Appeared in 1997-1998, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 3 & 4 Download PDF here

Science and Religion in Identity Crisis1

Three hundred or so years ago not a few scientists spoke of science and religion as united in a holy alliance. Two hundred years later theologians could do little about the warfare in which science and religion appeared to be locked forever. Today, many theologians and some scientists speak of the mutual integration of science and religion, these two paramount forces in human life.

From both sides all too often mere generalities rather than tangible specifics are offered. This may already indicate a lack of simultaneous competence in both fields. Actually, those generalities suggest that an identity crisis may be enveloping both science and religion, and to an extent far greater than one maysuspect.

The religious side of that crisis is easier to diagnose by a mere look at programs of instruction offered in most departments of religion and religious studies, as well as divinity schools and theological faculties. Actual exposure to what goes on in those places can readily bring into focus a feature typical of most of them. Whenever a question is posed, only a multiplicity of answers is tolerated. Even the slightest effort to cut through that multiplicity, within which contradictory stances too are acceptable, is frowned upon as judgmental. The result is the rise of that church where, to paraphrase a remark of Chesterton, each communicant is sharing the other’s unbelief.

A biting portrayal of this pathetic situation was given less than a year ago in a book, The Search for God at Harvard, written by Ari L. Goldman, religion reporter for the New York Times. It may not have been a sound idea at all on Mr. Goldman’s part to spend a full year at Harvard Divinity School to search for God there. Actually, the true target of Mr. Goldman’s search was not so much God as some experience about Him. Such a search could, of course, have ended, even if successful, only in mistaking God’s identity for some religious experience with no real identity.

The variety of religious experiences, to which Mr. Goldman found himself exposed in that prestigious divinity school, seemed to serve the purpose of concealing their true identity. Nothing has indeed changed there since William James, that legendary guru of religion as “experienced,” came up with his own theory about the varieties of religious experience.

Had Mr. Goldman thought, while at Harvard, of William James, he would not have been forced to identify the Christian religious experience as “the most elusive experience” of his early days in the “Div School,” as it is called there in a quasi-affectionate tone: “If, for example, there was a mention in class of the divinity of Jesus, the lecturer would offer an apology to the non-Christians in the room.” No wonder Mr. Goldman found shattered his expectation of encountering some religious experience which he could have identified as “old-type Christian piety.” This piety has always been rooted in clearly identifiable dogmas, but the Div School’s atmosphere was one of “religious relativity,” where “religious truth did not seem to exist” at all.2What Mr. Goldman could not find in the classrooms of the “Div School,” he also failed to find in its imposing Chapel. Whether during the daily Noon service, which he faithfully attended, or at peeks into the Chapel in between classes, Goldman “never sawanyone on his or her knees.” At most, he saw “someone sitting there meditating,” but this did not happen frequently.3

Clearly, the “Div School” at Harvard had not advanced a whit beyond the state of affairs which set the tone at Yale too, as searingly portrayed a generation ago in God and Man at Yale. Of course, that portrayal was possible only because its author, W. F. Buckley, offered an evaluation in terms of definite values, or standards. (Whether these are called dogmas or not, should seem irrelevant. They could just as well be called fishnets.) If Mr. Goldman had any standards, they were the orthodox Jewish practices to which he was viscerally attached and never cared to put on clearly definable intellectual foundations.

This is why he was torn about Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, he felt deeply attracted to the Mass. On the other hand, he could not warm up to dogmatic Catholicism. It is difficult to decide whether he deplored the present status of Catholicism, as he perceived it. Although he seemed to be upset over the Catholic Church’s loss of moral authority within society, he was ambivalent about its cause, “the internecine struggles over authority with Rome and the anti-abortion cause.”4

Only if one is wholly unfamiliar with the long-standing uncertainty of Congregationalists about their own identity, can one voice surprise over the utterly elusive identity of religion in a divinity school and university with Congregationalist roots. The doctrinal atmosphere at Harvard Divinity School reminded Mr. Goldman of that nutshell summary of liberal Protestantism which H. R. Niebuhr had given half a century ago: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Such a religion could not be distinguished from Mr. Goldman’s Judaism, to say nothing of reformed and conservative Judaism, except for his attachment to ritual laws. In all those denominations, one can freely wear the p.c. (politically correct) badge, this most effective sedative against the pressing need for trueidentification.

A p.c. religion will have no problem being integrated with science, though the relation may not amount to more than a convenient cohabitation that can be initiated, acted out, terminated, resumed, and reinterpreted on short notice. Cohabitation is always a dissimulation of the true identity of a rapport, an identity crisis in short. The religious side of that cohabitation can only function as religious syncretism. Thus no real difference will be claimed between nature worship and a worship steeped in the supernatural reality of a Creator free to create or not to create what is called Nature writ large, that is, a universe.

Within that syncretism every form of religion can be accommodated. There polytheism, with its worship of idols, will not appear too distant even from a worship that forbids the making of graven images of God. And when God and nature are fused to the extent in which this is done in pantheism, not only can one’s religion not be identified, but even one’s true identity diminishes to the vanishing point. In no form of pantheism has there ever been a place for that personal immortality which alone makes one’s identity (and one’s religion) meaningful and raises it above the lowlands of mere estheticism.

Syncretism, or the abolition of true identity, certainly foments heavy reliance on verbalism, which is in view, for instance, when pantheism is promoted in the guise of panentheism, or the idea, by itself perfectly orthodox, that God is everywhere and in everything. Syncretism, or religion’s identity crisis, is all too often couched in such noble words as ecumenism, global consciousness, and moral rearmament, to say nothing of such dubious labels as Gaia and New Age.

The so-called “mere Christianity,” first proposed around 1675 by William Baxter, a Puritan divine tired of religious controversies,6was a symptom of identity crisis. The symptom resurfaced when in 1943 C. S. Lewis resurrected Baxter’s idea in a book, Mere Christianity, that made religious history for the latter half of this century of ours. C. S. Lewis could offer but his gut-feeling as to what that mere Christianity was when he said that he meant by Christian faith that “which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”7No more clarity was shed on the subject by his equally elusive definition of Christian belief as the one “that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”8

This is not to suggest that C. S. Lewis was not aware of the problem of leaving out of “mere Christianity” all items smacking of controversy in order to focus attention on items noncontroversial. But were there such items or tenets? No less importantly, even if there were some, could they be discoursed upon for any length of time without bringing up matters not only controversial but also pivotal for the articulation and defense of points commonly held by almost all Christians?


C.S. Lewis

That almost complete unanimity evaporates like the morning mist once one raises the question whether “mere” Christianity implies miracles. Without talking of miracles in MereChristianity, C. S. Lewis held miracles to be an integral part ofthe Christian proposition. Otherwise, he would not have defended the possibility, as well as the reality, of miracles againstHumeans, erstwhile and modern.9Yet, many Christians, who hold high a Christianity restricted to its mere basics, refuse to face up to non-biblical miracles that are much closer to us and far easier to investigate. Nor do they see that agnosticism about post-Biblical miracles is destructive of faith in biblical miracles as well.10Still other Christians prefer not to speak of miracles precisely because they want to integrate science and religion, though on terms dictated by the interpretation of science given by most scientists, who have no use for miracles at all.

Some defenders of biblical miracles grant them validity only because they take the space-time of relativity and the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics for a scientific possibility of miracles. They do not realize that in doing so they do away with miracles as well as with the physics of relativity, which is based on the strict continuity of the physical and for which time is, as Einstein once memorably admitted, a mere parameter of measurements.11 It seems that they are not sure of themselves and of the grounds, not at all scientific but deeply philosophical, on the basis of which alone one can confidently speak of miracles, and do so in a healthy disregard of science.

It is not even certain that today Christians are unanimous in their belief in creation out of nothing and in time. Christians are a motley lot in their interpretation of Genesis 1. Stances vary from taking it for the relic of preliterary legends to interpreting it in a grimly literalist sense, as is done in creation science.12Typically, proponents of creation science make much, as if to cover their own uncertainties, of the uncertainty of various scientific conclusions and of the uncertainty of scientists about them.

Last but not least, there is Christianity’s central belief: redemption in Christ. Newborn Christians all too often do not want to hear about the conceptual certainties of dogmatic definitions achieved in the great christological debates of the early Church. Even within the proverbially dogmatic Catholic Church, discourses can be heard about Christ that can only prompt any consistent thinker to part with belief in Christ as the only begotten Son of God. Quite recently an Anglican bishopricwas awarded to the Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford whose scholarly reputation rests on a programmatic rehabilitation of Arius.13

Even Arius held Christ in a much higher esteem than the Roman Catholic authors of two recent lives of Christ. According to one of them, who protests his Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Jesus may have been a celibate, but he certainly had real brothers and sisters. But that author’s religious identity becomes doubtful when he argues that, since historical scholarship proves only that Jesus was a peasant Jew, his divinity can only be had on faith.14 He seems to be blissfully unaware of the historic fact that this dichotomy between historic or “scientific” evidence and faith has been a chief source of depriving all too many Christian professions of faith of the identity they should have manifested. The very identity of Christ is indeed in widespread doubt among Christian theologians who lend receptive ears to some “experts” on the Qumran scrolls who maintain that Christianity in its earliest form contained nothing essentially new that Judaism at that time did not contain.15   

The systematic leveling of Christ to very low human levels is, of course, part of the carefully cultivated uncertainty about sin. Genuine Christian awareness of the reality and seriousness of sin has now for decades been under mounting pressure to align itself with “new” perceptions about sin. One is the viewthat sin is a psychological infirmity; another consists in not perceiving sin at all. For fashionable thinking there are only so many patterns of behavior. Consequently, any behavior, once it becomes a pattern, that is, once it is acted out by a statistically significant number of people, can claim social acceptance. From there it is but a short step to claims for legal protection and moral respectability, as if legal were equivalent to moral.16

Christian (and Jewish) awareness seems to have come a long way from the injunction given in the book of Exodus: “You shall not repeat a false report. . . . Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong” (Ex 23:112). Too many Christians seem to be worlds removed from those forebears of theirs who accepted cheerfully the truth of the words: “You will be under pressure in this world,” because “no disciple is greater than his master.” Christian theologians are few and far between who have a style with at least a touch of Tertullian’s incisiveness: “Christ said, `I am the truth’. He didnot say, `I am the custom’.”17Far many more are those theologians whose “reasonings” illustrate Edmund Burke’s acid remark: “Custom reconciles us to everything.”18

Speaking of Exodus is as good a reason as any to say a few words about the disarray in which Jews of our times find themselves concerning their religion. Varieties of opinion range from literally militant Zionism to no religion at all. I wonder whether Christians, who firmly believe in the personal immortality of their souls and in subsequent resurrection, would find much sympathy among Jews, except for the most orthodox. Cultural conservatism, very popular among some American Jews, is not enough. It does not by itself lead beyond this life on earth to an otherworldly compensation for cruel deprivations suffered in this life. That there can be no such compensation was the gist of Norman Podhorotz’s objection after I had spoken in Moscow, in June 1989, before a meeting sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and Moscow University, on belief in the existence of God as supported by science. In that speech,19I also referred to that belief as the only ground on which one can think of an eventual compensation for tragedies whose number, in this life, is far more than legion. And yet I was speaking only of the hundreds of millions of innocent sufferers without saying a word about those-not a few-who never suffer in this life any punishment for horrible crimes.

About two other religions, Islam and Buddhism, both increasingly popular in the West, a few remarks should suffice about their possible relation to science. Behind the Islamic religious revival lies a feature hardly ever noted by Western observers. Owing to the demands of technologization, Islamic lands now have to provide scientific education on a large scale. This in turn confronts their people with the challenges of empiricism, rationalism, and positivism. The result is a turmoil, for the moment still largely under the surface, but a turmoil which the Islamic clergy seems to perceive in its real magnitude. There will be a replay, but in a much more dramatic form, of the famed medieval debate between the Muslims who are genuine mystics, and rationalists who are Muslims only in name.

A millennium ago, leading Muslim mystics such as al-Ashari and al-Ghazzali held that reference to the laws of nature was a blasphemy against Allah’s omnipotence. The leading Muslim rationalists, such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), held that the truly enlightened Muslim can hold the idea of triple truth: The lowest truth, or the truth of catechism, was for the populace; the middle level was for the imams, repeating the Koran; the highest form of truth, the truth of science, was the privilege of the enlightened. These, however, were to keep that third truth to themselves, lest they suffer the consequences.20The medieval Muslim world could not find a middle ground, such as the one worked out by the great scholastics shortly afterwards, concerning faith and reason. Whether modern Muslim intellectuals can work out a satisfactory balance remains to be seen. But they had better recognize that an identitycrisis is looming large over their heads, a crisis fueled by science, or rather by the impossibility to live today for more than a few minutes without taking advantage of this or that scientific tool.

As to Buddhism, its numerous varieties may in themselves suggest a chronic identity crisis. Such a crisis has plagued many of those young people in the West prior to their embracing Buddhism as a religion. At any rate, in its classical method, aimed at giving an escape from the self, Buddhism can hardly escape the suspicion that it offers a cure for identity crisis by depriving the self of its identity. In fact, in all the great philosophical presentations of Buddhism, as also in its amalgamation with Confucianism and Taoism, a central place is occupied by the denial of what is known in Western logic as the principle of identity and non-contradiction .21 No wonder that Buddhism has received a very sympathetic consideration by those who see in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics the highest form of enlightenment because that interpretation is taken as equivalent to a physics which too many take for the ultimate in science. To make matters culturally far worse, Niels Bohr lent his full scientific prestige to establish the principle of complementarity as a philosophy that would give better guidance in life than religion ever could.22

The principle of complementarity is an integral part of the Copenhagen interpretation. Dime a dozen are the books and articles, written by theologians and scientists, at times together, in which one finds it registered with great satisfaction that science and religion are complementary, like the particle and wave aspects of matter.23This claim certainly deserves some scrutiny even within the perspective of this lecture. The claim leaves, in studied indefiniteness, the religion in question. A moderately careful reading of the philosophical works of Bohr, Schrodinger, Max Born, and Heisenberg should easily reveal a conviction common to all of them. To a man, they would protest the claim that the principle of complementarity entitles one to make a rational plea for immortality, to say nothing of revelation, miracles, resurrection, and a judgment pertaining to an eternal reward or eternal punishment.24The principle of complementarity tolerates only a religion which is reduced to that sheer estheticism where one is faced with ever shifting moods, styles, and with a perennial craving for fulfillment that never comes.


J.S. Bell and his theorem

But the principle of complementarity, as taken for a philosophical and religious panacea, or cure-all, leaves even science, that is, the science of quantum mechanics, in an identity crisis. A priceless glimpse of this was provided by no less an insider than the late Professor Dirac. It tells something of the measure of that identity crisis that what Dirac said in the broadest scientific daylight, the Jerusalem Centennial Einstein Conference in 1979, has been studiedly ignored by the scientific establishment, and by its chief ally, or perhaps millstone around its neck, the establishment known as the philosophers and historians of science. Dirac said nothing less at that conference than that quantum mechanics, as it stands today, will have to be reformulated along the lines of strict predictability as demanded by Einstein: “I think that it is very likely, or at any rate quite possible that in the long run Einstein will turn out to be correct even though for the time being physicists have to accept the Bohr probability interpretation-especially if they have examinations in front of them.”25

Clearly, this is not the kind of diagnosis which its subjects would sedulously recall to themselves, let alone to their students. Ostriches love to bury their heads in the sand lest they should be forced to face the true nature of their predicament. This is precisely what the champions of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics did with respect to its most considered appraisal by J. S. Bell, of Bell’s Theorem fame. On the one hand, they have not ceased to recall his famed theorem, which they took for the final proof that ultimately everything is haphazard. Yet all he did was to show that quantum statistics is more successful than classical statistics in coping with a certain kind of coincidence in radioactive emission. Two years later, on finding subtle illogicalities in the “reduction of wave packets,” a pivotal issue in theoretical quantum mechanics, he felt impelled to conclude that quantum mechanics “carries in itself its seeds of destruction.”26Physicists, and philosophers of physics, still haveto pay adequate attention to this much more profound conclusion of Bell. When they bring it up, they usually display that touch of nervousness such as transpires from K. Gottfried’s very polite rebuttal of Bell’s claim.27Theologians who continue integrating their field with quantum mechanics should pay heed. Unwittingly, they may promote their own self-destruction, the ultimate form of identity crisis.

Much has been said about the identity crisis that had beset physics toward the end of the 19th century. Much less aired are the early traces of that crisis. There is much more than meets the eye in an apparently innocent facet of Newton’s Principia.It contains not a single paragraph on the philosophicomethodological questions raised by the fact that he had written not merely a Principia, in itself a grave word, but aPhilosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. One would in vain interrogate Newton as to what he meant by nature, by philosophy, and even by mathematics.

Newton may not even have been absolutely sure of himself as a physicist. Otherwise, he would not have spent precious hours in erasing from his manuscripts references to Descartes,lest posterity should suspect that he owed something to the Frenchman. No wonder. Cartesians in France greeted the Principia with the remark that for all its fine qualities, it was not physics.28What was it? It certainly was not a mechanistic physics insofar as this means mechanistic models, of which the Principiawas conspicuously void. Only some time later were those models grafted, and in large numbers, on the mathematics of the Principia, which ushered in the age of infinitesimal calculus.

Although a rigorous proof of the “limit” did not come until the early 19th century, Newton’s infinitesimal calculus stood for a blissful state of total certainty, with no trace of identity crisis. The next scientifically momentous book with the word Principiain its title was published in 1910, under the title, Principia mathematica.29It did not contain a retraction by its co-author, Bertrand Russell, concerning his earlier description of mathematics “as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.”30Later, Bertrand Russell qualified his agnosticism about mathematics only to the extent of saying that physics is “mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.”31

This warning of Bertrand Russell’s should be ample food for thought for those who cultivate other branches of physical science, especially the various branches of life-sciences. Being the most exact among all empirical investigations, physics iseagerly imitated by other empirical sciences. Their cultivators may suffer some identity crisis owing to their being overshadowed by their glamorous big brother, physics. In addition, this remark, if pondered enough, may even bring back to their senses various cultivators of the humanities. For whenever psychologists, sociologists, or historians try to imitate physics, and quite a few of them do, they merely reveal symptoms of identity crisis.32

This is even truer of philosophers, to say nothing of theologians. The program of a so-called scientific philosophy is a fairly old fad that had such prominent devotees as Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, and Comte, and produced long-discredited systems of philosophy. The fad of a “scientific” theology is rather new. It produced lengthy treatises about the theology of the world, without a paragraph in them about that world which is the universe.33One could also refer to books with “insight” and “method” in their titles, though with no clear guidance in their contents as to what qualifies for insight and in what true method consists.34If only such theologians aimed at nothing more than offering a well-argued rational discourse! Neither philosophy nor theology is or can be a science in the way in which physics is one, but both should be eminently rational, that is, well-reasoned, instead of being submerged into endless chains of vague metaphors and new-fangled buzzwords.

Seeing their own field as a discourse that demands utmost attention to clarity and consistency, theologians would discover a curious thing about science and scientists, and in particular about physics. Until about a hundred years ago, physicists could be seen from the outside as safely entrenched in their certainties.

James Clerk Maxwell characterized that state of affairs when, in 1870, he described the Royal Society as “the company of those men who, aspiring to noble ends . . . have risen above the regions of storms into a clearer atmosphere, where there is no misrepresentation of opinion, nor ambiguity of expression, but where one mind comes into close contact with another at the point where both approach nearest to the truth.35

A quarter of a century later, Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory appeared to have a truth content which resembled Nicolas of Cusa’s definition of the universe: its center everywhere, its circumference nowhere. For this is the unintended gist of Hertz’s famed remark: “Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s equations.”36In other words, nobody really knew what was the true identity of those equations and that theory. Hertz’s definition implied that circularity which bespoke an identity crisis. Today, in this age of string-theory, zero-point oscillations, embryo universes and what not, it is even more difficult to specify the identity relation of each and every part of very successful physical theories with physical reality.

But the true identity crisis of science lies elsewhere. This is not to suggest that in empirical sciences, even outside physics, one could not find momentous traces of identity crisis even today. Evolutionary biology still has to come to terms with two rude jolts that knocked many of its cultivators out of their blissful state of mind. One was the realization, quite recently, that the theory of the origin of life as proposed by S. L. Miller in 1952 cannot cope with the high temperatures which certainlyprevailed on the primitive earth three to four billion years ago.37The other is the evidence of major catastrophes to which the earth is exposed every 26 million or so years, some of which result in substantial extinctions of all life forms.38 The identity crisis that resulted from this is exemplified by the so-called theory of punctuated equilibrium of evolutionary development. At a national gathering of its devotees, the level of consistency was such as to prompt one participant to remark that he would find more intellectual honesty at a national gathering of second-hand car dealers.39

But the real source of identity crisis in science today does not lie with its internal problems, of which it will very likely never run out. For who can give assurance that future decades and centuries hold no surprising discoveries, totally unimaginable today? The real source of that identity crisis lies in the fact that scientists have, to a considerable degree, ceased being the official spokesmen of what science is about. The image of science as entertained by society at large, and even within academic circles, is now determined as much, if not more, by what philosophers and historians of science, and mere science writers, state about science.

The change should seem enormous. A hundred or so years ago, relatively little was written about the philosophy of science. Authors of such books were usually either philosophers with very little training in science, or scientists with as little familiarity with philosophy. William Whewell, in the 1830s, was the first prominent scientist to write a serious book on the philosophy of science, and he was not imitated until Ernst Mach, Pierre Duhem, and Henri Poincare came along around 1900 or so.