Why the Scientific World Still Needs Religion

Some critics insist that religions originated as primitive attempts to answer questions that now belong to science. Accordingly, they suggest, modern science’s explanatory successes have rendered religious belief obsolete.

But this seems untrue. First, “religion” as a category contains a wide variety of practices, movements and beliefs, and generalizations about “religion,” as such, are just as risky as generalizing about “language.” (What’s true of Chinese, for example, may not apply at all to Spanish, Icelandic or Hebrew.) To choose just one illustration: Criticisms of fundamentalist Protestant views of the first chapters of Genesis have no relevance whatsoever to Buddhism.

But even if we confine ourselves to the Abrahamic religions that Western critics typically have in mind, scientific issues (while they sometimes appear) are mostly peripheral matters. There’s no clearly biblical or Quranic teaching on gravity, blood circulation, plant genetics, the causes of disease, chemical reactions or motions of planets. And, while Genesis 1-2 plainly offers an origin story, it’s strikingly short on detailed mechanisms of precisely how things came to be, and the Bible as a whole contains very few etiological stories (causal explanations) of the “and that’s how the leopard got its spots” type.

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