Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Necessity of Religion and Science

Today's column:

“I should not be astonished, though I am too frequently, by the studied ignorance that pervades every serious debate in American life. Every night on television, professional Christians, ignorant of biology, philosophy, archeology, history, and theology, pretend to debunk the theory of evolution—a theory they completely misrepresent—while their enemies, the public Darwinists... think they have answered all the great of existence, when, in fact, they do not know what the questions are, much less how to go about searching for the answers.” - Thomas Fleming

I would compare the supposed conflict between religion and science—faith and reason—to disagreements over the designated hitter; but this would do an injustice to the latter debate, which is at the very least a real conflict between two mutually exclusive principles. That it is insignificant in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant; its inherent dichotomous nature is readily obvious.

In a word, one cannot both support and oppose the designated hitter, as one may support both science and religion. A belief in God does not preclude a belief in the findings of the men in lab coats. It is not a question, say, between belief in the First Cause and the Law of Gravity. It is not a matter of choosing between Biology and God. There is simply no division, and one may readily accept—or reject—both.

Hilaire Belloc grasps the point: “[T]he word “Science” simply means “That which is so firmly established by proof from observation or deduction that the opposite cannot be entertained... “Science”, used in this sense, cannot be the opponent of any scheme of transcendental doctrine [religion]; it can have no relation to a theology and therefore cannot be the enemy of that theology. The one word relates to research for the establishment of truths by experience in the physical world; the other to a philosophy.”

Christianity has never been in outright conflict with reason. Anyone who suggests as much has never read Chesterton or Lewis, to say nothing of Augustine or Aquinas. That said, Christianity does recognize the limits of human reason, and the necessity of faith. But faith is not the opposite of reason; it is, Paul tells us, “The realization of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Faith supersedes reason, but it does not run counter to it. It is the only means to accept mysteries which lie beyond human understanding, such as the existence of God. But it never asks us to believe that which is in conflict with reason, say that the grass is purple or that the sun is unbearably cold, that is, the claims of science.

All of this is best epitomized in the Divine Comedy. Beatrice, a complicated symbol who may roughly be taken to represent Divine Revelation, sends Virgil, that is, human reason, to accompany Dante in his pilgrimage, first through Hell, then through Purgatory, and finally into Heaven. But Virgil, an exquisitely noble pagan yet a pagan nonetheless, is not allowed to enter into Heaven; he must return to Limbo after escorting Dante through Purgatory, thus symbolizing the limits of even the most enlightened of human beings sans Divine Revelation. Beatrice guides Dante in Virgil's stead, and the pilgrim journeys onward, guided by God and in a spirit of faith.

Personally, I have the utmost respect for those who have problems with the necessity of faith. Having studied Christianity somewhat extensively, though by no means exhaustively, there are, as I see it, two main objections to the faith. First, one could disbelieve in God. Second, one could disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God; one could accept the existence of a higher deity and yet remain doubtful as to whether that deity is good, or even concerned with humans at all. There are a series of “proofs” for both, but ultimately, both require acts of faith. Suffice it to say that the subject is complicated enough to require more than a mere column.

What does any of this have to do with science? Quite simply, Christianity is a very complex organism, and one to which any number of intelligent men have objected throughout history. But the modern man seldom takes the time to either accept or reject Christianity; instead, he views it as simplistic, and probably even irrelevant, and thus he dismisses it. Yet anyone who does so is behaving foolishly. Mankind has long been plagued with doubts as to the existence and the benevolence of the gods, but I cannot recall a time in which the gods, real or not, benevolent or not, have been so spectacularly ignored.

One reason for this, I think, has to do with the perceived conflict between religion and science. Imbecilic fundamentalists—pardon the redundancy—that insist on a belief in a Young Earth or dismiss evolution without even bothering to study it, do a tremendous disservice to the faith which they ostensibly hold. It takes a considerable amount of faith to accept Christianity—though its very absurdity has been offered as a proof, see Tertullian—but it is acting for a miracle to expect intelligent people to believe in something they know to be false, such as the notion that the earth is only several thousands of years old.

Those who reject Christianity must realize that science is inadequate to the task of forming man's conscience. This is not a blemish, but merely a characteristic. It is irrational to expect science to offer guidance in a realm over which it has no jurisdiction. In short, while it has its place, defenders of science must realize its intrinsic insufficiency and seek out allies. Unguided, science will likely lead us straight back to Nazi Germany with its horrific experiment in eugenics, or the Communism of Russia and China. The crimes of Mao and Stalin make Hitler appear to be a dictatorial lightweight.

Similarily religion, divorced from reason, can readily lead to barbarism. Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus felt that violence was incompatible with the nature of God as well as that of the human soul. Thus, spreading a religion through violence was inconsistent with the higher truths for which that religion stood. He writes:

“God is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...”

Divorced from reason, religion would degenerate quite readily into violence. If a member of a faith felt wholly unable to use reason to convince an antagonist of the validity of his particular religious faith, he may readily resort to the sword. This would be disastrous perversion.

Science and religion have always needed each other. Presently, the need is especially great.
If the perceived divide between religion and science grows as more and more people swallow the canard whole, civilization will draw ever closer to peril. God—and science—help us all.


troutsky said...

I think you expressed the basic antagonism and it's resolution quite well except for one glaring exception.If biblical text is not interpreted literally, such as Genesis or Apocalypse, who's interpretation has credence? If Heaven and Hell are read metaphorically what other aspects require such "interpretation"?

And if there is only One ,True God who embodies Absolute Truth, aren't we set up for conflict between competing Truths? Im ok with conflict per se, but this stuff to often gets irrational and violent.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

If biblical text is not interpreted literally, such as Genesis or Apocalypse, who's interpretation has credence?

Rome's of course. =) This isn't as ridiculous as it seems. The important point is this: the authority to interpret the truth is one and the same with the authority which selected texts now liable to various interpretations. If God helped the early Christians figure out which books to put in the Bible, he's not going to bail when they have to decide how to read each book. The vehicle of the interpretation as well as the selection was and is the Roman Catholic Church.

If Heaven and Hell are read metaphorically what other aspects require such "interpretation"?

I hope I didn't seem to suggest that Heaven and Hell are only metaphorical. They are, I believe, quite real. Frightening thought, that.

And if there is only One ,True God who embodies Absolute Truth, aren't we set up for conflict between competing Truths?

Sure are. Sometimes "competing Truths" can each contain facets of the truth; ultimately, all Truth is inadequate when compared to the Infinite Truth that is God. Conflict only gets violent and irrational when people no longer become convinced of the power of Truth, something my article warned about.

troutsky said...

I see the logic but it reminds me a little of Stalins logic," Ill interperet Marx for the the proletariat because they invested me with authority.They invested me with authority because, I am.How else would I have gotten so powerful if I didn't have a special knowledge of Truth?"

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I found this bit from Warren Carroll:

It's short, and does a good job of explaining the much misunderstood doctrine of infallibility.

It's interesting that you bring up Stalin given that I've just finished reading about his "collectivization". I haven't words to describe the evil of the man.