Sunday, February 27, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 1)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “Why has this conflict developed?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

The antagonism separating religion and science is not a contemporary phenomenon. It originated during the Renaissance. Western civilization exited the Middle Ages and underwent a resurgence of scientific curiosity and exploration. This exploration included the new science of astronomy. Discoveries in this young field would thoroughly subvert humanity’s perspective of the universe and our status within it. The revelation most significant to this change in perspective was the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, which postulated that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This theory was enhanced by Johannes Kepler, but it was popularized by Galileo Galilei. In 1609, Galileo learned about the device we now call the telescope, and constructed one for himself. That he originally invented the telescope is a prominent misconception. The observations Galileo made with his advanced contraption, including the phases of Venus and the four largest moons of Jupiter, supported heliocentrism.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his conclusion, he was summoned by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy. He was found to be a heretic and sentenced to house imprisonment for the remainder of his life. Why? Because, the Catholic Church asserted that the Bible proclaimed the immovability of the Earth: it could not revolve around the Sun (Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 1 Chronicles 16:30).

The situation with Galileo demonstrates the authentic foundation for the contention between religion and science- the inerrancy of scripture or dogma. Within Christianity, each discrete denomination has its own doctrines, either from the Bible or from their distinctive analysis and interpretation of the Bible.

So, if the inerrancy is stimulating the hostility, what is the rationale for the inerrancy?

During the first centuries of Christianity, there was a dilemma over what books should constitute the Bible. However, by the time the Roman Empire finally disintegrated in 476 AD, the Catholic Church was instituted as the prevailing political force in Europe, the canon of the Bible had been settled, and the Middle Ages had commenced. This period in Western history is frequently designated as the Dark Ages. This is due to the relative deterioration in education and literacy. The citizens of Europe were split into two categories: the few of the aristocracy (which included a majority of the clergymen) and the many peasants. Only the aristocracy was literate and educated. Since Europe was devoutly religious during this period, almost everyone attended church. For the illiterate peasants, this was their only source of religious knowledge. At that time, the Catholic Church taught the Bible as if every passage was a literal description of reality. Of course, with science as we understand it not actually existing, and general knowledge about the world making relatively inconsiderable development, there were no challenges to that perspective. They had no reason to question their assumptions.

Once the Middle Ages concluded and the Renaissance arouse, there was a reason to start rethinking the literal interpretation. Multitudes did. But many more multitudes did not. Why? One word: tradition.

Tradition dies hard. Religion is transmitted through families from the older generation to the younger generation; parent to child. Customarily, religious beliefs are instilled in children at a young age, usually before the child is able to comprehend the intricacies of or rationally analyze those doctrines. Even once their mind has matured enough to examine their beliefs and make a logical decision whether or not to affirm and comply with them, the beliefs have been instilled so deeply that the concept of investigating them is too terrifying to contemplate.

Because of this, anything that contradicts their religious faith is usually instantaneously disregarded. There are two dominant justifications for this, one conspicuous, the other, often unconscious. The obvious reason is fear. Believers, especially within more conservative traditions, are frequently persuaded that doubting, questioning, or investigating their faith could be punished by God with tragedies on Earth or eternal condemnation to hell, and that "true" or "sincere" believers never entertain questions or exhibit doubts. The obscure reason is identity. A majority of believers regard their faith to be intimately intertwined with their identity. To doubt their faith is to doubt themselves.

Currently, the theories causing most of the dispute among religion and science are evolution and the Big Bang, both of which are more complicated than heliocentrism. This complication can amplify the problem, since these theories are often misunderstood. Misconceptions about what the theories actually assert have become quite widespread. Take, for example, the prevailing conviction that evolution indicates that humans evolved from monkeys. Of course, anyone who has seriously studied evolution understands that humans did not evolve from monkeys, but instead that humans and monkeys share a particularly recent common ancestor.

Despite evolution and the Big Bang being more elaborate than heliocentrism, they offend identical religious precepts. In the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, God creates the Earth and the whole universe for a sole purpose: man. The Big Bang threatens this notion by revealing billions of stars and planets not only exist in the universe, but were indeed spawned before our Earth and Sun. Evolution endangers it by postulating that God did not create us ex nihilo (out of nothing), but that we gradually emerged from the "lower" animals. Yes, these theories also invalidate other Biblical tenets, such as the age of the Earth. Utilizing the Bible, dozens of theologians have dated the Earth at roughly 6,000 years. On the other hand, evolution requires billions of years to fabricate humans, and the geological record establishes the precise age at approximately 4.5 billion years. But, threatening the centrality of mankind is much more offensive than threatening the age of the Earth.

The modern world has inevitably generated an environment hostile to tradition in two notable fashions. First: the quickening pace of scientific development. Second: the expansion of education, both basic and supplemental. Basically, as science invalidates more Biblical principles, and more individuals obtain an elementary science education, tradition will not only increasingly be assaulted, it will be assaulted in regions of the Earth where it has endured, unchanged and unfazed, for thousands of years. Without a transformation by a majority of religious believers to a more metaphorical method of interpreting their sacred scriptures, I anticipate the repercussions of this will be a dramatic expansion of conflict between science and religion. Regrettably, I do not envision this transpiring unless religious followers realize their beliefs do not have to exemplify their entire identity and existence, and that it is acceptable to make modifications without being tormented by threat of eternal consequences.


  1. Very interesting topic, Sammy, and a great post.

    As I see it, the problem with the metaphorical method of interpretation is that it is a tacit admission that the believer's divine revelation isn't so divine. After all, God should know a good deal more about the way humans and the earth and heavens came about than the creation myths that have been stitched together in Genesis reveal.

    Likewise, I believe it is clear that Affective Neuroscience sheds more light on humanity's "sin problem" than does the Bible.

    When revealed religions need to be reinterpreted and "spiritualized" in an attempt to keep them relevant, it seems to me to be the strongest indictment against their validity.

    Religion understood as man's encounter with a cosmic numen can survive right alongside science, and is informed by it.

  2. Hey, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I've recently been exploring similar ideas on my blog. I just wanted to correct you on some details of Galileo. Galileo had some scientific ideas that were not readily accepted, and in an effort to get them popularized, he turned to biblical interpretation to support his claims. As a layman that was not acceptable to the Catholic Church, and that is why he was placed on house arrest. The Church never offered an official doctrine concerning geocentricism, despite any one clergyman's particular belief. This story has often made Catholicism out to be the bad guy repressing science, and the truth is, it was not a battle that involved science at all.
    Keep writing, it was really good.
    - Carly Jo