Art can open a communication portal between science and religion, but it is much more than that, speakers said during " The Art of Science and Spirit," a 2 December holiday lecture and discussion at AAAS headquarters by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER).
To perceive art as a bridge between science and religion, one first has to define legitimate overlapping truths in each of these cultural realms, said Allen Hirsh, CEO of biotechnology company Cryobiophysica, Inc.
"All three fields of human thought have in common the notion that it is a crucial task of humanity to uncover what is hidden in the world," Hirsh said.
Religion seeks to insert intrinsic meaning in human existence, to claim that we have the power to evolve ever so slowly into a more noble state while science seems to understand the quantitative reality of our existence without asserting that this leads in any particular direction, he said.
Allen Hirsh | All photos by AAAS/ Christine Scheller
"Art, by actualizing what lies hidden beneath the surface of our perception sensitizes us to meaning," said Hirsh, who is also a digital artist. "Thus art is perhaps our most powerful way of challenging both science and religion to confront each of their limitations."
The metaphor of art as a doorway or a bridge between these realms is good but incomplete, said Mark Sprinkle, director of arts and cultural engagement for Third Church in Richmond, Virginia.
Both images suggest that the sciences and spirituality of religious thought are competing realms in one way or another. If art is something else, it is a tool or a medium rather than a way of knowing that is equal to the other two fields of inquiry, he said.
"It is the presumption of autonomy, the idea that each of these is non-overlapping or even only marginally overlapping magisteria that has led us to the point where we need DoSER to convene this discussion," Sprinkle said.
Rather than thinking of science, spirit, and art as circles in a Venn diagram that have discrete areas of overlap, he suggests that this complicated interface is more like soil — a complex system that provides a matrix within which communities can determine ultimate goods.
What does this matrix look like in real life? Michael Sappol, a historian and scholar-in-residence at the National Library of Medicine, provided a concrete example.
Drawing on a 2003 Science magazine article that he authored, Sappol told the story of 19th century Baptist missionaries who translated and illustrated anatomy textbooks as part of their efforts to convert the Karen people of Burma.
"The missionaries tried to persuade their students to give up their beliefs and instead identify with the scientific images offered in anatomy books, to adopt an anatomical conception of self," he said.
While it would be tempting to see this story as an encounter between the "modern, scientific west" and the "backwoods, ignorant east," the missionaries were actually repeating a transformation pattern from their own heritage, which had included the Salem Witch trials, Soppel said.
Additionally, "if anatomy and other sciences could be used to dispel non-Christian superstition, it could also be turned against Christianity to serve as a kind of scripture for free-thinking materialists" like John William Draper, author of the influential 1874 text, History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion.
We are inheritors of both the missionaries' legacy and Draper's, Sappol said.
The event included a slide show by photographer and author Rosamond Purcell, who narrated her work with the late paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould, other scientists, and natural history museum curators.