Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Peril of Making History Too Neat

Magdalene College, where Lewis taught at Cambridge
In writing my book on science and religion in America, I've discovered again the necessity of making historical divisions (such as America between pre- and post-Darwin). This fact led me to offer a brief reflection on the perils of periodization.

My periodization in this book—sometimes as simple as divisions by decades—is admittedly overly neat transition. I do not subscribe to some Hegelian Zeitgeist, which would render this project an attempt to discern a particular “spirit” in each age, voila!out comes the right intellectual history. Still, the historical periods I propose are not entirely arbitrary, and many (pre- and post-Darwin) are standard designations. Nevertheless, I have to admit I use them lightly, with the purpose of creating a positive theoria, which at its root means a way "to see"... more clearly, I hope.

In his 1954 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University
C. S. Lewis summarized expertly the perils of making history too neat. He begins by citing G. M. Trevelyan,
As a great Cambridge historian has said, “Unlike dates, periods are not facts. They are retrospective conceptions that we form about past events, useful to focus discussions, but very often leading historical thoughts astray.” The actual temporal process, as we meet it in our lives (and we meet it, in a strict sense, nowhere else) has no divisions, except perhaps those “blessed barriers between day and day,” our sleeps. Change is never complete, and change never ceases. Nothing is ever quite finished with; it may always begin over again…. And nothing is quite new; it was always somehow anticipated or prepared for. A seamless, formless continuity-in-mutability is the mode of our life. But unhappily we cannot as historians dispense with periods. (They Asked For a Paper [Geoffrey Bles, 1962], 10-11, citing Tevelyan, English Social History [1944], 92.)
And Lewis adds a few sentences later, “There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography.” 

Ah, if history were just more clear! And though I'm not an historian—and the book I'm writing about science and religion in America is not, strictly speaking, a book of history—in creating this historical sketch, I have to make divisions as useful heuristic devices.

To step back for a moment, Why do we love to make things neat and tidy, whether it's our lives, our schedules, or the writing of 
history? Hebrews 4:13 says "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight," which means, among other things, that God certainly has all reality in view and, as far as I can tell, doesn't really need historical periods to make sense of reality. And so often we'd like to pretend we're like God by showing how well we comprehend the sequence of events. That's human, to be sure, but perhaps also often a flawed project.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The force of our religious intuitions, and of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction"

I'm close to finishing up the manuscript for a book on science and religion in America. At the end, I step back and offer some final reflections. Here's an excerpt of the current version.

If history is a guide, America will continue to blend various forms of belief with unbelief,
rationality and emotion. In that mix, it seems that we as Americans love both religion and science, or what the scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead named 
“The force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction." A. N. Whitehead on religion and science
The curiously American ingredient in this conversation is our dogged insistence on freedom. This often turbulent mix represents a fundamental component to American life, in which we negotiate science and religion’s relationship. Along these lines, historian James Gilbert offered this insight, 
"One of the most creative impulses of American culture is the continuing presence of religion at the heart of scientific civilization." James Gilbert

And what we do in this country resonates throughout the world. We are, to be sure, a remarkably religious people with indicators of religiosity much higher than should be the case for an industrialized nation.This is of course part of what it means to be human. Homo sapiens are Homo religioso—a fact undergirded by contemporary scientific studies

Or as philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) once quipped, 
“Man does not live by machine alone.” Lewis Mumford
I’ve learned that our work in relating these two poles, represented conveniently by “religion” and “science”—the rational, taxonomizing, and analytic, alongside the emotional, blurring, and synthetic—represent a key part of what it means to be human, and not simply what it means to be American. 

As for those, like myself, who hold to a religious tradition—in my case, an orthodox Christianity—I want my faith to engage with mainstream science. And most Christians do not see a conflict. As Ecklund and Scheitle comment
“After five years of research, here is what we know: Religious Americans of all types are interested in and appreciate science.” Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle
For the sake of our souls individually and as a nation, we will be at our best when we learn to bring together science and religion into the integrated whole or at least into a détente. It does not seem warranted to insist, along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, or Andrew Dickson White and William Draper before them, that these two must fight out to the death. I think that might be the death of our culture’s vitality. 

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Technology and Christian Mission: A Reflection on Ex Machina


Ava, the AI humanoid robot
The past few days my science and religion class and I have been watching the 2014 film Ex Machina (starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac). It’s a good rule of thumb that, when topics make their way to film, they’ve become part of our culture’s collective unconscious. . I’m reminded of how profound it is, not only for forecasting technology’s arc, but for how we see ourselves. Most pointedly, if the tone of film is our guide, technology, in the character of an Artificial Intelligence humanoid robot that can pass the Turing Test, Ava, brings marked fear.

Why do we fear technology—its presence in our lives and what skulks on the horizon?

Consider the title of the film. Ex Machina. It plays on the old Greek tragedy’s phrase, deus ex machina or “god of the machine.” Apparently, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus coined the term to describe when a machine was operated that lowered actors playing gods onto stage. This could either a crane (a mechane in Greek) from above, or it was a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor. Today we use deus ex machina more broadly to denote an unrealistically resolved plot.

But here, in Ex Machina,the direction is reversed—the plot isn’t wound back into a cosmic harmony, but descends into anarchy. It is not a comedy—where the initial values of the film’s world are restored—but a tragedy, where (spoiler alert) an anonymous AI robot releases herself into the world with the hint of ensuring chaos. The “god” of the machine—Nathan, the creator of Ava—is destroyed.

Partly this is the fear of Big Data—that Nathan, head of internet search firm Blue Book (read: Google), has taken the mass of data collected through our computers, our iPads, our phones, etc. to create an AI brain. All that information is scary (as I read in a recent review of Ex Machina by Popular Mechanics on the "weaponization of data.")

But what if we learned not just to fear technology, or to weaponize it, but harness it for good and for Christian mission?

I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to paraphrase Jesus’s view of the Sabbath: 

“Technology was made for us, not us for technology.” My contemporary adaptation of Jesus's words in Mark 2:27
In the history of the Christian church, we’ve pioneered the technology of the codex (or the book) instead of the scroll to hold our sacred documents. Try finding John 3:16 on an unwieldy scroll versus a nicely bound book. And Paul used the technology of Roman roads to carry the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Moreover—for just one more example—Martin Luther employed the printing press and translation of the Bible into vernacular German to bring the Word back into the hands of the people.

If it sounds like I’m saying that spreading the Gospel through the YouVersion app is part of the mission of the church, and that AI and CRISPR Cas9 gene editing can be used for the good that God has for us, then I’m making my point.

If you also hear me expressing concern that we do very poorly when we’re left to our own devices (as it were), and without prayer, repentance, humility, obedience to Scripture and community discernment, we fail, then this post has been successful.

Do I know exactly what this use of technology for the mission of the church will look like in the coming decades? Absolutely not. As Yogi Berra once opined, 
“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra
Except, of course, we as God’s people can predict that God will take care of us and that we have the power of the Spirit and the grace of our Savior, even when we make errors in judgment. 

That’s one prediction I’m willing to make.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

God Wherever We Look

This is an excerpt the "eSTEAM" newsletter that will appear next week. If you'd like to sign up you can do so here.

Because I've found my faith enhanced by science (and challenged at times), I have a positive sense when I ponder how to read God's Book of Scripture and book of nature.

But I also realize, as a church teacher and leader, that a church member's felt need about science is often how to remove uneasiness. It's based on a simple, and often understandable, fear: 

"If I accept modern science, I’ll lose God." 
What Christian congregations, college groups, and adult fellowships don’t want is science without God. Or even more science that denies God’s activity.

This means, that for most of us, it’s not about a resistance to science per se, it’s about science with no God. It’s about those voices that proclaim science’s power to oust God from the universe. And this might be based on some prior decisions. As the noted physicist Stephen Weinberg phrased it,

"Most scientists I know don't care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists." Stephen Weinberg
Sometimes, despite what scientists themselves say, the culture or political powers will change that message. 

The first cosmonaut in space Yuri Gagarin (who achieved this feat in 1961) was quoted by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, in line with the official atheistic Soviet line, to have announced, 
“I went up to space, but I didn’t encounter God.” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev quoting cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
Interesting, it seems that Gagarin, a Russian Orthodox Christian, never made that proclamation, but that the officially atheist government put those words in his mouth. The Soviet Union had an official atheistic stance and thus started by not finding God on earth. So God couldn’t be in space either. In fact, Gagarin’s friends remember his saying, 
“An astronaut cannot be suspended in space and not have God in his mind and his heart.” Yuri Gargain
To me that adds up to some great news about bringing science to church. 
We find more and more places throughout this astonishing creation, whether in space or on earth, to look and to see the Creator God we know in Jesus Christ. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

When Science Goes Bad: Eugenics in America

One more excerpt from the manuscript I’m finishing up on Science and Religion in America...

What do we do when science goes bad?

Beginning in the early twentieth century, America experience saw the rise of eugenics, which at its roots means “good creation,” through figures such as Francis Galton. Knighted in 1909, Galton was English anthropologist, explorer, half cousin of Charles Darwin. He was known for his pioneering studies of human intelligence and was in fact the first person to coin the term eugenics, the practices and beliefs that aim at improving the genetic quality—the physical and mental composition—of human populations through intention breeding and selective parenthood. Scientific support for eugenics, in the rhetorica of its promoters, was offered by evolutionary thought.

In the United States, the eugenics movement took root in the early 1900s, led by the leading biologist Charles Davenport (1866-1944) who in 1910 founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island with the explicit intention “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.”

Irving Fischer (interestingly the son of a Congregationalist pastor) preached that Americans “must make of eugenics a religion.” In 1915, at the Race Betterment Conference, Fischer presented a talk entitled—with language clearly appropriated from the Gospel: “Eugenics—Foremost Plan of Human Redemption.”

Around that time, the literary giant D. H. Lawrence offered the disturbing fantasy of extermination:
“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly, and then I’d go out in back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile at me.” D. H. Lawrence’s 1908
That’s quite simply horrifying.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the power of CRISPR gene editing makes this even more concerning today. The power of these genetic technologies has arrived with a notable cost-benefit. As our ability to modify human genetics increases, we could also weed out putatively undesirable traits like Down Syndrome, or they could again be applied against “inferior” races. And the rise of white nationalism makes this notion seem not entirely implausible.

But I’ll leave it there. 

The question we have to ask is, How do we respond when science goes bad?

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Disestablishment of Religion in America

Do you ever have a book you've heard about, perhaps even quoted, but never actually read? For me, it's been retired UCSB sociologist Philip E. Hammond's 1992 book, Religion and Personal Autonomy and the theory of the "third disestablishment" of American religion.

The Bill of Rights forged the "first disestablishment" of religion determining that church and state would be separated. The second disestablishment occurred in the 20th century between the world wars when “churches found themselves popular but less powerful" (to quote Hammond).

This has led some sociologists to describe a “third disestablishment” of religion. According to Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, during the 1960s,

"Religion, they say, was no less visible in American life, but now it is more likely to divide than to integrate. In other words, religion since the 1960s, to the degree it is important, is more likely to be individually important and less likely to be collectively important." Philip Hammond, citing Roof and McKinney, American Mainline Religion
That last phrase demonstrates the acceleration of religious individualism and brings us to today. In our American religious landscape lies a diversity of new religious movements, fostered not only by the First Amendment and its freedom of religion, but also by American individualism and free market economy. As the standard treatment of American religion by Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schimdt, The Religious History of America describes the variety of religious movements in the '60s:
“Such movements, which for so long had found America’s volunteristic and democratized milieu a fertile seedbed, only grew more visible and variegated after the 1960s.” Gaustad & Schimdt, The Religious History of America
And here's what I've found in doing research for my soon-to-be-finished book on religion and science in America: As religion becomes more individualized and more private, it atrophies in its ability to engage with science, which is fundamentally a public enterprise.

Today, in fact, we've gone one step further. If anything characterizes contemporary

American religious life, it is pluralism, and emerging adults have been formed in an age of dazzling diversity of all kinds, including worldview, religion, sexual identity, and racial-ethnic concerns. Americans, especially 18-30 years olds, tinker with spirituality or religion, and this creates a Spotify mix of religion (a phenomenon I take to be central to the “spiritual, but not religious” crowd).

No longer is religious belief a vinyl twelve inch LP. Today listeners look to a variety of sources for spiritual input. They use a Spotify mix, in which listeners create a playlist from various artists based on a chosen mood or a feel. In a discussion in my undergraduate Science and Religion class, one student, who had grown up in an evangelical church commented,

“I cherry pick from various religions instead of choosing just one.”
Another student added,
“I’ll stay with being a Catholic, but at times I like Buddhism better. So sometimes I’ll go with that.”
I think Hammond and others are generally right because it makes sense of what the religion on the ground that I see and the students I teach.

As a footnote of sorts, we'd like to think that we curate that mix for ourselves whether it’s with music or spirituality. The irony remains, however, that rarely do we put it together; instead we outsource it to a curator or even a curating algorithm assembled by able computer programmers. The question for all this then is, What do we as Christians say in response?

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Francis Collins, BioLogos, and the Harmony of Science and Religion

As I mentioned in the last post, I was just at the BioLogos conference on science and religion, which was (as expected), often profound and captivating. One of the key reasons was spending time with, and hearing from, the head of the National Institutes of Health and author of The Language of God, Francis Collins. He's a guitarist, singer, and often, song leader, and to the left here he is with his "double helix" guitar.

Collins can to public recognition when headed the Human Genome Initiative, which, in 2000 decoded the entire 3 billion letters of the human genome “on time and under budget” (as I’ve heard him celebrate), in a “rough draft” form. 

The Language of God, written in 2007, strikes a tone that could be pleasing to no one, or at least, problematic for the vocal poles. He rejects both scientific atheism (in a thoughtful  gentler manner appropriate to his personality) and hardcore Creationism as well as Intelligent Design. For example, he once commented to CNN
“Attaching oneself to such literal interpretations in the face of compelling scientific evidence pointing to the ancient age of Earth and the relatedness of living things by evolution seems neither wise nor necessary for the believer.” Francis Collins
But it manages to present a winsome, harmonious connection between religion and science. He even sees a profound reconciliation between religion and science that even leads to worship:

“The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshipped in the cathedral or in the laboratory. His creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful.” The Language of God
So why the term "BioLogos"? Ultimately, Collins wanted to reformulate the traditional phrase theistic evolution, which seems to privileged "evolution" and put God second. Instead he coined Biologos
“Scholars will recognize “bios as the Greek word for ‘life’ (the root word for biology, biochemistry, and so forth), and logos as the Greek for ‘word.’” 
“’Biologos expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God.” The Language of God
In the same year his book was published, the BioLogos Foundation was started to offer a voice to promote the harmony of science, and especially evolution, with evangelical Christianity. And so last week, we (and I as a member of the advisory council) celebrated its ten year anniversary.

At the conference, he recounted an encounter as a medical student in which a dying patient had laid out her faith in Jesus as the Christ and then asked, “Doctor, what do you believe?” (You can see a more detailed version of Collins's testimony in this Veritas Forum video.) He was stunned and knew he had no answer. So—after asking a local Methodist pastor for a recommendation—he began reading C. S. Lewis’s famous defense of the faith, Mere Christianity:

I had always assumed that faith was based on purely emotional and irrational arguments, and was astounded to discover, initially in the writings of the Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis and subsequently from many other sources, that one could build a very strong case for the plausibility of the existence of God on purely rational grounds.

At age 27, he became a Christian.

In spending time with him, I found Collins both humble and confident, knowing his life in light of God's grandeur and yet his experience and scientific training. (He has collected both a PhD in physical chemistry and an MD.) Collins combines a world class grasp and passion for genetics—and thus evolution—with "mere Christianity." 

That makes Collins a significant voice for science and religion--and that fascinates me. Plus, he's fun to hang out with.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

CRISPR: A Scientific Breakthrough that's No Longer "On Discovery Away"

As I type this, I'm participating in the BioLogos faith-science conference, "Beyond Conflict: Science, Faith, and the Big Questions." Around tables this morning, I had a fascinating discussion with Cornell geneticist and associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, Praveen Sethupathy. 

By the way, I always find it ironic that Cornell was founded to be the first fully secular university, by Andrew Dickson White--whom I've written about many times. And yet, some of the best Christian thinkers on science and faith--Praveen, Andy Crouch, Justin Barrett, and Elaine Howard Ecklund--all studied at Cornell.

At any rate, Praveen and I were discussing his field, genetics and it reminded me that, when I first began to write this book, a colleague offered CRISPR cas9 as “one discovery away,” and in the meantime, it has already become a topic of great interest. 
Actually, that conversation was a year before I typed these words, but maybe we were both behind the curve because now the use of CRISPR is becoming realized. 

CRISPER gene editing represents a powerful means of changing ourselves through gene therapies in ways that will affect future generations. And it leads to difficult questions: Why not use this technology for the good? Why are religious people standing in the way like they’ve always done? And in general, are we “nothing but” our genes? 
      
As of the writing and to answer the first question, I was at a BioLogos conference with Praveen, one of their speakers, and he reminded me that CRISPR has been employed to great effect for curing Sickle Cell Anemia as Nature reported as early as 2016. Indeed, there was the case of the Chinese scientist employing CRISPR to clone a baby—I mention that he is Chinese because United States laws have no effect. 

And this he brings to his passionate faith in Jesus. Wow! Since science can take us both ethical directions, and I'm thankful for people like Praveen that are right in the midst of how we use these technologies.

That's it for now--gotta run to the next session!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Wistful Tribute to the Late Stephen Jay Gould

My colleague at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, Richard Westenburg, told me on a few occasions that, since I studied science and religion, I might be interested to hear about his friend Stephen Jay Gould. We even offered to introduce me to Gould at some point. Apparently, Gould was hilarious. And both were diehard Yankees fans. (Gould grew up in Brooklyn, even if he taught in Red Sox territory, i.e., Harvard.) 

I never took Dick Westenburg up on the offer. I wish I had. 

As I write my book on science and religion in America, I’ve come to appreciate so much of what Gould thought. So this is my wistful tribute to the man and some of what I've learned.

The late Stephen Jay Gould (he died in 2004) was a leading paleontologist who would be worth remembering for his scientific contributions alone both to Harvard University and to New York City’s Museum of Natural History. Principal among his many scientific accomplishments is the concept he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972, 
“The theory of punctuated equilibrium, a revision of Darwinian theory proposing that the creation of new species through evolutionary change occurs not at slow, constant rates over millions of years but rather in rapid bursts over periods as short as thousands of years, which are then followed by long periods of stability during which organisms undergo little further change.” 
Gould’s 1999 book Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life is a compelling presentation of an independence model for relating science and religion. In it Gould describes "NOMA" or "Non-Overlapping Magisterial Authority." In this view, science and religion were never at war, but nonetheless were best kept separate. I love this quotation from Gould: 
“Science and religion do not glower at each other...[but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.” Stephen Jay Gould
I love this citation because I’m not entirely sure what it means. 

He’s more clear when he writes that religion and science each possess a “domain of teaching authority” that does not overlap with the other. Similarly, the policy statement from the National Academy of Sciences phrases it this way: 
"Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience.” And "Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist." National Academy of Sciences
After the publication of Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, which became a rallying cry for the Intelligent Design movement, Gould offered review of Darwin on Trial in Scientific American called “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge.” I love the title because Johnson appoints himself to judge Darwin without sufficient acumen in theology, philosophy, or science. What the legal scholar Johnson did possess was a brilliant mind for argumentation. At any rate, the review includes a few gems:
“Science can work only with naturalistic explanations, it can neither affirm no deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres.” S. J. Gould
He then notes that Darwin declared himself an agnostic, while Asa Gray, Darwin’s supporter, was a “devout Christian.” Charles D. Walcott, who discovered the Burgess Shale Fossils, was also “a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian.” And then he writes
"Move on another 50 years to the two greatest evolutionists of our generation G.G. Simpson a humanistic agnostic, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a believing Russian Orthodox. Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid or else Darwinism is fully compatible with religious belief—and equally compatible with science." S. J. Gould
NOMA as a type represents the dominant view from official scientific organizations today. NOMA declares, “Hey! It’s great that science and religion get along!” Many don't listen. Way too many of us today like to read about—and foment—conflict. And so NOMA just doesn’t receive the same amount of press as Richard Dawkins. 

But Gould is still worth listening to nonetheless.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Trends: The Growing “Nones” and Decreasing Antipathy Between Science and Religion

The past few months, I've been working somewhat feverishly on a book for Routledge Press about the past, present, and future of science and religion in America. And this future part is probably the trickiest. We all know about predictions for the future that don’t seem to have played out so well. 

Think about Disney’s Tomorrowlandwhich as I understand it,  had to be rebuilt at one point because of its limited success at predicting the future. (Disney fans, help me on this...) My memory of Tomorrowland from the late 1970s was that today it wouldn't look like a warmed over version of The Jetsons, a show I loved as a kid, but is hardly matches what the world almost 50 years later. "The future," as Yogi Berra once declared, "ain't what it used to be."

This means I’ve been looking to sources for seeing the contours, but with caution. What do we make of those who reject any religious affiliation—the “nones” as in “none of the above”? (As I've noted--probably ad nauseam in this blog--they are about 35% of 18-30 year olds.) Is there a positive in their future contributions?

Theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton’s comments in Religion and Science: The Basics make particular sense: He highlights  the growth of the nones along with their theological (if I can use that term) flexibility. In other words, he like me, recognizes that only a minority of nones are actually atheistic. More characteristic is their spiritually openness. See what you think:
Interest in the spiritual approach to science has grown rapidly in recent years. It’s no coincidence that these same years have seen a rapid decrease in participation in organized religion. The no-longer-affiliated or “Nones” have described themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritual independents.” They may practice yoga or meditation without much attention to traditional Hindu or Buddhist teachings. [This sounds like the “bricolage” or the “Spotify mix I’ve written about elsewhere.] They may find spirituality in different places: in nature or music, in being with friends or making love. They may tie together bits of sacred texts and practices without feeling that they have to be at home in just one. Philip Clayton 
The nones will bring, as far as I can tell, an openness that will defuse conflict so often brought by the fundamentalisms, both religious and atheistic. 
      
But will this deeper connection work? In other words, will those who look find that they can connect with science (and technology) and religion? It’s important to recall, as UC San Diego sociologist John Evans has observed, that the line of hardest resistance to mainstream science is with conservative Protestants and their ilk. 

As nones remain more open to religion without the hard edges—and even the spirituality of science questing for answers that move us into new insights—is there a closer collaboration on the horizon? And how do we, who are confessional and rooted in mere Christianity, respond?

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Trends: “Nones,” Kinder, Gentler Atheism, and Openness to Something Greater

I’m speaking in two weeks at Arizona State University on the COFAS Conference on Faith and Science
One of my talks is “Future Topics and Trends in Science and Religion With an Eye to American Intellectual History," and here’s some of the material I’m working on, which doesn’t directly address science and faith, but which does address what kind of faith—or perhaps better, spirituality—that increasingly describes Americans.

It would be hard to resist the conclusion that future American religious life will become more splintered and that the Christian church will have a decreasing influence. Almost all major polls of the past five to ten years demonstrate that, as a nation, we are less Christian and affiliated to any religion. For example, the 2014 Pew Research Center report on the Religious Landscape found that 36% of Younger Millennials (1990-1996) and 34% of Older Millennials (1981-89) were unaffiliated (or "nones"), while only 11% of the Silent Generation (1928-1945) could be placed in that category. In between these two fell Generation X (1965-80) at 23% and Baby Boomers (1946-64) at 17%. 

Put simply, in just over sixty years, the percentage of “nones” had more than tripled. The report continues to note that partly this is a generational reality. 
While some Millennials are leaving their childhood religion to become unaffiliated, most Millennials who were raised without a religious affiliation are remaining religious “nones” in adulthood. Two-thirds of Millennials who were raised unaffiliated are still unaffiliated (67%), a higher retention rate than most other major religious groups – and much higher than for older generations of “nones.” (Pew Research Center) 
I have heard it presented that “Oh, they’ll come back to church when they get older, get married, and have kids,” which have been correlations for religious affiliation in the past. Pew doesn’t give religious communities much comfort for the future:
It is possible that more Millennials who were raised unaffiliated will begin to identify with a religion as they get older, get married and have children, but previous Pew Research Center studies suggest that generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. And the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age. (Pew Research Center) 
And so the future seems largely unaffiliated. But, here I need emphasize that "unaffiliated" doesn’t mean uninterested in God, Ultimate Reality, or spirituality. 

The "nones" check “none of the above” when asked “What religion do you affiliate with?”
Too often, however, the “nones” are thrown in with the atheists and agnostics. This is a category error if we mean that they are all against belief in God or even participation in worship services. They do belong in the same category if the topic is the answer to “Do you affiliate with a particular religion?” 

And this will mean a new future with more pluralized tinkering with spirituality. As Zoe, age twenty, told me in an interview about her views on religion and science: 
“I don’t ever think of myself as a religious person, however I prefer taking pieces of some different religions.” (Zoe, age 20)
And that means some “nones” believe in God and still worship in Christian congregations. And even those who don’t believe in God, find a bigger Something at the core of existence. As Devan, one of the older persons I interviewed, put it, 
“I don’t believe in God, but there is spiritual component to life.” (Devan, age 33)
I’ll leave it observations for now, but I wonder if you have any comments on what this means for our country.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Exoplanets and the Gospel

I'm continuing to write on the upcoming book, tentatively entitled, Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future. Here's another excerpt.


The discovery of exoplanets (that is, planets beyond our own solar system) has substantially expanded in our time. Some assert that this means the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, Jesus came to save this world or kosmos (such as in John 3:16) and since the cosmos, in the biblical view, was vanishingly small compared to our current understanding. 

In some ways, the logic is disastrously circular—the known world of the biblical times was small, and so why should we assume that the texts would address a gigantic universe of the 21stcentury

Before this recent explosion of information about life outside our solar system, even as early as the 1950s, C. S. Lewis took on these claims in his 1958 essay, “Religion and Rocketry.” (Lewis himself was an avid amateur astronomer, who mounted a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom at his home near Oxford, The Kilns.) Lewis addressed Fred Hoyle’s claims in an essay, “The Seeing Eye,” from February 1963. 

Hoyle, along with several other thinkers, asserted that life must have originated in many times and places, given the vast size of the universe. Referring to a series of broadcast talks that Hoyle had given in 1950 (later published as The Nature of the Universe), Hoyle argued against a Christian view of origins and the uniqueness of the Christian faith, based on the size of the universe. I hear similar arguments almost seventy years later from my students.
      
Lewis recalled that, as a child, he heard an almost antiphonal view of the cosmos.
When we were boys all astronomers, so far as I know, impressed upon us the antecedent improbabilities of life in any part of the universe whatever. It was not thought unlikely that this earth was the solitary exception to a universal reign of the inorganic. Now Professor Hoyle, and many with him, say that in so vast a universe life must have occurred in times and places without number. The interesting thing is that have heard both these estimates used against Christianity. 
Lewis then addresses what the Christian message might mean to these “hypothetical rational species," who might be good and not need redemption (as the fallen human race does). They might also be “strictly diabolical." To Lewis, it seems most likely that this species would contain both good and bad. He concludes that, like any missionary work, the Christian duty is to preach the Gospel, and then ends with this question, 
Would this spreading of the Gospel from earth, through man, imply a pre-eminence for earth and man? Not in any real sense. If a thing is to begin at all, it must begin in some particular time and place; and any time and pace raises the question: “Why then and just then?" One can conceive an extraterrestrial development of Christianity so brilliant that earth’s place in the story might sink to that of a prologue.
How do we evaluate this proposal?

I find it stunning that Lewis, this still visionary thinker, was already looking at perceiving the threat to the veracity of the Gospel and responding. And the question of exoplanets, and his response, are still relevant. I'll have more to say, I hope, as my book progresses... But on the way, why not listen to one of the greats?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Problem Presented by the View on the Street

John H. Evans
One of the most important articles I’ve read in science and religion comes from the pen of the UC San Diego sociologist, John H. Evans. Its title: “The View On the Street” (in the book, The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn't Die).

Evans notes that most treatments of science and religion focus on the epistemic conflict—that is, how we arrive at knowledge about the natural world? How do we assess the truth claims that religion and science present?

As quick and dirty research to assess Evans’s claim, I googled “science and religion” and found this article in the top five from the American Humanist Association, “the War Between Science and Religion Over?”
“It appears to be a widely accepted opinion in America that the long conflict between science and religion is at an end. It is often assumed that science and religion are two nonconflicting bodies of knowledge, equally valuable complementary paths leading toward an ultimate understanding of the world and our place in it. The conflicts of the past are said to be due to excessive zeal and misunderstanding on both sides. Peaceful coexistence and even a measure of syncretism are assumed to be possible as long as each concedes to the other’s authority in their separate worlds of knowledge: that of matter and facts for science, and that of the spirit and values for religion.”
Here I’ll insert that it comforts me to hear that the long-standing putative conflict, part of our national consciousness, is decreasing. And the top hit in my Google search was an excellent, short article from UC Berkeley, “Science and Religion: Reconcilable Differences.

That is not, however, the conclusion of the these two writers from the American Humanist Association.
"Let us be blunt. While it may appear open-minded, modest, and comforting to many, this conciliatory view is nonsense. Science and religion are diametrically opposed at their deepest philosophical levels.And, because the two worldviews make claims to the same intellectual territory— that of the origin of the universe and humankind’s relationship to it — conflict is inevitable.”
Please notice—which is easy because I bolded particular words and phrases—their authors’ emphasis on bodies of knowledge, deepest philosophical levels, and same intellectual territory.

And this is where I, as an academic in science and religion, live. But it has distorted my views. The public, according to Evans’s sociological research, simply doesn’t overly worry about systematic truth claims. Those who write about science and religion, however, represent an unusual frame for this discussion because we hold PhDs in academic fields. “In sociological terms, certainly every person with a PhD,” as Evans writes, “is a member of the social elite.” And he adds, “This elite reasoning can be described as an ‘ideology’ or ‘worldview.” And the work of elites resides in their ability to see whether their worldviews and ideologies are consistent. 
“But, the public has much less logical consistency than elites do. This is not an insult but a matter of sociological realism. The reason for the difference is that the only people who have the time and motivation to develop airtight, logically consistent beliefs all the way back to first principles are those rewarded for doing so. Academics are rewarded for this with tenure—analytic philosophers are an extreme case.” John H. Evans
And so the study of science and religion has gone askew. The problem is that we’ve taken one approach from a particularly limited perspective.

What to do next? Will this resolve the fight that the Humanists presented? For now—that is, for this entry—I’d like to let the problem sink in. 

I'd also like to know: What do you think? Is Evans right? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Spiritual Birthday and Keeping the Change

Just a few days ago, I celebrated my spiritual birthday--the day, at age 18, when I confessed faith in Christ for the first day. (Recently, I was interviewed by To the Best of My Knowledge about being "born again," which helped me remember and recreate this significant event in my life. See what you think.)
      
In a reasonably hard-line evangelical college group, I was once taught to formulate this as the most relevant question for spiritual discernment: Am I really 38 years old in Christ? Decades later, I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think it’s more illuminating to ponder how I’ve lived now two-thirds of my life as a follower of Christ (counting, of course, my infancy in that math) and the ways my life has been formed quite substantially around Christian doctrines, practices, and community. 
      
All this leads me to reflection on being an American and our fixation on a conversion date, which represents a vestige of the American history of revivals. We need to own a specific day and time that we came to faith, and more broadly, when our life changed forever. As if that’s all there is.
      
I admit that there are some salient elements to a conversionist approach to faith and life. There are moments that change us forever. There are moments where God meets us decisively. But most of my life has been lived by slow, incremental change, by the habits of the heart
      
That last phrase finds its way into the profound 19th century study of our culture by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He wrote in French and his exact phrase was “habitudes du coeur." Cœur sounds a lot like coreIn commenting on Tocqueville, Parker Palmer, in a captivating video, notes heart shares an Indo-European root with Latin cor or cord—which echo core and coeur. Finally, to round this out, habits derives from habitus, which means things we do continually. That leads me to what I’ve learned from the science of change via Charles Duhigg and the other commentators on research about changing habits. It's slow and gradual. It's about forming habitual practices at our "coeur." Or habits of the heart.
      
The past few years, after years in large, evangelically-oriented congregations that highlight the excitement and event-nature of worship services, Sunday mornings Laura and I are now in a quiet, smaller Episcopalian Eucharist service. Every Sunday we confess our sins and find Christ’s forgiveness and reconciling love in the bread and wine. Whether we particularly feel sinful or not. Whether we sense God’s immeasurable love or not. But we do it every time we're there worshipping.
      
Worship, in this mode, seems more about creating habitus than conversion. That’s working for me... as I try to keep the change.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

New Topics in Science and Religion: Contours of What's to Come

I’m fascinated by the future. Often I’m trying to discern the contours of what’s to come. And so I’ve asked friends who seem to know, “What do you think are the top ten topics to come in science and religion?” 

Before I get to the list, I heard one as-yet under appreciated answer: Big Data. This reality, 
“extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions,” 
exists and, in some ways, describes billions of human beings. It's also the religious significance of this new reality bequeathed to us by the power of computing.

Admittedly, the presence of Big Data doesn’t have the directness of creation and evolution (How do we read Genesis 1-3 as authoritative revelation and take in human evolution?) or astrobiology (If there is life on other planets, what does that mean about God’s coming in a human being to save the world?). And yet, with a moment’s reflection, if you’re one of the 250 million or so smart phone users in the U.S., then we realize that little seven ounce device tracks us and records us and presents a data picture of who we are.

And some promote Big Data as the scientific cutting edge.
“Data is the new science. Big Data holds the answers.”Pat Gelsinger, Chief Executive Officer of VMware
Frankly, I’m just beginning to reflect on this topic. Still, I can imagine that Big Data raises at least three issues: 1) How do we as human beings conceive of the sheer volume of information? What tools do we need to help us manage these teraflops of information about us? 2) What should we do with this information? Who’s is it? This is especially tricky ethical question with healthcare. If my genetic information, for example, might lead a health care insurer dropping me from my coverage, do they have a right to know? 3) How do we cope with the “roving eyes” on us at all times? How does the Eye of Big Data relate to the omnipresence of our God? Does this give us comfort, concern, or some mix of both? Should information ever be discarded, especially that reveals our sin and separated from us “as far as the east is from the west”? (Psalm 103:12)
            
So what are the other nine? Here’s how I’d finish out my top ten (in some kind of loose,
descending order). The way to read this like could be “Finish the phrase ‘Religion, Science, Technology and Their Relationship to…”
  1. Artificial Intelligence and Transhumanism
  2. Climate Change
  3. Sexuality, especially Same-Sex Attraction and Gender Identity
  4. Evolution and God’s Creation (which will always be with us)
  5. Neuroscience and the Cognitive Science of Religion
  6. Genetics, especially Technologies like CRISPR cas9
  7. Astrobiology, Extraterrestrial Life
  8. Medicine, especially End of Life and Reproductive Technology
  9. Race
What do you think? What would you add?
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