Martin Luther King Day blogging: MLK on Science (and Religion)

Here, from this article on less-well known MLK quotes, is a thought about the relationship between science and religion:

“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.”

There is a well developed critique of this vision of a symbiotic relationship between science and religion, of course. For a good starting point, see Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam’s take on the fact – value question in his Reason, Truth and History. Then have fun touring the blogosphere till your fingers bleed.

But MLK is right on a key point: Science does an enormous service for those who have committed themselves to a religious life . By extension: how helpful is it for those of us who do find in science both beauty and value to talk about that experience in ways that push away the Martin Luther Kings of the world?

That’s not to exclude the necessity of criticism of course. My starting point, to be developed in a later post, is the obvious one. Science does indeed deal in values, which produce a strong ethical frame.

That would be primarily a professional ethic, a morality focused on the practice of science, as opposed to an all encompassing code. But I think that’s its virtue, not a flaw, because I’m a works-not-faith kind of guy. Practical ethics, a value system that shapes behavior in the real world, breeds its teaching into the bone, and not just the brain of daily, individual human experience.

And on this issue, of course, Dr. King knew exactly what he was talking about:

“All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America. In doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the question that Eichmann chose to ignore: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.”

Update: Abel Pharmboy, commenting below, posted exactly the same first quote and photo that you see above. Whether or not that confers greatness on the two minds thus synchronized should best be left to the readers’ judgment, I suppose.

Image: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID ppmsc.01269.

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2 Comments on “Martin Luther King Day blogging: MLK on Science (and Religion)”


  1. Hi Tom, great to meet you this weekend.

    Interestingly, Gerald Harbison quoted over at Terra Sig that the first MLK Jr. quote (which I also posted today) was largely taken from a 1930 book by Rabbi Hillel Silver. I had not know this.

    I posted the quote because I especially liked the section, “Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism.” However, I also agree with you that science does indeed deal with morals, values, and ethics. Conversely, I often find religion to speak about these issues but for practitioners to behave in precisely the opposite manner.

  2. Tom Says:

    Abel — thanks for stopping by. It was a pleasure to meet this weekend.

    Re Harbison — see the post that follows this one. I’m less than overwhelmed by his take on the Silver/King exchange.


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