Science-based Religion Blog

Science and religion are not intrinsic enemies. Science strives for revelation. It is the revelation of the universe as we find it. The current picture of the universe is in perfect harmony with many religious perspectives and in stark contrast to others. This blog intends to explore these harmonies and conflicts of Science and Religion. Keep an open mind and a gentle heart please.

Location: Richmond, Virginia, United States

My family background is third generation German-American. I was the younger of two sons. My father was an English professor who had also served a Protestant minister and missionary to China. My mother was a nurse and social worker. I went to Purdue University, where I earned a B.S. degree in the Honors Physics program. I got a masters degree in Physics from the University of Southern California and also a masters and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the USC school of religion. I have worked as a teacher and as an IT professional. I am married, with no children but two cats.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Science and Christianity

While it is important to remember that there is much more to religion than is encompassed by Christianity, Christianity and Science have a much more complex relationship than many other religions. I am also most familiar with Christianity, having grown up in a Christian household and community and having studied Christianity extensively in graduate school and out of personal interest. My experiences growing up and in adulthood with Christian congregations and colleagues have left no scars. I have always had a great deal of love and respect for the Christians I have known personally and for the churches to which I have belonged.

I became a Christian around my 4th grade year and did not seriously question that identity until my last year of undergraduate study. This questioning was inspired in part by my science studies (I was a Physics major) and in part with conversations with fundamentalists students.

I was raised in a liberal environment; my parents encouraged me to ask questions, to seek answers that made sense, and to think for myself. My father, who had served as a missionary and a minister prior to starting to raise a family, based his faith not on the Bible but on his experiences putting the commandments of Jesus into practice and following Jesus' example. He did not believe that every word of the Bible was divinely inspired or true. When a psalm of David calls on God to punish his enemies and to throw their babies into the air to land on spears, my father wrote in the margins, "Tsk, Tsk, David!" My father believed in the power of non-violence and knew that the power of God was in our ability to love even those who would do us harm. He knew this from experience, not just from some verses in the Bible.

I did not mingle with fundamentalists up until my last year of undergraduate study. At that time, I joined a group called Intravarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to services, retreats, and Bible studies with these people and appreciated their love and acceptance. But some of the things they got excited about, I found a bit disturbing. They touted Josh McDowell's book Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1972) as a must read that shows that the (fundamentalist) Christian ideas are based on irrefutable evidence.

I read the book and stopped about half-way through, when his logical fallacies became so blatent as to make the rest of his arguments worthless. (One critque of this book can be found here.) Up until this time, I knew that there were people who believed that every word of the Bible was true, but had never talked with anyone like this. I should point out that by this point I had read the Bible cover to cover, and many parts I had studied over and over again. I was familiar with the Bible and I knew a dozen reasons why the Bible was not the Word of God, at least not all of it. I also had some Philosophy of Religion coursework behind me.

Once it became known in the group that I disagreed with them about the Bible, several senior members of the group met with me to try to make me see things their way. What I came to see, instead, was why I would not be able to make Christianity the basis of my religious life. This is how my thinking evolved.

I had already rejected much of Paul's soteriology as irrational. He first says that no one but God can effect salvation, but then asserts that it is still the individual's fault, not God's, if someone is damned to hell. I did not see any of this justified in the Gospels, where Jesus often urges people to do what is right and even suggests that the key criteria for entry into heaven was a willingness to help the hungry, the sick, and the prisoners. He also urged love and forgiveness of enemies. So I could not really believe that the prospect of judgment and either heaven or hell was real.

But there are places where Jesus is quoted as saying that there will be some who will be thrown into the fires of hell. True, these words might have been put in Jesus' mouth, but I could not rule out that Jesus did include eternal damnation as a possibility. Could I be a follower of Jesus if he claimed that the God of love and forgiveness could mete out eternal punishment for sins that did not seem to justify such harshness?

Then I realized that in a way, the fundamentalists were right to insist on interpreting the Bible (or at least the New Testament) as a whole. The reason was that in order to understand the perspective of the authors, one must interpret their ideas in the context of their world view. They believed in a world that was created a few thousand years ago and expected it to end fairly soon. They saw human culture, and particularly the Hebrew segment, as foremost in the attention of God, who presided over the world as a ruler presides over his kingdom. Within that context, Jesus was a revolutionary, interjecting a trust in love and forgiveness that was rarely seen. But he was limited by the world view of those he ministered to.

Could we extract some essence from the teachings and example of Jesus into our present world view? Only the distinctly ethical aspects. Everything about the nature of the world and metaphysics cannot be translated; the difference in world view is too great. While I could define my Christian identity by this particular filter, I knew that the majority of Christians, even the liberal Christians, would not agree with me. It saddened me, for I had a great love for my Christian friends and family, and I did not willingly remove myself from their community.

Nevertheless, I continued attending Christian services for the next 16 years before discovering Unitaritan Universalism, which perfectly embraced the same respect for science and religion in a process of spiritual discovery and growth.

I will elaborate on the problems facing Christianity because of this shift in world view in future posts.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Greatest Story Ever Told

The March 2006 issue of National Geographic contains an article called "The Greatest Journey." The author, James Shreeve, begins the article with these words: "Everybody loves a good story, and when it's finished, this will be the greatest one ever told."

Shreeve is not talking about Jesus or Moses or anything else from the Bible. He's talking about the scientific effort to unravel our human past, using our genes like an archeologist uses a dig. Shreeve describes the story next. "It begins in Africa with a group of hunter-gatherers, perhaps just a few hundred strong. It ends some 200,000 years later with their six and a half billion descendants spread across the Earth, living in peace or at war, believing in a thousand different deities or none at all, their faces aglow in the light of campfires and computer screens."

Then Shreeve lists the questions the scientists hope to answer: "Who were those first modern people in Africa? What compelled a band of their descendants to leave their home continent as little as 50,000 years ago and expand into Eurasia? What routes did they take? Did they interbreed with earlier members of the human family along the way? When and how did humans first reach the Americas?"

And here, in my opinion is the fascinating part: Shreeve asks, "In sum: Where do we all come from? How did we get to where we are today?"

I consider these two of the important questions which religion has always tried to answer. Science has already discovered some tentative answers, suggesting humans first evolved in Africa and then migrated and spread gradually across Eurasia and from there to Australia and the Americas.

Fundamentalist Christians and Jews scoff at such talk. They believe they know the truth based on the Bible, despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the part of the story prior to Abraham migrating to Canaan. They don't care how many bones are found, how old they are, how coherently these finds fit the broad strokes of the story Shreeve is summarizing. The don't care about corroborating evidence in our genes.

How sad that these people are closing their minds to revelation. They claim they have already found revelation and that it only happened in the dim and distant past and only to one group of people. If God reveals anything to us, it is through our minds and if God is a universal God, it will be available to each and every one of us. Using our minds, scientists worldwide are putting their heads together, digging, discussing, proving and disproving (sometimes dying), and after several hundred years of this, we have gone from one set of ideas about our place in the cosmos, to one that is so different that it is hard to find anything of the old world view left. Only the fundamentalists doggedly cling to their Bibles and ignore the voice of God speaking clearly in our midst.

If one cannot find a basis for a religious mindset in the world view of science, one is not really trying. How much more awe-inspiring a story could one want?

Consider that science now tells the following story about how we got here. It goes back much farther than what Shreeve is covering, although it includes that. In the beginning, there was light. Then some of that light coalesced into matter, hydrogen and helium, two simple units themselves constructed of a set of simpler units. This matter and energy moved (and still moves) through time evidencing a few simple patterns. Opposite charges attract. Like charges repel. All matter attracts. Plus a few more.

The hydrogen and helium combined to form stars. In the stars formed more matter, still made up of the same three units, but now numbering in the dozens, including iron, oxygen, and sodium. Then there was more light, as some of these stars exploded and created even more elements, throwing them out haphazardly, like a farmer scattering seeds this way and that.

More came together, this time, with stars and planets. On the planets, as things cooled, the elements began to come together in new ways, making more complex units: molecules. Some of these were very simple, like oxygen gas, just two oxygen atoms. Others, just slightly more complicated, like water, behave in radically different ways from oxygen gas. Water is the most amazing of these compounds. Oxygen will be important too.

With more time and a lot of mixing of chemicals, some planets had just the right amount of sun and water to allow every more complex compounds. Maybe only one planet in a hundred billion had the conditions essential for the start of life, but even so, there are so many that our history has surely been repeated with minor variations all over the cosmos, for we find that the most important and astonishing thing about this is that all of this works the same across the vast universe. Simple things combining and evolving into more complicated things, which in turn combine more and the levels of complexity begin to stack.

The start of life was probably very gradual, almost impossible to place the dividing line. Simple things interacted and ended up replicating the same pattern, multiplying it. From here the laws of evolution began to really kick in (see my entry defining evolution for more). This process happens without evidence of a conscious, willful planning or design—things are done, but there is no doer. Yet there is amazing creativity in the spectrum of life that has evolved from such humble beginnings.

Instead of everything being created more or less at once, everything has an ancestor and we can understand each plant and animal in terms of the lines leading back in time and space to this universal beginning. Somewhere in here, our ancestors began forming social groups, supporting each other, making things—some useful, some just interesting—all the while growing in awareness and in that awareness began the questions which religion and now science would try to answer.

And so it goes on up to the present. Note that you have a place in this story, no matter where you live in the world. No matter who your ancestors were, somewhere in the past, they coincide with my ancestors. Water is the same amazing substance the world over. And we all cry when we lose someone we greatly love.

That is the greatest story there is to tell. We should embrace it, write symphonies about it, dramatize it in our religious rituals, tell the story to our children and watch as they grow up and tell the story, perhaps slightly changed by that time, to their children. Does this story lack anything that we need to feel excited to be part of the cosmos, to want to lead lives that honor our amazing heritage? Perhaps, but that we will discuss later.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

World View in Science and Religion

When people find out I have degrees in both physics and religion, they often ask whether this is not something of a contradiction. Many people assume that science and religion are somehow inherently at odds. I believe science is only at odds with certain instances of religion. Many religions exist which consider science or at least the scientific method to be important, even essential. Other religious traditions developed before the rise of modern science but have found nothing objectionable in the world view that science has provided.

What is a world view? It is pretty much what the term implies, how one views or thinks about the world. In this context, the world really means the universe, which really means everything that exists (not just the physical universe of science). There is a pretty good definition at the Principia Cybernetic Web. The web site presents one group’s world view based on scientific principles.

Quoting from this article, here is what a world view should do:

It should allow us to understand how the world functions and how it is structured. "World" here means the totality, everything that exists around us, including the physical universe, the Earth, life, mind, society and culture. We ourselves are an important part of that world. Therefore, a world view should also answer the basic question: "Who are we?".

Another way of putting it is to say that a world view explains who we are, how we got here, and what is our place in the cosmos. As I have argued elsewhere, this is what religion evolved to do, in particular to help us live productive lives that help ensure social cohesion and hence survival of all things human. Other animals don’t need this. Instinct has provided them with a set of responses for every situation they are likely to encounter. But humans evolved to take advantage of both the benefits of social living and also the adaptability to migrate to other places, other environments.

So we evolved thinking, that is, making a mental model of our environment and sharing that model through language. As our mental capabilities evolved, so did the complexity of our model of the world. Religion evolved to link the demands of social living (essentially ethics) to the most awesome and mysterious elements of the world. It provided a world view.

Different religions provided different world views. In earlier, simpler times, everyone in a community had the same religion and hence understood the world in the same way. This world view had to account for many important physical aspects of the world: weather, natural disasters, agriculture, sex, birth, life, disease, and death. Before the advent of modern science, people made use of the dominant form of logic at the time: analogical reasoning.

Analogical reasoning means using familiar experiences to solve a problem in a less familiar domain. For ancient people, things got done in society by following the will of the leaders. They reasoned that in the natural world it must be the same way. They imagined gods and goddesses, powers and principalities, willful beings of great power, making things happen in the world: causing rain, disease, nurturing life, designing the world, and determining what people should be doing in it. At least that is how most religions saw things.

Science set out to determine what it could about a part of the world. It limited itself to things that could be objectively observed. Galileo’s problems with the Church were in part because his scientific findings contradicted a portion of the world view of the Church, that the earth was the center of the universe. A few hundred years later, the Church finally admitted that Galileo was right.

Science has never claimed it would provide a replacement for the world view provided by religion. But over the course of several centuries, it has rewritten 90% of what the Western religions thought they knew for certain about the world. This is why some religions, especially Western religions, are having such a hard time maintaining themselves at present. It is also why the most hard-core fundamentalists are so distrustful of science, particularly biological science, which has radically repositioned the alleged centerpiece of God’s creation: human beings.

People in the West tend to think of religion purely in terms of the Western traditions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But there are many other religions. Some of these may have started out with similar ideas of spirits and powers controlling nature, but they evolved world views that did not involve monotheism.

Taoism, for example, taught that the universe was created and maintained by the Tao, which translates roughly as the Way or better, the Way of Nature. Confucius, likewise, did not conceive of the Absolute as a personal deity, but as Heaven and Earth, which we would simply call the Universe. Humans are not told by a God how to behave, but have to discover what to do by seeking their humanity in relationships. Buddhism holds a world view in which each person must discover the truth about our place in the cosmos through experience, not through professing a creed or performing a ritual and abiding by rules.

All of these religions have world views which integrate relatively well with the modern world view of science. So I do not hold that Science and Religion are at odds. They merely have different world views. Another important difference: Science does not attempt to integrate into the world view things which cannot be objectively observed. Yet I believe, as do most people, that there is more to reality than what science can observe. Just as radio waves go undetected without a way to translate them into something we can observe, so does religion need to translate the unobservable portion of the universe into something we can understand.

No religion can hope to provide a complete picture of our place in the cosmos without integrating the world view of science. Those religions that resist this task do a disservice to their adherents. Those that attempt to utilize science without religion may be seriously handicapped by their unwillingness to consider more to reality than what we can see and touch. Science and Religion must complement each other.