Science and Religion: Debate or Dialogue?

I saw a post a week or so ago about a formal debate between science and religion. I did not read because I think the idea of a debate between science and religion is absolutely ludicrous. The two fields need to establish some serious lines of communication, to set up a permanent dialogue, not debating which is more relevant or more important or whatever. As I said in Part 1, they are not mutually exclusive and there is a close symbiotic relationship between the two: you cannot do religion without taking science into consideration.

By that, I do not mean that religion should be refuting science or vice versa. Rather, religion needs to account for and incorporate the latest scientific discoveries into its interpretation of Scripture and its explanation of its message. For you to understand what I mean by all of that, we need to set forth some conceptual definitions. I am going to skip defining religion since I already did that in Part 1.

All cultural systems, whether we are talking religion, science, politics, or whatever, uses symbols to convey their message. These symbols can be written texts, mathematicl formulas, graphic media like paintings or statues, or even dramatic media like plays or rituals.

Symbols convey meaning, whether they are words, pictures or actions. Any one symbol is open to interpretation within the social and cultural context in which it is used. For example, the Crucifixion of Christ is understood somewhat differently in Lake Forest, Illinois, a wealthy and predominately white Anglo-Saxon, well-educated,wealthy, Protestant suburb of Chicago than it is in Pilsen, a heavily Hispanic (mostly Mexican-American), Roman Catholic, working class, less educated neighboorhood of Chicago. That’s because the social structural differences: class, ethnicity, denominational affiliation, economic factors, etc.

So, even within a given religion, say Christianity, how a specific symbol is understood nu a given believer is directly related to a number of non-religious social factors. Religious symbols, in fact all symbols, are multi-vocal, that is, they have more than one possible interpretation, more than one meaning and there is a direct correlation between how a social actor interprets a symbol and that actor’ socio-cultural background.

Now, something that needs to be added here, and that “confuses” the issue even more, is the social actor’s history. That actor’s socio-cultural background is not static, but rather a product of that actor’s socio-cultural history. My socio-cultural background right this minute is not the same as it was when I was a teenager. I have gone through a lot of changes because of my life experiences.

A note here: When I use the term “social actor” I am not necessarily referring to one individual human being. Social actor can refer to a collectivity of human beings who can be said to act as if they were an individual. For example, Microsoft can be a social actor, as in its attempted takeover of Yahho. By extension, social action can refer to the actions of a single person or a collectivity, if that collectivity is acting as if it were an individual. [For more on these concepts, I recommend you read Max Weber’s Economy and Society or Alfred Schutz’s Phenomenology of the Social World.]

We can consider institutionalized sciene and institutionalized religion as social actors. Remember what I said in Part 1: science is about knowledge and religion is about faith or belief.

A thousand years ago, Western knowledge was not anywhere near as comprehensive as it is today, so people looked to religion for explanations, for understanding. But over time, Western knowledge became more and more comprehensive. Western understanding of phenomena like the makeup of the universe, the human body, the human psyche shifted from religion to science.

Unfortunately, because of the political and social history of Western religion, it resisted that shift. Institutionalized religion had acquired a great deal of political and economic power that it was very reluctant to give up and it felt that ceding understanding and explanation authority to science would challenge that wealth and power; whuch is exactly what did happen.

As society came to depend more and more on scientific explanation for mundane matters, and became less dependent on religion, there was a shift in the political landscape. Political and economic influence shifted more and more over time to secular arenas. It is this shift that finally led to the establishment of secular government and a dissapation of that power into the hands of many individuals rather than one divinely anointed ruler.

So, the increase in knowledge – the rise of science – is directly related to the shift in power from the religious institutions and those social actors sanctioned by religion to secular institutiobs and those social actors sanctioned by those secular institutions. All this leads us to the most secular and most diffused system of political power known to man – democracy.

This is why separation of church and state is so essential to a democracy. Religious authority in the West is grounded its monotheism. In its crudest form, religious authority is invested in a sacred king, who is both king and god – the Ceasars. That shifted to the concenpt of divine right – the human king has authority granted by the Supreme Being. As Western society became more secularized, this divine right shifted from one man to the country [ not the people so much, but the institutionalized power structure of the country. Classic examples of this are manifest destiny in the USA and other extreme forms of nationalism elsewhere.

In a democracy, a true democracy, this divine right to rule is vested in the people themselves. Here in the United States, we talk the talk, but we no longer walk the walk, if we ever really did walk the walk. Sice the fundamentalist revivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we seem to be shifting back to a divine right vested in the political instutions and, if we do not reverse the trend, we are headed for a theocracy or even a sacred king type of political structure.

History works in fits and spurts. Three steps forward, one step back. But, in the long run, we make what I consider progress, although others might disagree. Sooner or later, we will reach the point where we have a true democracy that still has a place for religion, although that place will not be one of institutionalized power. Religion that has institutionalized power becomes corrupt and abusive. Religion, and especially Christianity, was not meant to have instutionalized power. That goes against the heart of its message. More on that next time. Until then, peace!


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