When Science Meets Religion

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s what the ancient wise man Socrates once said, and it’s a cornerstone belief for me and perhaps for you. Unexamined, our thinking easily becomes biased, or distorted, or partial, or uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Unexamined, our lives become like this as well. As we think, so we are. We’re unfree, if our thinking is unfree.

So this morning we are talking about examining our lives. Opening up the eye of the mind, so our lives can open up to something greater and freer. In particular, we’re going examine those time-honored routes to truth which we call science and religion. Their roles in our lives, their relations with each other. We don’t want to be unfree in our thinking about them. So much is at stake…

But answers here are not necessarily simple. Here’s why I’m saying this: creationism, or intelligent design. Intelligent design includes such teachings as the insufficiency of evolutionary theory to explain the development of life and kinds of life; the separate ancestry of humans and apes; and a world that is just thousands of years old, not millions. Some of you may recall the decision, back in 2002, of the Cobb County Board of Education (second largest in Georgia!) to teach intelligent design alongside evolution, calling it a “necessary element of providing a balanced education.” A couple of years later, in 2004, the New York Times quoted Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox as describing “evolution” as “a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction.” She added that people often associate it with “that monkeys-to-man sort of thing.” Of course, what was happening in our schools did not go unnoticed or unchallenged. Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Cynthia Tucker had this to say: “No matter how much proponents of ‘intelligent design’ try to clothe their views in the apparel of science, it is what it is: religion. Whose intelligence? Whose design?” And then there’s an acerbic comment by scientist Michael Shermer: “Notice that [creationists] have no interest in replacing evolution with native American creation myths or including the Code of Hammurabi alongside the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.” Whose intelligence and whose design? The God of the fundamentalist Christian, of course…

That “monkeys-to-man sort of thing” controversy persists, against all reason and despite Federal and Supreme Court rulings. It persists, even though, to most scientists with relevant expertise and credentials (like biologists!), the theory is far more than a buzzword: it rests on substantial evidence, offers a valid scientific explanation that unifies facts and findings in their field, and satisfies the tests applied to all scientific theories. The controversy persists … all over our nation. Dover, Pennsylvania from a couple years back comes to mind. The school district there wanted to do the same thing the Cobb Country school district here tried to do. But a federal judge ruled that all such teachings making up creation science are a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, that creation science is not true science—and how many of you following this case or other cases just slap your forehead and say “Duh!” But there it is. And it’s not the last time we’re going to hear about cases like this. They keep on popping up, and you might be wondering about this. What in the world is going on between science and religion?

For this sermon, I am drawing heavily on a book by eminent theologian Langdon Gilkey, called Creationism On Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock. The book records his first-hand experiences and his subsequent reflections as a witness for the American Civil Liberties Union at the creationist trial in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1981. Back then, they were fighting against Arkansas Act 590 which required science classes discussing evolution science to give equal time to a discussion of creation “science.” The more things change, the more they stay the same! And what Gilkey experienced during that trial totally opened his eyes regarding science and religion, and it’s opened mine.

Take, for example, the assumption that what we have here is a clear instance of the longtime war between essentially incompatible forces: religion vs. science, science vs. religion. This assumption has been alive in Western culture for a long time now, and it’s an assumption communicated unhesitatingly by the media. For example, an ABC news article I dialed up on the web, regarding the Pennsylvania case: its opening line: “In one of the biggest courtroom clashes between faith and evolution since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial…” Or the article in Time covering the same case, saying that “…it strikes horror into the hearts of scientists and science teachers across the U.S., not to mention plenty of civil libertarians.” Both messages ultimately reinforce the old story of incompatibility and warfare. Scientists and science teachers and civil libertarians are horrified, yes, but what about people of faith? Can you be a person of faith and affirm evolution? Can you, exactly because you are a person of faith, take the side of science?

Media messages like the ones from ABC and Time, which we hear over and over again, make it easy for people to think no. Makes it easy to assume that science and religion, faith and evolution, are hermetically sealed off from eachother, that they are opposites, that they are absolutely and always at each other’s throats….

Which is why, when Gilkey looked across that Arkansas courtroom at his opponents arguing in support of creation science, he was so shocked. He likened it to “a flash of lightning in the darkness.” This is what he saw: Twenty four Ph D’s in the natural or theoretical sciences, including physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, physiology, botany, and zoology. Scientists whose doctorates came from institutions like UCLA, Berkeley, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, USC, University of Illinois, Penn State, and Michigan. Tenured faculty at places like Iowa State, Purdue, and Michigan State. That’s what he saw. Just opened his eyes!

And as for what he saw when he looked at the people on his own side, arguing against the creationism law: twelve of the seventeen people on his side were liberal clergy who wanted to save faith “from a fatal identification with intolerant literalism on the one hand and an anti-scientific attitude on the other.” As for the associations represented on his side: four of the six were religious. Only one scientific group and one secular educational group were present. Think about it: the primary opponents of the creationism law … were people and institutions of faith!

Just pause and let this fact from the Arkansas trial sink in. In light of it, how could the media have persisted in describing the trial as a simple case of science vs. religion?

One word: sleepwalking. They never really examined the old assumption and questioned it. Never saw beyond it to the unexpected reality unfolding before them, far more complicated and far more hopeful than they assumed. Not at all science vs, religion, but liberal religion and good science on one side, debating absolutist religion and deviant science on the other.

THAT was the reality. And unless people see this, a great opportunity is missed, a magnificent one.

I’m talking freedom to choose beyond either anti-religious secularism or Biblical fundamentalism. Secularism says that all faith is irrelevant and bankrupt; Biblical fundamentalism says that faith must be literalistic. But the choice beyond these two is a life journey that treats the language of spirituality differently, that complements the findings of science and knows that religious words and stories don’t have to be literally true to say true things about the human condition and the human spirit. To take the Biblical book of Genesis seriously doesn’t mean you have to take it as indicative of physical fact. Creation didn’t literally happen in six days, yes, but what we want to take seriously is that there is order this evolving world, and it is good.

There is freedom to choose beyond secularism or fundamentalism, and I am really wanting to emphasize this because whereas you and I know it, whereas you and I know that Unitarian Universalism embodies it, many other people do not. It’s “the best kept secret in our modern life,” says Gilkey; most people assume that any challenge to the literal interpretation of Genesis is a challenge to authentic religion, period. That’s been Gilkey’s experience, as well as mine. Does it ring a bell with you, too?

But there is a choice. UUCA people, if we are going to make a difference in Atlanta, we need to pull together, we need to live our mission, we need to communicate far and wide how to talk about things like God and Jesus and the Bible (and the rest of our Six Sources) in ways that exemplify the choice beyond secularism and beyond fundamentalism. There is a choice, and that is our Good News. Listen to something the great Carl Sagan once said: “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.” Carl, I love you, but such a religion has already emerged. It’s here. It’s Unitarian Universalism.  We need to spread our Good News…

Alright. We are opening the eye of the mind as it looks upon the relationship between science and religion, and we’ve just seen how the assumption of warfare between them is simplistic and false. (You know what happens when we assume, right?)

Let’s take a look at one more common assumption, which is this: the idea that science is self-sufficient and doesn’t need religion (and the definition of “religion” I am using here comes from something that theologian Ian Barbour says: “The goal of science is understanding lawful relations among natural phenomena. Religion is a way of life within a larger framework of meaning”). Maybe science and religion aren’t at each other’s throats, goes this assumption, but they sure don’t need each other. Science can go it alone. Let’s take a look.

Historically, the idea that science is self-sufficient is a relatively recent one. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, you could still picture scientists and supporters of science as scrappy freethinkers, fighting against the 1000 pound cultural gorilla which was religion. Up to that time, religious institutions still possessed an aura of largely unquestioned legitimacy, and it was science that needed to justify its existence, to struggle to get into the cultural game.

But not any more. Not in 1981, not in 2002, not now. A vast reversal has taken place—just think of the string of scientific and technological wins of the past 60 years. And so, who are today’s new high priests? Scientists. It’s scientists who carry an aura of unquestioned legitimacy currently, and a phenomenon like creation science only proves the point. For how else to explain why anti-scientific doctrines like creation science must take on the form of science if they are to have a hope of seeming valid? “Such forms of popular science,” says Gilkey, “strange as they are, could appear only in an advanced scientific culture that has become scientific from top to bottom, and yet that remains at certain levels religiously literalistic and dogmatic.”

Science is now the 1000 pound cultural gorilla, and many of its proponents have imagined that human culture would be better off if it just stuck with science. The argument here is that science establishes an essentially humanistic culture that steadily progresses from ignorance to enlightenment. It is the supreme form of knowing and the key to effective action that will make this earth into a heaven. This is exactly the thinking that would guide 34 Unitarian ministers and academics to write, in the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism… religious institutions, their ritualistic forms, ecclesiastical methods and communal activities must be reconstituted as rapidly as experience allows in order to function effectively in the modern world.” This is what they said. Let science lead us into the modern world, let us allow it to reconstitute all that we have been, let us hear its call to cast off all the superstitions of a pre-scientific age—let us do all this, and we shall come into a new golden age of human happiness and civilization. How many of you have encountered this line of thought? This assumption of the self-sufficiency of science that can at times express itself as a sneer towards religious faith of any kind, including belief in God… Belief in God, in an age of science!? You gotta be kidding me!

Yet I would have you see the many ways in which science in the 20th century has unwittingly revived religion. The assumption says that science can go it alone, but the reality proves otherwise.

For one thing, science and technology have, in our time, been a primary source of cultural stress and upheaval. Before the atom bomb, the idea of the earth’s total destruction at the hands of human beings was unimaginable; but ever since, we have been living in this shadow and trying to cope as best as we can. Life before the Bomb, life before the Internet, life before genetic engineering. Who can imagine what life was like before all that? But now, even as we enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology, we also find ourselves challenged as never before, anxious as never before, and we are trying to cope and make sense of our world. And here, the scientific method just doesn’t tell us how. But religion does. Religion—a search for a larger framework of meaning—unwittingly revived by scientific progress!

Consider yet another form this takes. In harsh contrast to the idea that science is an essentially humanistic enterprise, which will lead people from superstition into enlightenment, consider the record of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. They used science and scientists to do evil things; and clearly there were no core ethical values in the scientific method itself to resist this. No core human-positive values to prevent this ill-usage. It’s the same with today’s terrorists, who, through the use of space-age technology like the Internet, flourish. What we are seeing is described very well by Gilkey: “Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” This would not be the case if there was an essential humanistic, ethical core to science–if science and the scientific method were all the guidance that people needed to live the good life and bring heaven on earth. But clearly, science and the scientific method are not enough.

“Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” Thus, in the case of the Little Rock trial in 1981, or the more recent cases in Philadelphia and here in Georgia, you have the incredible sight of natural science Ph.D’s, trained by some of the best programs in the land, arguing for something unscientific like creationism.

Fact is, science is not essentially ethical or humanistic. It is not essentially anything. It is but a tool, a method, and how it is used depends upon the values and character of the people who use it. And so, once again, we come back round to religion. The desperate need today to draw on different kinds of wisdom to complement science and keep it constructive. The world needs every one of our Six Sources of Unitarian Universalist faith. Science just can’t go it alone.

And not just for the purpose of making sure that the power of science is harnessed to worthy ends. Not just for the sake of morality. But also for the sake of truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. Reflecting on the creationism trial he participated in and witnessed, Gilkey wondered about “how the established scientific community was … itself responsible for the controversy and was in fact ‘breeding creation science’ because of the way it talked about, taught, and promoted science…” He asks, “How is it that this community, while intending merely to do science, was accused [by creationists]—with some reason—of really promoting religion?” Now isn’t that a fascinating and surprising question! But think about it: when people say that science is not just an extremely powerful method for discovering truths about the natural world, but that it is the method of discovery for all truths; when they say that whatever is not scientifically established is nonsense and superstition; when they go beyond describing the mechanics of nature to claims about ultimate origins, that nothing but matter exists, that God is an illusion—well, these people have become just as unscientific as creationists. They are advancing claims that are not open to any possible verification through recognized and respected experimental protocols. It means they are promoting their own kind of absolutist religion, and it’s called scientism. Got to name it so we can claim it. Scientism. This is an invisible but very real aspect of the so-called war between science and religion, which is really warfare between two different kinds of bad science: creationism vs. scientism. Both bad science, both trying to pass themselves off as good.

When science says that it offers complete knowledge, it oversteps its own bounds and takes on a religious dimension. This is an abuse of its cultural power and prestige, and what I’m saying is that, in this regard, the creationists are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Extra sensitive to stealthy invasions into their territory. And while we may thoroughly and completely disagree with the their claim that creationism is good science, we can affirm how they are taking a stand against the easy and often superior dismissal of religious views as unscientific and hence automatically false. What I’m saying is this: I’m saying that you can be an enlightened, scientifically literate person in the 21st century and believe that there’s more to life than meets the physical or mathematical eye. In this day and age, you can believe in a Higher Power, you can believe in a spirit indwelling nature, you can believe in a God of many names and Mystery beyond all naming. You can.

I like what Einstein once said. He said, “I think that science without religion is lame and, conversely, religion without science is blind.” To me, it means that religion can empower science to do its work in an inspired and ethical way, for the good of humanity. It also means that science can help religionists better see and accurately appreciate the wonders of the natural world and so have cause to rejoice, and to praise. We need both, and we need them working together.