Could science and religion be partners in understanding?

For me there isn’t a war between religion and science. In fact, I think the two could form instructive and profitable partnerships if they would. It might possibly be that the two subjects are inseparable in some fundamental ways.

Please indulge me a bit of rather dry etymology. (Don’t worry. I didn’t know that word either until I looked up the history of how we got the words we have. That’s what etymology means.) I will try to keep it brief, but it is significant if one is serious about reconciling the two subjects. Of course, not everyone is interested in reconciling religion and science. They probably won’t like this column.

Science: Most dictionaries state that the word “science” comes from the Latin word scientia, which simply means knowledge. This is a handy explanation, but it fails to acknowledge that this term comes from two other roots: sci which does mean to know, and en which means to cover or go into. Another use of the Latin is found in the word scindere, which means to cut or divide. An interesting Greek word skhizen means to split, rend or cleave.

So in spite of the additional layers of definition and meaning that modern thought has added to the concept of science, in the end it is still about dividing the universe into categories, dissecting, analyzing and taking things apart in order to achieve greater understanding of them.

Religion: Many sources say that the word religion is taken from the Latin religionem. However, it is also related to the Latin word ligare, which means to bind, also found in ligament. Many early religious orders required their devotees to bind themselves to an order of some kind. In other words, religion was a means to bind people to God. In this sense, the word religion means to reconnect, perhaps to others of a like mind, or to God.

So in spite of the additional layers of definition and meaning that modern thought has added to the concept of religion, in the beginning it seems to refer to making whole what has been taken apart.

Having taken a number of things apart in my life, my dad’s radio being the earliest I recall, I find it actually quite a bit harder to put them back together, at least in such a manner that they still work. Perhaps that’s why I recall that particular incident. The radio didn’t work when I reassembled it, which seemed to upset my father.

Perhaps because of my propensity to take things apart, I seem to have spent more than my fair share of time looking for some way to put things back together.

In many ways I would like to reassemble order or meaning in my life. Maybe I have just been trying to justify myself for the question, “What were you thinking?” That’s what my dad wanted to know. Doesn’t it seem to you like things ought to make sense? He thought so.

I tried taking living things apart to understand them better. I found parasites could be separated from hosts.

Then I tried looking at just organ systems. Once I took apart a parasite into separate cells to see if I could identify the germinative cells. I’ve ruptured cells to quantify the atoms in them. I’ve even examined the flow of electrons through living tissue. However, it seems like all these things have slipped through my fingers like water and I am no longer examining life, and I still can’t reassemble them so that they work.

Science has taken things apart in a quest for understanding. It seem like there ought to be some discipline that tries to reassemble some sense of meaning again. There may still be things in this universe, and out, which we do not know or understand. (Gasp! Can he say that?)

Maybe religion could help some of us put some things back together. 

Gary McCallister, mccallis@, is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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