From “Lesser Known Wise and Prophetic Words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by liberal writer and California Democratic Party delegate, Deborah White:
“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.
The two are not rivals. They are complementary.
Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.”
When I posted this quote two years ago, Right Wing Professor
Gerald Gerard Harbison commented that some of the passage was taken from the writings of Rabbi Hillel Silver as noted at John Lerwell’s Spiritual Unity blog.
Writer and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson then wrote a superb post, as is his style. Levenson analyzed the two passages, noting that Harbison had cherry-picked 66 or the 724 words for comparison, and dissected how the rabbi and the reverend approached the topic very differently:
More to the point, King actually makes a quite different claim than Silver. Silver’s argument, as represented in the Lerwill excerpt is an early version of the “non-overlapping magisteria” kind — Silver writes, for example, “There was never any real conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different, though not in opposition. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same.”
King skipped all that part (and this kind of stuff is scattered through the Lerwill version). Instead, he focused on what he presumably felt was the nub of the issue: that science and religion have important points of connection.
That’s arguable too — and certainly, plenty of folks in the science blogging community find the notion anathema. But King did not follow Silver down the road of intellectual apartheid, an agreement to reserve certain matters for the exclusive authority of one side or other.
In music there is an old notion (now legally enshrined, I believe) that a repetition of more than a few notes of a passage is an actual act of imitation. Less than that, and it is presumed that there is a kind of musical language that everyone gets to speak. Maybe the four word phrase “Science investigates; religion interprets” crosses the line. But King had his own mind, and said something quite different than did the source of at least some of his expression.
I’ve looked long and hard to find cases where Dr. King held forth on science. But his values can clearly be applied to the scientific realm, particularly as it relates to recruitment and engagement of underrepresented minority groups in the STEMM disciplines.
Our ScienceOnline2010 session held yesterday sought to bring Dr. King’s spirit of inclusion and education equality into the realm of social media. An issue I raised there but did not develop was that a great many of my science students, particularly of Hispanic/Latino or southern US African-American backgrounds, cite their religious beliefs as a primary motivator in pursuing a health sciences or pharmaceutical research career. Rather than religion being at odds with the scientific method, they feel that their faith fuels their desire to apply the scientific method in the name of relieving human suffering. The duality of religious beliefs and hypothesis-driven inquiry is certainly an intellectual challenge but one that I respect.
I welcome any King scholars in pointing me to any other discussions where the civil rights leader discussed issues of science.
Photo credit: Library of Congress, believed to be in the public domain