The Adolescent Squabble of Science vs. Religion
One of the books that I have been looking forward to reading for some time is Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books. Happily, a little brown package arrived in the mail today! I have enjoyed Robinson’s fiction immensely (Gilead and Home obviously come to mind), but haven’t had a chance to read her nonfiction just yet. I am very glad for the opportunity to correct this regrettable deficiency.
At any rate, the arrival of this book combined with my research on the new atheism in grad school, combined with bit of writing I recently did for another publication which touched on similar themes, reminded me of an interview with Robinson in The Atlantic that I recently bookmarked. I was particularly intrigued by her response to a question about whether or not science and religion are “mutually exclusive” and are destined to remain locked in a struggle for “possession of a single piece of turf.” Robinson’s response strikes me as wise and accurate, on a number of levels:
I’m not impressed by the quality of the conversation on either side of that controversy. There’s better religious thought, and there’s better scientific thought, and they don’t engage.
There are people who, for one reason or another, have a bad experience with religion. They drop out at the age of 12—this seems to be characteristic of most of religion’s major critics. And then they spend the rest of their lives attacking a 12-year-old’s conception of religion. Part of the responsibility certainly does lie with religion, because the people who claim it often don’t do it any justice at all.
On the other hand, there’s an idea of science which is not serious. A notion of science which presents itself as all-knowing, all rationalizing, when in fact the best science has always engaged with mystery. With the possibility of error. And the whole complexity of how human beings can know what they know, and so on.
Science is very alert to error, excited by it, pleased by it! If someone can reverse some important position that science has taken, a thrill passes through the scientific community. That tends not to be the way that it’s represented. So I think there’s something tacky, and sort of below the dignity of both sides, in the controversy that’s going on now.