About Corazon

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Religion v. Science

and the Pitfalls of Literalism
in Both Camps

This past week I purchased a book on my Kindle Fire (thank you, God for the Kindle Fire) that I have been wanting to read for quite a long time: Proof of Heaven by Ebon Alexander. The book chronicles the alleged near-death experience of Dr. Alexander, a revered neurosurgeon who fell into a deep coma that completely rendered his neocortex (the part of the brain that allegedly controls human conscience) completely inactive.

Of course, there is nothing unique about Dr. Alexander's claims of his "spirit" journeying to the beyond.  Thousands of people from all cultures have made such claims.  But there are a few special circumstances surrounding Dr. Alexander's account.  First, it is a documented fact that the "thinking" parts of Dr. Alexander's brain were totally shut down for at least seven days.  Second, as an accredited neurosurgeon, who has lectured at schools like Harvard and Yale, Dr. Alexander was inherently a skeptic of things like near-death experiences.  As a result, Dr. Alexander attempts to analyze his experience through the lens of a scientist as opposed to the traditional approach that most survivors of NDE's take.

With all of this being said, I wish I could report that I found Dr. Alexander's book particularly enlightening.  Sadly, I was very disappointed.  The book, which seemed more like a bio of Dr. Alexander's life rather than an account of his experience, was, for me, a huge let down.  I also found little scientific analysis into his experience (for example, Dr. Alexander stated that "all of his questions" were answered by "god" but he never tells us what those questions were.  Not very "scientific.").  Long story short, the book was a lot of fluff with very little substance (in my opinion).

Anyway, the intent of this blog post is not to provide a review of Dr. Alexander's book.  I mention it here as a lead-in to a much larger and more difficult topic that never seems to go away: the topic of religion v. science and how both sides cooperate/clash with one another.  And whether you believe him or not, Dr. Alexander's story is the perfect illustration of just how messy this topic can be.  Even though most of us will never have the "privilege" of experiencing a NDE like Dr. Alexander, we all come to the same crossroad that he arrived at: where does human reason and scientific inquiry end and divine light and spiritual faith begin?

Of course, there is no possible way to answer this question and my simple little blog post will do little to address it today, but I do think we can clarify a few of the "rules of the game" that I find particularly troubling.  After all, it is impossible to even attempt an honest discussion on an issue like this if both sides cannot agree on a general code of conduct.  This is my goal today.

The first fact we must accept is that religion and science, though operating on fundamentally different playing fields, are essentially two different languages trying to tell the same general story: who are we? where did we come from? where are we going?  Religion, which is inherently dogmatic, resistant to change and often dictatorial in nature, provides a nuanced view on things like morality, kindness, charity and forgiveness, and the eternal value these intangible attributes have over what the palpable world offers.  Science, on the other hand, is self-reflective, always changing and based on verifiable realities, which places almost all value upon the provable, observable and rational.

And though these differences in approach to truth seem to regularly lead both parties into a head-on collision with one another, I believe that most of the wreckage comes as a result of both parties being either unwilling to concede any ground on even the most basic of principles and/or taking ridiculous cheap shots at the other side's weakest elements.

Take for example the works of scientists like Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan: two men whom I admire for their scientific expertise and prowess with the written and spoken word.  Few men in the scientific world have the ability to inspire and persuade as Dawkins and Sagan do.  But their powerful prose notwithstanding, I am regularly disappointed to see these (and other) accredited scientists resorting to childish attacks on the low-lying fruit of religion.  They treat religion with such blatant contempt that it becomes impossible for them to be truly "scientific."  In other words, they take the worst of religion, portray it as a rigid monolith, that when compared with the best of science (which is fluid and evolving) makes any and all believers look like ridiculous, uninformed buffoons.  Such an approach is both unscientific and immature, and certainly unworthy of "sophisticated" minds like those of Dawkins and Sagan.  It is cheap shot, bush league nonsense.  In short, men like Dawkins and Sagan may be/have been great scientists, but they are/were piss-poor theologians.

But as is the case with any dysfunctional debate, it takes two sides to tango.  When we look at religion's contempt for science, we often see reason and common sense being replaced with suspicion and paranoia masquerading as "faith."  Religious leaders, bent on preserving the "integrity" of their holy books, resort to some of the most ridiculous arguments in human history.  Men like Ken Ham, who cannot accept the FACT that the world is billions of year old, have twisted reality to such an appalling level all in the name of protecting the Bible.  Such a narrow-minded view of reality, all in the name of literal biblical Christianity, is an embarrassment to religious people everywhere.  For men like Ken Ham the bottom line is this: Religion has had to concede so much ground over the years because of the FACT that so much has been proven wrong.  To believe, in the modern era, that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, living in a perfect garden only 6,000 years ago, until a talking snake convinced Eve to eat a naughty apple, thereby causing death and sin to enter the picture, which eventually caused a man named Noah to build a magic ark to save all animals from a global flood, isn't an example of a person's faith; it's an illustration of a person's ignorance.

But there can be a balance between both science and religion.  As Galileo stated during his bogus trial:
The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go...In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals.  The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observations and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe.
Admittedly, there is a lot wrong with Galileo's summation, but I think that we all can see what he was getting at.  At the risk of sounding insensitive to scriptural literalists, taking the Bible, Qur'an, Book of Mormon or any other holy book as literal, factual undeniable truth is, at best, stupid.  But to discredit the moral lessons found in scripture for those same reasons is equally stupid, and the scientists who regularly slam scripture for such reasons would do well to watch their tongue.  After all, I wonder how scientists might react if theologians were to judge their mistakes by the same standard.  Whether taking the form of alchemy, the four humors, social Darwinism, or bloodletting (which killed our first president), science hasn't exactly batted 1.000 either and would be equally wrong to claim literalism.

Of course, Science doesn't judge itself by as strict a literalist standard and does a MUCH better job of learning from its mistakes than does religion.  After all, science doesn't claim to know the will of God.  But science does make it a regular practice to discredit that which requires faith, as if faith were a hindrance to an honest quest for truth.  But such an approach makes a mockery out of some of the basic elements of humanity...that being primarily our HUMANITY.  As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Faith -- is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not --
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side --
It joins -- behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.

So if taking too literal of a religious or scientific approach is a bad thing then what is the solution?  I'm not sure there is one.  Perhaps it would be a good starting point for both religion and science to take the best from one another.  Science would do well to recognize that there is much about the world that is not provable, verifiable or testable but is still a reality (dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity, etc.) and that much of what religion esteems of worth (kindness, charity, etc.) cannot be tested in a laboratory.  There is real value to sincere prayer, meditation, positive thought, and devout devotion.  To simply say, "I don't need church" is far too simplistic.  Sure, I would agree that one can live a good life without a faith, but a faith doesn't hurt.  In fact, it helps...a helluva lot.  As a recent Gallup poll shows, those who go to church are, by and large, happier, more successful and more charitable.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Attending church, like attending school, helps us to grow our understanding of what faith really is.  Benamin Franklin once stated that, "Genius, without education, is like silver still trapped in the mine."  Might I be so bold as to say that faith/hope/charity, without religion, is like silver still trapped in the mine as well.

On the flip side, religion would do well to recognize that science has CONCLUSIVELY proven some of religion's most archaic ideas and teachings to be completely untrue.  As a result, religion is going to have to learn how to be flexible.  This is where science blows religion away.  Nobody (or at least very few) in the scientific community get as crazy as those of the religious community when their ideas/beliefs are challenged.  Science is about challenging EVERYTHING, and religion would do well to challenge at least a few things.  As Thomas Jefferson apty stated:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.  Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Questioning things is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.  In fact, I believe that an argument can be made that any faith, without a healthy dose of honest skepticism, isn't really faith at all.  It is both right and good that we change how we think about the nature of God.  For example the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent god doesn't even exist in the oldest Hebrew texts of the Bible.  It may just be a mistake based on the Aristotelian thought of the Medieval era that God was nothing more than a mystical but simple unmoved mover.  Perhaps he isn't the celestial dictatorial magician we think He is but rather a teacher, motivator and persuader of good?

The bottom line is this: anyone who insists upon taking an absolute, literalist approach to either religion or science could probably benefit from learning a little more about religion and/or science.  After all, there is little REAL merit in the atheist argument that tries to explain away religious belief through reason and psychology.  To the believer know this: you don't have to listen to their ilk.  In the end, all they are saying is something like this:
"I'm an atheist because I am strong, rational and thoughtful; you're a believer because you are all about wish fulfillment and emotional response.  Therefore religious people are weaker, less sophisticated and more prone to deception that us atheists." 
Again, the Carl Sagan's and Richard Dawkins's of the world are far more eloquent in how they say it, but make no mistake; this is EXACTLY what they are saying...and it's bullshit.

And for the religious zealot who rebukes any and all verifiable claims of science by simply regurgitating the line, "because the Bible says so," all I can say is...GOD HELP YOU!  Your INTENTIONAL stupidity does your cause no good, but instead weakens the hand you have been dealt. Instead of taking such a hard-lined stance on what your holy book says, try to simply accept truth wherever it can be found.  I've often wondered as to whether or not biblical literalists believe in Jesus or in the Bible?  Or if Muslim literalists believe in Allah or the Qur'an?  In other words, has your holy book become such an idol for worship that you cannot look past it any longer?  Are you seriously that diluted in your thinking?

I don't mean to be harsh but sometimes harsh speech can shake people from apathy.  I think I have said enough.  Instead, let me leave you with the words of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, from his excellent book, Death by Black Hole.  He writes:
Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion...history reveals a long and combative relationship between religion and science, depending on who was in control of society at the time.  The claims of science rely on experimental verification, while those of religion rely on faith.  These are fundamentally irreconcilable approaches to knowing, which ensures an eternity of debate wherever and whenever the two camps meet.  Although just as in hostage negotiations, it's probably best to keep both sides talking to each other.
I couldn't agree more.  What is most important is that we keep talking...a lot...and often.  Both sides stand to lose too much by backing into their respective caves and relying exclusively on their own "truths."  Or as Albert Einstein put it, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind."  In conclusion, I leave you with the words of the good Doctor Ebon Alexander.  Perhaps his near-death experience illustrates the strange but important dichotomy that exists between religion and science better than I originally thought:
Today many believe that the living spiritual truths of religion have lost their power, and that science, not faith, is the road to truth. Before my experience I strongly suspected that this was the case myself. 
But I now understand that such a view is far too simple. The plain fact is that the materialist picture of the body and brain as the producers, rather than the vehicles, of human consciousness is doomed. In its place a new view of mind and body will emerge, and in fact is emerging already. This view is scientific and spiritual in equal measure and will value what the greatest scientists of history themselves always valued above all: truth.
Only time will tell I suppose.

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