. Any form of religion that does not recognize and celebrate this is not good religion.

The use of a meaningful word in place of one of the numbers in the puzzle is a pointer to the fact that religion goes further. It dares to assert that we can detect meaningfulness in the patterns of the natural world and of our lives, and we can tell that some things should be put first. It begins to interpret the picture in larger ways, without abandoning the scientific account. Of course many people will embrace some larger meaning without it necessarily involving religious commitment; the point here is simply to say a little about what good religion is like.

Among the elements of item B above, “what is wise?” there must be, obviously, a strong commitment to reason and rationality. I say “obviously” because it is easy to see the dangers of abandoning such a commitment. Reason and rationality are a very important component of the commitments of any sane human being. I will say more about this in next week’s blog entry (see also “hopping mad”). For now, suffice it to say that taking Jesus of Nazareth seriously, and joining oneself to the movement he began, does not involve any compromise of reason or dilution of rationality. It does involve seeing that reason cannot, on its own, resolve moral dilemmas, and a reasoning process cannot, on its own, open your eyes to aesthetic qualities that you are currently unable to perceive. And that is not all that reason cannot do unaided. It cannot, on its own, tell you the laws of physics, nor how to be a good friend, nor how to handle setbacks. Nor will rationality do your apologizing for you, nor offer you the forgiveness you need. And reason cannot tell you who you are.

Having said all that, reason and rationality are important, as I already emphasized. And in order to live alongside one another, we also have to adopt other commitments, such as the commitment not to despise or dehumanize other people out of hand. All such facts show us that we are not each in charge of ourselves, in the sense of some sort of arbitrary dictator who can do anything he pleases. Rather, if we wish to be at all sane or happy, then we must choose to be willing servants of a set of notions whose innate value we recognize. Therefore, there is, for all of us, some sort of bundle of commitments which, together, form our highest values. This bundle is the lodestone that shapes us by calling us and challenging us. A component of being wise is to be consciously aware of this.

A further component to “what is wise?” is the attitude of seeking. We have to abandon the assumption (rather arrogant when you think about it) that we already know, without asking, what the highest truth or the best bundle of commitments might be like—for example, the assumption of atheism, that the highest truth is an impersonal abstraction, rather than truth that calls us in a more personal and intimate way. Abstract principles such as “rationality” and “liberty, equality, fraternity” are of great value, but I can and do question the notion that such abstractions are the highest form of truth. No one can know, nor should anyone claim to know, that the highest or most important realities that humans can recognize are impersonal abstractions. We have to abandon all claims to know, and opt instead for the choice of seeking to learn, admitting that we have much to learn, and humble enough to allow that seeking to learn can include, yes, simply asking.