Friday, January 20, 2012

Science Trumps Religion

A local radio channel here in Daytona Beach always presents some Protestant minister who offers a brief message to the flock early in the morning.  I’m not sure who’s paying attention around 6 a.m., but I’m usually driving to my office then and catch it.  I could be the fellow’s only listener.

This particular day, he was fulminating about science.  The problem as he sees it is that when scientists play God, they create evil.  He cited the atomic bomb and the gruesome German medical experiments on hapless prisoners during World War II.
He could have mentioned many other example of science going awry, such as the invention of nerve gas, development of weapons of mass destruction that so enraptured the Bush Administration and the like.

Of course, in chastising science, he somehow forgot to mention what happens when religion tries to play God: little things like the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish decimation of native Americans, the Crusades, the multiple religious wars fought between Protestants and Catholics, the battle between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic, the Israeli-Arab conflicts etc. 

Instead, the voice on the radio created a strawman named science and battered it with gentle-sounding words.  Unfortunately, there is no entity called science.  Instead, there are men and women working earnestly toward an elusive target called knowledge.  Some of that knowledge belies religious teachings, but that is understandable: one field deals only with facts, the other only with belief.

However, religion and science are not natural enemies.  Initially, science had the support of religion. For centuries, Islamic and Roman Catholic leaders encouraged scientific research in the hopes of understanding God.  As a result, first in Baghdad and then in Cairo more than a millennium ago, Islamic sultans created a House of Wisdom.  They brought together great scientists of their day to work with other renowned scholars in an effort to unravel the mysteries of the world.

In the process, they created the first universities and the first systematic sites for scanning the stars while amassing new information in such diverse fields as medicine, mathematics, chemistry and biology.  When Islam grew insular, the scientists took that knowledge to Europe and helped spark the Renaissance.

Early in the second millennium, Christians were led by Roger Bacon, a Catholic monk who helped developed scientific principles.  Many more would follow in his footsteps. Astronomical observatories were often included in churches, the tallest structures in cities.  The Church would only begin to oppose science when the findings by such individuals as Copernicus and Galileo contradicted biblical teachings.

Nevertheless, religious teachings typically traveled hand in hand with science, lead by such giants as Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler from the mid-17th century to the early 18th century.  One of the fathers of modern astronomy, Kepler did not hesitate to credit God:

The more rightly we understand the nature and scope of what our God has founded, the more devoted the spirit in which that is done. (The Secret of the Universe)

Newton echoed him: His most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being...This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as the Lord over all.(Principia)

Indeed, many of the top scientists were (and are) fervently religious, hoping to find within their work more evidence of God’s effort.

The problem then isn’t with some nebulous creature called science.  The fault, as the comic strip possum Pogo once famously noted, is that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Religion has helped people endure difficult times, provided succor to the poor and hungry, offered hope and inspiration. On the other hand, throughout history, religious leaders who belong to a faith that dominates do not hesitate to attack, burn, mutilate and murder nonbelievers.

At the same time, scientists are responsible for curing diseases, extending life, sending men to the Moon and beyond, deciphering the past and raising living standards for many humans to levels unimagined 100 years ago.  Yet, scientists have also unleashed deadly weapons and raised the specter of a human-caused Armageddon.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, realized the danger after watching a test of his creation in New Mexico.  Years later, ironically on a radio show, he recalled: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”

The truth is, as John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton, wrote in an 1887 letter:"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

That’s true for science and for religion.  They are both blessed and cursed by human nature and therefore have the same failing, no matter how much a radio preacher wants to separate them.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.

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