January 23, 2015
The title of this post is meant to be sardonic or perhaps ironic. Anyway, yesterday I said I don’t understand why anyone would take seriously someone who started a diatribe against climate change by saying “I’m no scientist…” So someone who shall be anonymous asked me why, then, did I write “Indiscriminate Distinctions” and, since I am no scientist, expect anyone to take it seriously? Well, last night I was poking around on the computer and decided to see if any books had sold. Guess what, I was back on the best seller list in the science and religion category of Amazon’s Kindle for probably an hour or so. Someone took it seriously enough to spend $4.99.
So the question and the sales performance got me to thinking. Why did I write the book? It took a long time to write and I sure ain’t going get rich on it. Well, here’s why.
I wrote the book because I am convinced that science and the pursuit of technology, especially through the university system with which this nation is blessed, has made American strong and prosperous. Although many of the finest educational institutions in our country trace their origins to religious orders, and while our society still rests on, if oft ignores, Judeo-Christian values, I am not so sure that the moderating influence of religion, always skating on thin ice, is not diminishing. While we are not burning heretics at the stake or dunking witches any more, there is still a strain of intolerance that appears to me to be resistant to critical thinking and is trying, to an unprecedented degree, to muscle itself into the public policy process without appealing to broad national support. I have no doubt that religious faith provides the faithful a basis for leading a good and decent life and that it provides a lot of people with inner strength. But the very nature of our society, with its separation of church and state, suggests to me that the freedom to worship as you please should result in such diversity that the impact of religion on the collective is lessened. Perhaps our founding fathers intended it so and, I think, rightfully, otherwise the nation ran the risk of becoming a repressive theocracy, which is what brought so many of the early settlers to our shores in the first place. No one hates like someone defending their religion. But religious precepts are very powerful and can be incredibly divisive and I think our nation may be threatened by that now.
Friends of mine who have read the manuscript of “Indiscriminate Distinctions” fall into two groups: those who felt I was far too easy on the religious right and those who felt I gave the importance of unquestioning faith short shrift. I was encouraged by their reactions because it reassured me that I may have successfully described the contflict between scientific inquiry based on observation and experimentation and the uncritical acceptance of religious postulations. Their reactions demonstrated the vast gulf between the two, also reassuring me that I was not alone in thinking that the gulf may be unbridgeable and that science and religion should be kept separate and apart, especially in the science classrooms.
It would be absurd to maintain that religion is unnecessary and should be, in all its forms, dispensed with so that man’s scientific progress is unencumbered in its search for answers to life’s mysteries. That simply isn’t going to happen. Religion remains central to the lives of so many, whether it stems from a fear of death or the need to make sense of life itself, or provides a sense of community. Science makes no claim it can deter death, even as it strives to delay it. Religion offers eternal life and, in so doing, provides the reason for suffering the vicissitudes of mortal life and holds out the prospect of reward for endurance and obedience. It is indeed fortunate that fundamental to Christianity is that sins can be forgiven, because otherwise no one is going to reap much of a reward.
The question arises, then, if the distances between these two distant horizons is unbridgeable, why try? Would it not be better to admit that the need for religion fulfills some basic human need and that the exercise of human intelligence, God-given or not, cannot be contained? Is it possible to find some common ground?
The easy answer is No, because the fact is that human scientific progress and religion have been adversaries throughout Western history precisely because both are such fundamental aspects of Humankind grasping to be Number One. I am reminded of the trial of Abelard in 12th Century France. Science and religion will continue to uneasily exist side by side as each strives to fulfill its distinctly different mandates: one that is filled with questions and the other that is full of answers. That does not necessarily mean they cannot serve one another and therein lies the challenge. After all, Abelard became a monk and as Master at Mont Sainte-Genevieve encouraged his students to embrace doubt as the precursor to the truth.
The challenge is to assure that religion is not deterred by zealots from providing succor and solace to those in need and that science is not attacked as somehow demeaning religion by trying to replace it. That challenge is always a struggle because it requires good will and a willingness to remain in the role it serves. It is the extremes that grab the headlines. Throughout the ages, the zealotry of a minority that cannot live with the ambiguity that affect all that Humankind embraces is, not to put too fine a point on it, the cross that we bear. It is indisputable that the minority, consumed by the passion of their faith and unwilling to think critically, threatens the pursuit of knowledge and uses various subterfuges to limit human advancement, whether it be a requirement that science teachers admit that evolution is theory only or those who riot over doctrinal differences that have little to do with the principles of their faith and everything to do with who holds the upper hand in their societies. They are not going away.
So the common ground is more shifting sand than firm bedrock and perhaps the best way to traverse the landscape is to tread lightly.
What I hope would happen, despite my lovely wife’s observation that “Hope beats eternally in the hearts of the stupid,” is that all religions and all cults would discourage any of their congregation or believers from protesting the teaching of what science promulgates by suing school boards or electing to school boards those who would deny science teachers the right to teach what he or she believes science has verified.
I have a friend, George Kimmich Beach, who is a graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School and Wesley Theological Seminary and has served Unitarian Universalist churches in four states. In his book “The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark, ” he writes:
“Creative choices in life always depend on the exercise of thoughtful judgment, taking all sides of a question into account. Fundamentalism is fatally marked by its impatience with ambiguity and uncertainty. A sense of humor loves ambiguity, paradox, and irony: ambiguity, not to be confused with fuzzy thinking; paradox, not to be confused with self-contradiction, and irony, not to be confused with sarcasm. The issue, here, – why is “truth” so difficult to get at, leaving us vulnerable to so many hucksters? – is at root metaphysical. I’ll put it this way: it drowns the spirit, and it deafens us with is cacophonous noise. Almost, but not utterly. I saw an iris breaking through the asphalt at the edge of my driveway the other day – a veritable miracle and a nice little parable of the Spirit that is Holy.”
What I think Kim is getting at, vis a vis what I’m talking about, is that truth is ambiguous until it is verified. That iris should not have been able to break through an asphalt driveway, but it did. I wrote the book because I think dealing with the ambiguity is a part of critical thinking that characterizes the search for truth. And that’s the job of science. Let’s let the scientists get on with it.
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