Science and Religion

One of my many fine readers comments thusly on the quote in this post:

Not an unreasonable argument, but irrelevant to the question of whether God exists. Most believers I know give a big yawn to the question of whether scientific cosmology or evolutionary biology actively support the supposition of God’s existence. Science can’t prove (or disprove) God’s existence, and to expect it to is a wrong-headed approach to both science and faith. For the people I know, the proof comes from the experience of God’s presence. Sometimes it’s a life-changing, single event that confirms the belief; sometimes it’s a slow but steady walk.

I love science, but these kinds of arguments are barking up the wrong tree.

This is, I take it, a standard liberal approach to faith.  It’s Karen Armstrong’s case for God.  Let’s not worry about evidence, scientific or historical; let’s not worry about philosophical arguments.  God is beyond all that — ineffable, transcendent, mysterious, encountered in prayer and meditation and ritual.  It is, I suppose, the only stand that religion can take in the face of science’s encroachments on the arguments religion used to make (and to which Krauss is responding), and it must be utterly convincing to those who have encountered God in this way.

But it scares me.  Because private faith never stays out of the public sphere.  And these encounters with God often go far beyond the experience of His presence, resulting in a cacophony of conflicting accounts and beliefs.  And religions always and everywhere claim privileges based on what these encounters reveal to their adherents.  Armstrong endorses Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA), which he describes thus:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

But how does the experience of God’s presence privilege religion to speak about how to go to heaven?  Where does the privilege end?  If God tells a parent to deny healthcare to her child, is that OK?  It’s religion’s magisterium, after all.  If God forbids a pharmacist to sell birth control, who are we to tell him that’s wrong?

Not that I impute any such beliefs to my very fine reader, whom I wish the best of health.

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One thought on “Science and Religion

  1. Rich, I’m surprised to see you characterize the “proof from experience” position as “a standard liberal approach to faith.” It seems to me anything but. It’s closer to the evangelical approach (though I hasten to add that it has nothing at all to do with commonly perceived political stances of American evangelicals). It’s the approach that says, “I have known God in a personal way,” which renders the questions of existential proof academic. Where you might justifiably point to a parallel with liberal theology is in the belief that science and faith can coexist just fine.

    Anyway, I think you’re right to be scared. I get scared, too, when I see how faith gets distorted into political positions, sometimes positions that seem utterly at odds with the moral teachings of the Bible, or whatever source document applies. My own church takes great pains to avoid taking political stances–for example on abortion, or gender and sexuality–and to acknowledge that we might not all feel the same way about these questions. Did you know that the great evangelist Billy Graham inveighed against the mixing of politics and religion, even as he served as personal counselor to presidents of both parties? Sadly, his warnings went unheeded, even by his own children. And so (in my own political view) we see large numbers of voters who identify themselves as Christian supporting policies that aid the rich and grind down the poor. Surely this is a distortion of the underlying faith.

    The question of how to know if one is hearing God right is certainly a thorny one. The smart person applies many checks and balances, including the use of one’s own brainpower. After all, as someone said — Jesus came to take away our sins, not our minds.

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