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Science and Religion: Oil and Water or Birds of a Feather?

June 8, 2008 by andyb1015

The discussion this Sunday was promising and hopeful. Hope you enjoy the sermon and readings.

Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; Religion without science is blind.” But the two have been blinding and maiming each other for a long, long time.

Pope Urban VIII got in one of religion’s most famous blows against science. As the church in the sixteenth century well knew, Jewish scripture reads: “Yahweh has set the earth on its foundations: It can never be moved.” But when Galileo observed and calculated, he came to quite a different conclusion. The sun was at the center of the universe and the earth was in constant motion around it. The scripture (and the above-mentioned verse is taken from a book of songs, after all) is poetry, Galileo said, not science. And the heavyweight bout between science and religion commenced. In this corner, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” and in the other corner, the challenger, “But that’s not what’s really going on.”

It didn’t go well for the new guy. I quote: “The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.” That pronouncement from Pope Urban VIII would lock Galileo in his house for the rest of his natural life, prevent him from publishing any more books during his lifetime and would eventually lead Galileo to (formally, at least) renounce his strange and threatening belief that the sun was at the center of the universe. Science challenged a religious worldview, and religion refused to do so much as turn its head and listen. And according to reports from the rock band Queen, Galileo was still in hell as late as 1975, when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was recorded.

On the other hand, Galen. A physician who lived in the second century AD. Though he was a follower of Roman polytheistic religion, according to author Jennifer Michael Hecht, “Galen criticized (the Christians’) dependence on faith and dismissed them as lacking the epistemological evidence for what they claimed.[1]” Galen wanted scientific proof. He looked for it using dissection of animals. Galen was the first physician to propose that an understanding of the human body was necessary for prevention and cure of disease. Galen proved that the brain, not the heart, controlled the body, contrary to widely-held opinion. His approach blended theology and medicine, as he sought to understand the workings of God by investigating nature. Seems like a reasonable approach for a theist physician to take.

But Galen came to some bad medical and scientific conclusions. He was, for example, the first proponent of blood-letting, which turned out not to work so well as he first thought. His certainty that he was right about everything he found compounded the effects of his wrong ideas. To quote one scholar from Brown University: “When he discovered or explained something, further experimentation was not needed… The fact that he made his solutions seem absolute, compounded by his arrogance and reputation, combined to impede the progress of medicine for almost fifteen hundred years (Nuland: 35). From the time of his death up until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries his experimentation was accepted as fact, since it seemed redundant to repeat it. This was especially devastating since he often drew incorrect conclusions… The influence of Galen’s work was so strong that it prevented scientists and physicians from advancing the field of medicine until the Renaissance (” People latched onto Galen’s work and refused for some time to move on, in spite of good evidence.

Both science and religion can lend themselves to the fundamentalist mindset. But I think with some creativity, we can avoid the conflict which causes hard-line humanists to mock religion and fundamentalist religionists to consign the afore-mentioned humanists to eternal torture.

In fact, I want today to state my case that science and religion not only don’t need to be in conflict, but actually are better off when they have each other.

I think all of us, mostly religious or mostly scientific, have one big thing in common. We’re all ignorant. Before you hurl the hymnals at me, allow me to explain.

In his 2008 book “The Religious Case Against Belief,” James P. Carse identifies three levels of ignorance. He explains them in an analogy. “Ordinary ignorance is a sleep that does not know itself as sleep… The willfully ignorant are in a state of wakefulness, but one that feigns sleep, intentionally restricting the horizon of their daylight world. (The) learned ignorant are awake, and know they are awake, but also know they will never succeed in altogether dispelling the unwanted drowsiness.[2]” Said differently, for the learned ignorant, and that’s the class Carse wants us to be in, the more we know, the more we realize we have to learn.

And so, Galileo’s problem was that the religious leaders of his day chose to remain willfully ignorant. Pope Urban VIII and the other inquisitors didn’t discuss Galileo’s experiments on the basis of their own merits. They judged them against beliefs. Beliefs.

If we’re left to see religion as a variety of systems of belief, we’re lost already. Science cannot invade this territory. Those who believe that God has called them to rid the world of Western non-believers, or that God has called them to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims, that they must purify Europe and create the master race or rid the world of expecting teenage Moms in abortion doctors’ offices… these believers often are among the willfully ignorant. They often refuse even to consider evidence against their cause. Carse, who knows something about religion, having been the director of the religion program at New York University for 30 years, writes:

“Believers, in short, are terrified by genuine expressions of religion, and respond to them by vigorously ignoring them. They take refuge in agreement, solidarity of membership, and the sense that they belong to something… Thus it was when Urban II saw a loss of fervor in Christendom, he initiated in the year 1095 what was to become several centuries of costly, savage, and ultimately failed crusades against the Saracens. It was far more reassuring for medieval Christians to battle Islam than it was for them to inquire unrestrictedly into the learned and thriving Islamic civilization. In the meantime, of course, it was a way of escaping any inquiry into the great uncertainties of Christianity itself.[3]

But there’s a difference between believers and the religious. Quoting Carse once more: “Quite simply, being a believer does not in itself make one religious; being religious does not make one a believer.[4]” Too often, belief systems choke out the mystery and quell the fears we have about living and dying and what happens next by creating untestable orthodoxy. God. Heaven. Rapture. Martyrdom. Sacrifice. You must believe or you will be damned. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next,” I think he was talking about belief.

But the highest form of religion isn’t knowing what you believe and standing by it no matter the evidence. The highest form of religion, the one which offers the most promise in a globalized, multi-cultural world is a religion which is rooted in wonder at the mystery of our existence. Such religion begins not with arrogant claims of certain knowledge, but with crystal-clear statements of its learned ignorance. We think we have some pretty good guides to life, but we cannot claim to have answered every question. We will simply scour the universe, including ourselves and our religious traditions, for answers.

Here, perhaps religion can ask a favor of science: Namely, that it provide boundaries for our religious search. The religious mind wonders. Why life? Why death and evil? But the best we can do is continue to ask the questions, to find ways to live together under these conditions. When religion begins to answer these questions, belief is born. Again, heaven. Trinity. Miracle healing. And science calls to religion, don’t be so sure. Before you demand belief, remember to check for evidence. What a gift to religion is science, which keeps it accountable and preserves the mystery that gave religion its birth by stopping it short of making objective requirements of belief.

Of course, science has from time to time become too big for its britches as well. Galen is only one example. And religion can also remind science that it isn’t good to claim to know too much too soon. Sometimes it’s best to live in the mystery. To seek and question and test, yes, but to live in the mystery when no answer becomes apparent. And it’s OK to admit that we haven’t discovered the scientific answer to every question.

When a religion of the mysteries and a science which admits its limits combine in a person, in a congregation or a denomination or across religious identities, when we can count ourselves among the learned ignorant, those who know their limits, we can end this silly fight between the scientifically minded and the religiously minded. In fact, I don’t think that’s the argument at all.

In conclusion, I quote Chris Hedges’ book I Don’t Believe in Atheists. “The battle between (the) new atheists and the religious fundamentalists engages two bizarre subsets of American culture. One distorts the scientific theory of evolution, applying it to complex social, economic and political systems it was never designed to explain. The other insists that the six-day story of creation in Genesis is fact and Jesus will descend from the sky to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Neither God nor science, however, will protect us from the destructive forces within human history and human nature. We are not progressing morally as a species. We are not headed toward uplands of sunlight and harmony, toward collective salvation. The technological advances made by human societies have empowered, in equal measure, those dedicated to preserving and protecting life, and those dedicated to violence and industrial slaughter. The battle underway in the United States is not between religion and science. It is a battle between two utopian forms of faith. These antagonists trade absurdity for absurdity. They show that the danger is not religion or science. The danger is the fundamentalist mindset itself.[5]  


From Science and Religion, an address by Albert Einstein to Princeton Seminary in May, 1939.

“For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. According to this interpretation the well-known conflicts between religion and science in the past must all be ascribed to a misapprehension of the situation which has been described… Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up.”


From “Faith Without Certainty” by UU minister Paul Rasor

“Physics and astronomy often deal with large questions about the nature of the universe and the human place within it. In these and other ways, these pursuits reflect and respond to the human desire for meaning by providing what Richard H. Niebuhr called ‘centers of value.’

In many ways, whether a particular activity or symbol is understood as religious is largely a matter of interpretation or circumstance. Our symbols are not inherently religious; objects and ideas become religious as religious meaning is assigned to them. Moreover, our contemporary world permits a wide range of interpretations. Some people look up and see the heavens where others see astronomical objects (and some see both), and prophets as well as politicians speak of justice (p. xvi).”


[1] Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt: A History. San Francisco: Harper One, 2003, p. 126.

[2] Carse, James P. The Religious Case Against Belief. New York: The Pengiun Press, 2008, p. 17.

[3] Ibid., p. 210.

[4] Ibid. p. 2.

[5] Hedges, Chris. I Don’t Believe in Atheists. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 2008, p. 89.


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