Science and Religion

Adapted from Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions

The often-conflicting views of science and religion present the most frequently debated ultimate question. Most crudely our question asks, Which interpretation is right?  The better question might be, How do the material and spiritual relate to one another—if they do at all?

In modern times, drawing on Descartes, we’ve tended to place the material and the spiritual in separate worlds. This is not an entirely unhelpful solution. It has shielded us from conflicts so fundamental that giving them voice has resulted in people being burned at the stake. But this is not a solution that can satisfy for long. Descriptions that depend on two mutually exclusive explanations can’t ultimately be sufficient.

Cultural maturity’s more systemic vantage at least supports the conclusion that encompassing perspective should be possible. Our creative frame provides a specific way to get there. Creative Systems Theory proposes that not only do the material and spiritual aspects of experience relate as aspects of something larger, the way they relate reflects what most fundamentally makes us human. It also proposes that in spite of how often the relationship between science and religion throughout history has appeared adversarial, all along the two have been engaged in what, in the end, is a conspiracy.

Earlier observations about polarity help clarify the basic, underlying relationship. I’ve described how polarities juxtapose more right-hand, archetypally masculine characteristics with qualities of a more left-hand, archetypally feminine sort. In science and religion we find ultimate expressions of these polar proclivities as they manifest in culture as a system. Science is about collective right-hand sensibility in its purest expression. Religion is about collective left-hand sensibility, similarly cleansed of contamination by the right. Put another way, science gives expression to the “difference” half of ultimate polarity at the most encompassing of systemic levels, and religion gives expression to ultimate polarity’s complementary “connectedness” dimension.

We can use the language of narrative to help bring this creatively framed systemic picture more to life—both to make it more palpable and to animate it, to put it in motion. Cultural Maturity’s changes help us step back not just from who we are as creative, tool-making beings, but also from our natures as tellers of stories about how creation works. We can think of science and religion as history’s two great “creation story” storytelling traditions.

All cultures have their stories of how things originally came into being. And most include, too, ways of accounting for events that followed: the amazing and mysterious emergence of life, as well as the immense new creative capacities that arrived with conscious awareness. We can think of all of history’s great encompassing stories as versions of this story—told in ways appropriate to their time, place, and perspective.

Our past stories have taken the forms they have in part because of each time’s practical circumstances (for example, the invention of the telescope resulted in a dramatic challenge to past belief). But even more they have taken the forms that they have because of the developmentally specific sensibilities that at different times have ordered our worldviews. Our early animistic and much later Enlightenment interpretations were different not just because of what we knew, but because of how we knew. In present times, that translates into the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution on one hand, and on the other, into modern monotheistic religion’s various accounts of a spiritual genesis.

A creative interpretation of the science/religion polarity helps us appreciate how these two narrative traditions have also taken the forms they have because of the internal vantages from which they have been told. Combining an appreciation for polarity’s underlying symmetry with earlier observations about intelligence helps fill out this creative picture.  Religious/spiritual traditions have observed creation’s story from a more left-hand creative vantage, and with the more symbolic and specifically experiential—“faith-based”—languages of the more germinal (and connectedness-loving) aspects of intelligence. Science has simultaneously observed creation’s story from a complementary more right-hand vantage, and with the more concrete and rational languages of our more manifest (difference-biased) modes of knowing. An integrative evolutionary picture alerts us to how, all along, science and religion have been observing a single story.

A creative vantage also helps us make sense of how the realities of science and religion have evolved. I’ve described how culture’s larger creative narrative has progressed from a time of archetypally feminine dominance in our tribal beginnings toward a Modern Age in which archetypally masculine proclivities hold the much larger sway. As we would predict from this description, we see a parallel progression over time from realities defined almost wholly in spiritual terms with our animistic beginnings, toward what we find today, a world in which many people hold strong religious beliefs, but in which more material values (scientific, but even more that this, economic) ultimately have greater influence. (More accurately, at any specific time and place, scientific and religious beliefs reflect creative balances of archetypally masculine and archetypally feminine tendencies perceived in polar terms.)

A creative frame also lets us map the changing relationship of science and religion over time. We see that in early societies, material and spiritual sensibilities tended to be spoken of almost as one. Later, as in much of the European Middle Ages, material and spiritual inclinations more often took expression in ways that were explicitly at odds. Later still, as with Cartesian dualism, science and religion more comfortably coexisted, but accomplished the feat by, in effect, ignoring each other’s existence. This sequence of juxtapositions is just what we would expect to find if the relationship between science and religion is ultimately creative.

The short version from the vantage of Creative Systems Theory: Integrative Meta-perspective makes separate-worlds views unnecessary. And developmental/evolutionary perspective makes clear that however irreconcilable the conclusions of science and religion have often seemed, ultimately science and religion have been in collusion, however unwitting. Creative Systems Theory proposes that, all along, science and religion have been working together to drive the creative evolution of human values and human understanding.

What should we expect in the future if the basic concept of Cultural Maturity proves accurate? Just where the more integrative picture it proposes will ultimately take us is beyond what our present view, no matter how culturally mature, can determine. We can know that culturally mature perspective doesn’t let either science or religion off easily. It challenges both the mechanistic and objectivist underpinnings of classical science and the parental assumptions of traditional faith. Beyond that, we should expect to encounter increasing fascination with more encompassing ways of thinking. New formulations—both in science and religion—should be increasingly systemic, and systemic in ways that affirm the particular richness of being human.