Religion and Science: Which is Oil and Which is Water?

Religion and science are domains that don’t mix well. The reasons these continue to be the parameters of the debate on religion in the public forum is baffling to me. I suppose one practical reason for this is that it brings out the extremes on both sides. Creationists  (many of whom believe Earth is only six thousand years old) use Neo-atheist denials of religion as proof that they are blinded to Truth, and Neo-atheists often use Creationists’ refusal to believe facts as evidence of their ignorance. It’s not surprising that warning scientists of damnation does no more to convince them than does browbeating Creationist Christians with archaeological evidence does to persuade them. The rest of us in the middle are led to believe we must choose one or the other.

There’s a clip I often show in religion classes when I’m talking about textual interpretation that usually segues nicely into a nuanced discussion about ways to interpret text, but it also addresses the religion versus science debate:

Religulous is a funny movie, but it is also a painful movie. Since those segments of the population who are the subjects of the film are not going to be watching it in any large numbers, we who watch are either already convinced of the insufficiency of religion, or consider ourselves more religiously enlightened than those depicted in the film. The juxtaposition of the Catholic scientist and Biblical Creationist Ken Ham sets us up to root for the scientist. His agreeable nature seems refreshing. A Catholic priest in another portion of the film even scoffs at the idea that other Bible stories such as the virgin birth might be literally true.Yet for hundreds of years it was the Catholic Church that denied evidence of material reality when it contradicted Scripture, so they are relatively new to this role.

One can see a certain systemic logic to Ham’s approach. If one accepts the premise that the Bible must all be true to be at all true, then it seems one must advocate for the creation story in a literal sense. It provides a good example of the logical consequence of holding strictly to one method of interpretation to find truth. Of course, no holds a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, or else we would still be wringing birds’ necks for atonement and making women sleep outside every month to avoid contamination. Biblical literalism is, so far as I know, nonexistent. (On the other hand, the word “literal” in common speech has become essentially its opposite. If I hear, “Whoa. I literally almost died” while walking on a college campus, what I am to understand is “I almost died in the most figurative sense of the word.” But I digress…) Reading Ken Ham’s blog, though, you will notice quickly that the motivating factor behind his claims is fear of the complete loss of morality without God giving us moral standards. As we know, this is a common reason for a normative interpretation of Christianity. Until I left the church and my standards didn’t disappear, I thought that their primary support was my Christianity too. The idea simply ignores history, not to mention the millions around us who live moral lives.

If one were to make the claim that it is better for the church to adapt to a scientific culture, as Catholicism and some other mainline denominations have, rather than insist upon direct contradiction of the evidence of the scientific community, I might agree with you. These organizations have been around long enough to see that certain advancements in science will not be going away anytime soon, and have adjusted to accommodate them. However, there are other areas where they are as intransigent as they have ever been (homosexuality, gender roles, abortion, etc.).

I understand that there are some political decisions involved when one sees discrepancies with religion. I went through phases from questioning believer to disgruntled believer to cool, on-the-fringe, not-like-you believer, to non-practicing believer, to cool enlightened agnostic, to unbeliever (at least so far as the dogma of Christianity is concerned). However, I know of others who have taken the role of reforming-from-within. One example would be Roy Bourgeois, a recently defrocked Catholic priest who has long advocated against the US training of foreign soldiers to commit massacres against their own populations. The Church did not speak out on this, but when he in recent years showed his support for women in the priesthood, it began a process that ended in his removal from a position of authority in the Church. He continues to push for reform. I know of other theologians who are attempting to radicalize Christianity theologically and philosophically while remaining firmly within its bounds. The question we have had to answer is, “What is the best way to get my message out and make change?” There is not a correct answer to that question.

The point I am trying to make is that I am concerned about those who use (or advocate use of) science as an exit point from religion. The domains have some overlap, but are largely exclusive. Each reigns supreme within its bounds; the problems come when they try to legislate outside their borders. When, for example, religion claims to have the last word on global warming, we should be as concerned as when science discovers the key to happiness. (Yes, I know religion doesn’t have the keys to happiness, but neither is science presenting a unified front on global warming.) I don’t know of many converts from science to religion, but I know of some who cite a form of scientific knowledge as a motivating reason for deconversion. If held loosely as a method of skeptically examining reality and choosing the best (not right) course of action, the scientific method is a valuable tool, but used as the hermeneutic key to reality with the optimistic hope that it will someday unlock all the world’s secrets, science functions much the same as religion. Neither is the Wal-Mart Super Store of answers.

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  1. Pingback: Is science the key to morality? | Even the Bravest…

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