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Interfaith Voices: Religion and science, Part II

Interfaith Voices: Religion and science, Part II


As I said in my previous column (March 2, 2019) for Interfaith Voices, the relationship between religion and science would not be so troubled if these realms didn't try to extend themselves beyond the domains where they are competent. My previous column discussed how some writers have claimed, incorrectly, that science proves there is no God and that people are machines having no cosmic significance.

Scientists, however, have no monopoly on making claims outside the arenas in which they are competent. Organized religions have sometimes attacked scientific discoveries which conflict with their theological doctrines.

The Catholic church reacted very badly to the discovery that the earth is not at the center of the solar system and that it revolves around the sun rather than vice versa. Ptolemy's earth-centered astronomy was more compatible with the literal language in the Bible. See, for example, Genesis 15: 12 -----"And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him."

After Johannes Kepler cleaned up the mathematically inadequate Copernicus system by changing circular planetary orbits to elliptical orbits, Galileo's telescope confirmed that the "rising" and "setting" of the sun was caused by the earth's rotation around its axis. This then brought him into sharp conflict with the Church, which accused him of heresy. He "repented" but stuck to his --" I still say earth moves"---conclusion privately.

Principal blame for the religious persecution of Galileo should probably be assigned to his academic enemies. Establishment astronomers who stuck with the earth-centered Ptolemaic system may have exploited the contradiction with literal scriptural passages to egg the Church into silencing Galileo. But the other major religious attack on scientific findings was not instigated by scientific rivals.

When Darwin proposed that the human race had evolved over a long period of time, this clearly conflicted with the literal creation story in Genesis. As I explained in my previous article, there is no inherent conflict between evolution and the idea that human beings were created by God, since there is no reason why creation would have to take place abruptly at one point in time. But it is true that Darwin's idea was incompatible with a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden creation story. And it did not help that some evolution enthusiasts drew religious conclusions from Darwin's discovery that went way beyond what the science could support.

Although most Christian churches have made their peace with evolution, it is still a problem with some fundamentalists and evangelicals. A few of them even continue insisting that the world was created abruptly about 6,000 years ago. They will probably continue doing this until they decide that we can take the Bible seriously without taking it literally.

The bottom line here is that we should not let either theologians or scientists get too big for their professional britches. Perhaps the main danger from science-based attacks on religion lies in the danger that they will incline us to misconceive our own nature, as I explained in my previous article.

But I suspect that the danger of religious trespassing on science is the greater one. To struggle with this danger, it would help us all to remember Thomas Hobbes's comment in "Leviathan " (1651) : "If Livy says that God once made a cow speak, and we believe him not, we disbelieve not God therein, but Livy." And, like Livy's histories, the Bible was written by human beings.

Corvallis resident Paul F. deLespinasse is professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College. He is a member of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Corvallis.


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