The communal hall in the elegantly appointed First Baptist Church in downtown Tallahassee is packed with noontime listeners this mid-September Friday. They are also lunchers, filling their plastic plates with tacos as they prepare to listen to ‘The God Squad’, five Tallahassee faith leaders perched on stools, who, as they have monthly for the last five years will talk about those places where religion, politics and societal issues bounce against each other like so many boats on a stormy sea. For this Faith.Food.Friday program, the crowd of nearly 200 people seems ready to eat it up. Today’s program (Friday, Oct. 9) is on Religious Freedom and will be held at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church. Tickets for food are $8 with reservations and $10 at the door.
Is this truly an accurate assumption? Do faith (or religion) and science have to be pursuits that are in opposition to each other? In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI gave an address at the University of Regensburg. This speech tried to give a perspective on the intersection of faith and reason, and subsequently religion and science. It was a brilliantly conceived and written speech. Unfortunately, the world focused on a quote the Pope used from a dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian intellect that reflected badly on Islam. The press about the address centered on support for or opposition to Benedict’s statement about Islam. His quite cogent statements about faith and reason got buried in the storm.
What did Pope Benedict say? He began with reminiscences of his days teaching at the university, noting how, with apparent pleasure, reasonable people could disagree on such fundamental issues as religion and God. He recalled a colleague commenting how odd it was to have two faculties at the university devoted to something that did not exist – God. Perhaps my favorite quote from his speech is this, “The scientific ethos…is the will to be obedient to the truth, and as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.” Think about this. By seeking truth, science is reflecting a core religious value. Science searches for the truth about the mechanics and the Church reveals truths about the “why” of the existence of the mechanics. Rather than seeing these as incompatible, Benedict saw them as reflections of two needed basic values – faith and reason. At the very core of his message was a plea for people to be reasonable. People of opposing views must at least share a commitment to “reason.” One cannot be so anchored in faith as to reject what is reasonable.
But is the reconciliation of science and faith a reasonable expectation? When one reads the critiques of religion by Oxford professor Richard Dawkins – then probably not. Dawkins, in an article commenting on the relative contributions of science and theology to the origins of the universe and humanity writes, “It is science and science alone that has given us this knowledge and given it, moreover, in fascinating, overwhelmingly, mutually confirming detail. On every one of these questions, theology has held a view that has been conclusively proved wrong.” Proceeding with even harsher words he adds, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?”
Religious institutions will take varying degrees of umbrage at Dawkins’ comments. The Catholic Church, which is the source and supporter of many distinguished institutions of higher learning, cannot give up the totally improvable concept of the resurrection. To do so would destroy a basic underpinning of the Church. Further, segments of the Church believe in the existence of Satan, an additional irrationality. In the larger Christian world (at least in America) a majority do not accept the science of evolution, taking the first chapters of Genesis to be literal truth. Religious Americans who believe in the literal truth of Genesis and anyone embracing the scientific discoveries regarding the origins of the universe do not even consider the possibility that the other side is, as Pope Benedict would have said, “reasonable.”
Indeed, the word reasonable might not even be relevant when considering the human characteristic of “believing.” We all have articles of faith on which we build our lives. Many seem completely unreasonable to our neighbor. Trying to understand creation, from either the science or religious perspective, is a prime battle ground for this conflict. Yet, out of the ashes of this battle are some embers of possibility.
Recently I moderated a panel for The Village Square on issues of faith and science. Featured on the panel was the noted physicist, Dr. Harrison Prosper. Dr. Prosper is part of the team at CERN that discovered the Higgs boson, the particle that explains much towards how our universe actually holds together. If you want a sample of his brilliance, please listen to this TEDX talk:
Dr. Prosper is not a religious person in any way, yet acknowledges that when looking at the complicated set of equations involved in the creation and order of the universe, one can wonder if intelligence was indeed behind it all. Indeed there are scientists who see an intelligent hand in the structure of the universe, in both what is physically observable as well as in the math necessary to explain its structure. For example, the value of pi (3.14…) is present in many of the equations that explain our surroundings. Is that a calculated marker left by intelligence?
Further, the belief in scientific theory can at times be another form of faith. All you have to do is read Thomas Kuhn’s book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn shows that stubborn belief is what happens when one scientific paradigm is about to give way to a new one. Scientists have a history of holding onto a theory, often in the face of mounting evidence that disproves the theory. Sometimes society will have shifted to the new change before the scientific community. This is simply faith, but under a different guise. While there are certainly areas of science considered universally to be true, our scientific understanding of the universe often undergoes radical revision. During the program I moderated, I found Dr. Prosper’s most interesting statement to be his wish that everything his team had discovered would be overturned by a whole new discovery. What makes the process exciting for human inquiry is the disproving of a theory by new, amazing evidence. Where religion becomes “unreasonable” is when it tries to discount scientific theory without evidence, only faith that the words of the Bible are incontrovertibly true.
Judaism has little conflict with science. We can point to numerous examples in rabbinic teaching that affirm and support scientific truth. The model of creation proposed by the 16th century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, is eerily similar to the “big bang” theory of creation, complete with a miniscule singularity point out of which all of creation explodes. Perhaps most impressive is the work of the 13th century rabbi Maimonides, who posits that the language about God in the Torah is metaphorical, as our ability to articulate anything about God is so limited. He goes on to teach that in order to better understand God, one must develop their intellect, and study science, philosophy and math. Some more contemporary Jewish thought posits God not as an object, but as verb – the process of continuing existence. Our prayers are an attempt to relate to this process, to sensitize us to the process and to find our place in it.
The scientific community need not see religion as opposition. Rather, just as science is an attempt to explore truth, religion does the same. But I believe the truth religion is exploring is much more and much deeper than the “why” to the mechanics of the universe. All of us have our non-rational sides. They are moved in different ways, music, art, spiritual wonder, and the search for meaning. Prayer is an emotive experience, that can deeply move our souls. Prayer can sensitize us to human suffering in ways very different than fact and research. I do not claim everyone needs religion, just that it can provide as much as a path to meaning, to managing life as science. In addition, religion is the primary arena in which morality and ethics evolves. Deeply religions people can be at odds over profound moral dilemmas (see abortion, same sex marriage as examples). Science can give us some facts to frame issues, but it is religion that leads the struggle over what our moral boundaries should be.
Finally, both religion and science must grow and evolve to remain vibrant and relevant. Both find strength when finding a proper path that holds onto tradition and history yet changes as humans change. At their best, religion and science travel parallel roads on their search for respective truths.
Our regular guest panelist Dr. Parvez Ahmed writes this powerful piece with Village Square’s board member and “Faith, Food, Friday” co-founder Rabbi Jack Romberg:
We write this as two friends, a Jew and a Muslim, both with leadership roles in our respective communities. Together we have broken bread, facilitated interfaith dialogue, and come to the realization that we have the same goal of peace, understanding and respect for people of all faiths and backgrounds. The recent spate of violence between Hamas and Israel presents a new test for us. Yet, in the end, even as we might have some disagreement on the details, or in parsing the conflict, we find that we share the same hopes, ideals and values. We both must wrestle with some inconvenient truths.
Read the entire article online at The Huffington Post.
‘We have to get the “us” and the “them” right. The “us” are the people who believe in the American promise of pluralism. A country where George Washington said that it would give bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance. A country in which one of our earliest presidents, Thomas Jefferson, reverently owned a Quran, hosted an Iftar dinner. America is a great arc of inclusiveness. It envelops everyone. I want my children to contribute to this country just like the children of my Jewish friends just like the children of my evangelical and Catholic friends. The “us” are the ones who believe in pluralism. The “them” are the ones who believe in extremism. It’s that simple.’
Today on the radio Glenn Beck said that Americans are about to lose their religious freedom. He was actively rallying the forces to prevent it. Perhaps someone who agrees with his sentiment could help those of us who say “huh?”
There is a valid argument that legal secularism has overreached in working toward a “naked public square” (a term used by Christian writer Os Guinness, theologian John Neuhaus although I’m not clear of its genesis), removing faith from our public spaces, rather than aiming for a public square where all faiths – and no faith at all – are warmly welcomed into a rich conversation. The second option allows for the “constant clashing of opinion” that our Founders envisioned as a check on excess in the majority.
But the suggestion that there are vast and sustained efforts to subvert Christians’ religious freedom doesn’t seem to hold up. A drive through town on a Sunday morning paints a vivid picture of religious diversity and freedom, alive and well in America.
Overreaction on one “side” of an argument inevitably leads to an equal and opposite overreaction. Greater than the risk that Christians, though they are the vast majority of us, will lose their religious liberty is the risk that this sort of white hot rhetoric overshoots the mark enough that it will actually create what it fears. If you’re of a minority religious view, a wall of angry Christians coming at you (especially if you are not aware of any action against them) does little to make your religious liberty feel secure. Then you, in turn, feel the need to defend what you perceive as an assault. And so it goes, on and on in likely escalation if we don’t mind the exaggerations that come out of our mouths.
And this kind of “die on the hill” rhetoric also does what C.S. Lewis refers to as making “black blacker” as it creates an aggressive, powerful and villainous foe out of a largely disorganized minority of people. Read Lewis HERE.
While we’re on this topic, take a look at our We the Wiki Faith & Politics space. Feel free to add a topic and toss in what you think is important. Opposing views, when expressed with civility, are warmly welcome.
For this quote, hat tip to Lea*, who somehow seems to know when anyone discusses civility on any blog across America at the same time as she drives her kids around town in endless loops, takes beautiful pictures of everyone she knows and pursues her career as a thespian in Young Actors Theatre’s Celebrity Edition of High School Musical (tired just writing all this)…
From C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”
The liberal Washington Monthly blogger who brings us this quote continues:
If you give in to “the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible”, it’s easy to see how you could end up thinking things about them that it is implausible to think about any group of human beings.. Your opponents become cartoons in your mind, and the normal duty to be charitable and generous, or even realistic, in your views about other people seem not to apply to them. You stop thinking of them as fellow human beings, and start thinking of them as enemies…
No one — not liberals, not conservatives — should forget that their opponents are human beings. And no one can afford to start down the road Lewis describes, in which you allow yourself to be disappointed when your opponents aren’t as bad as you first thought, or want them to be as bad as possible. And no one should get so wrapped up in political fights that in focussing on the mote in someone else’s eye, they lose sight of the beam in their own.
Worth noting is that Lea originally saw this post echoed on a Christian blog Cranach: The Blog of Veith. An iconic Christian author quoted on the blog of a cornerstone left-leaning publication (that I should add my sister used to work for); the left-leaning blog subsequently quoted on a Christian blog.
If you really think about it, all of this makes black a lot less black, eh?
*In the vernacular of this ugly political war we’ve found ourselves in, Lea is my “enemy” and I hers. If you find it impossible to believe that we’re dear friends, you really need to get out more.
From Noah Feldman’s Divided by God:
The revolutionary American idea that the people were sovereign profoundly disturbed the old model: How could the state establish the religion of the sovereign if the sovereign people belonged to many faiths? The framers rose to the occasion. For the first time in recorded history, they designed a government with no established religion at all.
… The early republic was religiously diverse in that it was inhabited by several different Protestant denominations. This â€œmultiplicity of sects,â€ as James Madison brilliantly realized, ensured that no one denomination had the capacity to establish its own state religion at the national level.
… The dominant idea organizing church-state relations in the framersâ€™ era was the liberty of conscience, understood to protect religious dissenters-representing the religious diversity of the time-against compelled taxation to support teachings with which they disagreed.
…In America, the establishment of religion by the government came to be seen as posing a fundamental danger to the liberty of conscience by threatening dissenters with the possibility of coercion. The constitutional guarantee of nonestablishment sought to protect conscience from coercion by guaranteeing a division between the institutional spheres of organized religion and government.
â€œâ€¦You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.â€
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the recent HBO mini-series â€œJohn Adamsâ€ as â€œthe north and south poles of our revolution.â€
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.
They, as others in the foundersâ€™ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus â€“ and ours â€“ the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, â€œpolitics ainâ€™t beanbagâ€ and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another.
Perhaps nowhere is this gap more profound today than on matters where faith and politics intersect.
It was a bold experiment the founders undertook when they broke with hundreds of years of history to form a country without an official religion. Woven through their work was the then radical belief that individual liberty was of the highest value, more important than the interests of government and kings.
Flowing inevitably from this notion was a strong commitment to individual religious freedom. The specifics of the relationship between church and state, however, produced disagreement, much as it does today. So they agreed where they could, agreed to disagree where they couldnâ€™t and kicked the sticking points down the road a bit.
Today our religious diversity is far beyond the imagination of the founding fathers, yet we are still a country with the freedom to worship as we choose.
Despite that astounding achievement, as the 2008 presidential contest put in sharp relief, we still donâ€™t see eye-to-eye about the role of faith in our union, just as we donâ€™t agree about economics, fighting terrorism, the role of government in our lives or really much of anything it sometimes seems.
Maybe more concerning than the basic disagreements, though, is the fact that weâ€™ve largely stopped talking – and most certainly stopped listening – to those with whom we disagree. We naturally surround ourselves – socially, in church, in our television viewing – with those who see it our way.
Lost in the sea of sameness is the healthy – though sometimes difficult – struggle of ideas between â€œneighborsâ€, akin to the struggle that birthed our democracy. It was, in fact, that very diversity of ideas that some founders expected would naturally protect the freedoms they held so dear.
Next Tuesday, The Village Square will fly in the face of this recent trend, ignoring good manners – and possibly good sense â€“ as we continue our Dinner at the Square season â€œFaith, Politics & Neighbors.â€ Our panel â€“ Center for a Just Societyâ€™s Ken Connor, Lawton Chilesâ€™ General Counsel Dexter Douglass, ordained minister and former Lieutenant Governor candidate Allison DeFoor and former FSU Religion Chair Leo Sandon â€“ will debate â€œFaith in the Public Square.â€
With two Democrats and two Republicans on the panel, they likely wonâ€™t agree.
But our foolishness only starts there. To mark the inauguration of a new president, we are inviting you to join us in lunch across the divide by inviting a conservative friend to lunch if youâ€™re a Democrat and a liberal friend to lunch if youâ€™re a Republican.
And, like Jefferson and Adams before you, explain yourselves to each other.
Adams and Jefferson ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.
â€œWhether you or I were right,â€ Adams had written to Jefferson, â€œposterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?â€
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment â€œin the course of human events.â€
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.
My “Faith, Politics & Neighbors” reading list is – well – let’s just call it diverse. The librarian is probably really wondering about me. One book on that list that I’ve found fascinating is The End of Faith by Sam Harris. Although the book’s basic thesis is quite hostile to organized religion, many of his points are actually central tenants of those committed to organized religion. Unfathomably, he’d agree with the conservative religious right on many things. More on that later.
One point that resonated with my Village Square take on things is his concept of a “moral community” as a limiter to our ability to bridge divides:
The notion of a moral community resolves many paradoxes of human behavior. How is it, after all, that a Nazi guard could return each day from his labors at the crematoria and be a loving father to his children? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: the Jews he spent the day torturing and killing were not objects of his moral concern. Not only were they outside his moral community; they were antithetical to it. His beliefs about Jews inured him to the natural human sympathies that might have otherwise prevented such behavior.
He continues more controversially and judgmentally, in what is an over-generalization in my mind but many would say is true in some cases:
Unfortunately, religion casts more shadows than light on this terrain. Rather than find real reasons for human solidarity, faith offers us a solidarity born of tribal and tribalizing fictions. As we have seen, religion is one of the great limiters of moral identity, since most believers differentiate themselves, in moral terms, from those who do not share their faith.
I’d argue that religion at its best absolutely does find real reasons for human solidarity, but religion at its worst – in the hands of us fallible humans – can dehumanize and divide.
Neither of my kids spent much time on the seesaw at the park in their younger days. If I had to guess why, it would be that it was a little too much work for a day at the park. It was rare when they got a seesaw partner who didn’t require serious weight and momentum adjustmentâ€”sliding forward or backward, pushing hard at the bottom to get your end back up in the air, or, as was more often the case with my slender little girls, perched suspended three feet up, pretty much unable to control a thing.
As my sixteen-year-old has grown into a young woman, she’s been exposed to many a political dinner table conversation from the perspective of my side of the political seesaw. But as much as she’s heard me yammer, I’ve only now just noticed that she’s suspended in mid air with her feet dangling, no where near solid ground. I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for providing her only half the argument in a country that requires citizens to understand the whole one.
Trying to give her a shove back down to terra firma, I’ve had a series of conversations with her aboutâ€”ultimatelyâ€”what I deeply believe. There’s been a bit of personal political archeology involved here, as, in the daily shuffle, there are times when I’m too immersed in the veneer to reach for the foundation. Here’s where I found my foundation: What lasts, what matters from all of our daily political struggles is what keeps America who we are. What matters is the two-party system that creates a tension of opposites, the left keeping the right from marching into fascism, the right keeping the left from slipping into communism. What lasts is the best ideas that rise to the top, the product of our endless, sometimes painfully difficult dialog. Were it not for the tension, the struggle, we wouldn’t be America.
When power concentrates on one side of this non-stop American seesaw, it’s time for the grown-ups to give it a firm shove on one side. I sense the American public is ready to give a firm parental shove right about now too. But there is risk in this weight adjustment when we’ve been so used to pushing hard and having nothing happen… we risk that we’ll send the other guy miles into the air. Okay, so I’ll admit it, right now that may not seem so bad, but pause for a moment to consider what happens after the other guy’s fanny lands back on the seesaw. I never took physics but I’m fairly sure that all that energy has to go someplace and it may not be pretty when it does.
So, here’s to keeping the big picture in mind as each “side” shoves to get more momentum… hoping there are enough grownups to keep the traffic on the seesaw well-behaved.
**This post represents the genesis of the thinking that would ultimately become The Village Square. I first wrote “The Seesaw” in March of 2006, when the Democrats had no political power. Now they control both Congress and the presidency.
The seesaw works both ways, folks.
From an Amazon review of Os Guinness’s The Case for Civility:
“… Guinness charts a course for “a civil public square” in which citizens of any religion or of none are allowed and encouraged to let their voices be known and to respect those of others. He argues against both “the sacred social square” (where pluralism is defrocked and one religion dominates at the expense of others) and “the naked public square” (in which religious citizens are not allowed to participate socially and politically on the basis of their deepest convictions).”
Perhaps he’s onto something…
“Lost in all this was the difference between faith and science. Each can illumine the human experience, and they interact best when separated and respected. Neither side in Florida’s evolution disagreement realized this, and it’s therefore likely that the evolution controversy will continue…â€¨
Why try to pass off intelligent design as science, anyway? A better idea is to simply allow intelligent design and its ilk to remain philosophical ideas and allow evolution to remain a scientific one. â€¨â€¨
This works both ways. Those who support Florida’s revised science standards should be careful to keep evolution in its realm – the scientific – and not heap upon it purposes for which it is unsuited. â€¨â€¨Richard Dawkins, Oxford scientist and author of The God Delusion, makes the mistake of using evolution as a weapon against faith. He has written that, because of Darwin, religion “is now completely superseded by science.” â€¨â€¨
His claim would shock many, including Pope Benedict XVI, who has said that “there is much scientific proof in the theory of evolution” but who also warns against converting evolution into “a universal theory concerning all reality.” Pope John Paul II also believed that science and faith do best when they seek together to understand each other’s competencies and limitations.”â€¨