Early Modern Europe
Though a child learns to walk, he cannot walk on water.
Though a fish swims, he cannot swim on land.
Science, Religion, Mythology and Humility
I attended a funeral at a Catholic Church. The Priest told the audience that the deceased was gone, and yet was with us. Physically, she was no longer with us, but spiritually, she was present among us. How can this apparent contradiction be explained?
Science has no answer to this question. Science deals with material things. It cannot deal with matters of faith or matters of the spirit.
A space shuttle was launched into orbit around the earth. Once in orbit, it remained so, without, necessarily, any further use of power to keep it in space for months to come, though it was traveling at 7 miles per second. How can this be explained?
Religion has no answer to this question. Religion deals with matters of the spirit. Religion deals with values and with spiritual concerns. It should not be expected to answer questions about material things.
Before there was much scientific knowledge, and before the instruments were available to take accurate and reliable measures of material phenomena, there were many unanswered questions. In the 21st century, we have more scientific knowledge than ever before, but the search goes on, because there are still many unanswered questions.
During the heights of the classical period of ancient Greece, about the 5th century BCE, intellectual leaders had made progress in trying to explain the world through reasoning. They are renowned for their success, but progress was limited by the lack of measuring instruments. Philosophy was possible but science was not. Aristotle is often considered to have been the most accomplished of ancient Greek philosophers because of the length and breadth of his work. Yet, he is known to have made many errors.
European intellectual leaders made a great step forward in the 17th century when they began to use the inductive method discussed by Francis Bacon. Close observation and experimentation became the method for seeking the truth, rather than relying upon authority figures of the past for answers. The deductive method described by the mathematician Descartes was a rigorous process of logic, which, when combined with induction, was the scientific method.
The key to successful scientific work was to conduct planned experiments based upon logical thinking, in other words, to develop a hypothesis. The experiment tests the hypothesis and leads to the next step in the process of reasoning. Often the results of a test are inconclusive or debatable and require refinement of the experiment.. It is tempting for someone to misinterpret the results to fit an expected conclusion. It is a mark of a good scientist, if he or she has the humility and the wisdom to accept experimental results, even if they contradict expectations.
Scientists are also frequently confronted with questions for which it is difficult or impossible to devise a reliable experiment. Here again the good scientist has the humility to recognize that he or she does not have an answer. To go beyond the guidelines of the inductive process is to leave science behind and to rely on reasoning alone, thereby entering the realm of philosophy.
The controversy over the theory of evolution is a good example of what is involved. Darwin‘s theory, that the many species of life have evolved through a process of individual variations and chance adaptations to the environment, is a scientific theory, which has been supported by a growing volume of evidence in the fields of genetics and archeology. Nevertheless, when one tries to apply the theory to the human species, there are gaps in the evidence because the process unfolds over millions of years. Therefore, the scientist, must withhold final judgment and admit that it is a scientific theory, not a fact. That situation has opened the way to the temptation to seek answers based, not on the scientific method, but on religious belief. As that has happened, some of the critics of Darwin’s theory, have, based on their religious belief, developed the theory of creationism or intelligent design, and called it science.
This sort of controversy has occurred before, and continues to occur in different ways. When the works of Galileo and Kepler were synthesized by Isaac Newton to develop the universal theory of gravitation; the hypothesis, supported by Aristotle and Ptolemy, that the earth was the center of the universe, was conclusively refuted. Yet, church leaders continued for many years to intrude in a question involving science, which can only be answered through the scientific method. Questions about the material universe, its origins, and how matter and energy are formed, are scientific questions. Science does not provide us with all the answers. The theory of the big bang is only a theory, but the evidence and logic which support the theory are persuasive.
In the 21st century, a crucial issue has arisen concerning global warming and its consequences. A period of time of many years, and a gathering of evidence all over the earth, has been required to develop the scientific consensus that the activities of humanity, to wit: the burning of fossil fuels, and the destruction of rain forests, are contributing to a rise in average global temperature of the atmosphere. The consequences of this are many and varied, and the severity of the impact upon the quality of life on earth is only beginning to be appreciated. A long lead time is needed to address the problem and find remedies. Our way of life has become very dependent upon burning fossil fuels.
This is clearly a scientific issue to be resolved only by the application of scientific knowledge. Yet, there are millions of people, encouraged by established fundamentalist religious organizations, who are interpreting some of the more severe weather, that is likely a consequence of global warming, as a manifestation of prophecies by writers and philosophers of ancient and medieval times. Is this the beginning of the cataclysm predicted in the Book of Revelations? Did Nostradamus predict these events? Is this a sign of the coming of the “rapture”?
Religion, however formulated and expressed, provides no answer to a scientific question.
On the other hand, science cannot provide an answer to a religious question, to a question involving ethics or matters of the spirit. For example, scientists do not have an answer to the question: Is there a god? God does not have a material essence and, therefore, is not subject to scientific experimentation. Perhaps, a study of history can shed some light. How has the concept of god emerged in history?
Every human culture has had religion and god. Most of religions in the past have had many gods. There have been gods representing different manifestations of nature; the sun, the moon, the oceans, the trees, and the animals hunted by humanity for food. There have been gods representing fertility. There have been gods representing the earth, and others representing the cosmos. There have been gods representing virtue and goodness, and even some representing evil and the “underworld”. There have been gods representing different human characteristics and reflecting the frailty of human nature. There have been gods that are considered to be perfect and totally omnipotent.
Each of these numerous gods has a mythology associated with them. Mythology is a story. which describes the nature of the god. Greek mythology consists of stories relating to the interaction between the various gods and goddesses in the Greek pantheon. The Old Testament is a mythology which describes the nature of Yahweh. The New Testament is a mythology which describes the nature of the Christian god. And so it is in every human culture.
How can we make sense of this complexity? One general characteristic of all the gods is that they represent something that it is vital to the lives of the people in each society. They tell us what each society values most, and are most concerned with. For example, the sun god was one of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon. The sun was an omnipresent part of the lives of Egyptians because of the desert climate in which they lived. The Hebrews escaped bondage in Egypt. They believed they were able to do so through the intervention of Yahweh, their one omnipotent god. Greek civilization was divided by geography into separates city-states which were jealous of their uniqueness. In Greek culture, each city-state or polis had its own god. The Christian god involves a circumstance in which Jahweh had become one isolated god in a cosmopolitan world of many gods and many religions. In order to satisfy the religious needs of millions of people with diverse cultural experiences, yet sharing the common political situation of the Roman Empire, Yahweh had to be re-created. The Christian myth describes how this rebirth occurred. It is described in the Gospels.
The versatility of the Christian god was sufficient to sustain the growth of Christianity within the Roman Empire, and, afterwards, within Europe. In a similar fashion, Allah was created among the tribes of Arabia as they began a process of unification. The concept of one omnipotent god, begun with Yahweh, led to the creation of the three great religions of the occidental world. Though they diverged from one another, they retained similar characteristics. Monotheism was essential to provide some degree of political unity. In other words, the religion and the god, in each case, corresponded to a recognition of shared values among people.
There is a constant tension between the need for universality and the need for diversity. Unity was essential among the Hebrew tribes, if they were to be successful in escaping from bondage and maintaining their independence. Idolatry was the worst sin under this circumstance. One omnipotent god was essential. The same was true among the tribes of Arabia, whose unification was integrally associated with the Hebrew example of monotheism. Hence, Allah became the one true god above all others.
On the other hand, Christianity, as it evolved from Judaism, took many forms and had many interpretations because of the diversity of culture within the Roman Empire. The one uniting characteristic was the figure of Christ, the son of god. The one uniting ritual was the celebration of the mass, the remembrance of Christ’s last supper. How would this new religion grow and survive among the followers of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, and among the diverse cultures of Greece and Rome, and among tribal cultures on the outskirts of the empire? To do so, Christianity had to evolve. The hard edge of monotheism had to be softened through the emergence of the mysterious concept of the Trinity; one god in three parts; god, the son, and the holy spirit, still one god, but 3 in one. It had to evolve through the concept of the virginity and the divinity of Mary, the mother of god, the replacement for Isis. It had to evolve through the concept of sainthood, which was an adjustment to the need for many gods to represent many important, but distinct communities and values. If we did not already know that these developments were natural, organic fruits of the cultural circumstances, we might admire the brilliance of a governing hand.
At the same time, rulers always try to build support for their rule. It is smart politics. When they see a popular movement among the people, they identify with it, and then, for the sake of political stability, they enforce uniformity. That was the role of the emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity and then supported the campaign against “heretics”. That was also the role of political rulers throughout Europe in subsequent centuries. That was also the role of the Pope in Rome, to create the one, unified catholic church.
Cultural and political conditions change. The geographic separation between Rome and the new center of the empire at Constantinople, between a Latin and a Greek culture, compelled two separate evolutions of Christianity, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. It is important to note that, although geography and culture had necessitated the separation into two churches, both were churches which established and enforced uniformity of belief and practice throughout their respective areas. This was not comparable to the diversity of belief and interpretation which prevailed before Christianity was recognized as the religion of the state.
A church is not only a religious organization, it also becomes a political and economic institution. The Church amasses great wealth in land and property and wields considerable political influence. This inevitably introduces corruption within the church and challenges the spiritual values which the religion upholds. The long history of the Roman Catholic Church in regard to these corrupting influences and the efforts to overcome them are a case in point. A sort of climax in these struggles was reached in the 16th century as a result of an accumulation of corrupt practices at the same time that an intellectual elite, aided by the printing press, had begun to make their own interpretations about religious faith.
The Protestant Reformation reintroduced diversity of opinion. Once Luther’s initial challenge to the power of the Catholic Church succeeded, other ‘”reform” movements occurred. The Reformation was a religious, economic and political upheaval. Clerics introduced new ideas and rituals, and rulers asserted their independence from the political influence and economic demands of the Catholic Church. After nearly two centuries marked with great bloodshed and war, a consensus was reached, which recognized the three major Christian religious denominations in western Europe, to wit: the Catholics, the Lutherans and the Calvinists.
The process of change, however, was far from completed. Religion is not only a concern of rulers and clerics, it is a personal matter for millions of people in all walks of life. They have been brought up within or surrounded by certain religious environments which have deeply affected their lives in one way or another, either spiritually or socially or intellectually. The printing press, the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, and a gradual increase in literacy, all have had a profound effect on the meaning of religion in the lives of people.
Rising levels of education caused individuals to be more likely to think for themselves rather than to rely upon the explanations and authority of the clergy. Modernization increasingly required that churches respond to individual needs, rather than to the needs of the state. Separation of church and state became an important principle within western Christendom.
This brief digression into the history of religion may help us to analyze the question of god. Returning to that question now, it becomes clear that, historically, man has created god. The image of god in the religious traditions stemming from Abraham is that of a man, a father figure. In other religious traditions, other images are brought forth to represent god. God, however, is a spiritual concept. Something tangible had to be created to represent the intangible. Something material and concrete and visual had to be created to approximate an expression of the spirit. This is a different realm from that of science. Science can provide no answers to religious questions, just as religion can provide no answers to scientific questions. Yet, the limitations of our language and of our imagination require us to express spiritual concepts in material ways. Hence, mythology has played a vital role in explaining matters of the spirit when they cannot be explained in any other way. The religious fundamentalist and the atheist make the same mistake. They both expect and require literal interpretations for the mystery of the spirit. By taking the Bible literally, rather than as mythology, conclusions are reached, which contradict science and miss the point of the spiritual message embedded in the story. The atheist rejects the validity of the Bible for the same reason. They take it literally, see the contradiction with science, and, therefore, consider it unreliable as a source of truth. They see a god, as described in the Bible, sometimes appearing to be a vengeful, capricious figure, whom they cannot believe in.
On the other hand, can it be that god is a metaphor for goodness and virtue? The difference between one who does and one who does not believe in god, may be a difference in definition. To be a Christian, must one accept the special divinity of Christ, the literal interpretation of miracles the Bible says he performed, and the literal interpretation of rebirth that Christians call the resurrection? Science has no answer to questions of divinity or goodness or virtue, but neither does anyone else have any right to impose his/her belief in these matters upon anyone.
In essence, religion is a matter of personal conviction. It is also deeply embedded in human culture. As humanity draws together inexorably in an ever-smaller world, no individual, no state, no religious authority has the right to claim that they have the correct answer and others do not. Rather, it is important to recognize that all religions are the result of a common preoccupation with the mystery of life.
To sum up, tolerance of different beliefs, and respect for different religious rituals, and an appreciation of different insights into a common quest for understanding are essential. Also, it is vital to clearly separate the realms of science and religion. Every scientist needs the humility to accept the results of the experiment though it may contradict his/her preconceptions. And every person and every authority needs the humility to accept the fact that their religious belief is no more “correct” than that of anyone else.