Sunday, April 22, 2007

Science and Religion

Science and Religion are two different things. But a long time ago they were one thing. The Greek Pythagoras lived at about the same time as the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. He is said to have discovered irrational numbers and the Pythagorem theorem in geometry. Pythagoras was head of a mystical brotherhood of mathematicians. He is said to have believed in the transmigration of human souls, which he may have picked up from Hinduism. Pythagoras believed that numbers formed the ultimate reality and that knowing the numbers and their relationships revealed the divine nature behind the origin and perfection of the universe. This divine nature was called the “Logos”. An idea that influences the Apostle John in the New Testament, more than five hundred years later.

Pythagoras is situated at the birth of science when science and religion were not seen as seperate and they cross- fertilized each other. When they cross-fertilize they lead to heightened creativity, to bold new theologies and scientific theories. The idea that numbers are the ultimate reality eventually leads to modern science, especially in the figure of Copernicus. At the beginning of the Renaissance, European scholars began to rediscover the writings of the Classical Greeks. But Copernicus, was not happy with the astronomical predictions of Ptolomy, the greatest of the Greek astronomers. Ptolomy's calculations for the movements of the planets were inaccurate and imprecise. Copernicus went back and looked at the writings of the other Greek astronomers, H e came to realize that it was Ptolomy's theory about the relationship of the planets with the Earth and the Sun that was at fault.

Instead of everything revolving around the Earth, Copernicus said that the Earth was a planet and it and the other planets moved around the Sun. The Earth moves. But, of course, common sense tells us that the Earth does not move. We see the sun cross the sky every day and the moon and the stars every night. Besides, if the Earth moved, things would fly off of it.

This is what people believed and Copernicus was careful to have his theories published posthumously. Around the same time Martin Luther was busy challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. Luther took scriptural authority as ultimate, overriding the authority of the Church hierarchy. Luther's move to make scripture the ultimate authority, has had unfortunate consequences for the relationship between science and religion because it created a conflict between holy scripture and modern science. Copernicus says the Earth moves, but the Bible says that the sun moves around the Earth. Luther's Reformation creates a counter move in the Catholic Church - the Counter-Reformation. The Curch ends up condemning Copernican theory.

Science is cumulative. Unlike theology scientific theories can be falsified and overthrown. Science doesn't work by scriptural authority. To be a scientist, you don't need to follow the work of Pythagoras, Plato or Aristotle. Science evolves, it deepens our understanding over time. It leads to ever more specialized knowledge. A scientist like Einstein can create a theory that contradicts the earlier work of Newton, at the same that it deepens our understanding of gravity.

But the conflict between science and religion reaches a crisis four hundred years after Copernicus, when Charles Darwin publishes his theory of evolution. Darwin's theory contradicts the Bible on a number of crucial issues. It disagrees with the Biblical account of how the Universe began, and how humans were created and on the age of the Universe. As a result of Darwin's theory, the split between liberals and the Biblical literalists becomes permanent. Those who hold to scriptural authority, who we now call Fundamentalists, reject the theory of evolution because it contradicts scripture. Those Christians we call “liberals” accept the authority of scientific discovery when it concerns factual matters about the physical world.

The same divide between liberal and Fundamentalist Christians also exists around the issue of Global Warming. Most Fundamentalists reject the science about global warming. Why? It is not so much that it contradicts the Bible as that it draws attention away from it. Global warming is a more convincing story than the Biblical Apocalypses in the Book of Daniel and Revelations.

What is an apocalypse? It is a story about how the table is turned by a series of catastrophies, so that the wicked, who were formerly in power are cast down and the righteous are lifted up and exhalted. A modern example is the”Left Behind” series. Apocalyptic stories are elaborate revenge fantasies.

Global warming is more convincing than the Bible's apocalyptic stories because we can see the evidence for ourselves in the changing weather in the skies. What's more, the evidence fits the scientific predictions very closely. More frequent and more powerful storms, flooding, forest fires, and drought.

Of course the weather is not being selective about who it harms but it is quickly becoming a vehicle for people's fantasies. For instance, Bill Shanker of the New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans says this about the significance of Hurricane Katrina:

"New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion – it's free of all those things now. God simply, I believe, purged all of that stuff out of there – and now we're going to start all over again."

Liberal Christians have accepted global warming as true, and it's beginning to influence the way they practice religion. Climate scientists have talked about the “moral imperative” of lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Al Gore calls it a moral and a spiritual challenge. Here we have the vital cross-fertilization of science and religion. People accept the predictive authority of science but religion inspires and motivates the science of global warming because people are concerned about the future,

The rivalry between fundamentalism and science has played a part in the Bush Administration's suppression of the science of global warming and could, if not checked, lead to a theocracy. Creativity, scientific knowledge, and basic human rights and freedoms would all be the causalties. The path of Pythagoras and religious liberalism has led to the fruitful cross-fertilization of science and religion. Science and religion need each other.

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