Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.


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2 responses to “Religion and science need not be at loggerheads”

12 03 2013
  Eugene Salganik (11:39:21) :

Dave,

A new generation of entrepreneurs is making me more optimistic than ever. Many products and services that are being developed are making our world a better place. I think that the “me” generation is passe and the new socially-minded group of people that feels more comfortably with geographical, cultural, and religious issues, same issues that caused hatred and wars in the past, is the new norm. My son who was born in the USA has a group of friends who are from Greece, Afghanistan, Armenia, Ukraine, etc., and I do not mean through Facebook. And their mentalities are all alike. If we take political and religious fanatics out of the way, our world will become a much greater place than it ever was.

13 03 2013
  Giles Boutel (12:56:48) :

The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives.

I think there is only one real religious value amongst those (the last), though they are all stated in religious idiom. The others are simple ethical guidelines which may owe their original formulation or codification to religious thought (which even the atheist should respect) but whose worth can be, as you say, continually and progressively questioned without the need of a religious framework to lend them authority.

The final value is perhaps the most interesting, being a strictly religious claim. If taken as true, it creates a rationale for accepting the other values, but, if taken as false, in no way lessens any intrinsic value of the others as ethical precepts. Instead it replaces the untestable ‘divinity’ rationale with an obligation to provide measurable, and hence potentially scientifically appraisable, benefit before being considered a ‘valuable’ value.

Obviously neither your words nor this comment are complete theological essays, but I thought I’d put forward the condensed view from the Jedi* side of the fence.

All the best

-Giles

*Not an actual Jedi