September 20, 2013

Maine Voices: Realms of science, religion must understand their proper roles

Conflict occurs when either tries to determine the truth outside of its own field of competence.

By RICHARD GELWICK

HARPSWELL - On Sept. 14, the Religion and Values page reported "Think tank crusades for intelligent design" at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. 

This report is important because it brings to attention an issue relating to the editorial published the same day, "Our View: Cutting physics major wrong budget solution." Complex as both topics are, basic principles are at stake. 

First, science at its best is a search for truth. Physics, as history readily shows, is one of the most fundamental sciences advancing the progress of humanity through discovering the most basic forces of nature. 

Cutting the physics major is a concession and a demotion of the university's standing itself as a place of basic inquiry and preparation for future leaders in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. More scholarships and recruitment of capable students in mathematics and science would be a better way to strengthen the physics major.

Second, the controversy at Ball State over teaching "intelligent design" as science reminds us that religion also has to be devoted to truth-seeking, or its beliefs are unworthy of a credible God or any other ultimate principle such as the good.

"Intelligent design" and its promoter, the Discovery Institute, show how an unnecessary conflict between science and religion begins when either one tries to determine truth outside its own field of competence. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Center for Science Education have pointed out that "intelligent design" or "creationism" is not a scientific theory today. "Intelligent design" preys on the ignorance of the public and reactionary politicians by proposing "intelligent design" as an alternative scientific theory. 

Third, confusing science and religion is a profound problem in American society. Both fields are needed, but they must understand their proper roles. 

Our political landscape is awash in serious misunderstandings and ignorance about science and religion. They can be complementary by contributing to or correcting each other.

Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and many scientists helped to free our mistaken literal use of Holy Scripture's three-story cosmology of heaven, earth and hell and led to a truer understanding of the biblical story and of religious faith.

Interpreting Scripture without the benefits of biblical archaeology and analysis of ancient manuscripts and their cultural context will lead us into a hell on earth as catastrophic as the images of Scripture. We need a clergy and laity educated in what scientific and historical studies have taught us about the good book.

Fourth, many critics of religion such as "the New Atheists" are uninformed about contemporary religious thought.

If a university or college professor criticizes all religion as out of date, as the English professor did at Ball State, he has a right to his beliefs. However, he deserves criticism for his ignorance of modern theologians such as Paul Tillich, Abraham Heschel, Bernard Lonergan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Buber, John Cobb and many others.

These theologians found in science a deeper understanding of nature and the human role within it. They showed a view of God not as a super engineer or architect of the universe and its inhabitants, but as continuing presence of the power of love in history in spite of its tragic moments.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s fate is one of those both redeeming yet tragic moments that confronts our too-simple desire for love and justice without self-giving and change. King was a learned preacher and leader who earned a doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology.

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