Science and Religion, A Brief Historical Tour

Science has become a buzz word. It is now used as a sort of universal adhesive to glue “validity” to almost any opinion, as long as it sounds or looks “scientific.”  That is to say, we can look educated; we can sound educated; we can hold certificates of education; we can obtain rank of office requiring education—and none of it means we are truly educated. In modern secular society, what passes for education is not the grit and hard labor of critical thinking, but the veneer of science. Like “religion,” the word “science” has been co-opted by fundamentalists to coerce opinion. This dynamic has been going on for a long time, and is at the root of the narrative to the secular age.

The irony in the debate between science and religion lies in the total misapprehension of means and ends as applied to both. Science and religion are means to an end. Science is an empirical methodology that seeks to answer “How do we do what we want to do?” Religion is a metaphysical methodology that seeks to answer “Why or Should we do what we want to do?” And the corollary: “Is what we want good, beautiful, and true?” Both address the human condition in substantively different ways, but never have they been natural opposites of each other. On the contrary, the technical How and the moral Why are complements of each other, and science and religion are two complimentary methodologies to address human capacity and potential.

So how did they get to be traditional opposites in our cultural understanding? Well it’s simple: Politics. Politics is the methodology of ends, and in the history of the world, it is Politics that has been the natural enemy to Science and Religion.

The overused and highly imaginative narrative that the Catholic Church and its religious sensibilities were the things that sought to destroy Galileo and his scientific sensibilities has been long discredited. Of course, you wouldn’t know it by listening to pop culture, or even the “educated” pop culture. How  quickly we forget that in the days of Galileo the Church was the State and the University was the Church. This fact has huge consequences which the secular world no longer bothers with. In an era where theocracies reign it is easy to show just how blind religion can be. But mixing religion with politics has always been disastrous. Read Jeremiah in the Bible. His whole argument was that the politics of the State was destroying the faith of Israelite religion. His solution was to give up political gamesmanship and desires for world power and live the authentically religious life. And the King and the Priests killed him for it. It’s pretty much the same story with Jesus. And Ghandi. While the story of Galileo is different, the events exist within the same dynamic.

There were many people in the Catholic Church who supported Galileo’s ideas than just opposed them; who worked to rally his insights into the wider cultural arena than suppress them. Galileo’s most strident opponents were the one’s who stood to lose the most if the old cosmology were diminished. They were the professional cosmologists, and in our textbooks they are called “Priests.” No one seems to bother calling them academics, which is exactly what they were, or the arbiters of science, which is exactly what they were defending. It is true, the Pope and several Church committees eventually came down hard on Galileo, accusing him of heresy. It is also true that the Pope in many ways had more political and economic power than the King, and much to lose politically if Galileo’s abrasive charges were left unchallenged. Meanwhile, the various Church committees were zealously defending religious doctrines while secretly dreading the end of tenure.

When there is no separation between Church and State the Church gets all the blame for what the State is doing. Fair enough, but when the State seeks final resolve over the Church, it must have an authoritative basis to gain control, and in the secular world we have been indoctrinated to think that religion is a crutch and science is the cure. In this indoctrination there is never a demarcation between church and religion, which is very telling. In the story of Galileo, the church was a political structure which used religion as its reason for using its power. The downfall of the church was the politicization of its religion. Just as in the days of Jeremiah, it turns out that church and religion were opposites.

The secular world has not overcome this paradox. Indeed, when Science and State are in bed together, the end result is often disastrous.  The Nazi final solution was rooted in scientific argument: intelligence was a biological function rooted in evolutionary processes. If society eliminated the biologically weak, then the new generation would become the ubermensch. Millions would go to the slaughterhouse in the name of scientific progressiveness. The most talented cadre of intellectuals in the world, the German academics, joyfully marched to the tune of the Nazi ideal while donning the accouterments of the new age—lab coats. Droves of American academics fawned over the rise of the National Socialists, declaring that they were the opening act to the new Age of Reason. Only slowly, and with begrudging despair, did they admit they were mistaken, and this not because of the arguments of science, which they had been using the whole time, but because of the ash falling out of the sky.

Of course, there were a great many German and American academics who were opposed to the whole charade, but the entire episode interrupts the meta-narrative of modernism that science and religion are opposed. On the contrary, when a political system seeks ultimate power at any cost, it will use whatever means it can to achieve its ends. In a theocracy, the State uses religion for the sake of its power. In a secular age, the State uses science for the same ends.

The complimentary proposition holds true. Authentic science concerns itself with authentic religion, because how we do a thing is fundamentally linked to why it must be done. Religion is more than ethics, however, but a philosophy of relationships rooted in the “divine self” or human-being as it ought to be. It is not enough to ask, “Should we do this?” We must also ask, “If we do this, how ought it be done?” In a world of dynamic relationships the cold efficiency of science is often insufficient for its own application. Religious morality is a necessary partner to scientific truth. It is one thing to know how to split an atom. It is another thing entirely to split an atom on another’s head.

The modern tensions between science and religion turn out not to be new. This is a critical point that is also skipped in our history books. The meta-narrative of modernity not only pits science and religion against each other, but also places true science as a completely modern and novel idea breaking forth out of countless millennium of religious superstition. It is a self congratulating point of view that simply does not hold.

In the West, according to our histories, true reason begins around 600 BCE when a man named Pythagoras founded a school in Greece. Pythagoras worked out the mathematical relationships in musical tones, and began describing the world not as the forces of arbitrary gods, but by number. It is a marvelous narrative that entirely skips the fact that the school of Pythagoras was closer to a temple cult than a Western academy. Oh, and that the world had been described by number far before Pythagoras, but such descriptions were veiled behind the mythological tropes of the gods. Irony to be sure.

Still, Pythagoras was an intellectual giant. And so were Heraclides, Plato, Erastosthenes, Aristotle, and scores of other Greek intellectuals, all of which would never consider a natural division between science and religion. For them science and religion were synonymous. Like Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest minds in human history, and who wrote more on religious subjects than on all of his works on calculus, physics, and optics combined, all were as interested in religion as science. Modern notions sidestep this reality by asserting that while all these men were great intellectuals and laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution and the modern age of reason, they were also steeped in a religious world that would take centuries to rise out of. If they had been born today, so the thinking goes, they would have sided with the pro-science and anti-religion crowd. This viewpoint is untenable.

A few generations after Pythagoras and Parmenides the Sophists had taken over education. These were the high intellectuals who traveled around Greece teaching the secrets of the universe to anyone who could pay their high fee. The late Sophists were the “Renaissance Men” of Greece: sophisticated, knowledgeable, critical, elitist, and highly condescending to religion. They were the self-anointed culture-bringers who accused all those who disagreed with them as “flat-earthers,” despite the fact that most of them believed in a flat earth. Indeed, their science looks so childish and pithy to us today, with all their talk of hot and dry, breath and winds, earth, fire, air, and atoms. But this was the high science of the times, and creation could be explained by such things without talking about the gods. Our modern science has changed a great deal, but the dynamic between the materialists and the non-materialists has not changed at all.

Men like Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, and Protagoras, were insistent that there was no such thing as the supernatural, and that religion was a crutch and science was the cure. They were not alone in making these arguments; in fact, they were in the majority. Socrates sums up the spirit of the times when he says, “When I was a young man I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science, for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes and why it exists” (Phaedo 96a-b). Socrates hoped that the sciences could explain everything. Yet, after Socrates scoured through all the scientific literature he realized that it was all a front, and that the scientists knew about as much of the real nature of things as the country peasant who still believed in satyrs and cyclopes.

Socrates, however, was one of only a few who were holding the line between religion and science. Plato writes that the common opinion among educated academics was that nature produces creation spontaneously without any intervention of the gods, and that all things could be explained by the natural sciences (Sophist 265c, for example). Classical Greece was filled with atheism, and both Socrates and Plato will have none of it. At the very end of Socrates’ life, he scolds the wisest and most knowledgeable scholars of the day, and declares that when it is all said and done, a life lived as promoted by these scholars, a life without authentic religion, is worthless (Gorgias 527b-e). This was not a reflection, but an accusation against the spirit of his times. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, Socrates was sent to his death by the fundamentalists of his age, accused of impiety. Our modern history books labels these authoritative crowds as religious mobs, but in each case the people sending the high thinkers of the age to their deaths are the academically trained intellectuals promoting not only the best politics of the day, but also the best science.

I have spent some time deconstructing the secular side of this argument because it is the argument that is made in secular culture. It is easy to point out religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, but few people seem to understand that such things are not a product of religion, but of human nature, and the secular crowd does not get a pass. It could be said that fundamentalism is the art of obtaining moral authority in conformity. The fundamentalist wants people to think and act as he does, and often puts up strict punishments for any departure from the official path. One must tow the party line or else.

And this is the point. There is a party line, and it need not be religious. Clearly the church committees railing against Galileo were fundamentalists, but so were the Sophists in the days of Socrates. There are two things one CANNOT do on an American university campus: argue with an evangelical that the Bible contains myth and the earth is not seven thousand years old; or question a secular progressive on the hypothesis and methodology of Climate Change. The irony here is, the first will accuse you of impiety and may suggest that your soul is not saved, but the second will actively seek to silence and banish you from campus. While the first reaction is intolerant, the second is far more similar to the methodology of the late church committees censuring Galileo. And no one seems to get the joke.

The tension then, was never between authentic science and authentic religion. The tension has always been between a socio-cultural point of view embedded in human nature: the material versus the spiritual, the profane versus the sacred. This tension is exasperated by the fundamentalism adopted by both sides of this argument as they try to control the other side. Suffering has always been the result. Meanwhile, a true scientists does not disparage religion lest he turns himself into a theologian who despises only his own caricature of religion . Even as a true disciple of faith seeks out scientific progress at every turn of the scriptural page. Culture and politics are the only things that corrode this relationship.


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