Science and Religion Winding Through a Summer’s Day
According to the Chinese calendar, 2012 is another year of the dragon. By the cyclical calendar of the United States, it’s another year of the campaign, and early indications are that it will be a fierce one. No doubt, when the post-election chill deadens the flames this winter, we’ll all be very relieved to see it over.
Already, we news consumers have been treated to institutionalized schoolyard taunts. Apparently, as a young father, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney built a shielded crate for his dog, to transport the pooch on top of the family car. President Barack Obama, for his part, dined on canine meat as a boy. We can be assured that these automotive and culinary anecdotes are a mere foretaste of the potluck fare to which we’ll be treated as the months advance.
Whatever the personal aftertastes with which voters are left, few can doubt that ballots will be cast with larger matters in mind. The economy loiters in the neighborhood between stagnation and depression. As a matter of political philosophy, secular healthcare advocates mix shouts across the intersection of human rights with those espousing freedoms of conscience. Such are the substantive topics of our day.
Still, history may show even these battles to be the seasonal oscillations of a society too comfortable that existential questions have either been answered or are immaterial. Even as we have heated debates about whether elite law-school students ought to have to pay for their own contraception, the expanding capacity of science to do is making ever more immediate the discussion about whether to do.
It will, therefore, be a welcome diversion into weightier matters to attend the Portsmouth Institute’s conference addressing “Modern Science/Ancient Faith” in the waning days of June. Every summer for the past three, the institute has hosted speakers and audiences on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, but this is the first that centers around a topic rather than a personality.
As its first election-year event, too, the institute experience will contrast all the more with the rancor of daily life. While in the midst of such decisions as drive us haphazardly through each day, the notion that we can choose what air to breathe feels frivolous, and that is what a brief pause for intellectual pursuits is like. Away from the challenges of making a living is the space to consider subtle ideas with the gravity that they deserve.
The topic of the year illustrates the point very well. How we individually balance science and faith (consciously or implicitly) will affect how we choose to live. It is not irrelevant. It should not, moreover, be a mere marker of our philosophical tribe or political party.
Yet, that is what we tend to do. It is the Sciencers versus the Faithers, like warring gangs in dancing knife duels. Pick a side.
The other option is the passive version of the same tendency: dismissing the debate as an attempt to pit apples versus oranges when no overlap should be acknowledged. The error, here, is in failing to see that science and religion really do collide, at least in their practical application in the hands of human beings.
Despite its many innovations, science has not freed humanity from our inclination toward bias, in particular the bias for one’s own will imposed upon another. Just as those who’ve abused people’s natural religious impulses have sold their own personal interests as God’s will, “the science shows” can be a key phrase in the demagogue’s arsenal.
It is to the benefit of such would-be demagogues to place excessive emphasis on the “ancient” in “ancient faith.” Thus, they give the impression that religion, particular religious doctrines, emerged once, long ago, in perfectly expressed fashion. In this view, if the Bible, for one, applies only obliquely to a modern situation, it must therefore be a fad of the past.
A faith frozen in its state millennia ago is juxtaposed with a fresh new science, full of modern comprehension of the world around us. It would be more true to suggest that what is ancient, in religion, is the framework around which we’ve ever since draped human experience, giving form to a reality that we are too limited in our vision to see.
The dragons winding their way through Chinese New Year parades have evolved in the materials used to create them. Their form remains largely the same, however.
Their import, well, that’s another matter, as is the appropriate balance of technology and tradition — one that is well worth considering for an enjoyable few days in June, in the terms of science and religion.