Not only the saying from the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes the connection between right thinking and right acting. It stands to reason that every religion, indeed every worldview in general, takes this connection for granted. If thought and belief were without any influence on our actions, we would rightly regard them as superfluous. A good part of the skepticism that modern man has towards critical thinking (and philosophy in general) is based on precisely this argument: what are they good for? Are they capable of changing our behavior toward reality and, by extension, of changing reality itself?
Measured against this question, religion
religion and science have been partly very successful, partly they have failed miserably. Religions are first and foremost instructions for action; they prescribe laws for people to act correctly.*1* These regulations – they say – do not originate from the arbitrariness of individual people, but from the will of superhuman beings – gods and spirits – or from a superhuman order. In the ideal case, i.e. if their laws were followed to the letter, perfect peace and unbreakable solidarity up to the most fervent mutual sacrifice would prevail within a religious community. This is especially true for Christianity. Unlike all earlier religions, the New Testament has extended this ideal beyond all tribal boundaries and nationalities to include all humanity in mutual love and solidarity.
Since religions are primarily concerned
with regulating interpersonal behavior, they usually accept nature as it was created by God. To change the natural world cannot be their concern, because this would imply a criticism of the divine creation. Therefore, religious teaching shows a clear difference between statements about nature and the guidelines for human life. While practical instructions to the believers belong to the core of all religions, because they are meant to shape daily behavior, their mostly fantastic statements about the creation of the world or the explanation of natural phenomena are of importance only insofar as the acceptance of these propositions serves as external proof of faith and membership in a particular religious community. Whether or not someone believes in the creation of the world 6000 years ago, in virgin births, in the transformation of water into wine, is irrelevant for practical behavior.
The opposite is true in technology and science
In contrast to religion, they do not set up instructions for action towards other people but action towards nature. Since they only deal with what is, they were pushed in this direction from the beginning. What humans should do, that is, their actions, cannot be derived from what they are. No analysis of human societies, however comprehensive, can prove to us that we are better off loving our neighbor than hating him. Statistics can teach us that in peacetime people are happier if they follow the first alternative, but in wartime and even in everyday competition that dominates the economy in times of peace, unrestricted love would be a path to certain failure. Statistics say nothing at all about which behavior is the right one for the individual in a particular situation. Faced with the question what humans should do, science inevitably remains mute.
This observation allows us
a preliminary – admittedly still rather superficial – answer to the question of the fruits of religion and science. Religions have fulfilled an extremely important function by setting limits to man’s actions – by subjecting him to specific rules. Without these limits, no one would have shrunk from murdering his neighbor, robbing him, abusing his wife. I do not claim that only religion is able to set such limits, but only that it was primarily religion that fulfilled this task in the past. From a historical point of view, this was the core of its mission, while its further statements about the world appear as an ingredient, which from today’s point of view is not only predominantly wrong and therefore worthless, but actively prevented man from exploring the nature surrounding him more thoroughly. Religion was at best an important instrument to order the behavior of people towards other people, but it was never a suitable means to reach a deeper understanding of nature. To this day, little has changed in this regard. The evangelicals of North America reject the doctrine of descent of Charles Darwin.
Science procedes in the opposite way
It has proven to be an excellent instrument to explore nature. Here it has achieved its greatest triumphs, but it fails miserably when it comes to establishing rules for the behavior of man and society. This field lies outside its competence. Summarizing this preliminary consideration, we may say that religions throughout their history have been responsible for superstition – a false understanding of extra-human reality. Science, while producing a provably correct – and in this sense objective – understanding of the extra-human world, has suffered from the opposite shortcoming. It had to give up the most important demands of man.
I consider this approach to be provisional
and to a certain extent superficial, because it is much closer to the ideal than to complex historical reality. We need only look at the ideal itself to grasp this distance. As already said, the world would look different if believers had taken the teachings of religion seriously. In their communities there would be neither envy, hatred, nor anger, hubris, or all those human qualities that endanger inner peace. Since Christianity requires love of enemies, even war with other peoples would have been forever impossible.
As we know, the taming of evil has never been achieved by any religion, among any people. This is a historical fact indicating that we are confronted with a fundamental failure. There must be a deep defiance in human nature itself that successfully resists any final standardization by any instructions. Certainly, without such instructions for action, society would be in chaos because everyone would act as he likes without regard for others. But this profound defiance has nevertheless prevented religions from ever achieving their self-imposed goal. To be sure, they have pacified societies and individuals, but to this day they never produced the ideal man, the ideal society.
And what did the sciences achieve?
They have taught us how to recognize the hidden order of nature – its laws – without being swayed by our desires and wills. This is a tremendous advance in the knowledge of truth. Science and technology created the conditions for a historically uniquely high standard of living: Electricity and running water in every home, mobility on water, on the roads and in the air. On the other hand, they also gave us the tools to limit human fertility, because humans, like any other biological species, tend to reproduce beyond the carrying capacity of the environment. In other words, scientific thinking has enlightened us as to what we would need to do if we want to make our material life similar to El Dorado. Theoretically, our knowledge and mastery of material conditions could be as conducive to a good life as religion’s knowledge of the perfect relationship between human beings. But in both cases theory and practice are separated by an abyss. Ecologists like William Rees, along with Mathis Wackernagel the inventor of the ecological footprint, have proven that in the long run a maximum of two billion people can enjoy the Western standard of living with renewable energies.
Since the beginning of the new century at the latest,
we have become aware that we are in the process of turning the earth not into a paradise but into a hell, because we are ruthlessly exploiting and poisoning it with more and more people – soon approaching ten billion. So, our initial question about the fruits by which the success or failure of our theories should be measured, suddenly receives an answer that goes far beyond our initial, still tentative, conclusion.
It is true that religions have always been turned into instruments of persecution of non-believers with other instructions for action. Moreover, their understanding of extra-human reality was mostly grotesque and prevented them from dealing with nature properly, but they never endangered the very survival of man on planet Earth. This, however, is exactly the prospect that scientific knowledge and its practical application has made possible for the first time in history. The greatest breakthrough of this knowledge, the formula E=M x c2, i.e. the conversion of mass into energy, is a symbolic expression for an existential danger, which did not exist until then, namely before man’s savoring the apple of knowledge. Thanks to science and technology, the wholesale destruction of life has turned into a real possibility.
Seen in this light, the accusations against religion,as expounded with great eloquence and wit by Richard Dawkins in his 500 pages best-seller The God Delusion, seem almost harmless. As mentioned, religions caused much persecution and discord among peoples, but they never threatened the survival of the human species. On the other hand, science and technology have given us the means to do just that: to murder our kind en masse and make our home, the planet, uninhabitable to humans for millennia. A book with the title The Science Delusion has not yet been written, but it could enumerate on far more than five hundred pages all the threatening effects, they have produced. If we are to recognize theories by their fruits, then the comparison does not turn out in favor of the scientific world view, as it has dominated first Europe and then the whole world for about three centuries by now.
1 The only exception to this rule is mysticism, which, like science, aspires to be a doctrine of knowledge. Mysticism is equally far from and equally near to religion as to science. See Jenner The Dawkins Delusion.