Discussions about the relation of science and religion have been going strong for a long while, and they seem to be reaching that state of exhaustion that overcomes all discussions of ultimately unanswerable questions. One of the persistent stumbling blocks in these discussions is the disproportion between the unity of the scientific enterprise and the plurality of religions. To become more proportional, it would seem that the discussion needs to address the aspects that religions have in common. Unfortunately, there is not much that all religions do have in common. Nonetheless, I would like to propose a couple things that most, if not all religions do seem to share.
One element common to nearly all religions is an origin story that relates to purpose or destiny. Where we come from tells us something about where we’re going and together these tell us something about how we should live. Some religious thinkers term this the relation between our arche and our telos.
It is probably in this element that various religions feels most attacked by science, for science has its own story of our beginning, and its story is not compatible with most religious stories, as it most certainly isn’t compatible with the Biblical story of Genesis. Currently there is some effort to make the naturalistic story of beginnings, sometimes called “Big History,” into a kind of religious arche. Though the scientific story of our beginnings certainly has its grandeur and sublimity, it does not connect with a telos. Indeed, scientific methodology has been at war with the concept of the telos from its beginning. Consequently, Big History cannot connect our beginning to an end, or indeed see any aim or purpose at all. In relation to this question, there seems to be little compatibility between science and religion.
Another element that is common to nearly all religions is “communion.” By communion, I mean any kind of experiential integration of the individual being into a larger whole. The individual exists as a part within a whole or a context. In communion, the individual has an experience of the greater context of which he or she is a part, or perhaps more correctly the Greatest Context. This Greatest Context is variously named God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Nature, Tao, Magnum Mysterium, etc. The communion experience might be ephemeral or enduring; it might come as part of formal ritual or arise spontaneously. The aboriginal return to the “dream time”; the sacrament of communion in Christian Churches; the experience of Samadhi, Satori, or Nirvana of the Eastern Religions; the beatific vision or mystic union of the Western mystic – are all in the gamut of the experience of communion.
Because communion is an experience rather than a belief, it does not come into conflict with science or philosophy, which can only take issues with propositions about the world. In order to experience communion, however, there is often a need for some level of scaffolding provided by belief and devotion in some tradition. Typically, this has much to do with the origin story noted above. So to this extent, the notion of communion does not escape the conflict.
There is a tradition of communion with Nature in both the West and the East. Through this experience of communion, the naturalistic origin story called Big History can, perhaps, be given something of a telos that it lacks. This is not a telos that can be articulated, but one that is felt. To experience communion with Nature is to feel a deep sense of meaningfulness in existence. Since Big History is the story of how our particular existences have come to be, this felt sense of the meaningfulness penetrates through the whole story of cosmic evolution, which we humans have rather uniquely gathered together and have the ability to contemplate.
At any rate, I think that it is through the category of communion that science and religion can meet most productively. But since communion is a rather silent and personal affair, there may not be much that can or needs to be said.