Science has been the iron wedge by which the secular has penetrated the realm of the sacred. Science has been the sharp scalpel with which our most cherished ideas about humanity have been subjected to dissection and doubt. Those who suggest that religion is the primary source of human conflict and bloodshed are not looking closely enough. If we examine the history of violence in modern times we will often find rationales rooted in science.
The idea that all human lives are sacred and of equal value is not a product of science. The sanctity of human life cannot be proven in a laboratory. When it comes to this most profound and foundational moral insight, we in the West have only one source: the Judeo-Christian tradition. This idea was first expressed in the Bible and it has survived throughout the centuries because of the ongoing authority of the Jewish and Christian faiths. If some of the Enlightenment thinkers later embraced and reiterated the concept, they cannot be credited with an immaculate intellectual conception. It was right there in the Bible most of them read.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has built a wall between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. It has placed man on a pedestal and put a crown on his head. Modern science, on the other hand, has consistently sought to tear down this wall and treat man as just another species of animal. Science has sought to take that crown off our heads—and measure the size of our skulls.
We are frequently warned these days about the great danger of religion expanding into fields where it does not belong. This concern is not without justification. There are areas of expertise, especially in the realm of science, where religion can contribute little. Religion cannot help us split the atom or map out our DNA. The Bible provides no clues that can help us cure cancer…
But we must also recognize that there exists an equal and possibly greater threat of science exceeding its proper boundaries. Especially when it comes to morality, science can confuse, but it rarely enlightens. Science can enable us to split the atom, but it cannot help us decide whether we are justified in using an atom bomb. Science can help us map out our DNA, but it cannot help us determine whether it is moral to clone humans. Science can help us cure cancer, but it cannot help us cope with cancer.
When science ventures beyond its core areas of competence into the area of morality, it often leaves corpses in its wake… With an air of authority to which they have no claim, scientists have called into question the key principles which protect humanity—especially the weakest among us—from annihilation. Before even grasping the danger, they could bring our whole ethical edifice crashing down. If religion does not belong in the science classroom, then it is equally true that science has no place in the ethics classroom. We need a wall of separation between science and morality every bit as much as we need on between church and state.
Those seeking to condemn religion as the great source of human violence will inevitably cite the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Those seeking to defend religious faith and place the blame for human atrocity elsewhere will invariably respond by pointing to the Holocaust and the Gulag…
At the root of these atrocities, whether they are classified as “religious” or “secular,” we find neither religion or ideology. These atrocities and all atrocities are the product of human nature. It is our inborn inclination to pursue our own self-interest and to disregard the interests of those outside our particular group . . . that drives humans to enslave and kill. And it is because humans are born with this evil inclination that genocide and slavery have been so common in so many of our cultures for so long.
The great insight of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are the source of evil in the world. The great promise of the Judeo-Christian tradition is its power to inspire men to overcome evil in their hearts…
Modern ideologies such as Nazism and Communism, by contrast, did not seek to transcend human nature, but to empower it. These new ideologies turbo-charged our natural selfishness and encouraged it as the greatest good. Elevating and unleashing humanities dangerous impulses was a perilous enterprise. Genocide was as certain as the sunrise.
The point is this: Communism and Nazism were not evil ideologies that coincidentally rejected the Judeo-Christian idea. These ideologies were evil precisely because they rejected the Judeo-Christian idea.
We are not merely a lost generation . . . Our predicament is much deeper and of much longer duration. Centuries of skepticism, doubt, and contempt have taken their toll. Millions of us across the Western world have been rendered spiritual eunuchs. It’s not that we don’t long for God. The problem is that we’re incapable of consummating the relationship. Faith and grace have been drained from us, leaving only those most primitive of instincts: our obsessions with self and things material. We are a race of accountants counting the grains of sand on our beaches. We are a tribe of technicians, fixing the hands of a clock that counts down the seconds of our lives.
Yet the desire, the longing for God—this remains. No thoughtful human can deny it . . . The desire is real, and it is breaking our hearts. Yet in our incapacity to believe we find ourselves staring, paralyzed, as the love of our lives disappears into the distance.