I woke up at 2:00 this morning thinking about analogies. My brain is funny that way. Specifically, I thought about the relationship between science and religion.
I have a friend who would probably describe it this way:
To him, science is real and religion is made up. Yet fiction does capture and express important ideas. Why else do we still enjoy Shakespeare? And even today, who can read The Grapes of Wrath and not be moved? With a nod to my friend, fiction can also promote negative ideas. Consider, for example, the global impact of certain people’s interpretation of Atlas Shrugged!
And yet there’s more to it than that. Science provides facts, but not morality. When it does provide morality, it is frequently unpalatable–utilitarianism and Social Darwinism, for example. The latter argues that if the point of existence is survival of the species, then only the strongest should survive, a view used to justify the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The former argues that humans are inherently replaceable, one is the same as another, and are thus disposable. One Australian ethicist argues not only that abortion should be legal throughout pregnancy, but that children should be allowed to be killed even after birth! It seems to me that science is a better source for facts than it is for morality.
So perhaps the analogy should look this way:
This still doesn’t capture the full picture, however. Science measures what exists as matter and energy in the physical (corporeal) world, and theorizes based on that and only that. It does tell a story, though that story is based in a conservatively historical perspective: events happened in this order, with no apparent underlying theme.
Religion looks at the corporeal world, and beyond it to the noncorporeal world that we encounter in glimpses, seeking links between the two. (Yes, even eminently pragmatic Buddhism believes in the noncorporeal.) Religious truths are generally Ultimate Truths that are difficult to express in words. So perhaps we might look at it this way:
This seems appropriate in the sense that science tells us things we can (or at least some people can) readily understand, while religion tends more toward imagery. But there’s one aspect that is still missing. Religion brings many of us comfort and meaning. Admittedly this can, in extreme forms, become pretty ugly, justifying prejudice, hatred, and violence. But it can also bring service, justice, and peace. So here’s yet another way to look at it:
Nutrition gives you everything you need to survive. I’ve been told if I ate bran muffins, beans, and kale, I could live forever. Or maybe it would just seem like forever. What would life be without fried chicken, cheese, and strawberry pie? (Or bengan bharta, tom kha kai, and papusas?) They may not be biologically necessary, but life is pretty dismal without them. Cuisine gives us comfort and identity. It gives us a place to gather and pause together. It brings joy and hope to a landscape littered with bran muffin wrappers and empty water bottles.
For me, this highlights the primary shortcoming of science in the absence of religion: it lacks humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe the universe was created for my own needs and desires. Let me put it another way: science explains the creation of the Helix nebula and allows us to see it. But it’s not science that causes us to perceive it as beautiful.