As a young atheist, I was fascinated by religious philosophy that attempted to square the circle that is modern science. And although my personal atheism hasn’t softened over the years, I have grown to understand that science and faith aren’t mutually exclusive. Which is why, when I first encountered the following quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, I don’t think it resonated for me quite the same way it does today:
"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."
And although I disagree that without religion, human beings are condemned to an amoral existence, I don’t believe that this was the point of Dr. King’s words. He didn’t say that religion prevents people from moral nihilism, he said that religion prevents science from such a fate. This is an important distinction. Science is the investigation of the natural world, and it often involves a manipulation of nature and development of new technologies. Both efforts have the potential to be beautifully informative, creative, and inspirational. But, unchecked, the potential for destruction and detriment cannot be ignored.
Martin Luther King understood this concept fully, and he cautioned against the frighteningly awesome power that new technologies were bringing to the hands of men, especially in the wake of the Vietnam War:
"Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men."
Science is an interesting paradox, because it is, fundamentally, thought to be devoid of outside influence. Science is the investigation of nature. And as we all know, nature just is. But, science is a verb, an activity. Being so, it is carried out by people. It does not—it cannot—exist in a vacuum. And hard as we may try, human beings are simply incapable of any behavior that carries no bias, no moral or political persuasion.
In the early sixties, Martin Luther King knew that the fearful men in power—the amoral majority—were bending “scientific findings” to suit their political ideologies. He was a champion of skeptical thought, and cautioned the public at large to be wary of such claims:
"So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy…they will even argue that God was the first segregationist. ‘Red birds and blue birds don’t fly together,’ they contend…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 and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that there are four types of blood, and these four types are found within every racial group."
He further writes that:
"Slavery in America was perpetuated not merely by human badness but also by human blindness…Men convinced themselves that a system that was so economically profitable must be morally justifiable…Science was commandeered to prove the biological inferiority of the Negro. Even philosophical logic was manipulated [exemplified by] an Aristotelian syllogism: ‘All men are made in the image of God. God, as everyone knows, is not a Negro. Therefore, the Negro is not a man.’"
Similar to sentiments communicated by Charlie Chaplin, when he mocked Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator, Dr. Martin Luther King taught us that the power of humanity lies not only in its scientific capabilities, but in its moral sensibilities:
"Through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers—or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together."
I believe that Dr. King would be inspired by the ever growing collection of modern scientific studies evidencing our singular human ancestry. We are all children of Africa. In his honor, today, let us celebrate brotherhood, sisterhood—humanhood—and the scientific spirit that allows us to learn about the wonders of the universe as one unified people. — Cara Santa Maria