A Systems Thinking Response to the Science Versus Religion Debate

The Creative Systems Theory concept of Cultural Maturity describes how our times are demanding—and as potential making possible—an essential new chapter in the human story. One characteristic of culturally mature understanding is that it helps us think more systemically about issues of all sorts that in times past we have thought of in polarized terms. There is no more basic such polarity than that which has historically divided the thinking of science and religion. My new book Insight: Creative Systems Theory’s Radical New Picture of Human Possibility provides a concise summary of how the theory reframes this critical relationship. 

       Getting to the Question That Can Help Us

The place to start with any polarity is the recognition that we have yet to ask the needed larger question. Here a person might assume it to be, “Is God real?,” given that it is the question that has conventionally divided thinking into two mutually exclusive, irreconcilable realities. But as I will come back to shortly, in fact I don’t find it terribly helpful. This is not because I know the question’s answer, but rather because it is limited in where it can take us (unless we are willing to settle for endless circular debates). 

The better question concerns the nature of truth. Over the course of history, the contrasting perspectives of science and faith have provided our bottom-line answers when it comes to truth. Sometimes the forms these answers have taken have spoken in concert; at other times they have manifested as warring opposites. But in the end, their juxtaposed vantages are what we have come back to. Our larger question becomes, “Just what is it that ultimately makes something true?” 

For most people, the whole idea that it might be possible to get beyond the science versus faith debate and engage the truth question in larger ways makes little sense. Or if the possibility is entertained, the assumption is that the answer would be so philosophical and obscure that it would have little practical value. But there is another legitimate explanation for why we might have a hard time imagining other possibilities. It has to do with how we have been capable of thinking in times past—with how understanding has worked and been structured. 

A Conceptual Answer

Creative Systems Theory lets us address how the material and the spiritual might relate conceptually. For our purposes in this short article it is enough that the theory further supports the fact that more encompassing perspective might be an option. But for those who have interest, there are important added reasons to take time with how the theory approaches the science versus faith question. It brings clarity to one of the most essential recognitions if we are to understand polarity or polarization deeply. 

It turns out that polarity at its most fundamental, rather than contrasting two kinds of difference, juxtaposes unity and oneness on one hand with difference and multiplicity on the other. We can apply this conclusion directly to the science versus religion polarity. Science in its various forms over time can be thought of as having its origins in how the world looks from the difference/multiplicity side of fundamental polarity when experienced at a collective scale. Spirituality/religion in its various forms over time in a complementary way has its origins in how the world looks from the unity/oneness side of fundamental polarity when experienced at a collective scale. Creative Systems Theory thinks of science and religion as ultimate voices for the right and left hands of creative sensibility.

A closer look at the contrasting contributions of science and religion supports this interpretation. Science is about distinction—this as opposed to that. Biology delineates the creaturely into taxonomies of genus and species, chemistry gives us the periodic table and the interplay of atoms and molecules, and classical physics describes objects of differing mass and the action-and-reaction laws of material cause and effect. Spiritual/religious experience in contrast highlights oneness. We can think of religious belief through history in terms of four connectedness-related themes: how existence arose from the undivided (“in the beginning”), community (congregation and communion), right thought and behavior (shared moral assumptions), and how experiences interrelate (and, in the end, how it all interrelates). In Latin, re-ligare, the root of the word “religion,” means “to connect.” William James put it this way: “In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.” 

We can also use a creative frame to map the changing relationship of science and religion over time. In early societies, material and spiritual sensibilities tended to be spoken of almost as one. Later, as with much of the European Middle Ages, material and spiritual inclinations more often took expression in ways that were explicitly at odds. Later still, as with Cartesian dualism, science and religion more comfortably coexist, but they accomplish this feat by, in effect, ignoring each other’s existence. This sequence of juxtapositions is just what we would expect to find if the relationship between science and religion is ultimately creative. 

The God Question

I’ve promised to return to the perhaps surprising assertion that the “Is God real” question is really not that useful. A person might assume that my reason for this conclusion is the one commonly put forward by self-described atheists, namely that efforts to rationally prove the existence of God through history have never quite succeeded. But while I would generally agree with this observation, my reason for setting the questions aside could just as well be thought of as coming down on the opposite position in the argument. It has more to do with the poverty of atheism as a concept. While the religion versus atheism debate certainly sells books, I find atheism as a belief a bit silly. The vehemence we commonly find with its adherents suggests that it is best thought of as but another form of fundamentalism. More specifically, in leaving out the evolutionary dimension of understanding, the argument for atheism doesn’t really hold up. 

If I argued that the ancient Greeks were wrong for believing there were gods atop Olympus, or that tribal societies have been wrong for having animistic deities, you would appropriately conclude that I had missed the point. While these are kinds of beliefs that tend not to work today, in their time they gave expression to an important kind of need—and more deeply, I would argue, reflected an essential aspect of human sensibility. I agree, as the advocate for atheism may be quick to point out, that the more modern idea of a monotheistic God with a capital “G” has resulted in harm as well as benefit. But as I see things, the larger portion of that harm, while it may have been done in the name of religion, has come not from religion per se, but from our systemic need for worlds of “us and them.” And while it is true, too, that religion makes little sense rationally and can lead to some claims that really don’t hold up, that is not what is important. Religion through time has given expression to essential aspects of being human, aspects that are just as important in our time, and arguably now more important than ever. Religion as we have known it in Modern Age times is best thought of not in terms of the rightness or wrongness of its assertions, but as one chapter in an evolving picture of truth. The important question becomes what a next chapter might look like. 

The Challenge to Science

In challenging atheism’s critiques of religion in this way, it is important to note that CST just as directly challenges science. And once again the challenge is not what we might imagine. At least it is different from that commonly put forward by the Right—that science is just another kind of belief or opinion. Science represents a very specific kind of belief, one with radical and powerful implications. Its foundation—repeatable, objective observation (proof by experimentation)—at least for certain kinds of understanding takes us beyond simple opinion and gives us a solid foundation from which to make choices. The observation commonly made today that it is fine to have your own opinions but that you don’t get to choose your own facts holds up well when it comes to questions where science applies, and represents one of modern science’s profound contributions. The challenge to modern science is the simple recognition that not all concerns are fully amenable to its method. And that includes a great many of our times’ most important concerns: the nature of human purpose, the deep workings of intelligence, the importance of creativity, and just what makes relationships relationship to name just a few from numerous examples. 

From culturally mature perspective’s more systemic vantage, science and religion, material and spiritual become crayons in a larger  systemic box. The yes to science is an affirming of the precision and detail it brings to certain kinds of understanding. The no comes in response to the recognition that while it can provide clear answers for particular kinds of questions, with others, it can blind us to what is ultimately important. The yes to religion is that appreciating connectedness is often critically important and has particular importance in our time. The no comes with the recognition that connectedness is at best half of what makes truth true, and that failing to appreciate this fact leaves us just as blind to what is ultimately needed.

A New, More Systemic Kind of Common Sense

Bringing more systemic perspective to the science/religion debate requires that we think with greater complexity and nuance than advocates of either polar position may appreciate. But in the end, where doing so takes us is also simpler—and ultimately common sense. We may have historically needed to think in terms of polarity.  But here is no reason, ultimately to assume that reality is anything but whole. 

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