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Thoughts on Science and Religion

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I’ve always had an interest in science. Even as a very young child, I can remember puzzling over day and night. How does the sun get back to the east to rise? What are the stars? I remember imagining that the night sky was really a huge inverted colander. The sun would make its way back to the east outside the colander, and we would see the sun’s light coming through the holes. My interest in science arose from what I took to be a universal desire to understand the world in which we live. I understood science to be a systematic inquiry into the world for the purpose of understanding it.

One of the things I’ve learned as a parent is that characteristics I thought were universal were merely personal. None of my children has the least interest in science. I do not know why. The desire to understand is so much a part of my very being that I cannot grasp being without it. One of my sons recently told me he hated science. I asked why.

“It’s boring,” he said.

Boring?! How can science be boring?

“It has nothing to do with life,” he continued.

My son is a bright fellow. He knows full well that the technology he enjoys so much comes directly from science. But, as he pointed out, he doesn’t need to know how a computer works—or an iPod or a smartphone—to use it. None of my children have much curiosity about how things work. It is enough for them to know that they do work. Perhaps most people think the same way. I do not know.

As for me, I am always curious about how things work. I also have tremendous faith in my own capacity to understand how things work.

I wrote a while ago about the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. When I wrote it, I was sure that most people can tell the difference between magic and science. Now I am not so sure. Without a curiosity about how things work, why should anyone seek evidence for or against their own thinking? What difference is there in the thinking of most people between belief in electricity, gravity, or the nuclear strong force and belief in fairies, gnomes, or sprites? For those with a purely instrumentalist view of knowledge, the question is not, “Is it true?” but, “Does it work?”

I have to admit, I am more interested in truth than in utility. Not that the truth and utility are necessarily opposed. But they are not the same thing. One can easily imagine investigating the utility of a concept without coming close to discovering its truth. It is also possible, I suppose, to investigate the truth of a concept without discovering its utility. Nevertheless, I believe that the significant advances that have been made in technology result from scientists earnestly seeking the truth about the universe we live in. Technology takes the discoveries of science and makes them useful, but there is no enterprise that takes the usefulness of things and makes them true. So science is preeminent.

Many people who unthinkingly use technology every day criticize science as if its objectives were fundamentally flawed. Among evangelical Christians, for example, it is common to disparage biological evolution as if biologists were motivated solely by a desire to discredit God. Certainly there are some scientists so motivated. However, the desire to discredit God is not fundamental to science; it is fundamental to rebellious man. Biologists are motivated by a desire to understand living things. Out of that desire, mixed with countless hours of observation, experimentation, testing of hypotheses, and all the other activities of science, a consensus has emerged among scientists that all life on earth is descended from the same source, that all living things are connected by heredity. This consensus is not wishful thinking. It is not dishonest or unscientific as some Christians have claimed. It is good science, supported by a wealth of evidence from disciplines as diverse as geology, genetics, paleontology, and biology.

Science is a human enterprise for understanding the world we live in. Understanding is always about truth; you cannot understand something without believing what you understand to be true. (You can, of course, believe something to be true without understanding it, but the reverse is not true.) It is not the only enterprise for understanding the world. Religion also makes truth-claims about the world and also provides a way of thinking about the world and understanding it. But religion concerns itself with spiritual reality, while science concerns itself with physical reality. There are some who deny spiritual reality, as if the capacity to understand were not itself a spiritual reality. Human ideals, philosophy, ethics, love, justice, faith—these all belong to the spiritual world. To deny that world is to deny what makes  us human.

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American Unreason

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Reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason made me very uncomfortable. The book chronicles the history of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the Revolutionary period to the present. It’s an excellent book, well-written, carefully researched, intelligent, and witty. Jacoby, a self-avowed secularist and freethinker, is evenhanded in her treatment of what she calls “junk thought” whether it comes from the political right or left. Hardly anyone comes off blameless, regardless of their supposed credentials.

What made me uncomfortable, though, was her criticism of Christian fundamentalists. I found it too well-deserved.

Jacoby defines a Christian fundamentalist as anyone who believes that the Bible is literally true. This makes it easy for her to lump together all the right-wing Christians, since most would in fact agree that they believe the Bible quite literally. She doesn’t care about most of the miracle stories because believing them does not have consequences for public policy except insofar as those who believe them must be anti-rationalist or at least irrational. She focuses most on the first part of Genesis because a literal understanding of it conflicts so obviously with evolution. Jacoby points out that America alone in the developed world has a sizable portion of the population that still rejects the descent of humans from earlier, non-human primates. Why? Biologists, geologists, and geneticists know that the theory of evolution is true. The evidence that all life on earth has a common ancestry is overwhelming. Yet “just 26 percent accept Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Fully 42 percent say that all living things, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (p. 23).

There can be no doubt that the theory of evolution has problems, especially for Christian conceptions of sin and death, regardless of how metaphorically one takes Genesis. However, scientific credibility is not one of them. Scientists use what they know about evolution to make predictions about where to look for additional fossil evidence. They go to those places, look for fossils, and find them. In the same way, unraveling DNA has confirmed again and again that certain species are closely related, descended from common ancestors. Is it possible that God created the world in six days and filled it with living things as Genesis says? Yes, of course it is, but not in any scientifically meaningful sense. It is possible that God concealed his creative act by adding a backstory, going all the way back to the big bang, to everything he made. If so, then one of the aims of science is to unravel this backstory. I am not saying that this is what I believe; I am merely offering it as a way for biblical literalists to reconcile their faith in Genesis with scientific evolution. Unfortunately, this leaves no place for creationism in science and hence no place for the teaching of creationism in schools.

To her credit, Jacoby exposes the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, which came to prominence in the early twentieth century. It was used in ways never intended by Darwin to promote eugenics and justify exploitative capitalism. To this day, there is still confusion, not only among Christian fundamentalists but also among supporters of evolution, between biological evolution and social Darwinism.

Despite her attempts at fairness, however, Jacoby cannot conceal her contempt for fundamentalist Christians. Biblically attested miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth of Christ, and his resurrection are just so many fables told and believed by naive and intellectually unsophisticated people. She finds the tenacity with which Christians adhere to their faith baffling, though she never says so in so many words.

Despite her careful research, she attributes the origins of the Jesus Movement in the late sixties and early seventies to Campus Crusade for Christ, which she later refers to as the Christian Crusade. She says nothing of Calvary Chapel and appears not to know about the struggles of organized denominations to accommodate the sudden influx of young people who had renounced drugs and alcohol and sexual promiscuity but wanted to keep their rock-and-roll, long hair, and communal living. She also claims that Roe v. Wade occurred in a cultural climate that offered almost no opposition, which, while true, neglects that fact that abortion was presented almost universally as a way to protect young girls and women from the devastating injuries caused by “back alley” abortions. No one foresaw in 1973 that within a decade nearly one in four pregnancies would end in abortion.

Despite these shortcomings, I highly recommend The Age of American Unreason. The chapters on junk thought and the culture of distraction are especially worth reading. Jacoby uncovers the pernicious influence of the ubiquitous audio-video culture. It is not what we expose our children to, though that is certainly bad enough. It is what we fail to expose them to because they are always distracted by what’s on television or on the Internet or playing on their iPod. Previous generations valued quiet. My children think I am odd because I turn off the radio while I’m driving, but I just get tired of always having to listen to something. All my children, thank God, are readers. We have always valued reading in my home, and when they were young, I read to them. We have also deliberately gone without television and video at times just to have time for other pursuits. But there is no denying that we are exceptions. Most families live in a cocoon of entertainment, constantly bombarded by sound and video. Not many people I know read for pleasure. Fewer still spend time in silence listening to their own thoughts. Among Christians there is a tradition at least of prayer, meditation, and Bible-reading, but for many this tradition has been brushed aside. Christians are as likely as anyone else to fill their time with self-medicating entertainment and thoughtless absorption of the prevailing audio-video culture.

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