Edited version appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on October 11, 2014.
To celebrate the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the Gandhi Alliance for Interfaith Harmony held an interfaith conference with a panel discussion on science and religion on September 27th at CSUB. The panel brought speakers from Bakersfield, Santa Barbara, and the Bay area to speak on the topic “Are Religion and Science Compatible?” Q/A with the audience of over a hundred people followed after the speakers made opening remarks, moderated by Dr. Reggie Williams of Bakersfield College.
Dr. Somik Raha gave an introduction to Gandhi’s views on science, then Dr. Bob Allison (another Bakersfield College connection) spoke from the perspective of Judaism, Imam Yama Niazi spoke from the perspective of Islam, Bhavaprana spoke from the perspective of Hinduism, and I spoke from the perspective of Christianity. Each of us who represented a particular faith was given nine questions by the Gandhi Alliance for Interfaith Harmony to address in our opening remarks. Books have been written on any single one of the questions and we were asked (told?) to cover them all in 12 to 14 minutes. It would have been interesting to attend if only to see how each of us managed to achieve that feat! To keep myself within the allotted time, I wrote out my opening comments. They are posted on my Astronomy Notes site at www.astronomynotes.com/science-religion/gandhi-conference2014.htm .For all of the speakers, the short answer to whether or not religion and science are compatible is “yes they are”. Studying the physical universe using the tools and techniques of modern science gives us a greater appreciation for the universe created by God/Allah/Yahweh/Brahma/etc. Because science and religion deal with different aspects of our human experience in the universe, they complement one another. Theology and science are different ways of trying to understand or know ourselves in the context of the universe around us; how we relate to each other on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level; understand how and why things are the way they are; and how to make things better.
Despite the attempts by fundamentalists at both extremes (religious and atheists), science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God. The fundamentalists on both sides do garner a disproportionately large amount of attention in today’s media, whether it is the news or fiction shows. The broad middle group is simply too boring or nuanced in their views to be captured in a sound bite or a five-minute scene between the commercial breaks. The fundamentalists on both sides are stuck in a 19th-century view of the only valid truth is a literal-factual truth. This is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. But my goodness, philosophy and theology have moved on since then! Also, we have a much better understanding of the religious thought and practices of the many centuries before the 19th century. People back then and most people today know that truth is more than the surface literal-factual truth.
But I wonder what if we could prove God exists with some sort of divinity meter or quantum experiment; would it make any difference? I don’t think so. Various polls have shown that something around 90% of Americans believe in God. When I read about all the crazy, stupid or deliberate ways people hurt each other, I don’t think that those things are done by the 10% who don’t believe in God. In fact, studies have shown that “religious people” who attend worship services regularly are just as prone to human frailties as those who are not so attentive to their religious practices or are non-believers. In Christianity we say that we all fall short and are in need of grace, so humility is definitely a virtue. Whenever I hear some supposedly religious authority shout condemnations or some self-righteous speech, I see someone who is either hiding some dark secret of their own or has only a “head knowledge” of their religion and not any “heart knowledge.” If the outcome of your religious practice is not a more compassionate person, then you’ve missed the point of it all.
One of the questions the panelists were given was about the development of human beings. After talking about the meaning of the creation stories in Genesis (yes, plural because there are two stories with different sequencing of events), I went on to talk about the development of our view of God in other parts of the Bible and post-Bible times. The Bible shows a development in our understanding of our relationship to God and how we should treat each other. Many Christians believe that our understanding of God and how we relate to God and each other continues to develop after the times the words were set in the Bible. God continues to create and we are part of that creation process both on a physical, materialistic level and on a consciousness or spiritual level.
Why don’t Christians update their Bible to incorporate new science findings or new religious thought? For the science findings, the reason is that the Bible is not meant to be a science textbook to be read as a source of information. Instead, it is a source of transformation. In his bestseller book “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg relates a common scene in his religion classes at Oregon State University of students arguing over the literal historicity of a story or event in the Bible. To move beyond a literal reading, Borg would say, “Believe whatever you want about whether it happened this way; now let's talk about what the story means."
The canon of the Christian Bible was set a few centuries after the books were written and after a lot of debate and discussion. When the canon was set centuries ago, there wasn’t quite as much political and cultural differences as you’ll find in Christianity today as a truly global religion. The pace of theological innovation and writings on religious topics is much too fast today to codify into a canon. Because our understanding of God and how we relate to God and each other continues to develop, the Bible is not the sole source of written knowledge about God. I’m okay with that because I don’t worship the Bible but the God of the Bible. To paraphrase F Belton Boyner Jr. in talking about the Bible as a present with a gift inside, I’m less interested in the way the truth is wrapped than in the truth itself.
last updated: October 11, 2014