Sunday, September 03, 2006

Scientific, Rational and Religious?

Below is an essay I wrote for The Australian Rationalist a few years back (Scientific, Rational and Religious? (2002) Australian Rationalist. No. 58/9, pp, 59-64.) I haven't posted for a while so I thought I'd make up for it with a really long post and give this essay a new life:


Is it possible to be scientific, rational and religious? The conflict between scientific and religious beliefs has been colourful to say the least. Even so, it is possible to be all of the above three as this conflict has been more about power than belief. Even when it was about belief, it was about specific belief, rather than any fundamental belief in God. The conflict between science and religion is most obviously illustrated by examining the work of Galileo and Darwin, in particular, their discoveries and the subsequent challenge they provided religion. By examining the 'conflict' between science and religion in terms of Galileo and Darwin, we can see that it was not a choice between science and God, but rather, science and dogmatic belief. Indeed Galileo's initial discoveries were greeted triumphantly by Pope Paul V, who refused to let him kneel at a banquet in his honour (Carey, 1995). Historical incidences had as much to do with the way the Church dealt with Galileo's and then Darwin's discoveries, as the discoveries did themselves. It was politics rather than the actual beliefs of theologians that produced such strong resistance to Galileo. Once the literal interpretation of the Bible became entrenched dogma, Darwin's idea had little chance of being accepted. Generally, modern non-fundamental religions do not literally interpret their stories of creation. As such, there no longer should be conflict between these religions and science, as long as both understand the boundaries of their respective domains of knowledge. It is possible to be scientific and yet believe in some sort of God.

The director Peter Greenaway (1996) pointed out that the most prominent images we have of Charles Darwin (and we can say the same for Galileo Galilei) is of a wise old man, with a large and bushy grey beard. Both Darwin and Galileo bear a remarkable similarity to mythological and biblical figures. Is this because they were like 17th and then 19th century versions of Moses, come down from the mountain with a new set of commandments? These two new commandments of science: the earth is not the centre of the universe and man is not a pre-ordained image of God, have without a doubt been two of the biggest blows to the collective ego of humankind, and of course human religious beliefs. Sigmund Freud argued that ironically, our greatest scientific insights have driven humans from the centre stage of the universe. Before the Scientific Revolution, our planet was the centre of the cosmos and we were created in the image of a benevolent God.

It seems the philosophical dilemma science posed to mainstream religion was only just laid to rest in the last decade. Pope John Paul II apologised for the Church's treatment of Galileo in 1992 (Sagan, 1996). In 1996 he then stated that the evidence for evolution was overwhelming and as such Catholics should believe in theistic evolution; at some point in our evolution God gave human beings a soul (Gould, 1998). The Church finally admitting 300 years later, its poor treatment of Galileo, and the endorsement of Darwinian theory over a century after its establishment, is a reflection of the enormity of these ideas. Darwin is the obvious representative of the evolution revolution; but the revolution of Galileo's time was started by Copernicus and culminated with Newton. One could just as readily use Copernicus, Kepler or Newton as examples of the challenge posed to religion by science; but Galileo is the most symbolic of the Copernican revolution, due to his arrest by the inquisition and then the subsequent apology by the Pope.

Continues in the 1st comment…

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