Science vs. religion, faith vs. reason, the Bible vs. modern discoveries — the debate takes many forms, all as old as the hills.
But the Blair-Hitch debate and current books by Alain de Botton, Andrew Preston and Jonathan Haidt show that it’s a hot-button topic.
The recent news that those Swiss moles were about to discover “the God particle” also made headlines. In fact, the Higgs boson wouldn’t have proved (or disproved) God at all. At best it might have shed light on that mysterious stuff that imparts mass to matter, without which nothing “weighs” anything.
Belief in God is as remote from sub-atomic particles as Rembrandt’s genius is from whether he mixed his pigments clockwise or anti-clockwise. There is linkage, though, between spirit and matter, as the Bethlehem manger story tried to say in its pre-scientific way.
I wouldn’t dream of calling myself “a scientist” — my Natural Sciences degree wasn’t stellar — but today everyone learning science acquires certain instincts that go into full recoil at what is still commonly heard in church.
Example 1. When they ran the Epistle to the Ephesians through a language program, it turned up 90 words never found in Romans, Galatians etc. So Paul didn’t write Ephesians. While that tied fundamentalists in knots, for others it made the epistle twice as interesting, as any scientist would say who discovers an anomaly. (Nor should it dent our faith to learn that David was probably the first actual human being in the Old Testament and that much about him was as apocryphal as the stories attributed to Churchill. Not a bad simile, that: both had feet of clay, yet their myths convey their greatness to us far better than factual accounts of what they had for breakfast.)
Example 2. When theologian Henry Chadwick told us that a recently discovered fortress (this was 1958) may have been Masada, where the Romans butchered 1,000 Jewish extremists, because it was dated “about 70AD,” he added, after a pause for effect, “… plus or minus 200 years.” All the arts people laughed. I didn’t. Science-wise, that seemed pretty accurate dating.
Example 3. When it came out that the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been deliberately suppressed because they conflicted with Vatican doctrine, it felt like someone scraping their fingernails down a blackboard. They aren’t the only guilty ones. In its own way, each denomination is equally anti-science, reluctant to let dogmas dependent on dodgy data give way to hard evidence that conflicts. Unfortunately, guardians of tradition are pack rats by nature, temperamentally unsuited to do that. It took 375 years to “forgive” Galileo for telling it like it is.
Science, on the other hand, is iconoclastic and travels light. There are no sacred cows. If the old is disproved by more reliable data, out it goes. Bye, bye, phlogiston — and, for that matter, any notion of homo sapiens being a unique, standalone species. Revise and update.
The thought for the week is this: it’s commonly thought that all atheists are of much the same mind, lined up against believers equally united by belief in God, even though there’s squabbling in the ranks on both sides.
It’s becoming clear that the opposition is those with closed minds, who ignore evidence and believe what they want to believe. These exist on both sides.
Some atheists have reasoned out their position and are stimulating to debate with —truly kindred spirits. Others are lazy-minded and haven’t an original thought in their heads, content simply to take swipes at organized religion — crusades, inquisitions, 19th-century beliefs, abusive priests, Mrs. Oddsocks next door who goes to church but swears like a trooper. It’s just church-bashing, possibly a defence mechanism because religion challenges us to smarten ourselves up a bit.
Likewise, some Christians are invigorating, faithful to the basics but aware that true tradition means being acutely sensitive to the present, always rethinking their faith and practice — e.g. that biblical instructions to welcome strangers cannot be translated directly into a 21st-century immigration policy.
Other Christians, though, seem proud of resisting fresh insights. Like the man who hid his talent in the sand, thinking (wrongly) that playing safe was what his master wanted, there is a clinging to the wrong kind of tradition: endlessly parroting old slogans, unconcerned about why these are met today with politely blank looks.
Should all Christians become mini-scientists, then? Of course not. Even the ancients, though, looked past the simplistic picture language of virgin births, washing away of moral failings, and empty tombs, to the deeper truths behind — truths of what it means to be, of catharsis and living with integrity, of experiences independent of physical death — just as good science always looks past data to their meaning. (It was in the disastrous fourth century that religious truths were required to be believed literally.)
We should let modern knowledge further refine our beliefs, however painful the experience. For example, we have always praised God for puppies and Prairie sunsets, while vaguely aware that in the bush things are a little more bloody. Now we know exactly how bloody: female ichneumon wasps lay their eggs in a caterpillar, carefully stinging each nerve ganglion so that the caterpillar is paralyzed but stays alive to provide fresh meat for the growing wasp larvae. They in turn eat the caterpillar’s insides in the right order — fat and digestive systems first, heart and nervous systems last, to keep their dinner painfully alive as long as possible. That’s the way the world works. We need to de-sentimentalize woozy ideas of God’s “benevolence.”
Bomb squads may carry out controlled explosions, but knowing now how crazily a supernova explodes, without which we wouldn’t have acquired the necessary carbon atoms for life 4.5 billion years ago, makes us realize that creation is nothing like the micromanaged, controlled event detailed in Genesis 1. (I have never used the impressive sounding expression “God’s Plan.”)
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates, meaning that the search for meaning in life gives meaning to life.
Praise the Lord for open minds — Christian or atheist.
» Rev. Michael Skliros is a retired Anglican priest in Brandon.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 5, 2012