SEDUCED BY SCIENCE: HOW AMERICAN RELIGION HAS LOST ITS WAY By Steven Goldberg New York University Press 220 pp., $27.95
Many religious leaders are looking to the natural sciences to support their faith. This alarms some scientists who worry that scientific rationality will be distorted by theological interests.
Steven Goldberg has a different take on the issue. It's not the sciences that are at risk, he says, it's the integrity of religion.
Scientists, he notes, use intellectual tools to separate fact from fantasy. But he warns that theologians who let their concepts of the natural sciences set their religious agenda compromise religion's distinctive contribution to human thought. He laments that "instead of speaking of human values, goals, and limits, it [religion] speaks the language of science."
Goldberg wants to warn those who seek evidence of spirituality in the material universe. They may be tempted, he claims, to use the secular authority of science to validate their quest. Yet science and religion are different realms of human thought, he claims. Science explores the material universe. Its standard of validity is the match of theory to clinical observation.
Religion deals with spiritual things natural science cannot handle, Goldberg says. It demonstrates its validity by the good it brings out in human lives.
The debate over cloning illustrates his point. Many scientists as well as religious thinkers question how far it is morally responsible to carry such research. However, Goldberg notes that in grappling with this issue, religious groups often focus more on genetics than on larger spiritual questions. They seem to have accepted the perception that the human genome defines what it means to be human and frame their discourse accordingly. But genetic science only deals with the material side of human beings. It "adds nothing to the ancient philosophical question of whether humans are utterly material," Goldberg observes.
Or consider the current scientific studies on the healing effect of prayer. While some clinical studies seem to show a benefit, the overall results are inconclusive. These studies may eventually find that prayer does have clinical value, but this is where Goldberg sees danger. If prayer is regarded as just another form of medicine, then "the medical view will dominate our thoughts," he warns. Prayer's larger spiritual dimensions could be lost.
Stories about scientists finding God in the laboratory also are problematic. As Goldberg explains, to base religious faith on material scientific knowledge is to build on shifting sand. Tomorrow's laboratory discoveries will likely render today's knowledge obsolete.
This interesting book makes a strong demand on religiously inclined readers. A professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Goldberg is right in his warning not to justify things of the spirit by signs material. Still, isn't there something about the beauty of a rose or the principle governing a neutrino that indicates the spiritual dimension? Must theologians ignore these sign-posts? Goldberg's warning is one to take seriously, but science and theology can be seen to represent a compound of thought, neither of which alone can explain the universe.
*Robert C. Cowen writes on science for the Monitor.