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.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Science and Story-telling

The following quote is from the May 2006 issue of Discover Magazine. It is from an interview with John McCarter, the chief executive officer and president of the Field Museum in Chicago. The questions focus on issues surrounding an exhibit now on display, "called the Evolving Planet, which takes visitors on a 4-billion-year journey that shows life on Earth developing from single-celled organisms to dinosaurs and finally to humans." Asked about the controversy introduced by intelligent design advocates, McCarter points out that the museum has an obligation to educate the public on what science has to say, using the technique of story-telling and placing their popular dinosaur displays in the context of this larger story.

Significant to me is the use of stories as the medium for education about science. Certainly, when trying to teach children, it is more effective to tell an interesting story than to present dry facts and figures. But this is a story not invented purely in human imagination. It is limited by the findings of science. But traditionally, going back into prehistory, stories have also been employed by religions, sometimes called myths. The reason for telling mythical stories by religions is the same as for the museum, people respond better to a good story than to dry metaphysical and theological exposition. (If you don't believe this, just try to read a little Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth.) It is not clear that all listeners of early mythical story-telling believed that the events of the stories actually happened. It is more likely that literal readings of myths came generations later by people who no longer had the intimate connections with the originator of the story.

This is not to say that the Chicago museum exhibit is trying to promote a religious response in the people who attend it. The story is an attempt to accurately interpret the evidence scientists have uncovered, as a way to understand the facts of our world's history and provide a basis for our place in the universe. If religion has a place, it is to take that story and place it into a broader story, one which moves closer to traditional religious myth-making, story-telling that reaches our emotions and motivates us to cooperate with our fellows. Science cannot do that, but it can provide a starting point for religion that is based in the objective rigors of science.

Fundamentalists have difficulty doing this because they are working from stories that were written thousands of years ago, meant to reach people with a very different view of the world. They do not feel free to alter these stories, to update them for our time. They are stuck with the same story, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Science does not tell us about God and the creation of the universe, but it can give a description of the creation of heaven and earth, in the form of the Big Bang, the evolution of stars and planets.

If this were the end of science's story, that might not be a problem for the fundamentalists, but the story goes on to the evolution of life over billions of years, with humans showing up in the latest sliver of geological time. The Genesis myth doesn't describe details, but it does make it clear that only man (sic) is made in the image of God. But biology tells us that the human is a near reflection of apes such as the chimpanzee. If we are the image of God, what does that make chimps? If we include other apes, do we also include monkeys? Where does it stop?

Science is not at heart creative. A good scientist lets the universe speak for itself. Darwin did not know about DNA (the atomic theory was not yet completely free of controversy in his day). He did not need to, however. Once we knew there were atoms, we understood chemistry, not by inventing it, but by looking at chemical reactions and inferring the structure. Once chemistry began to be understood, scientists asked, "What are the chemicals of living organisms?" In the first two decades of the 20th century, there was a strong debate in science about whether or not chemistry could be used to understand life. One group, called the mechanists, insisted that all matter was made of chemicals and that there was no reason to believe that the chemicals in a living organism operated under different laws from non-living matter. The other group, called the vitalists, claimed that something as complex as a living organism could never be explained by the laws of chemistry.

Sound familiar? It is just another version of the intelligent design crowd. Ironically, the current doubter's of sciences ability to explain species diversity, is drawing on the detailed biochemistry of current science. Intelligent design advocates are in effect saying the same thing as the vitalists. They are trying to draw a line in the sand and saying to science, "You can't cross this line." If you look behind the scientists, however, you see a great many lines drawn by previous generations telling scientists they could not cross those lines either. Galileo was told he could not cross the line and use science to understand the movements of the heavens. Others warned that the medicine could not treat illness using scientific method. Diseases were caused by evil spirits and sometimes by God as punishment for sins. Past the line that the vitalists drew, is the line that said human behavior could not be understood by biology, even if we find we can explain animal behavior. The mind cannot be studied by science to reveal anything about creativity, conscience, or the ability to speak. These are all, according to some religious line drawers, gifts from God, part of our nature that is in the image of God and hence fundamentally different from the brains and behaviors of animals.

Then scientists taught chimps how to talk using sign language.

I would like to give McCarter the last word, quoting his response to the following question: "What's the danger in meshing science and religion?"

Where we get in trouble as a society is when people of one persuasion or one capability jump into another field--when theologians come into science and attempt to reinterpret scientific records through supernatural intervention, and alternatively, when scientists go into theology and say "There is not God." It is really not the business of either. There should be a common dialogue, a middle ground where people can discuss issues like this as matters of philosophy as well as matters of theology and matters of science. We've lost a lot of that public discourse as we've moved to the frenetic, fast-paced life, with no time for reflection and discussion and debate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

have you ever read "science and health with key to the scriptures"?

it's by mary baker eddy. she discovered and founded CHRISTIAN SCIENCE.

i don't know how much research you've done on this subject...

7:28 AM  
Blogger Coyote Z said...

I have not read the this, but I've studied the history surrounding Mary Baker Eddy and others who wrote in the second half of the 19th century. These various groups and religions are sometimes called "New Thought." More details can be found at this link.


These groups were often impressed by demonstrations of electro-magnetism as a healing technique, as practiced by Mesmer and Quimby, as well as scientific investigation of spirit phenomena. I don't think the practitioners have ever tried much to confirm their techniques by subjecting them to serious scientific critiques, but as religions, they well illustrate my point that science and religion need not be antagonistic.

These groups are also not authoritarian, which makes them at the opposite end of the spectrum from Fundamentalism. I have heard that in the Church of Christian Scientist services, there can be no original sermons or discourse, instead reading from Mary Baker Eddy's works. If this is true, it seems a falling away from the spirit which existed in the 1800s.

4:37 PM  

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