A Dogma in the Fight


Do science and religion contradict each other? On the face of it, I’d say no. Science is a way of finding out about how the world operates through observation and experimentation, and religion is a belief that the universe is governed by conscious forces and a prescription for what you should do to keep these forces in good working order and on your side. A person can certainly accept both. That said, it can depend on which religion you follow and how seriously and literally you take its tenets. I would posit that, while science and religion are generally not at odds, science and dogma frequently are.

An important thing to remember when discussing this topic is that modern science is, well, MODERN. It wasn’t something that the founders of ancient religions would have even considered. These people were, however, curious about how the world worked, and they usually concluded that magical beings were behind it all. Ancient Greek belief, for instance, had it that the Sun was a chariot driven across the sky by a god (either Helios or Apollo, depending on the myth you read), and thunderbolts were the weapons of Zeus.

We don’t have any specific evidence as to whether believers took these ideas literally, but if they did, who can blame them? They didn’t have any frame of reference as to what the Sun might be, so a dude in a chariot was as good a guess as any.

Later on, as people gained more knowledge as to how these natural forces actually operated, and religion had to adapt accordingly. We’ve seen the top of Mount Olympus, and there’s no grand palace of Zeus up there? No problem, the gods actually live in a heavenly realm ALSO called Olympus. This could be trickier with other aspects of mythology, but it could still work. Maybe the gods aren’t directly involved in all these natural processes, but instead set up ways they could operate on their own. Why micromanage everything, after all?

There’s still the possibility that Zeus could take a hand and zap someone he particularly hates with lightning, but that doesn’t mean every lightning bolt you see is hurled by the Lord of Heaven. On the other hand, if we can explain these phenomena without using gods, then what’s the point of worshipping deities? Even if they do exist, the Sun is going to rise tomorrow whether or not the priests perform a ritual. There’s also the issue of using nature to prove the existence of supernatural beings. Back before lightning had really been studied, someone could point to a thunderstorm and say, “See, that proves Zeus exists.” Once lightning is understood, this sort of proof goes out the storm window. Again, it doesn’t disprove religion, but it provides a basis for doubt. So how does religion adjust to this? One way is to use parts of the natural world that still haven’t been explained, like how the universe got here in the first place. We can make educated guesses as to how that happened without a god, but we still don’t know for sure. If your proof of a god has to constantly retreat into smaller gaps, however, doesn’t that kind of gradually decrease your god’s supposed power? Then there’s the idea that you can only know a god through personal experience and feeling, which has the benefit of being pretty much impossible for someone else to disprove. That leaves open the question as to why people who haven’t had these experiences should share your religious convictions, though.

Moving from religion in general to the Bible in particular, it’s interesting to note that the book contains little in the way of natural mythology when compared to some other ancient religious texts. Sure, it’s there, but it’s usually fragmentary and often internally contradictory. A literal reading of the Bible indicates that the Earth is flat, snow is kept in storehouses, water covered the entire world at some point in human history, some insects have four legs (and presumably not just because they lost the other two in an accident), bats are birds, faraway stars are “lesser lights” than our own Sun, and we were all descended from incestuous couples. Much of this is exactly what other Middle Eastern civilizations of the time believed, which puts somewhat of a damper on the fact that the Bible was any more divinely inspired than, say, the Babylonian Enuma Elish. In fairness, though, these factual errors are rarely if ever the POINT of the various Biblical stories. And most of the mythology that is present deals not with the natural world but with politics, specifically how the nation of Israel came to be and how it should operate. The New Testament is less concerned with politics, but very concerned with how Jesus said the faithful should live their lives, and not so much with how Jesus apparently claimed he once saw the entire world from the top of a mountain, suggesting a flat Earth (or that Jesus’ eyes don’t work like ours, or he was only counting the Roman world, or he was just hallucinating in the desert, or…I could go on).

So, if the Bible really isn’t about natural history and philosophy at all, why do so many Christians argue against prevailing scientific theories on the basis of the book? Yes, the Bible supports a geocentric universe, but it doesn’t make a big deal out of it. When the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo’s heliocentric model, they weren’t so much defending the teachings of Jesus, but rather of Aristotle and Claudius Ptolemy.

And while these philosophers may have claimed divine inspiration, they presumably never prescribed eternal damnation to anyone who challenged them, and likely expected someone to come up with a better model in the future. I would suggest that it was primarily about control of the ignorant masses, especially when you consider that church authorities figured Galileo was probably right. If the peasants found a weak spot in official church teachings, they might well have started to question other things. That Jesus died for their sins? Well, maybe, but I get the cynical impression that the authorities were more concerned they’d question the parts about being satisfied with their crappy lot in life while the church and the nobility profited from their labors. I see the same basic sort of thinking at work among fundamentalists today, even if it’s much more informal. We know quite well that Young-Earth Creationism, for instance, is hardly a necessary tenet of Christianity, yet there are still plenty of people who claim it is.

I have to suspect that the more powerful people behind this are concerned less with the age of the Earth and the origin of species than with retaining or gaining power for themselves. But hey, that’s just a theory.

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10 Responses to A Dogma in the Fight

  1. Good points made here! There’s an interesting book that gets into this called Why Religion Matters, by Huston Smith, which depicts the shift of power from the religious authorities to the science authorities, and that although the theories change, the dogma remains the same. It all boils down to an issue of authoritarianism. Since neither religion nor science hold the exclusive franchise on truth, and yet both can reveal facets of both truth and falsehood, I’ve learned to approach both with an open mind and a lot of questions. Nor do I any longer suffer those who attempt to use the weight of Authority and other logical fallacies to bolster their position.

    One of my favorite books which explores both is still A Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck. That really got me thinking!

    Interestingly, I just stumbled upon this article (synchronicity?), which presents, I think, a well-thought out response to the question of Religion and Science from a Christian (though not fundamentalist) perspective: http://powertochange.com/discover/life/five-things-science-explain/

    • Nathan says:

      I think a key difference between science and religion is that science is never presented as being connected to Absolute Truth, while religion often is. Religion grows and changes over time, but people are loath to admit that it is, because how can revelation given by a perfect being possibly be wrong? While overturning commonly held scientific consensus isn’t easy, it’s at least acknowledged to be possible. That’s not to say science and religion can’t both be misused by authorities (many of whom are likely neither scientists nor theologists), however. As for the argument from authority, I think an important question to consider here is WHY someone is considered an authority. Is it because of the actual research they’ve done on a topic, or just because they’re popular? If an authority figure really has made more of a study on something than I have, then yes, I might be likely to believe what they say about it without fully understanding all the details. That’s not to say I might not question certain aspects, but if we’re talking about a subject like, say, global warming, why WOULDN’T I believe the scientific community over politicians and businessmen?

      As far as things that science can’t prove, I sometimes consider the issue of morality. While I think there IS a scientific basis for morality, as it can provide an evolutionary advantage, I also kind of feel that it’s progressed beyond that. As such, even if you could successfully argue that an immoral action ISN’T to your advantage, you should still act morally. I suppose you could call this faith of a sort, although it’s more of a general sort than faith in anything in particular.

      • Revelation (as in prophecy) is supposed to be open to interpretation and application. Religious authorities have in the past tended to choke that out by insisting on THEIR interpretation as the Single and Only True revelation. In so doing, they prove themselves false, and make others think that it’s the fault of revelation itself (the governing body of the JW’s tried to blame prophecies that didn’t come true on the false expectations of the rank and file!). Scripturally speaking, prophecy was always fluid. People and nations had the opportunity to change their ways (as happened with Jonah’s prophecies against Nineveh), thereby evading any negative prophecies of doom. That caveat was clearly understood by the ancient Jews because it was part of the Law Code, but it seems to escape modern-day fundamentalists who insist on a black-and-white view of things and trying to make dates for “End Times” when it’s clearly written that “no man knows the day or hour.”

        Similarly, science should be understood as merely the study of evidence, not the presentation of fact. Genuine scientists and lovers of science are the first to acknowledge that hypotheses, theories and even so-called facts can change if new evidence comes forth to alter it. But because of authority-figures, hubris, lack of imagination, or just fear of challenging the status quo, science has become Science, and, in some circles, hypotheses and theories are elevated to the level of Truth almost as soon as they’re published. The average person reads an MSN science article and assumes that’s the facts, instead of thinking that it’s the current hypothesis of a certain scientist (or body of scientists).

        Evolution (macro-evolution) is presented as Absolute Truth, and something that only ignorant, backwards fundamentalists like Kirk Cameron deny. But there’s plenty of challenges to it that go unheard, and many by those who aren’t religious. That it goes unheard or is ridiculed is the fault of a small, but vocal minority in science who are materialists and will not even entertain the idea that Darwin was wrong in the most crucial areas. It’s as if to do so challenges their staunch views on secular materialism. So, again, human nature gets in the way of science being what it’s supposed to be, just as it gets in the way of faith being what it’s supposed to be.

        In the case of global warming, there is a perverse challenge to it which really boils down to the corporate powers-that-be doing their very best to trick the masses into thinking it’s some kind of liberal hoax. If it was an authentic case of people saying “show me the evidence,” that would be appropriate, but it’s not. It’s a case of corporate-bought right-wing media pundits mocking climate change, lobbyists buying politicians, and shills spreading lies. The irony is that with something like climate change, it doesn’t even matter because if there’s even a slight chance that it might be true, individuals and corporations and governments should be doing whatever it takes to STOP it, just like they should be doing whatever it takes to stop polluting and harming the environment. That would be a win-win either way, except that there’s the greed of corporations who only care about profits.

      • Nathan says:

        I’ve heard people arguing that the Bible must be literally true because God wrote it, even though he used human agents. I would imagine that the simple act of using human agents means errors or misunderstandings will creep in, though.

      • Agreed, Nathan. The Apostle Paul even acknowledges in at least one instance that he’s weighing in with his personal opinion on that matter (his feeling that widows were better off staying single if they could manage it and allowing the Christian community to look out for their welfare). So, if God allowed that, how much more would he allow applicability. And I think the Bible has such depth to it, that the reader can find different levels and types of applicability in different times and circumstances in her life.

        As to the openness of interpretation, the first Century Christians are shown to be a varied lot, and although guided to have a wiser, more balanced and loving approach, were for the most part allowed to have their own interpretations without being treated as heretics. There was a conservative Jewish faction and a liberal Gentile faction, and Paul points out that the liberal faction was, for the most part, right. Yet, he doesn’t condemn the other side, as much as warn them that there’s a better way. And for the liberal side, he argues that those who recognize they have that freedom in Christ should try to be considerate of those who are “weaker in the faith.”

        Interestingly, the only ones that were to be avoided were the extremes of both sides. On the conservative side, the authoritarian dogmatists (in 3 John), and on the liberal side, a guy who was having sex with his father’s wife (in 1 and 2 Corinthians) and he was forgiven and welcomed back in.

        I tend to think the Bible is like many great books, in that it’s a mirror. It reflects what you bring with you. Those who at that time in their life are bitter and angry and small-hearted come away seeing bitterness, anger and condemnation, whereas those who are open to wisdom and compassion and who value freedom come away finding wisdom, love, and joy. I think the “religious right” in the U.S. fall into the former in many cases. They’re just deeply unhappy people who’ve been oppressed and lied to for so long they don’t anything else. Some, I think, are so damaged that they gravitate to hierarchical systems with rules they can follow which make them feel better about themselves while looking down on others. With those kinds of people, scapegoats allow them to feel less guilty about their own bad habits and lack of love.

        For many like this, the Church is not a community of individuals striving to communicate with likeminded ones who want to better themselves and the world around them, but a gossipy, social-climbing, insular boys club. The Bible is not a guidebook to help people grow wiser, live happier and more loving, but a book of unyielding rules and codes to be used as a weapon against others. It’s sad because that’s not Christianity, but a twisted perversion of it.

        But that’s just my interpretation. ;)

    • Responding to your last paragraph in your reply below, since there’s no more “reply” buttons at that level: YES! This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell my Fox-News-Loving inlaws but haven’t been able to put into words properly! Thanks!

  2. Then there’s the idea that you can only know a god through personal experience and feeling, which has the benefit of being pretty much impossible for someone else to disprove. That leaves open the question as to why people who haven’t had these experiences should share your religious convictions, though.

    I think there you’ve crossed over from the dogmatic to the faith-based arguments, so it doesn’t really fit. Meaning that I’d argue that, and I’m not dogmatic. ;) But really, with dogma you have “This is what it is because this is what we’ve always said it is, it’s written down,” but “this is what I FEEL through my own experience” is not dogmatic at all, and doesn’t necessarily imply “so everyone should agree with me.”

    I appreciate your balanced outlook on these things, though. Too many atheists are like “religion is the root of all evil! Anyone who believes in it is stupid and delusional and living in the past! It’s halting the progress of humanity!” Which, GAH, drives me crazy as someone who believes in science and in God– because, exactly what you said, they deal with two different things entirely. (And actually they sometimes complement each other nicely, if you’re open to that). I wish more people would use the word “dogma” when they mean it instead of “religion” or “Christianity” or “faith.”

    • Well said, rockinlibrarian. Extremism in any form is unpleasant and ugly, and is often at the root of dogmatism.

    • Nathan says:

      I do have to wonder how many non-believers who think all religion is evil were raised in a background where they were really only presented with one kind of religion, and it actually WAS used for bad purposes. I’ve certainly come across that on occasion, but I don’t know the statistics.

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