Flickr image by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones

Religion and Science Are all Part of the Human Imagination


By Kelly Rae Mathews

Flickr image by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones
Flickr image by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones

Asking if can religion and science be reconciled implies that science and religion may have once been joined together. And at some point the understandings of what science and religion are — their identities in the human imagination — there was a fight between the two, which separated them. As to what caused a rift between science and religion, it has to do with different ways humans have of seeing the world and thinking about it, and their individual and collective cultural experiences with science and religion and the ways science and religion overlap. Some of the differences and schisms between science and religion date back thousands of years to medieval times in the history of the religion of Christianity, and are often first and foremost problematic for when it comes to Christianity with various social ruling hierarchies maintaining their complex power structures.

This rift and its consequences, as well as the complex social structures of entrenched and powerful hierarchies which are detrimental to the existence of the human race, have been portrayed in some of the best films and books. Science fiction is replete with tales of what the future may bring if either “bad” science or religion run amok and civilization, or lack of it, prevails as a result. Science fiction is also full of stories of the greatness that can be achieved when the two inspire each other and the human imagination. Some of the most moving science fiction novels ever written deals with the themes of science and religion: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, “Chronicle of the Sower” by Octavia Butler, “Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, a “Canticle for Liebowitz” by Walter Miller, “Nexus” by Ramez Naam, and the “Handmaiden’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. These novels of science fiction are recommended reading to all because they show how these questions play out ethically and also, science fiction shows us, by its art, how to marry science and religion in ways which make sense and are amazing.

The rich tapestry of science fiction relies on humanity’s even richer history of science and religion. When science alone did not disrupt the authority of the aristocracy, for instance, of the early church or its ruling empires it was not paid much mind. But if science threatened fundamental concepts which were thought of as the integral core from which the church and various rulers drew their authority, then science came under close scrutiny and inquisition. Certain parts of Christianity’s vastly burgeoning media empires and sects, today, unfortunately, seem to make many of the mistakes of their medieval counterparts with an inability to see beyond either the letter of the law or expressions of literal Scripture and there is a rift with science that is more dogma than anything else, as other Christian religions have long decided that if God created the universe, and everything God has done is true, then science is part of the knowledge of the universe which God created and so can only help a Christian’s understanding of truth.

Many of the American based religious sects which rake in the profits and money are the among those that are also most belligerently ignorant of science and their practitioners seem to prefer defending their beliefs with guns rather than reason, and in fact are worse off than some thinkers of thousands of years ago when entering into the fray of religious discourse their arguments stem from fear of their way of life being in some kind of peril. These are the Christians who in their Christian private schools feature homework books that offer embarrassing analysis of paleontology. The Christians who build creation museums of which the science within is doubtful to most serious researchers. Much of the rancor existing between this sort of practicing of Christianity and science has to do with misunderstandings of the way scientific theory works, and how science changes and is not always right once and for all time, because this paradigm of knowledge seems incompatible with the kind of Christian world view which demands once it is written it is that way forever and cannot be changed if it is the truth. It is a lack of a complex understanding of the world and critical thinking.

On the other hand, everyday, religion and science exist and live side by side with each other. They are part of people’s lived experiences. A person can ideologically believe or practice any number of religions or faiths and also use science and its technologies. Religion, it can be argued has even benefited from science and the technology of sciences involved in publishing through the printing presses as well as the personal computer. Science and technology in communications has allowed religion to proliferate its various messages and for these messages, and the people carrying these messages to interact all over the world through various mediums, such as radio, television and film. Religions interact and develop in new ways because of how the knowledge of science has developed. Science and or technology, is a tool for spreading and incorporating worship and belief by practitioners of faith everywhere.

From an anthropological and linguistic as well as social science perspective, language itself, is a kind of science and the structure and fabric of our existence, which shapes our concepts and notions of reality. Tools inspired the development and evolution of language and human imagination and inspired religion and science both. Fascinatingly, Western ideologies of our different sciences and their paradigms have evolved in no small part from philosophy — psychology, biology, and so on.

The concept that there needs to be a reconciliation between science and religion then it needs reiterating, depends on the religion, and it depends on the beliefs of the person who is practicing the religion and where and when and how they were raised and what their cultural perspective is. After all, many scientists are members of various religions. Universities offer outstanding websites with database libraries that have valuable access to information and documents on the long history of the corroboration and interdisciplinary work of thinking using various frameworks of science, religion and philosophy that are priceless guides and maps of the journey so far of these disciplines. Stanford offers some of the best of these websites. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for instance, has a section on Arabic Natural Philosophy and Science. There one can read in depth about the ways in which Arabic Islamic theology from medieval times influenced the evolution and development of an Arabic Islamic framework for different sciences, including physics and medicine. The Arabic Islamic medieval peoples were frequently far advanced in medicine than their Western counterparts. Their theological framework arguably allowed them to advance in ways some medieval Western interpretations of Christianity held science back from.

The ancients pre-dating Christianity and Islam and so on developed science, and lots of great technologies and tools that at the time practitioners and users of such technologies and tools did not necessarily think of as “this is science,” but rather “this is knowledge.” Things to discuss, then, are the frameworks of what constitutes kinds of knowledge we now call scientific and how the measure of scientific knowledge has changed. Thomas Kuhn calls various kinds of frameworks of knowledge paradigms, and philosopher Michel Foucault calls them epistemes, epistemological knowledge. Foucault, in his seminal work “The Order of Things, an Archaeology of the Human Sciences” argues that science as we know it today springs in no small part from people changing the way they saw and thought about things, from a previous system of knowledge ordered in semblance of how people, plants, and things related to each other in framework of likes and their order of being like God and looking for divine semblance to a system of thinking wherein recognizing how people, plants and so on were ordered according to differentiation as opposed to how they were alike. This allowed the development of seeing under the skin and into the body and for vivisection and dissection of not just the human and animal and plant bodies, but the body of the structure of how humans ordered things and our place in the universe.

Yet, humans built technologies, buildings, and tools before this. Essentially, these are all different kinds of knowledge and wisdom — those are the different paradigms. The knowledge and wisdom of science and religion can be reconciled when the blind-sided dogma of one or the other does not detract it from seeing the other’s good qualities. Just pick up a book of science fiction or next time you’re at you’re own place of worship, think how your faith has benefited from science. And, too, think how scientists may have been inspired by their faiths.

Join SpokaneFAVS at 10 a.m., Sept. 6 at Indaba Coffee Bar for a Coffee Talk discussion on “Reconciling Religion and Science.” Mathews is a panelist.

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