The Sciences

A.N. Whitehead on Science and Religion

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNov 11, 2009 11:24 PM


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I've been reading Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (1925), and the section on science and religion intrigues me. It is a powerful reminder that despite all of the "warfare" talk that we get constantly in the popular media and blogosphere, the truth is that of the many important thinkers that have contemplated this question, there is a far greater diversity and subtlety of views than is generally reflected in these limited venues. Take, for instance, Whitehead:

A mere logical contradiction cannot in itself point to more than the necessity of some readjustments, possibly of a very minor character on both sides. Remember the widely different aspects of events which are dealt with in science and in religion respectively. Science is concerned with the general conditions which are observed to regulate physical phenomena; whereas religion is wholly wrapped up in the contemplation of moral and aesthetic values. On the one side there is the law of gravitation, and on the other the contemplation of the beauty of holiness. What one side sees, the other misses; and vice versa.

Here Whitehead articulates something much like Gould's NOMA principle--which is problematic, of course, as not all religions respect this idealized boundary. But Whitehead then goes on to state clearly that religion must adjust to the advancement of science, rather than trying to argue with the realities science reveals. Indeed, Whitehead's central point is that religion, too, can evolve--and indeed, that it must:

The great point to be kept in mind is that normally an advance in science will show that statements of various religious beliefs require some sort of modification. It may be that they have to be expanded or explained, or indeed entirely restated. If the religion is a sound expression of truth, this modification will only exhibit more adequately the exact point which is of importance. This process is a gain. In so far, therefore, as any religion has any contact with physical facts, it is to be expected that the point of view of those facts must be continually modified as scientific knowledge advances. In this way, the exact relevance of these facts for religious thought will grow more and more clear. The progress of science must result in the unceasing modification of religious thought, to the great advantage of religion.

Whitehead is, of course, just one important thinker among many. But back when I was an atheist activist, I remember we had a big pantheon of folks we'd always cite as our heroes, because they rejected religious faith in an outspoken way. I think maybe it is worth also creating a list of thinkers who emphasized how, and under what conditions, science and religion can get along.

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