Friday, April 17, 2009

Beyond the Poles: Not a Christian Nation

Here is a link to a very nice article about the idea that the US is not a christian nation. While I have tried to argue that we must move beyond the traditional Creationism vs Evolution debate in thinking about Science and Religion, part of transcendence will require speaking forcefully to those who indulge intolerance and fan its fire.

The challenge those of faith will face (and many have already risen to) is to find a meaningful pluralism that acknowledges other paths as well as the beauty and power of science.


  1. In these past eight years or so (cough cough) it has occurred to me countless times to wonder what ever happened to the separation of church and state in your great country down there. The political clout of the fundamentalist Christian right in the U.S. tends to confound us up here north of the border. And I know I am far from alone in my relief at seeing sanity restored to the Whitehouse – actually more than sanity; true statesmanship (blatant bias on my part fully acknowledged : )). Intolerance is intolerance, regardless of its guise, and fundamentalist influence within government is not conducive to a truly democratic society. I agree that in order to take the science/religion debate beyond the polarization of extremes it is necessary to cultivate genuine respect for the diversity that such a democracy is meant to protect.

  2. There seem to be three assumptions here (and in many of the other posts
    1) Being Christian means being a creationist
    2) Being Christian means being in some sense anti science
    3) Being Christian equals being a political conservative

    Now, in my experience at least, none of these three things are necessarily or even usually true. It may perhaps be partly true in some southern US states, perhaps! But step back and look at the whole of the US, now look at all denominations, then step back further and look at the many other countries where there are professing Christians. Sorry, but I think these assumptions are a rather dubious thesis. I don't even think they are mundane to the central thrust of your arguments. True, some Christians have a blind spot when it comes to creation allegories but that does not make them anti science.

    The real challenge, as you point out in your second paragraph, is 'to find a meaningful pluralism', but this has nothing to do with science. It has everything to do with the ways religious belief systems, for the most part, preach that they have an exclusive insight into religious truths.
    Now that is a big problem, it is polarising, induces intolerance and intransigence. To use the language of Robert Putnam, while building social capital in terms of in-group bonding, it does not create social capital in diverse communities where we need bridging.

  3. For me, it is fundamentalism (in any of its forms - whether religious or anti-religious) that is the problem when it comes to cultivating meaningful dialogue in the context of this issue. I do not consider myself a Christian, but have been deeply moved and inspired by many Christian teachings - and I know of several Christian denominations that are quite politically progressive and inclusive. However the fact is that vehement fundamentalist movements do exist - and that some have had a pretty major influence on political mandates, and on the silencing of other more moderate voices.

  4. I hope I have not conveyed the sense that "Being Christian means being a creationist". It is clear that the fundenmentalism that has muddied the Science vs Religion debate is only one very specific form of Christainity. The Catholic Church, after all, has been quite vocal about the fact that it has no problem with evolution. As discussed above lots of Christian denominations are quite thoughtful and nuanced in their understanding of their own scriptures. While I am sure to disagree with them about the nature of belief, god, soul etc our disagreements will be civil and based on mutual respect. The respect, from my side, will come because I see in them an honest attempt to meet the questions life poses with compassion and integrity. The respect from their side comes because they recognize their path as but one in a world-wide continuum of spiritual longing. That is all good.

    So the problem is not with Christainity, its with fundamentalism. In this country fundamentalism takes its potent forms via Christianity. Elsewhere it takes other forms. Its this kind of literalism that we must work against.

  5. @he Occasional Reporter

    You are right that this is a broader issue than just science and religion but I think the idea of acknowledging a multitude of paths with have to include an acknowledgment of science's place.

  6. Jayne, Adam, thanks, I think you have summed it up nicely. When you say "...include an acknowledgment of science's place." I am also in complete agreement with you. Science is so much more than 'just science', it is a window into the infinite awe and sacredness of being that I call God. It informs my mind and transforms my soul. I believe in a kind of progressive revelation where in the early stage of our existence our knowledge of God was instinctive and founded on the experience of awe in nature. This was codified in religious teachings. Now some would say that the next stage in revelation was based on God's direct intervention to more fully inform us of His will. Hence the Christian scriptures. For me, at least, the third stage of revelation is science, because as it explores nature it is also revealing more about God.
    To sum it up, revelation began with awe in nature and now it continues with awe in science. You might say that it is really the same thing.

  7. @occasional reporter. I wonder what you mean by revelation since I have been asked about this with my emphasis on "experience". I have said that experience is about our own response to the world and can not be used as a claim to a public set of pronoucements or laws. I think you are getting at something similar in that within that response can be found, if one chooses, a sense of divinity (a'la William James). I also agree that in past ages that sense of awe became codified into scriptures which had both that sense of awe and various social and political controls which were put ion for other reasons. How do you think people are to approach their traditions documents now?

  8. Adam, Jayne and O.R.,

    There's something more fundamental here than some parsing out of science or religion as to roles or prominence etc. etc.; that is, what is the relation between knowing and acting? In other words, one of our underlying assumptions in western culture is that knowing the right things leads to right action: any problem before us stems from ignorance- get rid of the ignorance and you'll get rid of the problem.

    But knowing is not our faculty for acting; I can sit here and learn all that I care to via the web without stepping one foot into the the world at large. Our faculty for acting, for the way we step into our world is faith: we act according to our beliefs in a situation. Faith is not belief without evidence as often stated by "non-believers". Faith is simply the noun form of the verb believe.

    I bring this up here because we're talking about science having "place" in a similar manner as religion. But until science is willing to be openly conversant about beliefs, I don't know that it can; it's not because faith is intrinsically a religious concept- it isn't. Faith is a uniquely human faculty that arises from packing the heat of neo-cortexes: we more than react to a whiff,we consider its aroma. Whenever we are posed in a situation where we can consider our course of action, we draw on our powers of knowing and analysis etc. and believing in our decision, we step forward.

    I can know all there is to know about evolutionary theory; but if there isn't anything there that I can form into a belief, or something to believe in, then it can't inform my faith: that is, it can't condition my way into the world: unless of course, I want to utilize certain aspects of it to substantiate my belief about industrial greed....

    I don't know that science has the existential muscle to consider knowledge in terms of faith. What I see science do, is resort to its fall back position of "certainty" in the guise of hard-headed reason and leaving faith for the soft-headed: In other words, science does its trick of pushing away the things that mess up a tidy schematic or exists outside of their specialty. If you eliminate enough data, anyone can achieve certainty- if they are willing to live with the distortions.

    May I suggest a new belief that I see in the evolutionary dynamic?

    I see in evolution that life creates itself in ever more complexity to the point of human being, who now endowed with a human level of consciousness, has a say in how it evolves that no other creature has; what then should we do with such power? Act like our predecessors or like something larger than ourselves? It's our choice to make- I'm no scientist per se, but doesn't this look like an idea with enough credibility to put our faith in?


  9. I completely agree with gottschalk. If anyone wants to understand the issue of science vs. religion they must stop asking "what" and start asking "why." Why do people believe as they do? Why do they believe/cling in and to science? Why do they believe/cling in and to religion? And I guarantee you those answers won't be found in the laboratory or in the temple/church/synagogue. They will be found across the dinner table from one another.

  10. On Revelation

    About eight years ago I took Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People) out for a boat ride on Lake Minnetonka. After some speed and wild turns, I slowed the boat to cocktail cruising speed so that everybody could talk and sip; a question came to life and I posed it to the wind swept rabbi: if God reveals a truth, and also makes a brain with the ability to discover truth, how do we decide between the two when there is a conflict between truth by revelation and truth by discovery. It was too big of a question for cocktails and company, but I've been living with it ever since.

    One of the ways I've come to answer that question is by treating revelation in the same manner David Bohm treats theories when he says, "a theory is neither true or false but is valued by its ability to give insight into something seen". I would argue that something like the biblical text doesn't have the power to make something true in and of itself; rather, like a theory, its power resides in its ability to illuminate something that exists for us to see and experience. Truth that only exists on pages really isn't truth is it? At least we couldn't call it beautiful.

    So I now give scientific insight equal footing with Biblical insight; I think the truth that we discover should be in dialogue with the truth that is revealed or inspired. In either case, we will measure them through our experience which hopefully is deepening as we mature.

  11. @Connie, If I were sitting across the dinner table from you, I'd clink your glass.

  12. I would agree with much that has been written above and take some issues, or at least ask for clarification, at other points. One point we all have in common is the sense of the lived quality to the way these questions will be taken on. Connie, I agree that theorizing in any form will only take us so far. The question will be how to balance the technical work of trying understand the nature of consciousness or interpretations of quantum mechanics with the real sense that one wants knowledge to be in the service of wisdom. I think gottschalk's emphasis on the role of action, praxis is the word the existentialists used I belief, is right on. If we are, first and foremost, embodied then we will always have to come back to our actions in the world.

  13. Adam, revelation is such a loaded word that that we are bound to choose different meanings for it. Still I will blunder on despite the danger:) I see it in the first place as natural revelation where experiences such as the numinous infuse us with a sense of other-worldness and awe. This, I think, you call experience and response, nice neutral terminology. I suppose we could call it experiential revelation though we might differ about what it reveals. In my language this is not God revealing Himself but rather God being revealed when we examine aspects of His creation (I include scientific examination in this).

    As you rightly say, our private experiential revelation cannot be used as a claim to a public set of laws. But private revelations are always severely limited by our own capacities. This is why we share our revelations so that we can tap into the wisom of our shared consciousness. Philosophy is a good analogy here. Philosophers develop their insights through internal reflection (thinking about thinking) but if they had not shared these insights amongst themselves we would not have this wonderful body of philosophical thought that we have today.

    What I am saying is that one can gain genuinely new insights which go beyond our private insights by sharing/debating/analysing private experiential revelation. And this is precisely the basis of religious belief systems. The problem is that society has (inevitably) dressed the belief systems in its history, cultural clothing and biases and then cursed it with the imperatives of dogma.

    I deal with this problem first by opening my mind to private experential revelation in a sense of burning curiosity and willingness to learn. I then, using these insights, study the shared revelations critically and analytically, discarding historical factors, cultural clothing, dogma and biases to arrive at my own private synthesis. This is rather how a student philosopher might deal with the public body of philosophy. Though the viewpoints of his professor are probably the received dogma of his institution :)

  14. With regard to the term revelation, I see it as loaded word also. This brings us back to the issue of language. While I read what has been written here about that sense of 'revelation', part of me resonates quite strongly with it in terms of the underlying essence of 'awe' that is being described - and very well articulated I might add. However another part of me cringes at that word - just as I cringe when I see 'God' described as 'Him' (the tradition of attaching gender to such intangibles has not served women well).

    Our beliefs are encoded in our language, and those beliefs themselves are ultimately loaded with deeper meaning. Unfortunately some of those beliefs have been used to distort the very sense of awe that I think all of us here can agree is at the heart of our deeper explorations. Science, philosophy and religion utilize very different languages to describe what may very well be the same 'thing' - however we all have our respective emotional reactions to those languages based on our existing beliefs.

    And the issue of deconstructing our beliefs (and truly discarding our biases)... well that takes things in a whole other direction :) Nevertheless, I do feel that it's possible to approach these issues involving the sharing of our lived experiences with respect and compassion, as long as we each acknowledge that language itself (no matter what form it takes) is limited. And this is probably why some of the best expressions of existential awe are found through art, music and poetry - which has a beautiful way of transcending the very limitations we are struggling with here.

  15. Occasional Reporter, I like where you're going with this. A few years back I listened to a religious thinker interviewed on public radio. I can't remember his name but I remember this point: You either have to have an agreed upon and fixed canon of ideas in which anybody can interact from their point of view because they are able to utilize its common language and metaphor, or, you have to have a fixed hermeneutic (theory of interpretation) from which you can look at a multiple of "canons" with shared interest. wow-"shared interest" came out of my fingers before I knew it- I think there might be something here. To finish this guy's idea though- we have to have one or the other; we need one constant. Myself, I've been favoring a constant hermeneutic looking at diverse canons, which you seem to be utilizing yourself.

    Shared Interest: Above, Adam writes, "One point we all have in common is the sense of the lived quality to the way these questions will be taken on." It seems to me that a basis for any hermeneutic is shared interest; and when you consider that the word interest is built from the latin, inter-esse, a mixing of essences if you will, the idea becomes more exciting. (such a dowdy word like hermeneutics needs all the help it can get.)

    So what is our shared interest here? Adam, when you develop the idea of Sacred, you seem to be implying that as a scientist, you seek to relate to this universe in a manner beyond its being experimental fodder. For myself, I'm interested in re-establishing the genius represented in subjective being: this faculty of ours that shapes experience. (Ironically, both science and creationist christianity have been joined at the hip in marginalizing it.) Science has equated subjective with arbitrary. But they're not in any way equal; unless you want to in like manner make water and air equal (=) by the fact that they share in properties of fluids.

    That said, I think we all want to guard against anything arbitrary; a shared hermeneutic will have to address this as well.

  16. But Jayne, if God were a her, then we would have a nagging god and not the strong judging god we currently enjoy! ;)

  17. Careful there gottschalk, I may just have to psychoanalyze that statement...
    (Dr. Jung might wonder about that anima of yours :))

  18. Seriously though Jayne, your point about language is a good one. When I listen to scientist's describe their love for math, it usually involves something like, "numbers aren't fuzzy; there's no ambiguity of meaning" etc. So behind this love for math is something more than its utility, it fills an existential need as well: A world comprised by numbers and formula is a tidy and comfortable world.

    The true use of words take courage; their genius stems from them not being numbers, as all numbers can really do is count: Words can convey. We mistakenly use verbal language when we make them behave like numbers in situations that call for something beyond plotting values on scales. We're mistaken when we use the word God like we do numbers, which people in our scientific culture are so likely to do: not because this is proper, but because it's expected. I now see words like doorways not definitions; a word though not being the thing itself, opens a way into my involvement with a thing.

    God is a word that opens to something that exists beyond the word. Though I'm not one for prayers, a favorite prayer of mine is, "God deliver me from god". Then on those days where I can't get out of my own way I call on my other prayer at hand- "God, deliver me from me! aaargh!"

    The God pronoun thing bothers me as well. Sometimes, I use the third person plural, they.

  19. It's tricky territory for sure. While I do believe it's important to be thoughtful about our use of language, there are dangers involved in being overly pedantic about it too (the last thing we need in these kinds of dialogues is an Orwellian 'thought police' approach to the monitoring of every word - killing the creative/expressive process).

    As for the issue of the language of mathematics, I'm afraid I'm out of my depth with that one - it's just not a forte of mine. But I have heard scientists speak of it with passion, and I have to defer to their insights in that context, since I have far less clarity of vision through that particular 'window'(!)

  20. Oh, mathematicians can get downright religious about numerical measurement. That's why its fun to poke at them a bit. :)

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