I just finished reading the novel “Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver. In it, we follow two families living on the same house lot in different centuries. One theme appears in both centuries; the relationship between religion and science.
It’s understandable that there would be debate and confusion after Charles Darwin first published “On the Origin of Species.” Even though science was already embedded in 19th century life, it had to function in a household of religious fundamentalism.
People read the Bible literally. Suggesting that people came from apes was simple heresy, when the Genesis story was clear we were created man and woman by God. In the novel, the struggle of a science teacher to teach his students about Darwin’s ideas is repressed at every turn by his employer and his insistence on a search for truth has consequences.
One would think that in the 21st century this conflict between religion and science might have been settled. We could wish!
We now live in an era of “fake news,” “hoaxes,” misinformation, rival news sources, lack of responsibility and blaming, and so much lying and lack of integrity among our “leaders,” that truth is often on the scaffold.
Truth is at the heart of both science and religion. But these days, any concept of truth is threatened to such an extent, the foundation of both science and religion has eroded.
That’s a shame! Both science and religion have much to offer the human community, especially if they are given mutual respect.
They are not meant to be in conflict with each other but in a complementary relationship. It’s just that their purpose is different. Science is about facts; religion is about meaning. Let science observe and experiment to establish fact. Let religion speak to the deeper meaning questions of life. Together, they can enhance life as we know it.
For instance, if people could get past the biblical literalism and read the creation story in context, they would discover meaning that scientific fact would have little interest in contradicting.
Written at a time when the Hebrew people had only recently been freed from exile in Babylon, that Genesis story pictures creation in a wholly different way than the Babylonian creation story. Marduk and Tiamat are the main characters in a Babylonian, dysfunctional, divine family. Marduk cuts Tiamat in two to make the heavens out of one half of her body and the earth out of the other. Human beings are derived from the blood of deicide.
The Hebrew creation story is radically different and provides a far more uplifting meaning for the human adventure. If you read the Genesis story in context, not as a scientific account, there is meaning and truth to be discovered. Forget about facts. Which story has more meaning for the elevation of the human community: created good out of the dust of the earth, a little lower than the angels and in the image of the creator in Genesis; or, the product of a power hungry deity and his act of murder?
Today, science is clear about our planet. If one has the courage to stop and look, the studies are overwhelming,.
We are slowly but surely endangering all life on earth with our attitudes of plunder and pillage. Wilderness is evaporating along with the species that reside there. Oceans are warming along with the ice sheets that expand them. Fires and floods are more frequent as more farms fail. Just look at the facts.
In the same way, religion is clear about our planet. We are stewards, not owners. We are caretakers, not landlords. We are finite, not infinite. What we have been gifted is good, all of it, and it all works together in harmony (and if we don’t perceive and believe it; science will investigate and show us).
In the meantime, science can be perverted in the interests of materialism. The search for truth can be sacrificed on the altar of the search for profit. So environmental destruction can be excused in the interests of new energy sources or new military hardware. We have to ask, must science assist in a new nuclear arms race? What truth will that reveal?
Religion can also be perverted. We’ve seen it used throughout history to foment hatred and division, conflict and warfare. Why do we allow cousins; Christians, Jews and Muslims, to demonize and hate the other? What wisdom or truth is there in that?
Today, people are in conflict over wearing a mask in the midst of a pandemic. Many doubt the science that tells us it is a major tool for stopping the spread of the virus. Others brush off the meaning behind the mask, that it is a gift to others, a sign of loving the neighbor.
Science and religion could work together for good to eradicate this plague. They aren’t in conflict. Fact and meaning are two different things and working together they make us more whole. Separate and without the truth they both offer, we are left unsheltered.