Albert Einstein, Paul Tillich, et al at Davos, Switzerland.The science-religion “debate” is an abstraction, and a distraction. It isn’t true to the deep nature of science, or of religion, or to the history of interplay between them. These are convictions I’m left with after a cumulative conversation that began a decade ago. And after spending the spring traveling around the country talking about this in theaters packed with scientists and citizens, atheist to devout, I know that others share my sense that our sound-bite friendly, politically-fueled narrative of animosity has outlived its usefulness. There is a science-religion divide — these are two distinct and separate spheres of endeavor. But in the 21st century, we can’t help but hear echoes passing back and forth across that divide and changing the way we understand our humanity, our relationship to each other and the natural world, the contours of the cosmos.

It’s not just the passion and frequency with which mathematicians talk about beauty and physicists talk about mystery that intrigues me. It is also that every time the rest of us log on to our computers in the morning, or every time we eat a meal, we are steeped in the fruits of science. We may not be fluent in the language of science — mathematics — which Galileo called “the language in which the universe is written.” But in the most ordinary moments in our doctors’ offices, certainly in near-ordinary experiences like birth, illness, and death, we receive crash courses in science of many kinds. And we turn simultaneously, without time for debate, to inner territory of morality and meaning, which science has no language for addressing.

Einstein put it this way, helpfully: science is good at describing what is, but it does not describe what should be. That is one way to talk about the role that religious and spiritual practice, our sense of what is right and sacred, plays in human life. And for the record, I don’t believe that spiritual and moral life ceases in the absence of belief in God. Einstein didn’t believe in the personal God of traditional religion. But he did profess a “cosmic religious sense” driven by “inklings” and “wonderings” rather than answers and certainties. Its hallmarks were a reverence for beauty and a sense of wonder that, he acknowledged, he shared with lovers of art and religion.

And it’s worth remembering that, in Einstein’s day, zealous religion appeared less a threat to the future of humanity than science on the loose. He watched chemists and physicists become purveyors of weapons of unprecedented destructive power. He declared, chillingly, that science in his generation was like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old. Against this backdrop, he called his contemporary Gandhi — and other figures such as Jesus, Moses, St. Francis of Assisi, and Buddha — “spiritual geniuses.” Einstein soberly observed that these kinds of “geniuses in the art of living” are “more necessary to the sustenance of global human dignity, security and joy than the discovers of objective knowledge.”

It seems clearer and clearer to me that, in the 21st century, genius in the art of living must draw on the best insights of both science and religion, not as argued but as lived. Or, as the Anglican quantum physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it, we come ever more vividly to see how science and religion are both necessary to interpret the “rich, varied and surprising way the world actually is.” I think that the surge of spiritual energy and curiosity of our time is precisely a response to the complexity we know by way of science and technology — not a flight from that, but a turn to sources of discernment to sort, prioritize, make sense.

I was especially intrigued by how the subject of climate change came up when I discussed Einstein’s God in a packed theater in Washington D.C. There the room included scientists from across government agencies — some of them personally religious, some of them not, but all open to engaging the moral aspects of human life that science touches but does not resolve. I heard from people who are working on frontiers of climate change research, including deliberation of how, in a worst-case scenario, we might intervene to change climate, change the weather. This is a cosmos-altering idea on the magnitude of those contemporaries of Einstein who split the atom. But they are deliberating now about the ethical ramifications of this burgeoning possibility, and they are aware of their need of all the resources humanity has to offer for thinking this through.

So what if, as a first step moving forward, we focused less on the competing answers of science and religion, and more on their kindred questions? The question of what it means to be human animates each of these vast fields of endeavor, though they approach and take it up in very different ways. If we just start seeing that, how much more cohesively might we be able to take in the best insights of science and religion, honoring more of the fullness of our humanity, living more gracefully and productively with all that we can know?

In the photo above, physicist Albert Einstein (left, standing behind girl) and theologian Paul Tillich (right, standing in front wearing glasses) at a conference in Davos, Switzerland on March 18, 1928. (Courtesy of Image Archive ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich)

Share Your Reflection



I can see how something would be lost if all parties were to join together on one side in say, the game of "Tug of War". Tug of War is a game of simple competition aimed at having fun. If we were to be in a canoe with a partner, it would be most beneficial to have a mutual goal and work in unison. The arguments and debates around science and religion DO offer a variety of theories which can increase our understanding IF we are open to it. Posturing is however, counterproductive. The energy required to defend a singular theory depletes the source and reduces the field of vision. Who is it that would wish to LIMIT their capacity for understanding? If the birth of a star could be seen with binoculars, who with none of their own would resist the offer of the person standing beside them, the use of their pair?

Religion and science are a pair; not like a pair of human eyes or ears that work as one but more like the left and right arm/hand of the same body. The two can work cooperatively, as when one hand holds the dish while the other washes it. Sometimes they work exactly the same as when the two arms embrace another body. And other times only one works; as when one holds a pen to write.
Life would be much more difficult for me without both arms/hands or if for some incomprehensible reason, they fought with each other. And so also without both science and religion, my life would be much emptier and more difficult. I need both and believe that humanity does also.

Wow, I love this picture. I never knew that Albert Einstein and Paul Tillich actually knew one another, now that is revelation.

You really might want to talk with Elaine Howard Ecklund about her new book "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think".

This is a case where the divorce MUST happen before friendly conversations can be resumed. It makes the children VERY uncomfortable, but its for best, and we'll all live through it.

Thank you; your column was very thoughtful; and thanx for the quotes.

For me, as someone who generally values the insights gained growing up in the Old and New Testament, I do not always struggle in my attempt to incorporate scientific discoveries, esp. of the past 2-600 years. I was taught to welcome them, (to think about them). The world is not only not flat, but it came into being 5? billion years ago; the continents used to be 'Pangea'; northern earth was an ice cap until relatively recently...

Many scientific discoveries do point one toward wonder, whether or not one believes in God or not. Scientists keep on asking questions because they want to know, and/or because new evidence and discoveries do not match up to our current explanatory systems.

As someone who came to believe at a very young age, the mystery of existence has only increased as I have grown. Scientific discoveries inform many of my beliefs; they have deepened them.

Beautifully written and very insightful. Thank you, Krista
I have been struggling with the question of religion in its current practice and its usefulness in our current zeitgeist. I was born and raised Catholic, attended many Anglican services and ultimately baptized Mormon at the age of 14.  I have not practiced nor do I identify with any of the aforementioned religions and have no desire to subscribe to any. However I am very interested in the subject of religion and try to educate myself on the different beliefs. For now see religion as a foundation that has long outlived its use. I believe this "foundation" where once useful, is crumbling under the weight of our awakening and science. It's important for me to distinguish religion from God. I do believe in god. I'm just not convinced he lives up there somewhere - the god of the bible. My god resides in nature and in every act of love and kindness.
 As for where science and religion "met" I think the dichotomy is self imposed because of an inherent need to be right and to solidify a certain belief. It's what we do when our belief system is challenged. There are striking similarities between them. They are both fantastic in wonderment, have crazy mind blowing theories and history and ultimately both lead to more questioning. We take the joy out of them when we try to use one to disprove the other, instead of reveling in and studying their inconsistencies. We see nature in all its glory and infinite wonder, but instead of learning how to preserve it we try to dissect it with science, and claim it with religion, all while it slips from us.
 There is, however a beautiful compromise. Where the two can meet and exist harmoniously. It's called love.

The best scientist and the best theologians are not dualist. Einstein is a fine example as is Meister Eckhart. The western mind has been trained for centuries, millennium, to think as a dualist. This is our culture. It is a false safe-harbor. I think Dante referred to it as the "City of Dis." You, Krista, have chosen a high wall to climb with this one. I admire your efforts and I bet your dopamine levels, driven higher by uncertainty, are sky high!! Just ask the good Dr Sapolsky!

Hi sir,
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I can't compete with the eloquence of so many people who have taken pen on the religion-science discussion but I can aver that science does not encompass the idea that spirit can create matter.