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  • Sean O'Leary

Science: The New Religion?

For some people, science has become the new worldwide religion, sweeping all other forms of worship into obscurity.


Over the past few decades, there have been massive developments in science. This growth has expanded the range of questions addressed by science through the creation of new fields of research. Many of these new fields of research build upon and extend the more established areas of science: logic, maths, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, geoscience and astronomy.


Areas such as data science, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and epigenetics have emerged with promises of considerable benefits to society. In fact, it has been estimated that the whole of scientific research could be subdivided into thousands of categories. Science is complex.


It is not easy to take a balanced view about the whole project of science. It is not at all clear that the experts who promote the benefits of new areas of research are entirely free of personal or corporate bias. Similarly, it would not be fair to dismiss the potential for genuine progress that new scientific endeavours offer to society. Science cannot be viewed in a simple way.


The real problem is that public expectations about what science can and will do very often develops into false hopes that more closely resembles the dramatic narratives of science fiction. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell the difference between reason and fantasy. Science has limitations.


There is a persistent myth, often associated with secularism, that science will replace religion. Efforts to transform science into a virtuous, cutting-edge and progressive religion appear to be well under way in some quarters. The much-celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins has long explored the religious potential of science. He is not alone in this endeavour.


New job titles have emerged in recent years, such as ‘technology evangelist’, a development I imagine never envisioned by the Four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The catchphrase ‘believe in science’ has also burst onto the scene, often with very little explanation of what precisely science is. There is no simple universally accepted definition of science.


Sometimes the transformation of science into religion is more obvious, as is the case with the relatively new religion ‘Way of the Future Church’ who wish to create a peaceful and respectful transition of who is in charge of the planet from people to people + “machines”. With the advent of data mining and big data, we would be forgiven for thinking that this project is already underway.


In popular culture, we come across phrases like: ‘I don’t believe in God, I believe in science’. Without doubt, science can bring wonderful benefits. But, given the complexity of science, the truly wise are justified in questioning the need to ‘believe’. Even though science is not a belief system, some questionable movements within science could be accused of becoming the religion that must be obeyed.


For the sceptical amongst us, the overall story looks suspiciously like George Orwell’s fairy story ‘Animal Farm’ where the animals’ quest for freedom, equality and happiness begins with high hopes but ends up as a totalitarian dictatorship.


The movements to transform science into a new atheistic religion strike me as odd. As science continues to explore the natural world, it is entirely clear to me that the order found in the natural world points to God. Without God, why would there be any order for science to discover?


Of course, the religious potential of science promoted by those who adhere to a strictly atheist outlook is possible evidence that the religious instinct runs deep within us. The question then becomes: what do individuals who value science do with an innate religious instinct?


Whether we consciously acknowledge God or not, it seems clear that God calls to us in the depth of our being. As there really isn’t any conflict between science and the main religions, both religion and science can co-exist quite amiably. Indeed, there are real benefits to integrating both kinds of knowing in our personal quest for truth.


When we do so, we combine the considerable knowledge that the scientific world offers us with the deep relational experiences, ethical values and wisdom that are found in religion. This perspective adopts a win-win approach and provides a balanced view of human and planetary wellbeing.


My Catholic faith constantly helps me to journey along this wisdom-seeking path by shining a light in corners darkened by irreverence and doubt. Sometimes, there is too much darkness in the world, and I am not immune from the darkness. Often, I am a reluctant and less than holy follower along the path of truth.


I find myself wishing that someone else would say the things that need to be said in today’s world. Yet, I can be critical of fellow believers who I quietly accuse of saying the wrong thing for pride still attempts to sing within my heart.


Religion is not without controversies that are often magnified in the public consciousness and thus in our own minds. And so, we must peel away the layers of controversy to find the truth, beauty and goodness within. This is a meaningful but challenging journey. It is also a journey that is deeply personal for each one of us. No two paths are the same. As the novelist and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton noted: 'The Church is a house with a hundred gates, and no two men enter at exactly the same angle' or as the Irish novelist James Joyce observed of the Catholic Church: 'Here comes everybody'.


I find it surprising that I (of all people) write about faith. I tell myself that there are so many others who would be better at this sort of thing. My heart-felt appeal to God is that I’m not ready. I don’t know enough. I’m uncertain. I have doubts. But as Cardinal Newman wrote: ‘A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault’.


I take comfort from reading the Bible, which speaks of the life-changing possibilities brought about through the struggle for a more truthful perspective. When I falter, prayer and God’s grace helps me to sort things out in my mind and heart. This, I truly believe.