Fourteen statements to help people see what religion is or can be
This week I attended a day meeting and conference in Oxford, in the area of science, religion and education. It was organised by the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) project, see website here.
There were some short talks and discussion sessions, with people from around the world including academics and professionals in secondary school education and teacher training. The main thing I learned from the meeting is that in various countries (England, Australia, Spain were mentioned, for example) the state of knowledge and understanding about what science and religion are is very low among young people at school. Also, teachers are ill-equipped to help them, and education policy tends to leave no time in the curriculum for gaining some basic philosophical maturity. Science is taught mainly through facts and methods, but students may never realise that its methods cannot decide on crucial things like ethics, civil and criminal law, political goals and everyday decision-making. Meanwhile religion is seen as about handed-down beliefs. The general idea the young people pick up seems to be that science is a sort of awesome authority, and religion disagrees with it.
The word “religion” is itself used by different adults to mean different things. The meaning I intend here is roughly the one it always used to have, i.e. the attempt by communities of people to make sense of their lives in an overall framework of meaning, with an emphasis on wisdom and right living (see here for further remarks).
I think the difficulty faced by teachers and pupils is that whereas science is comparatively easy to define, religion is difficult. One can say, with reasonable precision, what science is and how it works, without requiring a lengthy essay or a lot of time in class. Saying what religion is is much more difficult. Science is visible, you get on and do it; religion is under the surface, moulding your attitudes. And one of the first lessons of religion is that religion can go wrong, so a mature religious person will carry a certain hesitation about religion. Such people know that religion is not an end in itself; it is just the word we use for our ongoing attempts to get at Y, where Y is hard to define, but is all about meaning and purpose. Science says things like “A and B together produce C”; religion says things like “O” and “sorry”.
How can we teach the relationship of science and religion correctly? What people commonly assume is that they are alternatives: either in direct opposition, or coming into play at different moments. But this is wrong. In fact both address the whole of our lives and our world, seeking to bring understanding, and at any moment both can be present, yet without either excluding the other. The title of this piece, “Religion is a Fourier transform”, uses the mathematical idea of Fourier transform to try to illustrate this. A given set of data, such as a series of sounds, can be presented either as a sequence of air pressures varying with time, or as a set of frequencies that are present at all times. These two perspectives are both valuable and neither replaces the other. Rather, they provide different kinds of information about the given data. As an analogy for science and religion, this is extremely limited of course, but it is intended to help people to see that religion might have something central to offer even after all the science has been done.
Religious response, when it is done well, takes our experiences and gives them back to us after a remarkable transformation which says, ‘here, you can look at it this way’.
Pondering on this, I decided to try to come up with some further images or pithy statements that get at the relationship of science and religion correctly. I hope that this might be helpful to teachers, and might also act against the prejudices that permeate modern society. No brief phrase can do anything but hint at the correct picture, of course, but pithy statements can be helpful if they get people thinking. They might help especially in enabling people to learn, in this area, the first lesson in all learning, which is to know that you do not already understand.
There follows below the statements that I came up with, and I added one more to the end of the list, which is a helpful thought from Philip Yancey. Although these statements are here in a list, each has been carefully thought about. Each one invites a moment of pause to take in what the statement may be doing. If any are helpful, feel free to use them or tweet them. I have sometimes alternated between the words ‘religion’ and ‘reconnection’; this is deliberate (see here for more on this).
The great partnership
Science is a time series; religion is a Fourier transform.
Science can teach you some dance steps; reconnection is the dance.
Science empowers; religion relinquishes power.
Science shows us our house; religion shows us our home.
Science asks ‘what is it made of?’; reconnection asks ‘what is it?’
Atheism is a no-go theorem; faith is questioning the premise.
Science is good; religion says there is good.
Science thrills; religion challenges.
Science is the product of hope; religion is the channel of hope.
Religion says “let there be light”; science says “there is light”.
Science has a generous instinct; religion is a generous instinct.
Science is about the notes; religion is about the key signature.
Science is learning to speak; reconnection is learning to see.
The opposite of faith is not doubt but fear.
Morning, Interior, Maximilien Luce (1858–1941 Paris) 1850, (the Met, New York)
(It shows a picture of a man being scientific and religious at the same time.)