Saturday, October 31, 2020

Science and Two Ethical Systems: Buddhist and Christian

Buddhist ethics and science
In his brilliant book, 
Morals Not KnowledgeJohn Evans has argued that 
“Religion and science are the two great ways of understanding the world, but by understanding I mean the relationships between humans in the world and the relationship between humans and nature. These are stuff of morality….” John Evans
Even more, Evans asserts when conflict between the two occur, the lion’s share happens at the level of “morals, not knowledge” (and thus the title of the book).

This conflict obviously rears its head for many with "God or evolution." Since that's often true in our country, where Christianity is the dominant religion, what about Buddhists? The simple answer: they don’t carry this burden, partly because they don't believe in a Creator God. 81% of American Buddhists accept evolution. Pew Research states quite simply, 
“Many Buddhists see no inherent conflict between their religious teachings and evolutionary theory. Indeed, according to some Buddhist thinkers, certain aspects of Darwin’s theory are consistent with some of the religion’s core teachings, such as the notion that all life is impermanent.” Pew Report
I mention this because if one begins with the connection of all sentient life, like Buddhism does, then it’s not hard to links to evolutionary thought. In fact, the Buddhist scholar Inoue Enryo argued that Buddhism can embrace evolutionary thought because it holds to “no sharp distinction between humans and animals as Christians claim….” 

Moreover, it’s therefore no grand step to the Buddhist commitment to ahimsa, or non-violence, for all sentient beings. This, of course, can come into conflict with scientific research, especially animal testing. In their research collected in the book, Science and Secularity, Elaine Howard Ecklund and her colleagues quoted a Taiwanese biologist commenting, “Buddhism is about not killing.” 

Christian ethics and s
Recently, when I was talking with a pastor who heads a Hispanic Christian ministry, he told me this, “Many Latinos drive trucks. And, in the next ten years, those jobs will be lost to Artificial Intelligence. I want to encourage my flock to be creating AI.” The effects of technology and science often displace jobs, and so we arrive at justice, one of the ethical foundations of Christianity (which it, of course, adapts from its Jewish roots).

Many believers see Christianity, like many other religions do, as a way of life, not ultimately intellectual content. Again to draw from Evans, “Evolution versus creation,” for example, isn’t ultimately about doctrine, in this view, but about the implications for ethics. Does the theory of natural selection lead us to see all people as simply the products of blind, undirected processes? Not really, as I've posted before, but that's where the conflict starts.

Among other insights from her social scientific research, Ecklund has similarly highlighted that Christians are particularly drawn to sciences that involve healing—i.e., ethical action in the world that reduces suffering. In her book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, Ecklund observes that Christians and non-Christians both express “a great deal of confidence in medicine.” This correlates with a focus on Jesus, who is reported in the Gospels to be a healer. As Ecklund observes,
"Jesus’s ministry on earth involved touching those whom others would not touch, healing those whom others thought were beyond healing. Christians holding this theological view can see medical technologies as created by God for us to use to relieve our suffering and the suffering of others." Elaine Howard Ecklund
Philip Clayton has highlighted stem cell research, warfare technology, CRISPR gene editing, and he reserves his attention for global climate and sets Christianity within the “three Abrahamic faiths [which] go back… to the Book of Genesis, which calls believers to cultivate care for the earth.” Nature for them is “a creation of God and therefore a thing of great value.” This indeed leads to ethical action not simply for other humans, but for the Earth.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

C.S. Lewis: From Creation to Creator

I also call this "a theology of nature with a touch of Lewis." (It is also an excerpt from this post.)

Several options exist that link nature—and thus science, which studies nature—with how we understanding God. The physicist and theologian Ian Barbour is often associated with the concept of "a theology of nature." It's more or less what I’m outlining here. 

Daniel Halverson describes it as follows: 

“Where natural theology tries to understand God in scientific context, theology of nature tries to understand nature in theological context.” Daniel Halverson

A Christian theology of nature asks this first: "What we can infer about nature from the God we know in Jesus Christ?" Second, it integrates these inferences with scientific discoveries.

And this brings me to C. S. Lewis, who presented a similar view to a theology of nature. It is part of his famous array of apologetics, and one that resonates with all kinds of people: 

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

Lewis concluded that the only satisfaction for our desire for something more than the natural world has to offer is God.

Many call this Lewis’s "Argument from Desire" (which I've discussed in this blog post and here).

Let me pause to consider Ecclesiastes 3:11: God “has also set eternity in the human heart….” This means our hearts search for the Eternal God. Nature—even our human nature—is a sign, but it is not the end, of our journey. God alone is. The Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) supports Lewis. In analyzing the structure of the human mind, CSR finds a natural openness to God. 

In 1941 Lewis preached his brilliant sermon “The Weight of Glory.” It is, in my view, one of the greatest ever preached. He presents a form of the argument from desire by calling out in his listeners their desire for beauty. They cannot satisfy this desire cannot in the things of the world, “but through them, and what came through them was longing.” 

Ultimately, Lewis linked this longing with God, the Source of beauty. 

“We are summoned to pass in and through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.” C.S. Lewis

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.