The Common Good

Science vs. Religion: A Race to Destruction?

First things first: with all due respect to interim host John Oliver, I for one am thrilled to have Jon Stewart back on The Daily Show. I know it is sad to say, but I actually missed him while he was on summer hiatus. Welcome back, little buddy!

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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Last night, Stewart interviewed Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who was promoting his newest title, An Appetite for Wonder. The most interesting moments in the interview revolved around Stewart’s question to Dawkins about whether science or religion ultimately would be responsible for hastening our journey down this path of apparent self-annihilation. What followed was a fascinating, if not entirely satisfying, dialogue about the “downsides” of both disciplines.

Basically, Dawkins split the difference and placed a fairly equal amount of blame on both science and religion in his prophetic imagining of how things will go down in the future. Although he was convinced that religious extremism ultimately would lead to our downfall as a human race, he conceded that the tools to do so would be afforded to them by advances in science.

Stewart challenged him on this, suggesting that historically, so-called “secular” governments have seemed perfectly adept at self-destructive behavior independent of any significant religious influence. And beyond weapons of mass destruction, which seemed to be the axis around which the conversation revolved, there is the matter of global warming, overcrowding, and other secondary byproducts of scientific and technological progress.

In the end, it seemed that Stewart felt Dawkins gave far too much credit to organized religion for its destructive potential in today’s world. And granted, destruction takes many forms, from apocalyptic war-type scenarios to increasingly chaotic climate systems, and even the wrenching of the social fabric often caused by ideological fanaticism and division. But I think that both of them failed to touch on a common theme underlying both science and religion, which tends to lead to either or both being more destructive than beneficial.

In a perfect world, both science and religion should be means to desired ends. With the former, it is a vehicle by which we can advance human knowledge and potential. With the latter, it is a system that can help us better come to know ourselves as creatures composed of some admixture of body and spirit. However, as humans tend to do, the appreciation for such systems can tend to breed dependence. And in justifying our dependence, we tend to elevate the system that was simply meant to be a tool to a sort of godlike status.

Once we worship a system like science or religion, we become willfully blind to its shortcomings, its potential for damage, choosing only to see the things we want to see. Our ambition for the advancement of a cause or an idea becomes, in itself, fanaticism. Science for the sake of science, or religion for the sake of religion, nearly always possesses within it the potential for great danger, especially if the humanity that both were meant to serve comes second to the ideas and ideals of the system we have come to worship.

Although the conversation between Stewart and Dawkins was frustratingly short, I was grateful for the fodder it left me with afterward. Any time I can turn on the television and, in turn, laugh, think, and be challenged, it feels like time well spent.

Welcome back, Jon.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

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