The New Statesman Essay - Set thine house in order

Religion can survive if it embraces the true spirit of science

As the many shades of Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Hindu continue their strife in all the world's sorriest trouble spots, it is easy to agree with the rationalists, including many a modern scientist, that religion has well and truly had its day. It's a delusion, they say, a primitive world-view for which we just happen to have inherited a predilection, and it's holding humanity back. The Church of England has been dying for decades, so now that George Carey is going, we might as well proclaim for all the world's benefit that secularity is much to be preferred. No sickly and illusory Heaven, but the solid, sunlit uplands of the Enlightenment and humanism await us.

But perhaps we could take the opposite view. Religion has been sadly misused and is too good an idea to abandon. It could again be the unifier of human thought and feeling, the only plausible meeting place for science and the arts, and the safest foundation for ethics and aesthetics. It should not be killed off, but rethought. To be sure, nothing less than resynthesis is needed: a vision of religion grand enough not to keep science at bay, but to embrace it, lock, stock and barrel. Thomas Aquinas attempted just such a synthesis in the 13th century, as he sought to merge the Christianity of his day with the newly discovered proto-science of Aristotle. The Renaissance took his synthesis apart. Is it possible to put it all back together?

The problems are huge. It is not easy even to pin down what religion actually is. But then, all big concepts raise this kind of problem: so do "science", "art", "capitalism", "species" and even "gene". If we simply assert peremptorily that any notion of such a kind means such and such a thing and that's an end of it, in the way that Bitzer, pupil of Thomas Gradgrind, defined "horse" ("Quadruped. Graminivorous."), then we are bound to miss much of the point.

To begin with, all religions - those of Ur and the Maoris and the Bushmen as much as the Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims - try to provide the completest possible account of absolutely everything: what the universe is, how and why it came about, how human beings came into existence and why, and how we should all behave. Scientists of a certain stamp tend to disdain all this: they feel their less discursive descriptions are more to the point. Many a post-Darwinian cleric has tried to avoid direct conflict by claiming that Genesis is poetry. But the fundamentalists of the US, Australia and South Africa see evolution theory as blasphemy, while many biological chums of mine, equally fundamentalist in their way, condemn the lovely tales of Genesis as barbaric nonsense.

But there is another way of looking at all this. The authors of Genesis can, at least plausibly, be seen as true scholars who really were trying to make literal sense of what they saw. They put together an account that, in the absence of potassium-argon dating, is highly commendable. According to modern cosmologists, they got the order somewhat wrong - there was light (energy) before there was a Planet Earth, for example, and grass was not by any means the first land plant. But the general shape of the account is not bad at all: an earth first formless, then with water and dry land, and then living creatures, with human beings among the latecomers.

If the authors of Genesis were true scholars, bent on finding out what is literally the case, they would welcome the new cosmology and biology, which suggests a reality even more wondrous than they envisaged it. Science does progress; it is the fate of all its ideas to be superseded. It is as ridiculous to cling to the cosmology of Genesis as it is to the idea of phlogiston, which chemists dreamt up before they discovered oxygen; and just as ridiculous to deride it. The question of whether the universe was in fact "created" or simply came about, and what either of those ideas can possibly mean, remains open. Science has nothing to say on this and, as Ludwig Wittgenstein advised in such contexts, should thereon be silent.

Even in the absence of out-and-out hostility, relations between modern science and religion are generally touchy, and smack of special pleading. The fashionable notion that science answers "how" questions and religion deals with "why" is too glib. In such guises, the two constantly tread on each other's toes. But if we see religion as a grand narrative, and its more literal-sounding cosmologies as noble first efforts, proposed in the absence of data and formal methods for testing hypotheses, then religion can welcome science. Science need pose no threat to the overall commentary: it just makes it richer. The 17th-century founders of modern western science would have had no problem at all with this idea. Galileo and Newton were devout. So, too, were the somewhat lesser lights, Robert Boyle the physicist and chemist, John Ray the naturalist. For these men, research was an act of reverence. We might turn one of Marx's adages on its head and suggest, like Newton and Ray, that the true purpose of science is not to change the universe, but to enhance appreciation. Bach said much the same about his music as Newton said about his science.

Miracles raise bigger problems. If God made the universe, it seems perverse of him to flout the laws that he imposed on it. Whether he made the universe or not, those laws imply absolutes: no defiance of gravity, nothing faster than light, and so on. In 1748, David Hume put the sceptical position in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: "When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself . . . If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion." Christian conservatives do their faith no favours when they insist that miracles are essential to it. As George Bernard Shaw comments in St Joan, they seem primarily for show, intended to impress. Religion should not need miracles.

We might even suggest that to insist on them is mildly blasphemous, because the universe is wondrous enough as it is. It requires no extra party tricks. Non-scientists accuse scientists of "reductionism", meaning, among several other things, that they try to "reduce" biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. But the term "reduce" should not imply disdain or diminution. As some philosophers and theologians have pointed out, the elements of which living creatures are ultimately composed, notably carbon, are themselves miraculous. Certainly, they surpass all understanding. Aristotle suggested that any exhaustive list of a material's properties must include the things of which it is capable. Carbon, the stuff of soot and diamonds, is capable of life, and that is extraordinary. In short, the laws of physics as they are now thought to be, and the bits and pieces of which the universe is composed, are wonderful enough to be going on with. Who needs miracles?

Modern science reveals a universe even more extraordinary than day-to-day chemistry suggests. That solid objects are not solid, and time is not constant, are commonplaces of modern physics, as some anticipated: "Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,/That time may cease", pleads Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, apparently in the spirit of Einstein. But Lear, it seems, was wrong to say that "nothing will come of nothing". "Nothing" is exactly what the universe seems to have come from. It is far, far weirder than we are able to perceive. Science offers privileged glimpses of all this; but the reality, as many a philosopher observed long before modern physics put its oar in, must for ever be beyond our ken.

It is easy, at this point, to fall into the great theological trap known as "God of the gaps": anything that cannot be explained or envisaged at any one time is put in a great pending tray marked "God", which is gradually whittled away as the scientists get stuck in. "God of the gaps" is not only intellectually feeble, but also ensures that religion as a whole is constantly in retreat, as science encroaches upon it. But the broad notion - that the universe "in reality" is vastly different from how we perceive it to be - does open some very interesting lines of thought.

A powerful theme within all religions is a belief in what might broadly be called "the power of the mind", or "mind over matter". Again, we can easily be lured into a world of spiritualism and exorcism. Within this confused mass, however, are notions that truly deserve to be taken seriously because, if even halfway true, they would be profoundly important. Among them is the phenomenon of "healing". That some people, including many orthodox physicians, have a special ability to heal is beyond reasonable dispute. Some doctors and scientists are dismissive, offering explanations that simply appeal to textbook theories of psychology or neurology. But that is no way to do science, or anything else. As the neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick has so often pointed out, "mind", this extraordinary and universal phenomenon of which we all partake, is not, in effect, understood at all. The "explanations" of present-day science are simply descriptions, stories, that happen to be couched in the vocabulary of nerve physiology. It is at least a reasonable hypothesis that we have, so far, not only failed to describe mind adequately, but have profoundly misconstrued its nature. We may yet discover that the explorations into the nature and the capabilities of mind, made this past few thousand years by gurus of many persuasions, will prove to be a source of profound insight, and of huge value.

The general weirdness of the world also reinforces what many philosophers have been saying for centuries: that human understanding is innately feeble. Kant pointed out that human beings can understand only what they are equipped to understand. Darwin, nearly a century later, reinforced this notion. We are evolved creatures, and our brains, as Richard Dawkins has put the matter, are "survival machines". Our brains partake of chemistry, and chemistry is only an aspect of the whole; and, as survival machines, our brains cotton on only to those aspects of the universe that are pertinent to survival. Natural selection has not equipped us to understand in any broad sense.

What applies to humanity in general applies to science in particular: its explanations will always be incomplete, and always partial. "Science", as the great zoologist Sir Peter Medawar put it, "is the art of the soluble": scientists address only those matters they are at any one time equipped to solve. The point is epistemological (what it is possible to know and to understand), but also ethical and political. The notion that knowledge can in effect be absolute has given rise to a belief that has been growing steadily in the western world since the 17th century: that our control over the world at large can also be absolute. If the deserts are too dry, let them be flooded. If human beings are inadequate, let them be redesigned. Once we see that our knowledge is always partial and horrendously incomplete, we begin to perceive how very arrogant and dangerous such confidence really is. The notion that the universe is for ever beyond our ken suggests that our only reasonable attitude towards it is not one of lordliness, but of reverence. This is an ethical insight; and it comes from science as powerfully as from religion. They should be at one on this.

One of the prime thrusts of all religions is to frame systems of ethics - and, more grandly, to show how those systems flow from the nature of the universe itself. This again is meat and drink to all detractors, both because many particular edicts of religions are repellent to us in the present day, and because they all seem to be saying different things, so they cannot all be right.

Yet such cavils miss the point. Again I appeal to David Hume, this time his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), for a view of what ethics actually are. First, this greatest of reasoners puts reason in its place: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Then, he says: "Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason." For good measure, he adds: ". . . when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it".

In short, ethics are in the end rooted in feelings. What matters most in framing ethical positions is not the particular rules, which are works of reason, but attitude, on which those rules are based.

The modern ethical committees that have sprung up like toadstools to discuss genetic engineering, and cloning, and human rights, and what you will, are ruled by rationality; their members are moral philosophers and lawyers, sometimes billed as "ethicists". In truth, their rationality is largely a sham. Their long and intricate arguments may be impeccably logical, but the liberally inclined moralists and lawyers argue long and intricately for liberality, while the right-wingers demonstrate that we must, for example, impose discipline, although we must not buck the market. In the end, as Hume said, these most refined and rational arguments are rooted in feelings, just as you would find in any saloon bar.

Religions, traditionally, have prophets, not moral philosophers, and they, in common with some secular philosophers such as Aristotle and Lao-tzu, go for the moral jugular. They deal directly with the feelings that must underpin all serious moral positions. They try to identify the right emotional responses and to cultivate them, mainly through meditation, reinforced by ritual, prayer and assembly. (All this, a biologist might say pedantically, is "autonomic learning". That it may be, but that does not affect the issue.)

At this level, the ostensible differences between religions disappear. All their great prophets have reached much the same conclusions on the essence of ethics, as summarised by the 19th-century Hindu mystic Sri Ramakrishna. There are only three: personal humility; respect for fellow, sentient creatures; and a sense of reverence (Ramakrishna said for God, although, in a pantheistic vein, I would say "for the universe as a whole"). Apply such fundamental, emotional directives to debates on cloning, or designer babies, or wildlife conservation, and the mists clear. Genetic engineering to alleviate obvious suffering, carried out in a spirit of humility (as opposed to the personal aggrandisement and enrichment of physicians) emerges as an act of mercy, innately respectful. But the deliberate redesign of babies appears as supreme arrogance. When feeling is allowed to lead, and reason is made to follow behind, then the prophets emerge as the natural moral leaders, and the moral philosophers and lawyers as their amanuenses.

Clerics, who claim to be disciples of the prophets, should be leading ethical debates. That they generally do not - that they typically seem obsessed with points of their own dogma - is a sad indictment, and perhaps does most to explain why religion, in many elevated circles, is now held in such disrespect.

The Christian Church, and indeed religion as a whole, needs a new Aquinas, to attempt again the synthesis of human thought and feeling, and to embrace modern science just as Aquinas tried to embrace Aristotle. At least, the next Archbishop of Canterbury should be able to conduct the necessary discussions. Scientists are not natural atheists as is often supposed. Many persist in the spirit of Newton and Ray, and will be happy to help out. With luck, the 21st century could be even more interesting than it so far promises to be, and much more positive.

Colin Tudge's The Variety of Life: a survey and a celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived will soon be available in paperback from Oxford University Press (£14.99)