Sunday, June 6, 2010
are science and religion compatible? preliminary remarks
I'll begin my exploration of this theme with an elaboration from my previous post. The Australian Christian propagandist Greg Clarke has written: 'Christianity teaches us that we are all people who have fallen from grace'. By and large, this is an accepted Christian claim. I say 'by and large' because, in my reading, I've encountered Christians who don't accept the virgin birth, who don't accept the resurrection, who don't accept the miracles in either the OT or the NT, so it wouldn't come as a surprise to me that some Christians reject the doctrine of the Fall and original sin. Christianity's almost infinite flexibility must be one of its star attractions. But probably a majority of Christians see this as a central doctrine.
So, to narrow things down, let's ask if this 'doctrine' [some would call it a dogma] is compatible with science. To ask this is to ask how we are to understand the claim. Is it empirical? Is it testable in any way? If not, how then are we to understand it?
The doctrine of course originates in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve, the first humans, were made in the image of God and lived in an earthly paradise, until they ate of fruit forbidden to them by their creator, and were cast out of this paradise and condemned to a 'fallen' existence, along with all their descendants, the entire human species. It's a doctrine common to the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.
Nowadays, though, most educated 'liberal' Christians agree that Adam and Eve never 'literally' existed. They accept that Homo sapiens evolved from earlier species of Homo, and that chimps and bonobos are our closest living relatives. This is not to say that they reject the Adam and Eve myth as a load of rubbish. They feel that it should be retained as a story symbolizing what we might be, or might have been, and what we can and should strive to be. Others, of course, take a more dim view. After all, Adam and Eve's fall was the result of disobedience, indeed an act of disobedience which might seem minor to an outside observer, which seems to suggest that the price of this state of grace or bliss is total obedience to the creator. And there are a number of other questionable assumptions in the story.
In any case, given the symbolic nature of the story, isn't it reasonable to assume that it's compatible with science, or at least that it operates in a different field, while science only deals with matters of fact?
I think there are real problems with this assumption. First, while many Christians reject the literal truth of Adam and Eve, the idea of a 'fall from grace' is very real to many of them. This leads, of course, to much confusion, as evidenced by the mess of official Catholic doctrine, which tries to reconcile the Adam and Eve story with modern evolutionary understanding, and still tries to claim our fallenness as a 'fact'. This site of the Global Catholic Network, which strives to provide readable accounts of Catholic doctrine, offers ample evidence for why the Catholic Church is in serious trouble in the scientifically literate nations of the world. It is full of factual claims about the soul, original sin and 'sanctifying grace', as well as claims about the state of evolutionary theory [e.g. 'the scientific evidence for bodily evolution is almost non-existent'] which seem to make a mockery of claims, by Francisco Ayala and others, that science and religion occupy mutually exclusive realms [usually identified as 'factual' and 'moral' realms]. Somebody may have forgotten to inform the Catholic Church of this 'fact', though it's clear that the Catholic Church isn't the only religious organization to make many claims of fact based on 'revelation' or holy texts. Alongside the history of modern science can be read the history of implacable opposition to scientific findings, invariably driven by religious conviction - be it in relation to the shape of the earth, the age of the universe, or the origin of our species. So, on the face of it, it's hard to argue that religion and science occupy these entirely different spheres, to say nothing of the way that greater factual knowledge informs our values. And a major problem here is that the great themes of Christian belief - original sin, the soul and the afterlife, being made in God's image, the idea of being 'saved' - these are felt as real truths about the world and human existence. To water them down into mere metaphor is to destroy what is religious about them. Yet when claimed as truths they inevitably clash with our understanding of human life and human history as revealed by scientific investigation.
However, Ayala has apparently written about epistemology and how it can be used to shed light on the differences between science and religion, and Chris Mooney has tried his hand at revealing the limitations of methodological naturalism, and of course Plantinga and others have tried to show that science and religion need not be at odds with each other [not to mention the Reverend Michael Dowd as shown above], so I'll try to look at some of their arguments over the next few posts.