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Viewpoint, by Freeman Dyson

Science and Religion Can Work Together

"God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world."

The above was said by Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of modern science, almost 400 years ago. Bacon was the smartest man of his time, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare. Bacon saw clearly what science could do, and what science could not do. He is saying to the philosophers and theologians of his time: look for God in the facts of nature, not in the theories of Plato and Aristotle. I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don't imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe, or the mysteries of life.

Here are Bacon's words again: "The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding." In the last 400 years, science has fulfilled many of Bacon's dreams, but it still does not come close to capturing the full subtlety of nature. After sketching his program for the scientific revolution that he foresaw, Bacon ends his account with a prayer: "Humbly we pray that this mind may be steadfast in us, and that through these our hands, and the hands of others to whom thou shalt give the same spirit, thou wilt vouchsafe to endow the human family with new mercies." That is still a good prayer for all of us as we begin the 21st century.

Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect. As the old Swiss nurse who helped take care of our babies used to say, "Some people like to go to church, and some people like cherries."

Troubles arise when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance, they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. Media people should tell the public that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, and the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect, so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.

In Princeton, we have more than 20 churches and at least one synagogue, providing different forms of worship and belief for different kinds of people. They do more than any other organizations in the town to hold our community together. Within this community of people, held together by religious traditions of human brotherhood and sharing of burdens, a smaller community of professional scientists also flourishes.

The great question for our time is, how to make sure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everybody rather than widening the gap between rich and poor. To lift up poor countries, and poor people in rich countries, from poverty, to give them a chance for a decent life, technology is not enough. Technology must be guided and driven by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich. Scientists and business leaders who care about social justice should join forces with environmentalists and religious organizations to give political clout to ethics.

Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world. That is my vision, and it is the same vision that inspired Francis Bacon 400 years ago, when he prayed that through science God would "endow the human family with new mercies."

Freeman Dyson is at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. The above commentary was delivered upon occasion of his receipt of the Templeton "Science and Religion" Prize in March, 2000.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette