The people at the website “On Faith” asked Rabbi Steinsaltz the following question:
In his “letter to a Southern Baptist pastor” biosociologist E.O. Wilson warns: “An alliance between science and religion, forged in an atomosphere of mutual respect, may be the only way to protect life on earth.”
Is such an alliance necessary? Possible?
Rabbi Steinsaltz responded:
While the alliance between science and religion is fraught with difficulties – in part due to a long history of mutual suspicion – I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary.
Science and religion draw their facts from different sources and demand different types of evaluations of the world.
However, an alliance between the two can be made if each realm is clearly defined in such a way that their proximity does not create constant conflict.
It is unlikely that these two systems will offer the same approach to every subject, but there can be areas of overlap without resulting in entanglement.
Similarly, not every idea needs to be discussed; some concepts can remain solely in the realm of science, or of religion.
Thus, there exists the possibility of an alliance between science and religion, though it is by no means a simple one.
Far clearer than the “how” of this alliance is the “why.”
Science does not have its own purpose or inherent morality; in many ways, its only goal is progress.
Science is an extremely powerful tool with the capacity to build, as well as to destroy. It has been used by humans for many purposes, some good and some evil.
Oftentimes, the real danger lies not in the failed experiment that causes a catastrophe, but in the scientific successes that are destructive in the long run, even though no one meant to cause harm.
The influence of religion helps to preserve and protect life on Earth by giving science a moral direction and higher purpose.
This alliance is beneficial to the religious sphere, as well. Science offers tools for implementing lofty ideas and creates clarity and order, thus providing structure for religious ways of thinking.
And in many ways, the difficulties inherent in this tumultuous relationship serve as a form of criticism of religion, which is oftentimes not critical enough of itself.
From “On Faith: A Conversation about Religion with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn”