Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science and Religion

[Education is a stained-glass window at Yale commissioned from the Tiffany Glass Company]

I am one of the panelists for the Texas Faith blog of the Dallas Morning News. The question posed to us last week was "How would you make a case for mutual engagement between science and religion?"

But here is how the question was given in the newspaper today:

"How would you make the case to scientists for mutual engagement between science and religion?"

Those are two very different questions. I would have framed my answer differently if I had known I was addressing scientists instead of a more general audience. So please take that into consideration as you read my response and those of the other panelists.

Here is what I said:

KATIE SHERROD, Episcopal lay activist, Diocese of Fort Worth:

Nowhere is the conversation between science and religion more important than at the intersection of what science teaches us we can do with what we know and what religion teaches us we should do with what we know.

When we separate science and religion we are left with two of the most frightening images in our modern world--that of a scientist operating without any moral anchor and that of a religious leader operating without any respect for scientific revelations. Both can do immense and long lasting harm to innocent people.

We shudder today at the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, a clinical study done by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972 in which 399 poor black sharecroppers suffering from syphilis were left untreated in order to observe the "natural progression of the untreated disease."

Even though by 1947 penicillin was known to cure syphilis, doctors withheld it from the infected black men. The study ended only when a leak to the press resulted in public outrage. But by then many of the men had died from syphilis, many of their wives had contracted the disease and many had children born with congenital syphilis.

The Catholic Church at one time declared left-handed people servants of the Devil. Islam declares the left hand and everything associated with it unclean. But science knows that left-handedness has nothing to do with evil. Sonograms reveal that babies in the womb will exhibit a preference for their right or left hand. The odds of a child being born left-handed are not the work of the Devil, but of genetics, a fact confirmed by scientists in 2007.

Using left-handedness as evidence of a "sinister" nature strikes many religious people today as slightly ludicrous. But the harm done to generations of children by efforts to undo their left-handedness -- such as stuttering -- lasted a lifetime.

And what are we to do with the growing body of data showing that human sexuality is much more complex than ever envisioned by the writers of Genesis 1 and 2? Some humans are born "intersexed," i.e.: born with chromosomal or other biological characteristics of both male and female. Scientists have concluded that this is a normal, if rare, form of human biology. How does this fit in with Genesis 1.27: "male and female he created them in the image of God?"

What about the growing body of scientific evidence that homosexuality is innate, not a "lifestyle choice?" Given that homosexuality occurs in humans at about the rate that left-handedness does, one wonders how long it will be before we look back at religious declarations about homosexuality with the same chagrin we do declarations about left-handedness.

Our intellects are gifts from God. Separating science from religion or religion from science impoverishes both and leaves humanity and all God's creation vulnerable to terrible abuses.


IT said...

I do protest the idea that religion is necessary to give science a moral anchor. That's the same argument that says atheists have no morality.

Science must engage with society including religion because generally it is not scientists who decide what to do with their work. With a few prominent exceptions, most scientists do not try to dictate what religion should believe. However, many religionists are not so forbearing.

But honestly, I'm just trying to make a living solving scientific mysteries. Religion really has no place in my laboratory any more than my scientfic method belongs in a church. Where we engage should be on the public square.

Muthah+ said...

I am reading Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence in which she shows the how the work of Joseph Campbell has influenced popular culture. His work is a direct result of the work of Freud and Jung. All too often relgion takes the stance that it cannot address the plain of science. And because we who do believe in a benevolent God have often abrogated our part in the discussion, the conversation gets way to rarified and does not involve the Holy.

Part of the job of the Emerging Church is to be a part of the discussion. I do not believe that the Church will be able to be the moral rudder in the future, but we must be willing to be a part of the discussion