“Scientia et religio: ex uno fonte” is the motto of the college I went to — I won’t mention how long ago. I never paid much attention to it then and had long forgotten about it, but recently I realized that I now believe exactly what it says, though probably not quite the way it was originally intended. If you’ve forgotten your Latin or (like me) never took it, it means “science and religion: from one source”. I would have to guess that the person who came up with it a hundred and some years ago had a particular source in mind: God.
The way I look at it, that source is the human propensity for pattern recognition and our irresistible urge to know “why”, so that we can predict outcomes. These drives are the essential asset that kept our species alive in the days when we lived in caves and had to outsmart the other predators to survive. Both science and religion are the results of our applying these urges to ourselves, and to the things around us. They both attempt to explain everything that we perceive, and for that matter, things we can’t directly perceive. The essential, qualitative difference between them is that science is developed on the basis of empirical evidence, and religion is developed based on revelations.
When people attempt to explain something scientifically, they begin by thinking of a hypothesis. Hypotheses are testable, and those tests can be replicated by other scientists in other places. Only when a hypothesis has been thoroughly tested through well-designed experiments, supported by the experimental results, and those results have been independently verified, does it become accepted as a theory. That acceptance, however, is and always remains conditional. If just one counterexample to the theory is ever found, or if someone thinks of another theory which provides a better explanation of the observed data, the first theory will be discarded. Theories are continually judged based solely on how well they explain things. They are considered especially good, when they continue to explain things that are newly discovered after the theory was promulgated. A theory such as this is very useful for decision making because it will reliably predict the outcome of our actions.
Religions go about explaining things very differently. The two largest religions, and many others, got started through a divine revelation to a single human being. Revelation is not something that can be replicated by anyone else. It is not testable – it is impossible to conduct any experiments that would determine if the revelation is valid, in the sense of a scientific theory being accepted as valid. People decide whether to accept a religious revelation as valid based on their personal experience of it. It is individual rather than collective, and cannot be otherwise. Counterexamples have no influence over believers because belief in revelation is based in faith, not fact.
What does all that have to do with peace? This: basing one’s understanding of the world on a revelatory religion requires one to accept the very dangerous idea that evidence is unnecessary, irrelevant even, to truth. Only when someone accepts that idea, does it become possible to say, “I am right, so we must all do things my way, no matter what the other side says.” That conviction takes away all motivation for seeking meaningful peace. “Peace” becomes something that will happen only when the other side finally sees that “we” are right, and becomes willing to live on our terms. But this attitude makes it impossible for real peace to exist.
The solution is not to do away with religion, however, as some recent authors on atheism have recommended. First, it can’t be done, so it’s not accomplishing anything to spend efforts in that direction, and second, it shouldn’t be done. Religions all have some very beneficial teachings and practices that we would not be fully human without. What needs to happen is to decouple those beneficial teachings and practices, from the need to accept one particular revelation as “true”. The latter is not necessary to the former. The question is, is the former sufficient without the latter? That is what must be answered to the minds of believers. I will have to take up that question in a later post…