Science, Religion, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

August 28, 2013 | 8:58 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s worth reflecting on the philosophies of the Civil Rights Movement’s most well-known leader. And it’s fascinating to me that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a lot to say about science.

In 1963, Dr. King published a series of sermons in a compilation titled Strength to Love. While, the book’s editors left out some of the reverend’s more strident views, the sermons are seen as an accurate depiction of many of Dr. King’s most closely held beliefs.

From the volume’s first sermon, A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart:

 “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.”

In other words, science and religion have important points of connection. Taking this lesson to the present, to strengthen the role of science in decision-making, we should acknowledge the strengths and limitations of both science and religion and ethics. This line of thinking is gaining ground; many scientists and science communicators are discussing values, and acknowledging how it is important to take into account the ethical approaches and belief structures of others when bringing science to bear on policy discussions. (As an aside, interesting new research looks at connections between scientific thinking and adherence to moral norms).

Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Dr. King went on to herald scientific progress while lamenting the fact that many did not share in its fruits, and putting forth the idea that scientific advances must be accompanied by moral and spiritual growth. “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power,” wrote Dr. King in The Man Who Was a Fool, the seventh sermon in Strength to Love. “We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

From his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers…we have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.

Finally, Dr. King showed an awareness of how science can be misused for individual and political advancement. In writing about segregationists, Dr. King had the following to say in another Strength to Love sermon (hat tip Cara Santa Maria):

Pressed for a justification of their belief in the inferiority of the Negro, they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits, agree that, although there may be inferior or superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that science has demonstrated that there are four types of blood and that these four types are found within every racial group.

To be sure, many leaders contributed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. The success of the March on Washington itself is attributed to a little-known, and often ostracized, 51-year-old organizer and gay man named Bayard Rustin.

Yet it is encouraging that Dr. King, a man of profound faith, thought deeply about both the promise and peril of scientific discovery and its place in a just and democratic society. May we all continue to think of faith and science as complementary, understand the importance of moral growth as well as scientific advancement, and speak out against the misuse of science as we address the world’s toughest challenges.