To be sure, the religiosi do tend to lead with their respective chins. Afghanistan's present version of Islam is repellent. The Church of England is a running soap, almost as funny as Frazier. The Pope's announcement this week that he has acknowledged the truth of evolution, up to a point, a mere 137 years after Charles Darwin explained itin Origin of Species, invites a certain derision; although we might congratulate the Catholics on a fine turn of speed, for it took three centuries to recognise Galileo's cosmology.
But despite its past enormities and its present absurdities, religion is necessary; and the task is not to obliterate religion but to devise one appropriate to our age. It must render unto science whatever belongs to science - the ability to describe the mechanics of the Universe more reliably and completely than ever before. But scientists in turn must avoid the deep philosophical trap of supposing that an explanation that answers the question they happen to have posed says everything that sensible people should want to know. If religion were appropriately broad, then science should nest snugly within it.
The present world is littered with the charred remains of failed religions, but they were founded by cynics or crazies. A more orderly approach is called for. We could begin by asking what religion actually is - although it is probably more fruitful to ask instead what it does: what it is is what it does. We might then ask what the existing religions do; and whatever they have in common can then be taken as the core or even the essence of a new religion. Then we can ask whether this essence is worthwhile; and whether the things that are worthwhile could not simply be labelled as poetry or politics, which would be less grand and less contentious.
In practice, what the great religions have in common is not God; there is no clearly defined deity in Buddhism for example. It turns out, the great religions share only two ingredients, both of which at first sight may look rather nebulous, and even feeble; but the more you look at them the more satisfying they become and the more it becomes obvious that religion and science should not be in conflict.
First, the great religions aspire to provide a complete and coherent account of the Universe, and everything therein - which to early prophets and scholars must have seemed the only proper way to proceed. Each traditional religion encompassed everything: cosmology, biology, human history, and morality - not as a mere collections of essays, like an encyclopaedia, but usually within one single, coherent story. That is marvellous news, for human brains evolved to deal with stories. Think how we remember the plots and sub-plots of films in staggering detail though we might forget the briefest of shopping lists.
Such a narrative cannot be entirely literal. The parts that deal with matters of fact can and should be factually accurate; but the glue that holds it together is imagination. In short, a religious account must be a work of fiction - but as George Eliot said, through fiction we can come nearest to truth. Hamlet, Anna Karenina, and Middlemarch themselves are as "true" as any statement ever made about human life. A religious account would be more saga than novel: not so much Middlemarch as Beowulf.
Unfortunately, the religious narratives presently on offer have been allowed to petrify. Each generation must add its own insights and interpretations to the unfolding tale - a process which is recognised in Judaism, as scholars are invited to add to the Torah; although, for the most part, only in a highly circumscribed manner.
A religion which encouraged infusion of new thought would have no fear of science; in fact, the precise opposite. Of course the account of the world's beginning presented in Genesis is not accurate. How could it be, since it was devised by people who had no access to the relevant data? But neither was it intended as poetry, as it has become fashionable to suggest. It was a proto-theory, and as such was a fine first draft. It is not at all disrespectful to the endeavours of the early prophets to bring their accounts up to date.
A religion that was truly alive would embrace the ideas of Darwin, and of Galileo and Niels Bohr and all the rest, for such ideas would be its nutriment. Meanwhile, scientists who thought a little more broadly would see their endeavours as contributions to the grand narrative - the collective attempt of humanity to tell its own story and hence to provide context, which perhaps is as near as we can hope to come to meaning.
Nor need the religiosi object that science reduces mystery, which they see as an insult to God. That idea is itself blasphemous. God is not a conjuror whose tricks seem tawdry when exposed. Awe of the Universe increases with knowledge - it is the appetite that grows from what it feeds on. Dawkins himself has made precisely this point. Indeed we can reasonably argue that the principal role of science is not to change the Universe, but to enhance appreciation. The provision of technologies is merely a somewhat dubious bonus.
But religion is not simply descriptive. It also seeks to define how the world ought to be and, more specifically, what our attitudes should be - towards each other, our fellow creatures, and to the fabric of the Universe at large. In short, religions aim specifically to refine our emotional responses.
Without emotion we are not simply dehumanised, but - as the most modern science is increasingly demonstrating - almost literally paralysed. There is a psychological condition caused by injury to the brain which robs people of emotion. Such people can never make decisions; no course of action seems preferable to any other. More broadly, we do not know what is true except through an emotional response that is effectively aesthetic. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Indeed, computers are deeply stupid not because they cannot think but because they cannot feel and so they simply do not know what is true. In fact they do not "know" anything.
David Hume concluded after many years of moral philosophising that ethics, in the end, depends upon feelings; in the main, moral philosophers do not argue their way to an ethical position but merely seek to justify the way they feel. Yet emotions can clearly be refined. This is obviously true of aesthetics, which is why people drift from, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber to Schubert, as their knowledge of music increases.
All religions seek to cultivate emotional response by specific psychological devices: prayer, contemplation, ritual. At their worst such techniques are pernicious, producing the frenzies that lead to the messiest of wars. But at best they foster precisely that state of tranquillity that enables us to make moral decisions most reliably, when all the conflicting influences of egotism and jingoism have been tidied away.
It is at least perverse to cultivate the intellect and leave emotional response to hazard, and if religion did nothing but encourage tranquillity it would be worthwhile. But it does do more. It also supplies the central cohesive narrative, which provides content for contemplation.
Nothing could be more important than the reconciliation of science and religion. Putting the matter crudely, science gives people power, and religion, in its broadest sense, decides what they do with it. We need more than the Pope's piecemeal acknowledgement of evolutionary theory; and a great deal more than the Goebbels-esque response of some scientists, who reach for their revolvers when they hear the word "religion".
It may not be obvious what a religion that was truly appropriate to the 21st century would look like. But it is well worth finding out.Reuse content