Science vs. Religion: Debate Derailed?

An ages-old theme resurfaced in the current Scientific American, namely, the “problem” of whether there should even be a dialog between people of science and people of faith. Put that way, right there you can see the lines being drawn in the sand: if you are on the other side of that line, experience has taught me that you are the enemy, and we cannot even talk, and the real “problem” is one of “containment”: how do we draw a circle in the sand and confine you to it?

In the July feature article “Should Science Speak to Faith?” , Scientific American contributors Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss debate “about the best ways to oppose religiously motivated threats to scientific practice or instruction.” Both are scientists, both work in their spare time to keep Creationism out of the classroom, and they don’t always necessarily agree on methodology.

This isn’t really about religion, or science, or even philosophy. It’s a tactical debate. With all due credit to the scientists, I think they and their host publication overlooked an obvious fact. It’s really a political issue.

Put that way, why would scientists be more qualified to critique the politics of the American classroom than, say, photography or speed-boat racing? For that matter, why would prominent TV evangelists be qualified to tell Americans what scientific content is appropriate for our children?

Here at, there’s no question that there’s a battle for the minds of American children, no question that Creationism belongs in Sunday School and not high school Biology, and no question that we get our fair share of seriously disturbed hate mail because we say: the evidence is in. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, early hominids go back over a million years, and homo sapiens emerged a hundred thousands years ago (give or take), spreading to Europe around 40,000 years ago.

We get even more mail for saying that there is no place for teaching Creationism as a serious theory of science, side-by-side with the accumulated evidence of thousands of years of research and testing, just as if Evolution is only just another unsubstantiable opinion.

And we get no thanks for suggesting that, if you were going to teach Creationism, you would teach it as part of a survey of world religions, many of which have their own theories of creation, being sure to include the views (as we’ve written before) of Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and my personal favorite, Navajo.

But what is taught in American public schools is a political decision, and if you don’t like it, you can teach your kids yourself, or put them in a private school that subscribes to your personal views. And there are many valid reasons for doing so, but there are no valid reasons for trying to require the children of other parents to absorb your views too.

Instead of wasting time debating “Science vs. Religion”, perhaps we need to stop, step back, and take a fresh look.

Over the ages the world has honored many scientists – including Einstein – with deep, strongly held religious convictions. They didn’t see a conflict with their science. There are also many religious leaders, including the Vatican’s own astronomers, who don’t see a firm grasp of the Big Bang as in any way conflicting with their religion.

This is the mature, grown-up outlook. The desire to coerce the physcial manifestations of the entire universe into conformance with one’s personal views is the hallmark of an entirely different and unwholesome mindset.

The June National Geographic carried an article on botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (b. 1707, Sweden). Linnaeus is credited with the modern system of taxonomy, by which we classify and name all our plants, and even with the name homo sapiens for our species. Was he an “evolutionist?”

“On the contrary, he heartily embraced the prevailing creationist view of biological origins, which stipuated that studying nature reveals evidence for the creative powers and mysterious orderliness of God. He wasn’t such a pious man, though, that he sought nothing but godliness in the material world … He believed that humankind should discover, name, count, understand, and appreciate every kind of creature on Earth.”

There you go.

Lighten up, scientists and creationists.

Our personal Gods are not going to “go away” because somebody else’s is different. The flip side: the personal theologies of certain American geographic regions don’t get to tell the rest of the world what to think, how to act, and how to educate their kids – and you have only to look as far as Baghdad to see why.

Part of the beauty of a personal faith is that it’s personal. And we should honor that. If some religious leaders have lost sight of that, we don’t have to accept that as a valid reason why we should subsidize and patronize everyone else’s personal gospels in order to enjoy and savor our own.

I don’t see a conflict between Science and Religion, per se. What I see are global political conflicts between political demagogues acting in the name of the religions they claim to represent, but don’t.

I won’t live the required future centuries to see it, but it would be nice for humankind to get to a simpler and more benevolent day where others’ religious beliefs were honored as sacred as our own – even when we didn’t personally subscribe to them.

If Americans can pause to rue the institutionalized destruction of “different” native American beliefs, values and culture, then surely we owe ourselves, as modern-day Americans, the same courtesy.

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