The millennia-old battle is reaching its climax. Science has already claimed victory in Europe, religion reigns supreme in the Middle East, and the United States is still up for grabs.
This conflict of paradigms has been waging since humans started looking for answers. It is the most emotionally charged debate of our time and will determine the future of our planet.
Who are we supposed to believe when it comes to the things that we can’t comprehend? Should we place our faith in religion, with its cryptic rules and promise of eternal happiness, or should we trust science, which creates amazing technology but discovers more questions than answers? In this increasingly polarized world it seems as if we are being forced to declare allegiance to one side or the other and join the fight.
Evolution vs. creationism, under God vs. indivisible, merry Christmas vs. happy December—each side is passionately opposed to the other and is convinced its own righteousness. Depending on which part of the world you live in, you are a hero or a villain depending on which side you choose. Where does this leave the average person who just wants to be the best person they can be and find some small sense of purpose in this life?
The evolution of my view on this topic over the last thirty years has loosely paralleled the evolution of the views of my country over the last 100 years. American culture was dogmatically religious in the early century, rejected religion in the sixties, and now is extremely polarized. The question as we move forward is: can science and religion coexist in modern society?
My family regularly attended church in my childhood. We belonged to a small Methodist congregation. I remember feeling a sense of awe hearing the ancient stories of my religion amongst the backdrop of beautiful stained glass windows and artifacts. During the week, I tried to be a good kid because I had the sense that someone was watching over me.
As I grew a little older we attended church less frequently, but when we did I used my time in the pew to do some serious contemplation. As the pastor went on with his sermon, my attention would float between his words and the thoughts that his words sparked in my imagination about the nature of reality. Maybe I should have listened more, but the amount of time I spent meditating on life was very meaningful to me.
Going to church always made me feel safe and part of something larger, but at the same time my intuition was forming a different image of deity that my pastor described. I had a hard time imagining God as a person on a cloud or heaven as a place in the sky, but having a different view never really bothered me much. I enjoyed being in the reflective environment that church provided because it allowed me to continue my personal discovery, even if it was different than those around me.
My Introduction to Science
At about the same time in my life my dad bought a telescope. Looking at stars, planets, nebulae, and galaxies through its lens on crisp Nebraska nights sparked an intense interest in astronomy. I couldn’t get my hands on enough books about the vast and exotic universe. The ideas I was learning were so intriguing they added to the sense of reverence I picked up from church.
When I was in junior high our church attendance diminished to include only holidays and a few other appearances, but I squeezed in enough to get confirmed. On one of our confirmation trips we took a trip to a catholic church. I was really fascinated by how different it was from ours. They had all of these traditions and rituals that we never had. Was I missing out on some sort of benefit from not having these practices in my church?
Religion Isn’t a Free Market Enterprise
After the experience I started to think about other religions including non-Christian faiths. I found it very suspicious that most people were the same religion as their parents, and their parent’s parents, and so on. For example, I was a Methodist because my parents were. They took me to church, so I became a Methodist. The fact that religion wasn’t a free-market enterprise troubled me to some extent. I knew that people could change religions if they wanted, but very few people did.
When I was old enough to realize that different religions disagreed with each other, even to the point of war, I was even more disturbed. The way I saw it, you had one group of people born into a religion on one side fighting another group born into another religion on the other side. If chance had swapped their places of birth, they would still be fighting each other but from opposite sides. It didn’t make any sense.
In high school, my favorite classes were sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, natural science, astronomy, etc. I started to sense how some of the things I was learning conflicted with what I was taught in church, but I was able to reconcile these differences to some degree by paying less attention to my pastor and more to my intuition.
Instead of taking the Bible literally, I took it metaphorically. For example, I had no problem believing in both evolution and creationism. To me the seven days of creation could have really meant seven hundred million years. Conveniently, the order of creation according to the bible loosely matched the order according to Darwin. That was enough for me.
Eastern Religions and Atheism
When I went to college, my church attendance came to a screeching halt, but my contemplation of the universe was just getting started. I was being exposed to a many ideas that I had never heard of before including atheism and eastern religions. I was shocked that people existed who didn’t believe in God. I distinctly remember one of my biology professors emotionally repeating over and over while pounding the podium, “There is no ghost in the machine!” If he was so convinced that God didn’t exist, I wanted to know why.
I also started to notice the bumper-sticker war. First the religious fish. Then the Darwin fish. Then the Darwin fish eating the religious fish. Then the religious fish eating the Darwin fish. What was happening? My warm safe childhood was giving way to a cold and uncertain world. Not only was there a difference in opinion, but people were picking a side and putting down the other.
I started to look at my religion from a different perspective now that I was removed from my childhood frame of reference. As I talked with atheists I started to understand why they believed what they did. They helped me to realize that politics played a large part in religion. I learned that the books of The Bible were pieced together from early scripture by government and church leaders according to social agendas. I realized that many church leaders use fear of God as a tool to influence their congregations. This, along with lack of evidence that God existed, was enough to take away the atheists’ faith.
The eastern religions seemed to offer a fresh perspective on spirituality. There was less emphasis acting a certain way in order to get into heaven and more of an emphasis on awareness of the present moment. Their view of God was closer to the one I had formed while daydreaming in church: an omnipresent energy and consciousness with unlimited potential. I learned how to meditate to continue my conscious growth, but I wasn’t yet ready to renounce all earthly possessions.
I, like people, found it hard to figure out where I fit in. I was open to listen to all points of view, and they each had some good points. I tend to believe that when someone feels passionately about something, there must be some morsel of truth in what they believe. The problem is that there are so many passionate opposing points of view.
One unsettling problem with our current polarized state is the hypocrisy that occurs when one side contravenes its own values to condemn the other. The religious side has a tendency to judge anyone who is not in their particular religion. Some claim that all non-believers, even good ones, are somehow lesser people and are condemned to hell. People who do not conform tend to be shunned.
The scientific side has a tendency to judge the faithful as simplistic and dim-witted. Some have a very condescending attitude towards religious people. Symbols of religion and even the word “God” have become taboo in some places.
Ironically, withholding judgment is a central value of both sides. In the Bible it is written to “judge not, lest you be judged,” but many still do. The anti-religious camp preaches acceptance of all walks of life, yet many are un-accepting of religious people.
Whenever I see an extremely polarized situation, I tend to believe that there is more to it than each side claims. As humans, we have a strong tendency to pick a side; but before you pick yours, think about this: how can such a large number of people on both sides strongly believe such seemingly conflicted views? Is one side right and therefore intelligent, and the other side stupid?
The principle of paradigm teaches us that each side has logical beliefs within their frame of reference. A paradigm is like the operating software in a computer. It’s as if one side is running Windows and the other is running Mac OS. Applications that work within their own operating systems are completely useless to the other.
This is the way I see it: The truth about our reality is so complex that humans are incapable of completely comprehending it. A handful of people in the earth’s history have been able to raise their consciousness to a level that brought them closer to understanding reality. After doing so, they wanted to share what they had seen with the rest of us. The problem was that it could not be explained by clumsy human languages, so they did the best they could through metaphor and example.
Let’s use two examples of enlightened beings that are familiar to many Americans: Jesus and Einstein. At first you might think I’m crazy for comparing the two since they are the crown jewels of two major opposing forces, but I like to image the two sharing a conversation over a beer after a long day at work. Do you think they would argue, or enjoy each other’s company?
I bet that Jesus was a pretty cool guy back in his day. He tried to communicate his wisdom to the rest of us using metaphor, stories, and setting a good example; but think about what that message had to go through before it got into a modern day church. Many of the people who recorded what he said did so years after the fact. Of all the documents written, only some survived, before being copied and translated over the years.
Long after he was gone, church leaders tried to communicate his message by interpreting the writings in their own words. They formed a set of rules around these interpretations and further spun the message. Add in politics, corruption, and two thousand years and his message becomes blurred.
I bet Einstein was a pretty cool guy too. He was able to get a glimpse of reality through his own lens. He communicated what he saw to us using his familiar language: science. Even today very few people really grasp what Einstein saw, instead putting their own spin on his theories. For example, a person can use relativity as an excuse to justify any behavior.
Einstein himself had an admiration for religion. Although he wasn’t a religious person, he studied the Bible and was familiar with religious lore. Many people confuse his famous quote, “God does not play dice with the universe,” as a confirmation that he was an atheist. He may or may not have been an atheist, depending on your definition, but the quote actually is referring to his distaste for the idea of randomness in the universe. He preferred order.
I imagine the conversation over a beer to go something like this:
Jesus: “You know, Einstein, you can move mountains if you have but the faith of a mustard seed.”
Einstein: “You might be on to something, Jesus, I’m starting to realize through my studies that the potential in the universe is amazing”
“Just curious, do you think God exists?”
Einstein: “I think that it depends on your point of view. Truth, to some extent, is relative to the beholder. Whether or not God exists isn’t what matters, it’s faith that matters.”
Jesus: “Damn, Einstein, that’s deep.”
Both science and religion agree that a person who strongly believes in something can do amazing things. People in perilous situations such as prisoners, or the stranded, have a better chance of surviving if they have a strong sense of purpose. Athletes can achieve amazing feats when they have faith in themselves. Why this happens is subject to interpretation depending on your perspective, but everyone can agree that the phenomenon exists.
I believe that if you threw not only Jesus and Einstein into a room, but Buddha, Mohammad, and any other enlightened figure, they would have more in common than not. It’s the interpretation of their different messages that conflict.
So Who Wins our Faith?
I personally think religion and science can compliment each other if approached with an open mind. Even though I understand the shortfalls of my own religion I don’t renounce it. It’s part of my heritage and played a large role in the formation of my ancestors’ values which ultimately influenced my own. Even if I disagreed with every word the church said, I would always be able to find value in the original message.
I am sure the most conservative church leaders would label me a heretic for my unconventional views. Even so, I have yet to reject organized religion. It seems to me that people today are too quick to throw away their ancient heritage and prematurely latch onto new ideas. At the same time I think that we should each be able to interpret the teachings of the greats using critical thinking.
Considering that congregations in the U.S. are hemorrhaging members, they would be well served by reaching out to other ways of thinking for their own survival lest they end up like Europe where religion is almost non-existent. I wish that more places of worship in this world were open minded enough to welcome discussion from not only other religions, but science as well.
Although I am fascinated with science, I don’t think that we should ever be so bold as to think that we know it all. There are still many things in the universe that can’t be quantified. What we believed to be true in the past about this world has been shattered many times throughout history. Who’s to say it won’t shatter again?
Even though I think that both can coexist, I can’t blame you for choosing either side. Ultimately, as long as you use critical thinking and respect, I don’t think it matters which side you choose.
What matters is faith. The beliefs you hold about yourself and the universe will dictate your reality. Where do you place your faith? In God? In yourself? In science? In people? I have faith that you will choose wisely.