Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Science of the Devil's Advocate

Last week I wrote about the Devil's Advocate in our Science for the Church newsletter. Because I love the Devil's Advocate. Let me be clear: I don't love the Devil; I love the Devil's Advocate.

But first, I'm going to start with groupthink.

Many of us would like to believe about ourselves that we are "independent thinkers." Psychological science responds, "Not so fast." To use Jonathan Haidt’s word, we are innately "groupish.

“We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork.” Jonathan Haidt

We love being in groups or teams, and we tend to think like—not in contrast to—others in our group. 

Obviously, there are upsides, but the downside is that teamwork often leads to groupthink. And that brings me to the next topic: one of the glories of science is to combat this natural human tendency by setting up rigorous methods to root it out. 

Put simply, scientists know we need colleagues from within the fold to question our assertions.

And, believe it or not, that brings me the office of the Devil's Advocate and why I see connections with the methods of science. Both address the problem of groupthink. Incidentally, the reason I just used the term "office" is that the Devil's Advocate is an official position in the Roman Catholic Church. It was created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V as one of critical offices of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, who oversee the processes of beatification and canonization. 

Anyone you or I put toward a sainthood will have to make it through the Devil's Advocates' counter-arguments (whose official title, by the way, is Promoter of the Faith). The duty of the Devil's Advocate it is to prepare in writing all possible arguments against the raising of anyone to “the honors of the altar.”

In a world marred by polarization, in which we just talk with those in our group and avoid--whether intentionally or not--we need true conversation where "iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17). The concept of the Devil's Advocate, even after more than 400 years, is still fresh and remarkably compelling.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Starting a Chapter on Christianity and Science with a Little Help from C.S. Lewis

I've been working on a new book about religions (in the plural) and science. As I move into the chapter on Christianity and science, I’m pondering this line from Stephen Prothero: 

“There is a persistent, unexplored bias in the study of religion toward the extraordinary and away from the ordinary. In the United States this bias manifests in a strong attraction (even among scholars who are atheists) toward hardcore religious practitioners….” Prothero, God is Not One
Nowhere is this more applicable than with Christianity and its relationship with, where too often the loudest and most strident voice is heard. The fundamentalists rage against “godless” evolution and the climate change “hoax,” while millions of believers have no significant problems with either. Though this approach makes good copy for the media, I won’t work for this book. 

Why don't we like talking about reasonable religious believers?

Fundamentalist approaches to Christianity can certainly ungird a "believe-no-matter-what-you-discover" approach to faith. Exploring questions becomes the much-dreaded "doubt." Nonetheless, unbelievers often supply the worst distortions. They assert that Christian faith is opposed to scientific reasoning. Consider this from the arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, 

"Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence even in the teeth of evidence." Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Here I bring in St. Clive, aka Clive Staples Lewis, to assist. (Nothing new for me about that!) Certainly, there are believers who have faith despite the evidence, but St. Clive, whose book, Mere Christianity, still sells millions and guides their understanding of the Christian faith, writes this,

Faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That seems to be reasonable approach to faith. Faith is faithfulness to our commitments.

A word then about what this means for Christian faith and science... A reasonable faith, like the one Lewis presents, is one good historical ground for the rise of modern science in 16th and 17th century Europe. Of course, scientific endeavors flourished in the 8th-14th centuries in Muslim countries (a topic for another post). Still, this approach to faith and reason, to state it ever so succinctly, is cause of why the Scientific Revolution occurred in Christian Europe. Faith in the God who creates gives us an ordered creation to study. As the Nobel Laureate UC Berkeley physicist Charles Townes once noted (and as I've quoted before), 

"For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry." Charles Townes

That's a start to my chapter. More to come I suspect...

Friday, October 02, 2020

A Few Summary Comments on Buddhism and Science

I’ve come to conclude that, unless religious traditions are able to integrate science and technology, they will gradually fade. This isn’t per se the well-worn “secularization thesis” of Max Weber (as in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), but it is a recognition that religions retain their vitality as they engage contemporary culture. Minimally, that rubric guides my particular interest of analyzing how any particular religion and contemporary science relate to each other.

You see, I've been writing a chapter for a new book on Buddhism and science, and this is part three of a mini-series in the blog. In sum then, how does Buddhism do? Is it Philip Clayton observes, "the poster child for successfully integrating religion and science”? 

Not entirely. Surveys indicate that Buddhists tend not to integrate science with their religious life, but generally conclude that "religion and science as two separate and unrelated spheres,” according the Pew Research Center.

Naturally, in recognizing the stunning variety within Buddhism, I can’t provide a summary statement for all Buddhists. For one thing, it is rooted in East Asian culture and therefore less historically embedded in the "conflict" or "warfare" thesis. 

I can affirm that Buddhism, at least in many forms, is nontheistic, or at least has no teaching of a Creator God, a teaching has proven problematic for some scientific cosmologies. But as I mentioned, in a previous blog post, this is not uniformly positive, since the Dalai Lama has expressed resistance, as a Buddhist, to the conclusions of the Big Bang.

More striking is the Buddha’s openness to experimentation. Still, as we’ve seen (back to my previous post), this isn’t absolute. 
All in all, Buddhism does not represent the poster child, but I’d still affirm that it’s doing fairly well for a tradition that’s been around 2500 years. It will continue to make significant contributions to the way that we negotiate the relationship of science and religion. All religious thinkers, including we Christians, can learn from the Buddhist example and its contributions.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Buddhism: Cosmology, Emptiness, and the Big Bang

When I mention to various Christians that I teach about other religions, they often say, "Tell me about it!" And so here's goes--here's something brief about Buddhist views of the cosmos and modern science.
Buddhist scholars tell me it's all about nothing. And this reminded me of how 
Seinfeld became a TV hit in the early 2000s for a being a show “about nothing.” Maybe the show was on to something with its emphasis on nothing.

But first let's get the words right. The key words is shunyata, or emptiness. More specially, the Sanskrit Śūnyatā can be translated as "devoidness," "emptiness," "hollow, hollowness," "voidness." It is the form of noun form from the adjective śūnya, meaning "zero," "nothing," "empty" or "void." It comes from the root śvi, meaning "hollow,” plus tā, which means "-ness." (Monier-Williams, 2nd ed., 1899, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary)

This teaching of emptiness is found especially in Madhyamaka (the “middle way”). Moreover, it has resonance with quantum physics. As William Ames has commented, 
“We recall that in quantum theory many of the properties of, for instance, an electron are not intrinsic to the electron itself. They depend not only on the electron but also on the type of experiment that is being performed.” William Ames
This is commonly described through the famous two-slit experiment. Ames continues with another observation, 
“In Madhyamaka, too, attributes are relational and no intrinsic. A dharma by itself has no nature, any more than an electron can in itself be said to be either a wave or a particle.” William Ames
Not just nothing, but zero
The Buddhist focus on nothing and emptiness has at least one other significant contribution. And here again I turn to Dr. Veidlinger, my colleague at Chico State University, 
“The zero was developed in India, in connection with philosophical speculation about emptiness, and it is the Indian number system that was adapted by the West that lead to the notation used in the modern scientific world.” Daniel Veidlinger
The Big Bang and Buddhism
So far, so good. But, Big Bang cosmology might be a problem, at least according the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.
“From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. If the universe is created by a prior intelligence, the questions of the ontological status of such an intelligence and what kind of reality it is remain.” (Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom)
Ok, now a question
What do we do with in a world where Big Bang cosmology has become a standard? Let me know what you think?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Dual Directions Today: California Fires and Climate Change, Meditation and Science

I’m using today’s blog to produce a literal “essay”—from the French, essayer, “to try”—and so I'm trying out dual topics that have my attention, but neither of which is fully baked. 

They are (1) the connection between the fires I’m experiencing in Northern California and global climate change, and (2) scientific studies that validate the value of Buddhist meditation and what that means for Christian meditation and Christian views of science more generally.

Are we in a “climate apocalypse”?
The consensus of the scientific community—as well as those like me who are convinced by the science—global climate change is real. It is not, “fake news.” (In fact, it’s hard for me to understand why people want to deny this consensus.) 

It’s not a stretch in fact to make the connection then between the fires in California and this emerging global reality. Of course, this is also quite personal—I think the hardest moment for me was last weekend when the AQI—the Air Quality Index—went above 600 in Chico (0-50 is healthy), which is quite literally off the charts and when we had every window shut and the seams taped, and we were smelling smoke inside.
At the same time, I know that’s not all. Consider these two items: we have not managed our forests properly in the past 100 years—and, by the way, we could have learned from Native Americans and their version of “good fires" or prescribed burns—and we have built on lands at the WUI, the Wildlife Urban Interface to our peril.

Spiritually, we have not also given the land a break, a Sabbath or Jubilee, as I learned powerfully in a jazz vespers service last Sunday entitled “Melting.” It’s not only climate change specifically and globally, but more regional practices that are now demonstrating their deleterious effects. We need Sabbath practices that restrain us for our own good, and also for all creation. Sabbath brings renewal and sustainability to us and to nature. Not observing Sabbath has meant that the land will be desolated. The earth, as the Scripture tells us, rises up and responds to our destructive and harmful practices.

Meditation helps me—the science tells me so

It’s no secret to those who study science and religion that Buddhism is hot right now, which is particularly surprising since Buddhists represent around 1% of the U.S. population.

Why? One principle candidate is the relationship of Buddhist meditation—especially mindfulness—and its validation by neuroscience. Consider, for example, what Richard Davidson and his team at University of Wisconsin, Madison found (and now I quote Philip Clayton)
“Those with training and practice in meditation showed greater activity in areas of the brain dedicated to paying attention and making decisions.” Philip Clayton

Let’s take the scientific support for Buddhist meditation, in the aggregate, as decisive and thus as a given. What does that mean for me as a Christian? 

I’ll note two implications (with the hopes of developing these anon): 

  • Mindfulness is an excellent practice for Christians as we seek to “calm and quiet” ourselves (Psalm 131:2). It's also a great prelude to prayer and to acts compassionate.
  • Buddhist meditation has close affinities with the ancient and contemporary Christian practice of contemplative prayer, close enough that neurological studies find similar results between these and Buddhist meditation. And here I’m leaning on the research of Andrew Newberg, who wrote about a study of meditation practices such as focusing on Scripture, “we found increased activity in the frontal lobes (one of the areas in the brain involved with compassion and positive emotions) and there were changes in the thalamus, the part of our brain that helps us interconnect.”

In sum, these scientific studies are certainly strong support for the Buddhist meditation and its contributions to spiritual-psychological well-being. But this is not for Buddhists alone. We in the church can be humble enough to learn from these practices, adapt them, seek parallels in our own spiritual tradition, and thus find all kinds of reasons to take time away, “to let go and let God.” May it be so.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can We Learn From Buddhists On How to Engage Science?

I've heard this a number of times over the years in a variety of contexts: “Science tests until it finds truth, while religions never change their ideas because they rely on faith, and faith is based on very old texts that can't be updated.”

This common slogan challenges any believer, but it also has some obvious errors. Not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an anti-religious cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example, focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or “awaken.” I suspect it's for this reason, and probably many others, that the relationship of Buddhism and science will continue to draw interest, e.g., the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and SpiritualityBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, edited by B. Alan Wallace, and more recently, Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

This leads to the question of faith in sacred texts and how these texts relate science and scientific inquiry. As I noted above, many argue that religions necessarily possess an anti-rational or fideistic element in that their texts always look back. Science, in contrast, continually looks forward. 

In this respect, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information that sounds scientific to many ears.
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability. Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them." Buddha from the Kalama Sutra (ca. 250 BC)
And more recently, the Dalai Lama,
"Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research." Dalai Lama
As a Christian living in this scientific and technological world, I think all religions and their followers could learn from these Buddhist convictions. In addition, I believe we could also listen to Galileo, who 
(following Augustine) presented an analogous guideline over 400 years ago when speaking about his new, Copernican theory in light of his detractors' comments.
"I hope to show that I proceed with much greater piety than they do.... For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith, nor does he use argument that depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations. He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood." Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615, my italics)
Galileo essentially says that, yes, we follow our ancient texts, and if our best science finds something about the physical world, our biblical interpretation and application should cohere with these findings. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that Galileo was arguing for a sun-centered universe.

Put another way, there is one God who wrote the Two Books, one of Scripture and one of nature. Reason doesn't have to lie down to sleep when faith enters the room.

What do you think? Is there a similarity? And do you agree?

Friday, September 04, 2020

Francis Collins, Science and Religion: Need I Say More?

"I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith…. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” Francis Collins

Francis Collins embodies humanity and humility. From what I've experienced and heard (I've met him twice in person and know several of his friends), he's as compelling publicly as he is privately. At an American Scientific Affiliation conference, I video'd him leading a sing-along of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Collins wasn't groomed from birth for his current position as a preeminent voice in religion and science. Brought up by free-thinking artistic parents, Collins discounted Christianity until, on the advice of a Methodist minister, he encountered Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Not too long after, he became a Christian while in medical school at 27. 

The Human Genome Project represents perhaps the most significant scientific project of the 21st century. In April 2003, it unveiled the full sequencing our human DNA. Collins headed that. 

He penned the 2009 bestselling The Language of God, which demonstrated the importance of our genetic code in how God "speaks" through the book of nature. Almost immediately, he was flooded with questions. He decided to convene a small team of specialists, to work out answers, which they posted on a website. This formed the basis for starting the BioLogos Foundation.

President Obama appointed Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health just a few months later. (As a result, he had to leave official work for BioLogos.) It's a post he's continued with President Trump. Serving under such different administrations is obviously quite a feat! But it says something about the man, his competence and his character. Indeed his is a voice that’s guided us well during the worst global pandemic in a century.

Besides all that (and more), this year he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in Progress in Religion, which this leads to an invitation. If you’d like to hear him receive the Templeton Prize and offer an address through a virtual ceremony on September 24th at 7pm Eastern, use this link to register. (And please share it.)

As I did last week, I'll let quotations again speak most loudly. (And this is one, I must admit, I often use in science and faith talks when I’m searching for something wise to say).  
"Studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation."

Note: A longer version of these reflections will appear on the Science for the Church website on September 8, 2020. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Very Brief Collection of Provocative Quotations on Science and Faith

Sometimes, it's good just to listen, to listen, that is, to voices of wisdom. In this case, as I've been doing research for an upcoming Science for the Church newsletter, I've discovered some insights from three voices that are certainly worthy of our contemplation.

First is from the leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who has emphasized how our metaphysics or our worldview (take your pick of the terms) constrains how we think about God and science:

“My point is this: if you’re trying to have a discussion about God’s involvement in the world—creation, science, whatever—while living and breathing a system in which God has been disinvolved with the world by definition… that is going to make it very difficult.” N.T. Wright in Surprised by Scripture

The second comes from late Rachel Held Evans, who died far too young at age 37 in 2019, and who still resonates as a voice for younger Christians and especially progressives (though, to me, she sounds indelibly orthodox). (In this, you can hear the emergence of a thoughtful follower of Jesus from the straight-jacket of fundamentalism, can't you?)

“Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.” Rachel Held Evans

Finally, I turn to the great Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, current head of the National Institutes of Health, recipient of this year's Templeton Prize

“I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith…. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” Francis Collins

Now, I ask you, isn't each of those quotations a thing of beauty?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Two Ideas Spurred on by Jonathan Haidt

I just listened to an enthralling interview with the social psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt. (It's pronounced “height,” by the way.) In it, Haidt makes a clear case for why our human disgust reaction is natural and why it’s part of our human ethical life, but also the cause of much of our cultural polarization.

Simply put, contemporary culture is inflaming our natural tendency to be disgusted by those we disagree with. And Haidt is particularly troubled by how that plays out in academic life, which is why he began the Heterodox Academy: "T
o improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement."

Since I’m writing this during the week of the Democratic National Convention, do I need to add that I’m watching the back-and-forth of our putative political “dialogue,” which is really polarized disgust that's familiar, far too familiar?

At any rate, as I listened and watched Haidt (in conversation with Jordan Peterson), I was fascinating and intellectually provoked. This led me, as a scholar of religion, to two brief reflections.

On the one hand, we are fundamentally religious, and ethical disgust is characteristic of religion.

Yes, polarization and ethical disgust are emblematic of religion. When Haidt (and to a lesser degree, Peterson) talked, they highlighted our religiosity (even though Haidt says of himself that he is not religious). This is the basis for much of our separation into what’s 
“clean” and “unclean,” Holy and the Unholy, “human” and “inhuman.” For example, “Harvey Weinstein is an animal” means he’s disgusting and not part of human society. Or when President Trump told congressional members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar to "go back" home, he was inflaming Republican disgust that they're not part of "us" and "our country."

Remarkably, the Apostle Paul definitively undermines these dichotomies in his letters. He particularly takes aim at the Jewish division of circumcised and uncircumcised. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love,” (Galatians 5:6).

On the other, we as Americans are decreasingly less able to direct our desire for transcendence.

Formerly, religions had various methods to return people to the fold, and some were obviously quite elaborate—15th and 16th century indulgences represent famous examples of acts of penance. But my concern lies elsewhere: with the rise of the religious disaffiliation, we pursue fewer explicitly religious means to offer us ways back into the fold. (Currently, between 20 and 25% mark "none" when asked "what is your religion?" About 50 years ago, that number was around 5%.)

As I mentioned, robust and enduring religious traditions have means to find forgiveness and restoration. 
(This is one reason they've been around for awhile.) Here I’ll focus on Christianity. It’s certainly not the “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once complained about, but a patient path of repentance that restores us back to ourselves, to God, and to community. 

In losing our religious affiliation, the United States has let these well-tried practices gradually slip from our grasp. And this, I believe, leads to the market rise of ethical disgust and social polarization. Which ought to trouble us.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

A Few More Notes on Science and Religion/Head and Heart

Some take recourse in this common cliché: science and religion depict the contrast of “head” and “heart,” respectively. That idea is somewhat distorting since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in various functions of our wonderfully complex and often chaotic brains. 

For the past decade or two, affective neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Luiz Pessoa have noted the close connection between emotion and decision-making. They encapsulated the trend lines of recent research on emotion and cognitive science when they wrote, 
“There are no truly separate systems for emotion and cognition because complex cognitive-emotional behavior emerges from the rich, dynamic interactions between brain networks.” Damasio & Pessoa
And yet the head/heart dichotomy begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.
In addition, I learned from Robert McCauley in Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not that religion, with its stories and community and rituals--but not theology, with its complicated rationalized discourse--has a higher cognitive "naturalness" than science and its patient and careful process (which is closer to theology).

This means that when science has truly affected our culture, it’s not the experiments but the larger story of ourselves and our world—what we might call its religious aspects. Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory is amazing science, but when we hear that time dilates, that’s an astounding story. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is ground-breaking science, but what influences culture is that we are more similar to chimpanzees, and less special, than we thought. I note then not only science for science’s sake, but science for culture’s sake. 

And when science has affected culture is indeed, that is when science has interacted most notably with religious life in America.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Religion and Science as Cultural Terms

To look at the past, present, and future of religion in the United States is to hear a narrative in which no generation ever arrives at a fixed relationship between these two cultural forces (or sets of forces), but one in which we continually negotiate how religion and science will relate. It’s less clear but, to my mind, more exciting. As James Gilbert wrote in his study of religion and science in the United States, "The dialogue between science and religion in America expresses essential ideas and deep-seated structures of culture."


To take this conversation up a notch intellectually then, in some ways this represents a way to grasp American cultural and intellectual history. And this brings me to a key definition. 

By culture, I proceed with Webster’s first entry, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or together.” 

Biology is nature, and when I speak of “human culture” it is what human beings cultivate in their various spheres of life. And when I talk of “American culture” I’m referring to the second definition primarily. Finally, it’s impossible to talk about this topic (at least for me) without referring to Clifford Geertz’s iconic definition of “culture,” 

“historically transmitted patterns of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Clifford Geertz

In sum, I have become convinced that we have done best as a culture when we have held both religion and science together. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, what we today call “science” and “religion” doesn’t map exactly onto our history. It’s my related conviction that human beings are at their best with this same combination.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Pondering the Apple Logo

As I mentioned last week, “Proceed with Caution” ought to guide us when we consider science and religion. 

As my colleague Drew Rick Miller put into our Science for the Church Newsletter last week, we can’t simply take recourse in slogans like “emotion vs. reason,” and “value vs. fact.” It's "Not That Simple." 

As the great mathematician and metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead once commented, science and religion are "the strongest forces which influence" us as human beings. I'll add that we won’t get their relationship right until we realize that religion and science often serve as proxies for negotiating cultural values. And, like any negotiation, this takes great skill.

In his book, Redeeming Culture, James Gilbert ponders the Apple logo, and decides that it evokes two trees, the tree in Trinity College, Cambridge where an apple is alleged to have fallen on Issac Newton's head initiating his theory of gravity and the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil" in Genesis 2. Simply put, science and religion.

But Gilbert wasn’t finished because he realized that the interplay of religion and science is also very American. 

“The dialogue between science and religion in America expresses essential ideas and deep-seated structures of culture. It reveals a theological problem and a profound concern of philosophy; it also shapes a significant portion of everyday popular culture. It provides categories for thinking about modern existence: to structure the world as divided between science and religion, or to imagine it united with their convergence.” James Gilbert
I know I'm mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating: The great Harvard philosopher and scientist A. N. Whitehead quipped, 
“Seek simplicity and distrust it.” A. N. Whitehead
To look at religion and science in America, both historically and contemporarily, is to hear a narrative in which no generation ever arrives at a fixed relationship between these two cultural forces, but one of continual negotiation. It’s less clear than simplicity, but, to my mind, more exciting. It’s my related conviction that human beings flourish with this same combination. As do Americans. 

And from everything I’ve read and seen, this is not about to change.

Friday, July 17, 2020

More on the Indelible Mark of Religion and Science on America

An overview (and almost a thesis)

Our country has often exhibited a dialectical relationship with science and religion, often expressed with rationality and order in conversation with feeling and intuition. In historian James Gilbert’s view,

Science and religion “are words suggesting two great and opposing philosophic systems—materialism and idealism—that, in a variety of forms, operate as polarities in American culture.” James Gilbert

A tension—sometimes creative, sometimes contentious—exists between these two forces, which of course continues to the present day and finds its way into any number of cultural flash points, such as, Who do we trust during the COVID-19 pandemic? Can anyone make me wear a mask? Does it make sense to send kinds back to school?

Is this feeling vs. reason?

One of theologians Robert Jenson’s comments (as he unfolds the thought of the Puritan philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards) struck me,

“America has been more than other nations undone by alternate fear of science itself and capitulation to usually jejune science-inspired ideologies.” Robert Jenson

For a nation as unusually religious as ours—we are outliers as a developed country—any uneasy antiphonal response to science merits attention.


ANW’s insights

To use the scientist and philosopher A. N. Whitehead’s categories, as Americans we are often poised between “the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.” Far too often, we seem to feel a compulsion to decide between them.


From the citation, it would sound perhaps that religion is solely emotional. And that notion is worth challenging. Whitehead does later comment in a chapter from Science in the Modern World devoted to “Religion and Science,”


Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within,

the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting

to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond. A. N. Whitehead


That is to say religion seeks to put us in connection with a broader Reality behind the material reality we immediately see. But this isn’t simply an emotion—it’s an intuition of Something or Someone greater than we are.


“Proceed with caution” ought to guide us as we decide how to define science and religion.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Sensus Divinitats and Science

Just this week, I was listening to an excellent podcast by Dan Koch with the theologian Miroslav Volf, and they ventured into the territory of human self-transcendence and how that human characteristic might open us up to the Transcendent. This has been called the religious a priori by many 19th century liberal theologians (among others). 

It got me to thinking about various connections with the Cognitive Science of Religion (which Justin Barrett describes expertly and theologically here) and its similar findings about the natural structure of the human mind, all of which will appear in the Science for the Church newsletter on Tuesday, July 14. These are some notes that didn't make it into the newsletters.
It may surprise some in the Reformed tradition—at least those who have read Karl Barth’s cavils against “natural theology”—that the seminal voice of Reformed theology, John Calvin, wrote similarly of the "the sense of the divine" (sensus divintatis)Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. Indeed, in Calvin’s vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, he wrote, 
“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” John Calvin
This sensus divinitatis is “beyond dispute” according to Calvin.

It appears in other places. For example, C.S. Lewis wrote about this desire for God in his brilliant novel, Till We Have Faces
“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing… to find the place where all this beauty came from.” C.S. Lewis
But I have to admit that I wonder, is that true? Increasingly with my Chico State University students, 40% of whom answer "None of the Above," when asked, "Which religion do you affiliate with?" I've also asked them whether they believe in a transcendent reality. And many don't. To be more precise, I did this in a Great Books class where we read Augustine, Lucretius, Lewis, Kurzweil and others on the theme of transcendence. Of course, Augustine describe transcendence as central, while Lucretius outright denies it and Kurzweil as well, though in a transhumanism motif. This experience has been replicated in my Death, Dying, and the Afterlife class where I teach about naturalism (like Lucretius) with various religions on these subjects. Many students--though not all, to be sure--express their agreement. We are our bodies. We die. Game over. And that's fine.

The preponderance of the evidence from history, from contemporary science, and even statistical analysis all support the conclusion. 

But it's worth asking: Is this desire for transcendence and the sensus divinitatis cultural and not natural? Is it therefore something we've been taught, but that today many aren't learning at all?

Friday, July 03, 2020

Reasons to Doubt the Alleged Inherent, Persistent Conflict between Science and Religion

It's not hard to find various statements--often really, extended slogans--about the inherent, persistent "conflict" or "incompatibility" between science and religion. They're often philosophically suspect and historically weak. 
Maybe that's why l've learned about these atheist slogans seems to have very little discernible effect
I thought I'd start with at least one of the key historical problems with these assertions.
The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th was started largely by Christians like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton. (Of course, not only Christians were involved, but a lot them were.) They didn't seem to have a problem, a conflict between their faith and science. In fact, as many have argued, it was their belief that God created a cosmos and not a chaos that led them to seek what the laws and structure of this cosmos is. That revolution, joined by the Enlightenment and the Reformed, create the seedbed for the growth as our country, and many American voices carried forward these insights. These were Christians who integrated  their faith with “natural philosophy” (the name for "science" until the early 19th century) like 18th century Puritan philosopher and pastor Jonathan Edwards, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, the American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, and Gerty Cori, the Czech-American biochemist who became the third woman—and first American woman—to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of her discovery of glycogen metabolism. This isn't a full-blown rebuttal, but sufficient grounds to create one.
Now to a more contemporary one...
"Ok, the link between religion and science may have worked in the past, but as we know it's not working now." As a response, I think of Jennifer Wiseman and Francis Collins (both of whom I've mentioned many before in this blog). 
But why not highlight John B. Goodenough? He's the father of the lithium-ion battery, the rechargeable power source inside your mobile phone or laptop, and a Christian. In 2019 this University of Texas at Austin Professor Emeritus of Engineering was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work at Oxford University. 
As University of Wisconsin at Madison biologist (and friend) Jeff Hardin writes, 
"I'm sure each Nobel recipient is interesting in his own right, but to me Goodenough is the most fascinating of the three. His quirky humor comes through in interviews, and he has the distinction of the being the oldest recipient of a Nobel prize in the long history of the program. Goodenough is doubly significant for me because he is a Christian, as his fascinating autobiography, Witness to Grace, makes clear.

Goodenough himself has this to say,
“Scientific knowledge is a means to power, power to extend the limits of our existence, to challenge fate; but it also provides the means to subdue, to terrorize, to destroy. Science teaches why things are the way they are and how to use this knowledge to achieve a specified goal; but it does not distinguish between the moral qualities of the human goals this knowledge serves. For that, another discipline is needed! …For the religious person, what gives meaning to life is our walk with that which is eternal; the beauty of holiness inspires the choice of our service to the humanity in all people; dialogue with the Spirit of Love as well as with nature is sacred…”
Slogans are so easy to take recourse in. But the truth, though often much less neat, is so much more interesting.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Indelible Mark of Religion and Science on America

The interplay of science and religion indelibly marks American culture and carries with it all key American values, like the connection (sometimes denied) of reason and emotion, the primacy of experience, and the enduring legacy of racism. The relationship between these two cultural forces goes back to our earliest founding voices, such the Pilgrim divines who, being the most educated members of the early colonies, brought together religious reflection with “natural philosophy” (as science was called before 1834). A century or later, in the very founding of the United States politically, there was both the rationalist “freethinkers” Thomases Paine and Jefferson joined by the religious Johns, Witherspoon, Jay and Adams. The late 19th century paired the Christian evolutionist at Harvard, Asa Gray, with the preacher’s son and itinerant evangelist for agnosticism, politician Robert Ingersoll
Through these voices and many others has coursed the question of whether the “heart” or the “head” is more important, whether human beings can be changed in an instant (aka experience a spiritual revival), and what to do about the enduring American sin of racial prejudice, the latter so often couched in scientific terms and given scientific teeth through movements like the early 20th century eugenics movement. Of course, today in light of COVID-19 and our failure as a country to address this pandemic, we have the anti-science wing of the church (take your pick) counterpointed by the devout Christian in science, Francis Collins, at the helm of the National Institutes of Health.

I submit these as simple notes and a few exemplifications of the key fact:
To understand how we’ve negotiated science and religion is to understand America.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Where is Race in the Bible? Some Notes As I Ponder

Our country is talking about race quite a bit right now, but I’m not sure we have an agreement about what “race” means.

Here are some notes as I work on answering this question.

In other places (like this), I’ve noted that race, as we often understand it, isn’t a biological or genetic category…. which certainly doesn’t mean race is non-existant. Race is a cultural one with powerful implications, most notably racism.

I'm a bit surprised to say that Wikipedia is remarkably good here: 

“A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society. The term was first used to refer to speakers of a common language land then to denote national affiliations. By the 17th century the term began to refer to physical (phenotypical) traits. Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning.”

So far so good. Let me add this: As a Christian and a student of the Bible, I'm interested in this particular question: How does this line up with the New Testament? 

Three NT Greek words might help:

1.     Oikos (from which English gets economy) means “house,” “family,” or “race,” as in “ but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6).

2.     Ethnos (the root of ethnic) can mean “mass,” “tribe,” “nation,” and sometimes more specifically, “Gentile.” It appears multiple times in the New Testament such as in 1 Peter 2:9 and Acts 10:22, “They answered, 'Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.'”

3.     Suggenes (the root of nothing I can identify) has these meanings: “a relative (by blood) and by extension fellow kin” as in Romans 9:3, "For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race."


Personally, I'm not making a ton of connections between these New Testament words and our understanding of race. I hope to make those in the next post. And so I'll leave it with you: How well do any of these New Testament map onto our understanding of “race”? What do you think?

Friday, June 12, 2020

From the Cutting Room Floor: On Racism, Religion, and Science

I've been working on a Science for the Church newsletter, which will be posted soon, and here are a few ideas that left on the cutting room floor. 

The topic is the history of scientific racism.

First: We could of course talk about how our earliest American Christian leaders had racist ideologies—and I’ll pick on one of my heroes from the 1700s, Jonathan Edwards who brilliantly integrated his theology with natural philosophy (or science) also owned slaves. Here's a bit more nuance to that statement: 

"Though he recognized the cruelty of the slave trade and considered enslaved people his spiritual equals, Edwards himself owned slaves throughout his life and career." Princeton & Slavery
Second: We can't forget the extension of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection into social Darwinism, the theory that “sociocultural advance is the product of intergroup conflict and competition and the socially elite classes (such as those possessing wealth and power) possess biological superiority in the struggle for existence.” Darwin himself repudiated social Darwinism, but his cousin Francis Galton who coined the term "eugenics" in 1883 certainly launched a social Darwinist experiment in England and the United States.

Fourth: Note Webster’s updating of their definition of racism to include systemic racism. 

Fifth: My grandfather Nicholas Kutsonas, escaping persecution as a Greek in Turkish-occupied Macedonia, fled to this country as a teenager in 1915. He was considered, as a Southern European, to be the kind of “race” that the United States didn’t want. It’s no surprise, that when the 1924 Immigration Act went into effect, it led to a net decrease of Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Put another way, because race has little or no basis in science, and particularly in genetics, it’s a concept that’s malleable and can be manipulated to serve racist ends. Nichole Phillips, Emory University theologian, recently spoke against “colorism”--the prejudice that privileges lighter skin over darker and that leads to racism,