The future role of science and religion in society

Roald E. Kristiansen
Department of Religion
University of Tromsø, Norway.
This paper was delivered at the conference,
"Faith in the Future", Reykjavik, Iceland
July 5-8, 2000.

On a Saturday night around midnight, I was walking down the main Street in Tromsø, the northernmost university town in the world, enjoying the midnight sun and the crisp spring air. Out of the blue two young men approached me and struck up a conversation. They were students at the university, where they studied information technology, and we soon began to discuss the relation between science and religion. One of the men had an important issue he wanted to discuss: he eagerly asserted that mathematics constituted a universal language and was the only proper means for communication. My response was that mathematical language was a very useful tool for certain kind of questions - like issues dealing with quantifiable relationships between physical objects. The other person agreed and made the point that there were many things that could be better expressed in languages other than mathematics. Perhaps French would be a better language to attract a girl – than the language of calculus and linear algebra! Reluctantly, the first student admitted that this was probably true, and that scientific language perhaps was not entirely suited for every purpose: scientific language was context-sensitive!

This little midnight discussion illustrates an important point: the ‘idolizing’ of science is still very commonplace, especially among younger people, but at the same time there is a growing awareness that science and society belong together in a relationship of mutual responsibility. It is this relationship that will be the subject for our present discussion.

As the new millenium is dawning, higher education in most of the Western world is undergoing a social awakening in which a new vision of the public role and value of scholarship is emerging. Increasingly academic institutions seek to become more vigorous partners in search for answers to humankind’s most pressing problems. Although this kind of public scholarship traditionally has appealed mostly to those in the humanities and social sciences, it is also beginning to capture the interest of those in the natural sciences. Nevertheless, Jane Lubchenco, who recently served as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), pointed out in her Presidential Address in 1997 at the AAAS annual meeting, that she believed the scientific community was not adequately prepared to address the wide range of global changes affecting our common future. Lubchenco therefore issued a call for the scientific community to respond to such issues by formulating a new Social Contract between science and society, suggesting that such a contract,

should be predicated upon the assumptions that scientists will (i) address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance; (ii) communicate their knowledge and understanding widely in order to inform decisions of individuals and institutions; and (iii) exercise good judgment, wisdom, and humility (Lubchenco, 1998: 495).
Furthermore, the ‘Social Contract’ should express a commitment to utilize the full power of the scientific enterprise in discovering knowledge, communicating existing and new understanding to the public and to policy-makers, and help society move towards a more sustainable future.
This call for a new Social Contract between science and society has generated interest among many scientists to assert and reclaim the public meaning and value of their work. If Lubchenco’s call is to be heard, scientists can no longer do their work only for the sake of science itself (as in value-neutral knowledge building), but must be connected with the challenge of society building. It is a call to develop science in the public arena, i.e., scientists must learn to work together with other professions in society in order to link scientific knowledge with community issues and policy making. This is what the term “science-policy interface” refers to. It stresses the need to overcome the belief that science and technology alone can progressively solve our social problems, and emphasizes the need to develop interests and skills necessary to infuse scientific workers and institutions with active participation in society in order to overcome our pressing civic and moral problems. An example of such a social contract is found in e.g. the FIET Code of Ethics (International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees in Geneva), which in Article #1 says that,
In the pursuit of their professional activities, professional and managerial staff shall take into account not merely the scientific, technical and economic considerations, but also the social, environmental and ethical implications of their work. The responsibility of professional and managerial staff for the sustainable welfare of the community is an integral part of their professional responsibility.

In the following article (#2), the FIET Code of Ethics points out the need for professionals and managerial staff to take all steps to maintain sustainable systems of work and to avoid angers, which may cause death, injury, or ill health to any person, and to avoid damage to nature and goods by any act or omission because of the execution of their dutires.

Science and Religion

The dangers of separating science from public life have long been recognized. Albert Einstein spoke about it many years ago in a way appropriate to our theme, i.e., the science/religion interface, when he said that “science without religion is blind, and religion without science is lame”. He meant this as critique against both groups: scientists have a tendency to remain aloof from choices, values, and human relations as scientist, and religious people have a tendency to disregard scientific knowledge as irrelevant to their beliefs. Both attitudes are unproductive. Knowledge and values are always interconnected. Scientists cannot do their work unless they consider how their knowledge may be used, and those who are concerned about beliefs, values and world-views cannot do their work unless they relate such issues to new knowledge about the world. The issue of science and religion could therefore be seen as an appropriate test case to check the nature of the relationship between the scientific endeavour and the social, spiritual and moral context.

For methodological purposes, I would like to begin by contrasting two different conceptions of the roles of science and religion:

The difference can be explicated with reference to the assertion that ‘not everything that can be done, should be done’. The issue of ‘can’ has to do with what is empirically and practically possible, whereas the ‘should’ has to do with ethical values and norms, and with social goals.

When saying that science is primarily instrumental, the basic point is that the purpose of science is not to function as a world-view or an ideology, but as a means to achieve goals that are not themselves ‘scientific’ in the sense that they could be proven or affirmed as self-evident and absolute. Such goals are rather of a personal, social and political nature. Science is often said to deal primarily with how-questions (‘how can we do this or that?’), but the questions of what (‘what should we do?’) do not belong to science alone. The what-questions extend beyond pure science, belonging also to the realm of spirituality, ethics and social policy.

When saying that religion is primarily existential, I mean that the purpose of religion is to function as a guiding world-view in the sense that it provides the grounding of values, principles and goals for human activity. Religion can be viewed as a social science dealing with ultimate issues pertaining to world-views, values and norms, emphasizing their existential importance with practical implications for the implementation of insights from science and technology.

The problem connected with science and religion often arises from confusing their different roles. When science turns into scientism, it evolves into a world-view in its own right which grounds values, principles and goals conceived on the basis of its own reductionist method: in order to know how a system works, one isolates and simplifies it in order to gain increased knowledge. In scientism, the simplified system is identified with reality as such; overlooking that methodological reductionism is converted into ontological reductionism, which may serve as a means to get rid of all kinds of seemingly undesirable issues and problems.

Another problem may arise in ‘religious imperialism’ when religion turns into religionism (or ‘fideism’) as when religious truth claims are taken as absolute in a cosmological sense. Sometimes religious views can be presented in scientific ‘disguise’, giving religion external support and therefore an apparent higher authority. Religionism constitutes a misuse of both religion and science because it presents religious claims in the name of science, which is actually neither religion nor science. Religious imperialism should therefore be strictly avoided.

One could construe various models for conceiving the relationship between science and religion, like the following:

It is my contention that the confusion of the roles of religion and science can be overcome by focusing on a relationship between the two in which both scientists and religionists must ‘test’ their work in what has been called extended peer communities (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1994). In such communities, both members bring a wide variety of knowledge to bear in evaluating ongoing and proposed research, thus making both public activities. The idea of a public science as well as a public religion is an attempt to link scientific work and religious beliefs and values to effectively contribute to the development of a new Social Contract between science, religion and public life in general. In the above cooperation model science and religion interface with each other, thereby expressing that ultimate issues (what-questions: values, norms, principles) have their validity also within scientific work, and that instrumental issues (how-questions) have validity for how to concretize and actualize religious concerns. The cooperation model affirms that science and religion are not identical and should not attempt to enforce some kind of rule over each other’s territory. Nevertheless, they share a common ground in which one has to take the presence of the other into account by acknowledging certain perspectives from the other as relevant for the work done within one’s own ‘territory’. Cooperation takes place both on a personal (existential / intellectual) level and a communal (social / political) level. I would like to clarify the interaction between science and religion by reflecting on a phenomenological theory about the two as areas of human activities with analogous role performances.

Science and religion as human activities are manifested in various ways. Ninian Smart’s notion of religions dimensions (click to see diagram) can be used to clarify their structures. Religion includes ‘sacred stories’ which, when intellectually analyzed, can be translated into doctrines or ‘theologies’ about that which ultimately benefits human existence and life in general. Likewise, science consists of assumptions about the nature of the world, ‘cosmologies’, used to formulate hypotheses and theories about how the world actually works. The intellectual dimensions of religion and science are not identical because they serve different purposes. The religious intellectual dimension is an expression of the existential comprehension of religious truth by seeking to make individuals and religious communities aware of what to believe by clarifying the religious issues involved and delineating the parameters of a particular faith, and contrast them to other faith systems. The scientific intellectual dimension is an expression of experiential truth about the physical world in order to be able to use that insight to formulate natural laws and to use those laws for the construction of devices that help us influence or control the world. The two different purposes of the intellectual dimensions of religion and science do not coincide, but they share a common ground based on an agreement about how the world is perceived and what it should be like.

The distinction between the ‘is’ and ‘should’ is important, because that is precisely where science and religion encounter each other’s claims about the world and what to do with it. The basic premise of religion (in a general sense) is that there is a basic problem connected with human existence as it is (either as perceived, or as it actually is). The purpose of religion is to state that this problem may be overcome by spiritual insight and/or right action. For science, this is not in itself a basic problem, as it is primarily interested in the way the world actually works – but it becomes a problem once a scientist uses this insight to affect or control the way the world works. Insight into fusion- or fission processes are not problems in and of themselves, but may become a problem when this insight is used to build bombs or set up devices which seek to control and use those processes. Thus such insight is not only an ethical problem, but also a problem connected with world-views - ‘theologies’ - in a larger sense of the word, as world-views not only contain a vision of what the world is like, but also what it should look like.

Also other dimensions of science and religion can be seen to contain common grounds. The ritual dimension in religion contains rites, ceremonies and liturgies, while in science it contains observations, experiments and calculations. The ritual dimension deals with the performance of individuals and communities related to certain norms of behavior, and there as many rules and regulations for ‘good behavior’ in the one field, as there are in the other field. Their common ground, however, consists in the public demand to conform to accepted norms and rules about how to apply one’s insight in one’s respective field. It is equally bad for the priest to disregard the proper way of performing a rite as it is for the scientist to disregard norms for setting up an experiment in a disorderly fashion or to be sloppy in one’s calculations. Appropriate behavior is necessary in both fields. The same is true in the social dimension of religion and science. Religion has its priests and prophets as authority figures just like science has its professors and researchers, and they need to perform their roles in ways which confirm and support the social structures adopted by the religious or scientific communities respectively. Performance is therefore crucial, and anyone who disobeys or disregards the basic performance values of the community, stands in danger of being excommunicated from their own communities.

The common ground between science and religion, therefore, to a large extent consists in the proper performance of the role religionists and scientists have in their respective communities, and also when it comes to their meeting places as in ‘extended peer communities’. To perform well as a scientist or a religionist implies that one takes the performance codes within the scientific and religious communities deeply serious, acting with regard to one’s work and colleagues in proper ways - including affirming the right for members of the other community to do the same when encountering the other as a dialogue partner. A bad performance happens when a person attempts to enforce one’s own vision of the world (and how it should be) on the other, accepting only that which supports one’s own point of view. This is what happens in both religious and scientific imperialism. Both negate the common ground by not performing well according to public standards. A good performance, on the other hand, happens when one opens up to the perspectives of the other, affirming their good intentions, and attempts to learn from the other in an open dialogue. For the religious person this implies willingness to learn from science and adjust one’s understanding of the world accordingly, and to ask together with the scientists what their insights may contain of relevance for the way the world is perceived and how the world should be like. For the scientist a good performance implies the openness to learn what kind of values should guide research and technology when attempting to affect the world for improved understanding and control. Together they need to ask how spiritual traditions and communal standards might serve as guiding lights toward that end, and it presupposes the willingness to participate in democratic policy making, in which scientific perspectives and other perspectives encounter each other for the sake of contributing to the common good.

The future role of science and religion thus to a large extent depends on the performance of members of each group. Basically it deals with what kind of world-views, norms and values people choose to adhere to, and what kind of visions we have for what our societies should be like in the future. A scientist who does not respect and pay attention to existential concerns like spiritual values and ethical norms, does not perform well in his or her work as a scientist, and the religious person who does not respect and pay attention to the concerns about knowledge and use of science and technology, overlooks the social consequences of such knowledge and does not perform well as a religious person. The first person has, in Einsteins’s words, become blind, whereas the latter has become lame. Neither person knows where the world should be heading, and are therefore incapable of functioning well in the social and political context.

My point is therefore that the future role of science and religion in society is linked to the challenge of strengthening the good performance of members within each community so that they may

The Social Contract

The need to strengthen the good performance could easily be related to the idea of a new Social Contract. Actually, in religion such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea of a contract can be seen as embedded in the theological idea of Covenant, and there are several examples of such covenants in the sacred scriptures. The content of the covenant is usually of a social nature, and it entails a mutual promise to act responsibility and behave correctly according to specified rules, and the breaking of the covenant may have severe consequences.

In the science/religion perspective, the idea of a new Social Contract may be regarded as a ‘Covenant’ in which scientific and religious professionals affirm their social responsibility to actively strive to ensure that their work benefit public good and social life. They are all members of the larger society which needs to take into account not only scientific, technical, and economic issues, but also ethical and spiritual aspects of human activities for the sustainable welfare of the community as a whole. Strengthening good performances already begin in public education and continue throughout professional life. Society is in great need of persons who are able to do this kind of inter-disciplinary crossover in which they enter into other fields than their strict professional ones. The crossover process entails an engagement in dialogues in which one focuses on the ‘deep’ questions about what the world is like, and what it should look like in the future. The intertwining of the ‘is’ and ‘should’ questions affect society at its most basic level, and cannot be solved by leaving one set of questions to members of the other group.

The need to relate religious and scientific issues for the sake of the future of society and the world was realized already in the early stages of modern scientific development. Francis Bacon, the great scientist and religious philosopher of the 17th century in England, had as his basic vision a religion which would help people to understand the moral questions and act accordingly, and a vision of science which would help people to understand the technological and scientific questions in order to improve control of the world and their own lives. For him, these two issues were mutually intertwined and constituted the basic ideas of his theology. The problem ever since, however, has been that the two concerns all too often have been strictly separated: scientists have been preoccupied with learning about the world and how this knowledge can be put into practical use, whereas religious persons have retreated into their sanctuaries, focusing on their knowledge about God and how to conform to the divine will in their private lives. In the history of science and religion, mutual encounters often have become either a history of mutual disregard or a history of conflict. In order to overcome that split, the drifting away of the two ‘continents’ of science and religion, we need to recreate public meeting places in which committed people from both fields encounter each other as professionals in good performances, and with a basic respect to, and care for, the deepest concerns of the members from other fields. Only in that way can we hope for the building of a society with a legitimate place for science, religion and other fields pertaining to the construction of a better future.


Returning at the end to the issue raised by my two unknown midnight friends in Tromsø, our little discussion was most interesting and sigificant because it demonstrated the fact that many people even today take pleasure in what is often perceived as the ‘higher power’ connected with certain kinds of knowledge, i.e., ‘scientific’ knowledge. This kind of knowledge is often believed to outrank any other form of knowledge, even to the extent of excluding other areas of concerns. My general impression is that many students of science (and probably also in religion!) are not well prepared in their fields of study to incorporate other forms of knowledge into their minds because of a lack of fundamental insight into the the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. It is my belief that the creation of a society in which both science and religion, as well as other fields in social sciences and humanities, depends heavily on including a broad insight into the philosophy of knowledge as an indispensable part in higher education. If there is to be a new Social Contract between science and society, the appreciation of the social and spiritual grounding of knowledge of scientific work is necessary. When studying a particular field of knowledge, one needs not only to learn about methods used in one’s own field, but also about methods employed in other fields of work. Scientists need to learn about the hermeneutical method, just like religious persons need to learn about methods employed by scientists. Focusing on the relationship between the two and their conditions and limitations for use, one might contribute to an understanding of knowledge, thereby avoiding the tendency to epistemological imperialism, which tends to undermine the interest for and appreciation of other dimensions of knowledge. Today’s society needs people who are able to cooperate and work towards common goals for the common good. Thus I believe we need a cooperation model in higher education, which would strengthen the possibilities for dialogue and mutual insights between such two different and distinct fields as science and religion.