Canadian Gov. Gen. Julie Payette recently pitted science and religion against each other when she implied that science is rational and religion irrational. While many share this view, I find it narrow and simplistic.
Both science and religion shed meaning on human experience, and both play a role in shaping the world. Both are tools that individuals and societies use wisely or foolishly.
I have no quarrel with much of the content of Payette’s address to the Canadian Science Policy Conference, although I do feel she overstepped her role as the nation’s viceregal. She created unnecessary controversy and division amongst Canadians when her role as the Queen’s representative should be a unifying one.
Payette’s speech engendered thousands of comments on the CBC discussion board. For the most part, the tone of the comments I read was disrespectful, mocking and intolerant. Intentionally or not, the Governor General modelled intolerance towards a variety of belief systems that contribute to the tapestry of Canadian society, and proponents on both sides seemed more than happy to follow her lead.
It’s too bad that Payette was disdainful and dismissive of those who don’t “live and breathe” science as she does, whose faith lies elsewhere. It’s too bad she ridiculed those who believe that the mind can play a role in healing, who question the conclusions of climate science, who take astrology seriously, and who believe in a divine force that creates and sustains life.
It’s too bad because much of what she had to say about the role of science in advancing human society rang true – and didn’t get reported. Payette described science as a tool for finding solutions to problems, for developing social policy and for moving humanity forward.
But what Payette overlooked is that religious belief also plays a role in these same things. It’s another tool in the toolbox.
Tools are only as good as the person using them. Depending on who holds the tool, both science and religion embody the potential to benefit or harm humanity. For example, both have played monumental roles in military conflict and both have provided solutions to various forms of suffering.
Science and religion, reason and faith, need not be mutually exclusive. At the core of both is the universal human desire to understand that which eludes us and to make sense of life. Science is concerned with the material, with things that are seen, with facts that can be corroborated. Religious belief, on the other hand, is comfortable with mystery, with that which is unseen and which can’t be proven through the scientific method.
Religious extremism can make those who adhere to religious belief appear irrational. Yet many people of faith are quite comfortable moving within both the scientific and religious spheres, and successfully integrate the two into daily life.
George Lemaitre was one of those individuals. Lemaitre was a Jesuit priest, an astronomer and a physicist. In 1927, he posited the idea of an expanding universe and the primeval atom, ideas that gained acceptance as the big bang theory.
Many who believe that life on Earth is the result of divine intervention, an idea that Payette clearly finds ridiculous, accept evolution. The biblical account of creation affirms that divine imagination brought life into being. The theory of evolution offers an explanation, based on evidence such as fossil records, for how life in its amazing diversity developed over time.
Science and religion need not stand in opposition. Both have a place in Canadian society and can provide guidance for people of goodwill who are concerned with the development of sound social policy, as Payette is.
To make science a god of rationality and to denigrate religious belief fails to recognize the goods and limitations of both.
To insist on science or religion alone limits the ability to understand the world in which “we live, move and have our being,” to use a biblical phrase.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.