Yes, I am trying to start a conversation.
Within my lifetime, science has become the dominant public intellectual paradigm. The claims of fundamentalist Christianity not withstanding, it has become the primary author on matters both ontological and social. Atheism, once a minority interest, has become a badge of pride and although its connection to science isn’t absolute, scientific thought is frequently invoked to defend it.
Unfortunately, there is a widespread misunderstanding of what science is. Contrary to popular belief, science is not a bunch of facts and theories. Science is defined by its use of a method: the investigation of the universe through experimentation. Taking the conclusions from these experiments and repeating them does not make a person a scientist, anymore than a parrot quoting Hamlet’s Great Speech is an actor.
When Christian fundamentalists attack science – ostensibly to defend their literal readings of The Bible – they complain that scientific truth is in a constant state of flux. While their alternative authority is increasingly unpalatable (as well as a very post-modern and deliberate misreading of The Bible’s intention), they are identifying the strength of science: it is constantly evolving and improving. To claim that this is a weakness only suggests that they haven’t imbibed the truth in St Paul’s claim that “the wisdom of God is the folly of Man.”
Using the Straw Man of Christian fundamentalism, I move into the Straw Man of the scientist. The mistake of seeing science as a bunch of facts lead to the suggestion that science, in itself, can become a religion. And while I respect the right of anyone to live their life according to the tenets of natural selection and quantum theory, it’s not science.
If science is the application of the experimental method, religion is more difficult to define. For working purposes, I call it an interrelated collection of beliefs and behaviours that seek to explain the relationship between consciousness and the universe.
(I’ve used consciousness to avoid the gendered language of “humanity” and include the possibility of consciousness on other planets, yet undiscovered.)
It’s almost incidental, but religions tend to rely on scripture.
As soon as “scientists” goes to war with Christianity – or Islam, or Judaism – it seems to slip into being religious. It might not have had the same violent impact on human society as its competition – aside from the eugenics movement – and the label “religion” is not an insult. It’s just a clarification of what is at stake.
To end: an anecdote from my past. It was Harrow, the 1990s. A skeptic (sic) and a street evangelist were throwing down outside the cinema. The evangelist insisted that God had made the universe in six days. The skeptic countered that there were alternative cosmologies, which more readily explained the features of the physical realm. I listened for a while: one would quote Genesis, the other the Origin of Species. I have to admit that the skeptic was more convincing, but his blanket condemnation of religion was arrogant.
I humbly suggested that their conversation was not necessarily the only one possible. Without wanting to decay their ideas into a bland Golden Mean, I wondered whether a theory describing how the variety of species had evolved really undermined a parable about how consciousness became corrupted.
They both turned on me. They agreed that I wasn’t “a proper Christian.”
Yeah, I can live with that.