Speaking of Science

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It’s impossible to read Krista Tippett’s new book Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit without hearing her distinctive voice, and this is a good thing.  It’s soft and highly articulate, conveying unmistakable sincerity and curiosity, qualities which are not often heard in public conversations about religion.

As host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Speaking of Faith, Tippett seeks out highly respected figures with an angle on religion “not as argued,” she says, “but as lived.” She steeps herself in their work and asks questions which often seem to surprise interviewees and listeners alike with their depth and insight. Tippett has meanwhile been accused of soft-pedaling her guests, of not pushing them on controversial points. But her show is not about debate; it’s a form of advocacy. Each episode is calibrated to get at the root of her guests’ beliefs—or, at least, a particular root which Tippett has already decided deserves to see the light of day.

She does not, as a rule, discuss theology in the abstract. She did not ask a former Islamic extremist, for sample, “What does the Qur’an say about violence?”—but emphasizes instead the personal—“Could you talk about the appeal of [Islamic extremism] to you at that point in your life and in this milieu?” What comes out is something more empathetic, more sincere, and more seeking than the usual fare. Since 2001, she has interviewed nearly 400 people on topics as heavy as climate change, genocide, and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, not to mention shows on Rumi, the spirituality of fly fishing, and the morality of television dramas.

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Einstein’s God is a collection of 13 interviews with distinguished scientists and writers on science, each with a thoughtful introduction from Tippett. Here, again, her interviewees are people with deep knowledge and unique perspectives on science and religion; among them are distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson, Darwin biographer James Moore, and psychologist Michael McCullough, who studies revenge and forgiveness. The premise behind each conversation is that science and religion are not in conflict, and that believing they are has led us all astray. As Hindu scholar and physicist V. V. Raman tells Tippett, though we talk about a “cognitive dissonance” between religion and science, many of us live with an “experiential consonance.” It almost goes without saying, as Tippett puts it in one podcast, “we are not going to talk about Richard Dawkins.”

She’s not the only one on a mission to reconcile science and religion lately. Lots of thinkers are beginning to pipe up against the binary, divisive—and predominantly male—juggernaut of New Atheism. In 2009, NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty released Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, in which she sets off on a fervent, personal search for scientific evidence to back up her personal spiritual beliefs. Robert Wright, whose The Evolution of God was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, contends that religions have evolved toward an embrace of new knowledge and a wider moral circle. And of course there’s Karen Armstrong, supreme spokeswoman against fundamentalism and for compassion. Each of these authors dwells on religious practice more than doctrine. Likewise for Einstein’s God. It is on the level of what people do that the distinction between science and religion gets blurry. One might study physics all day, but when visiting a relative in a hospital, one prays. We take antidepressants, and then we meditate.

I’m all for the third way whenever there is one to be found. But in Tippett’s earnest efforts to re-characterize the science-and-religion relationship, there’s another crucial part of practice which is largely ignored: politics. Too often, Tippett simply leaves some of the most important implications of her interviewees’ experience untouched. This happens in a number of ways.

V. V. Raman professes astonishment that Americans put up such a fuss about having prayer in schools. He had to recite both Hindu prayers to Sarasvati and the Our Father in Latin, and he knows that neither did him any harm. Tippett does not stop to draw the distinction between apparent harmlessness and the long, messy history of constitutional law and partisan debate that keeps prayer out of American schools. She simply goes on to another topic. In another show, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiologist and proponent of alternative medicine—or as he calls it, “global medicine”—bemoans the fact that there is not funding to study the efficacy of non-Western techniques, but the reasons why are never discussed. At least Dr. Janna Levin, an astrophysicist and novelist, is admirably direct in her admission that sometimes, spending her days contemplating the large-scale structure of the universe does indeed make human political squabbles seem rather small and petty. This doesn’t mean, however, they can be put aside entirely.

Questions of science and religion invariably come with a few other things on the line: scientific credibility, legislative agendas, and considerable amounts of money. The John Templeton Foundation, for instance, funds a prize larger than the Nobel for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension,” making the stakes for public conversation about science and religion higher than ever. Their money also helped support, among many other things, Einstein’s God. Templeton has practically trademarked the pursuit of “Big Questions,” which it defines in terms of “science, religion, markets, and morals.” This territory covers, connects, and frames a wide range of hot-button political topics: stem-cell research, sexuality, end-of-life issues, the teaching of evolution in public schools. Yet, like Tippett herself, the foundation does its best to appear above politics. When so much money is at stake, though, is it possible to have no earthly interest in how it is spent? What is this agenda of no-agenda?

Only the last interview in the book, with Templeton Prize winner John Polkinghorne—distinguished theologian, mathematical physicist, and author of 26 books on the relationship between science and religion—does Tippett actually ask a political question: what does Polkinghorne think of the “intelligent design” movement?  At least, I thought that was a political question; Polkinghorne didn’t seem to. After discussing the concept of “irreducible complexity” (the idea that some natural systems are so complex that they must have been created all at once by a designer), he notes that the movement’s questions are “in principle, scientifically answerable,” but, he concludes, “I don’t think we yet know the answers. So I’m very cautious about the line of argument they’re trying to make.” Polkinghorne may be cautious, but in this case, not recognizing intelligent design’s political context is a more serious sin of omission. And Tippett makes no point of bringing it up.

Intelligent design is considered by the scientific community, as well as a federal court, to be the calculated, cynical rebranding of Christian creationism in the guise of actual science. The ID movement’s attempt to frame its questions as “scientifically answerable,” is part of the ploy that enables them to advocate for “teaching the conflict” over evolution, when there really isn’t any among serious scientists. (Some of the same groups are now trying similar methods to bring climate-change denialism into the public schools.) By failing to make this context clear, it is hard not to feel that Tippett and Polkinghorne are colluding in miseducation. I sympathize with her non-confrontational impulse, but in this case, one has to recognize that the conflict between science and a certain highly politicized religious phenomenon is real.

This past Easter weekend, Speaking of Faith aired Tippett’s interview with two astronomers who also happen to be Jesuits. Unfortunately it came after press time for Einstein’s God, but Tippett’s conversation served as an interesting reprise to the one with Polkinghorne. Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father George Coyne were especially insightful on the topic of biblical literalism, the practice of reading the Bible as a scientific text rather than a spiritual one, prose rather than poetry. This troubling development—Coyne called it “a plague”—is at the core of creationism and intelligent design. In the unedited podcast of the interview, Tippett suggests that literalism began with the Reformation, when people began to be able to read the Bible for themselves, but Brother Guy Consolmagno politely begged to differ. He posits that the more relevant historical period was “in the 1960s, with the culture wars”—precisely when modern, “scientific” creationism began to take hold. To this, Tippett has nothing to say. And the entire exchange wasn’t part of the final Speaking of Faith broadcast.

It left me with the impression that when it comes to religion and science, Tippett considers recent political history too hot to handle. Is it possible to be respectful of religion while acknowledging and evaluating its entanglements with earthly power structures? I certainly hope so. We all want to get beyond the culture wars—or if we don’t, we should.  But we can’t do so by pretending they don’t exist.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth