You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.
Einstein’s axiom addresses a problem presented in a new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. At elite American universities, 50 percent of scientists claim to be religious yet keep silent. The problem is framed as science vs. religion. But this isn’t science. Nor is science opposed to religion. And religion isn’t supposed to be closeted. It’s an unwinnable debate.
Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund is the author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Based on a survey of almost 1,700 scientists at elite American research universities and 275 follow-up interviews, Ecklund found that fully half of these top scientists claim to be religious. A third are atheists. Only five of the 275 interviewees actively oppose religion. Yet most of the religious scientists worry how peers would react to learning about their religious views. So they instead practice a “closeted faith.”
Their anxiety is understandable. But it has little to do with any facts on the ground. The problem is with frames or assumptions—what Einstein called “the mind.” In the first place, this isn’t about science as it has been historically understood. Western science is rooted in a confidence that there is something beyond material nature—the cosmos is the creation of a rational creator. It is comprehensible by the human mind. The cosmos is coherent, not chaos. We can know something about it. Science is the Greek word for knowledge of facts. All science, such as physics, operates inside a frame, or metaphysics.
Meta is Greek for beyond, physics means nature. Metaphysics goes beyond mere facts. A child’s hand getting slapped is a fact. But was it cruel or caring? It depends on how you frame the debate. The slap saves a life if the child is reaching for fire. Context is everything. Making sense of science—such as whether cloning a human being is good—requires a frame beyond science. Western science originally accepted limits; it deals with molecules. Religion deals with morality. Science is not opposed to religion.
This is why today’s debate isn’t about science—it’s about scientism. Big difference. In Webster’s standard dictionary, one definition of “scientism” reads: “a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences: a belief that only such methods can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge.” Scientism claims to have knowledge of molecules and morality. The debate is between two competing metaphysical worldviews—scientism versus religion. It’s a debate that’s relatively recent in history, being framed by metaphysicians—philosophers—rather than scientists. That’s why it isn’t science versus religion.
C.S. Lewis saw this debate for what it actually is. In The Screwtape Letters, the experienced demon (Screwtape) advises his nephew Wormwood on how to keep “the Patient” from coming to faith. “Do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.” Lewis knew science isn’t opposed to religion.
Lewis also reframed this debate in his space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and concluding with That Hideous Strength. Late in his life, he admitted it “certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called ‘scientism’—a certain outlook on the world which is usually connected with the popularization of the sciences.” And in an essay published posthumously and contained in the collection The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote: “The mass media have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences.” Only scientism is opposed to religion.
This is why a closeted religion is not a good solution. The word religion means “to re-bind.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it meant to rebind the broken cosmos to the Creator. This is how the ancients understood religion, as providing a moral universe, or a frame that made sense out of facts, or knowledge. It is only in the last 175 years that many American churches have embraced a gospel that allows religion to be “closeted.” This undercuts one of religion’s primary purposes, which is precisely to provide a sense of life’s overarching meaning. As Boston University sociologist Peter L. Berger writes, privatization “represents a severe rupture of the traditional task of religion, which was precisely the establishment of an integrated set of definitions of reality that could serve as a common universe of meaning for the members of a society.”1
It’s worth noting that some groups have paid attention to Einstein’s axiom. As described in After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, a group representing less then 2 percent of the population gained cultural clout well out of proportion to their size. The homosexual movement reframed sexuality “without reference to facts, logic or proof.”2 They knew they couldn’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it. So they reframed the issue as one of fairness. They built dense, overlapping networks of writers, educators, singers, playwrights, novelists, and politicians who changed the debate.
Today, “closet” has become part of the common coinage of our culture—an indicator of success in not only changing but winning the debate. The homosexual movement’s success raises a question about a group representing 50 percent of the scientific population that has not gained cultural clout in proportion to their size. It indicates that religious scientists are trying to solve a problem inside the frame of science vs. religion. They’d do better to remember Einstein’s axiom: You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.
1 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 134.
2 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York, NY: Plume, 1990), p. 152-153.