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.