Science has helped alleviate and eradicate a good many of our physical ailments, and continues to do so. It has been of considerable help in unhealthy psychological contexts as well. A scientific understanding of the ideas and worldviews associated with religion could, in principle, help us exercise the nobler aspects of religion and diminish its more unsavory dimensions on which Dawkins and company are justifiably, if exaggeratedly, harping.
I say in principle because in the past 50 and odd years science has made enormous strides, but our religious expressions have not exactly made proportional positive advances. On occasions they have regressed. If anything, more science and technology have led to more belligerence and vaunting of power, if only because they have endowed fanatics with the wherewithal to bully the world or their opponents. The next religious Hitler will be armed with nuclear weapons.
In other words, as of now, aside from the knowledge that too many people will spoil the planet, too much gas-burning will cause planet-fever, and the like – which are recognitions of enormous import – I am not convinced that precious scientific information has enhanced the virtues of love, compassion, consoling the afflicted, charity and choir singing – that religions try to foster – in measurable ways .
So I hesitate to give science a hearty pat on the back for its positive contributions to the practice of religion or of science’s therapeutic role in refining religion. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and many ministers of minor repute have perhaps been playing this role in various contexts in more effective ways than the best neuroscientists, astrophysicists, evolutionary biologists and their other scientific cousins.
None of this is to diminish the value, significance and mind-expanding role of science but only to remind ourselves that every human effort and institution is limited in scope: even the most glorious music or sublime prayer cannot serve all our needs as human beings. That’s why we have different disciplines and a variety of institutions. And let’s not expect science to serve us in every way.