Religion in America is in trouble, and science can help save it. Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, saying that science is more likely to kill religion than to rescue it. I’m convinced that science is the last best hope for religion in the modern world.
The God Wars pit those who believe in a supernatural God that commands and controls from outside the natural order against those who accept rational thought and scientific research as the final word. For centuries, people have tried to arbitrage the difference between these competing worldviews. Today, more and more people are concluding that we ultimately have to choose. In this ongoing battle of Faith v. Reason, reason now appears to be winning: the majority of Americans either have no religious affiliation or, even if affiliated, see a conflict between being a devout religious person and living in the modern world.
This conflict is real, but unnecessary.
Until about 500 years ago, people thought the Earth was at the center of the solar system. But Copernicus looked into the night sky and discovered otherwise. In more recent centuries, scientists have come to another conclusion of similar magnitude: in our universe, the fundamental laws of nature have existed from the very beginning, they apply everywhere, and they do not change.
As humans, we continually revise our answers to cosmic questions, and I believe now is the time to revise the answer to the question of God. This is where science can show the way forward. Rather than ignore it, we need to take everything we know into account in order to discover the God we believe in and decide how we need to live. But like the view of the universe as Earth-centered, I believe the view of God that requires us to suspend disbelief needs to be left behind.
It won’t be easy. The belief in a supernatural God is longstanding and has broad appeal, not to mention evolutionary origins. Our ancient ancestors survived because they understood the world in terms of cause and effect; they understood themselves as agents who could cause things to happen. If they followed cause and agency far enough upstream, they would reach a first cause that stood outside the universe, which they dubbed God.
But people didn’t respond to Copernicus by saying that if the earth isn’t the center of the solar system, then the solar system doesn’t exist. When people ask me whether I believe in God, my answer is yes. But I’m convinced that today’s atheists are 100% half right. I, too, don’t believe in the supernatural God they don’t believe in. Traditional religionists are also 100% half right. Just because God isn’t supernatural doesn’t mean that God is a fantasy and religion is a farce.
I did not come to this answer quickly or easily, however. As a former Conservative Mennonite from a long line of Mennonite preachers, I’ve struggled since my youth with this question, which I work to untangle in my writings, sermons, and book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.
Seeking God, finding faith, and participating in a religious community is more than a personal exercise. If we fail to adapt, our increasingly empty houses of worship will become a sad symbol of a deeper vacancy in our lives and our culture. We’ll each be left increasingly alone with our spiritual hunger and our longing for a place to belong. Self-centered entertainment will increasingly substitute for moral education. Political expediency and religious zealotry will increasingly triumph over a commitment to common good.
In our modern world, we need to understand where we belong – that deep connection to everything that is present in our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible. For this reason, a revised understanding of God isn’t an optional aspect of life today. I believe it’s necessary – not to explain everything we don’t know, but to make meaningful sense of everything we do know.
The Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).