Religion In An Age of Science
Raymond J. Pontier

Community Unitarian Universalist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida
September 17, 2000

 

Anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with what is known as the Old Testament of the Bible is familiar with that wonderfully mythological story of the escape (exodus) of the Jewish people from Egypt under the leadership of Moses - all with Cecil B. DeMille special effects of devastating plagues, of clouds by day and fire by night showing the way; of the parting of the Red Sea waters escape route for the fleeing Hebrew people, and finally the return of the water to flood the escape route and to drown the Egyptian army that was in hot pursuit.

A really great story! Over the centuries it has been a rallying cry of people suffering from tyranny, demanding "Let my people go!" Yes, a great story - but not to be taken literally.

You may have heard the story of the youngster who had serious problems with the literalization of the story. When the boy came home from Sunday School he was greeted by his father who asked hint, What did you learn about today?"

"Well. said the youngster "several thousand years ago the Jews wanted to escape from the had Egyptians, so Moses had the Jews build this suspension bridge across the Red Sea. Then they loaded it down with dynamite. The Jews escaped across the bridge and all the Egyptians drowned."

The father looked at the boy in amazement, as he said, "is that really what your teacher taught you?' "Not really, " answered the boy, "but you'd never believe the crazy story he did tell us!"

The boy sounds like a budding Unitarian Universalist! But whatever he was, he reflects our spirit - questioners and challengers of ancient and modern myths, legends, and fictions that are passed off as literal fact.

Over the course of human history, religion and science have often been in conflict particularly when science and scientists have challenged, disproved, and repudiated so many of the myths, legends, and superstitions of religion. Biblical Fundamentalists and Doctrinal Literalists, in particular, have tried to defend the indefensible by appealing to the claimed "infallibility and inerrancy" of the Bible - based on a strange assumption that divine "revelation" supersedes human "reason". By trying to make tile Bible (or other "holy" books) the sole authority oil such matters as astronomy and biology and geology, along with other scientific (and non-scientific) matters, religion has often been made to look embarrassingly foolish, plain silly, downright ignorant - and frequently dangerous!

When Copernicus advanced the idea that the earth moved around the sun, and was not tile center of the universe, Martin Luther condemned it as "the over-witty notion of a fool who would vain turn topsy-turvy tile whole Art of Astronomy". When Galileo supported that concept, the Catholic Church went beyond Luther by branding Galileo a heretic and forcing him to recant. Columbus, after returning from his historic voyage, found himself being accused of heresy because his voyage contradicted the generally held view of Biblical cosmology that "the earth was flat". When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, the clergy, both in England and America (with enthusiastic support of King George 111) condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of
God - for, as everyone knows lightning is sent by God to punish sin! And when Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1858, introducing the dangerous concept of "Evolution". The wrath of the religious world came down upon him - for here was an unthinkable theory that flatly contradicted and repudiated the Biblical teaching in tile Book of Genesis that God created all things in the time frame of six twenty four hour days. The epitome of foolish statements was made by William Jennings Bryan, who is reported to have said at the infamous Scopes Trial: "I believe that the whale swallowed Jonah because the Bible says so. And if the Bible said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe that too!"

In the 16th Century, Ignatius Loyola, tile Founder of the Society of Jesuits, made the statement: "We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides." This kind of authoritarianism, this suspension of judgment, this abdication of reason, this relinquishing of conscience had led, not only to ridiculous and laughable results, but also to perilous evils and wrongs - whether in the name of a church, or of a God, or of a Doctrine, or of a "holy" book or of an other religious or secular self-proclaimed and arbitrary authority.

There is, to be sure, much that is valid, inspirational, meaningful, and worthwhile within religious institutions and so-called "holy" books. Religious groups and scriptures (of most varieties) have helped produce loving, caring, compassionate, and dedicated people. But they have also been instrumental in producing hateful, intolerant, bigoted, fanatical, non-thinking and ignorant people. Most of you may have seen the bumper sticker which reads:

GOD (or the BIBLE) SAID IT.
I BELIEVE IT.
THAT SETTLES IT!

On that basis, both the Bible (or any "holy" book) becomes dangerous to human welfare. On that basis, slavery was justified by Christians before the Civil War, with legalized segregation and discrimination approved of until the 1960's. On that basis, Islam put a sentence of death on Salmon Rushdie because he wrote a book that did not meet with official approval. On that basis, women were denied ordination as ministers because of Paul's admonition that "women remain silent in the church". On that basis abortion clinics have been bombed and abortion providers killed; and on that basis, homosexuals are persecuted and victimized by large scale homophobia. Yes, and on that basis, the Know-Nothings have revived the heated debate over evolution because, as a director of the Institute for Creation Research has said; "if the Bible is really the word of God, then evolution and its geological age-system must be completely false."

And on and on it goes! Bertrand Russell once wrote an Essay he titled, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in which he said: (As soon as we abandon our own reason and are content to rely on authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran?" Julian Huxley noted that "in an truly liberal society people are free to believe anything, however absurd -- that the moon is made of green cheese, or astrological nonsense, or that measurements of the Great Pyramid can tell us something about the future - yet there must be practical limits, in the past 4 1 00 years or so, science has set many of those limits. It has undercut and destroyed many of the crassest superstitions or beliefs in magic. It has made obsolete many of the cherished speculations and guesses of the theologians. It has made the Evolutionary Hypothesis far more provable and believable than any of metaphysical hypotheses about God. It has demonstrated that science, , not prayer cures illnesses; that germs, not an impetuous and angry God makes people ill. It was a Dr. George Stoddard who remarked, "Science has won all the arguments with theologians. This sounds quite flat-footed, but in the perspective of a hundred years it will probably be verified."

Science deals with factual realities. Carl Sagan wrote a great book called THIS DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD (Science As A Candle in the Dark). fie noted this:

"Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished beliefs. In the hands
of politicians or industrialists. It may lead to weapons of mass destruction and grave
threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say about science; it delivers the goods."

There is, of course, no war between science and Religion. If there is a perceived enmity, it is because the Biblical and religious fundamentalists insist on maintaining ideas and concepts which have been totally disproved by the scientific community. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus warmed the churches that. By their inquisitions and persecutions and heresy-hunts, they "were making orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance". The reality is that every church and religious body owes a profound debt of gratitude to science for helping them correct disproved and mistaken ideas and concepts which have been encased into their belief systems. Most mainline Protestant denominations (and to some extent Roman Catholicism) have come to terms with and partially accommodated scientific truths. Not so the literalists and fundamentalists who continue to defend the indefensible and cling to their Disney World concept of reality.

In preparing for this sermon, I borrowed (from Ken Schmidt) and read Stephen Jay Gould's recent book, Rock of Ages (Science & Religion in the Fullness of Life) what he says was neither new or startling to me and most of you. His thesis, briefly, is that Religion and Science operate in two different spheres or domains. Science covers the empirical realm - facts and theories about our world and universe. Religion (says Gould) has a domain that extends over questions of ultimate reality and moral values concerns about the meaning of life, about good and evil, about right and wrong. Unfortunately, peaceful, coexistence has not always been the case, with dogmatic true believers sticking their nose in places they do not belong.

Personally, I have never idolized or idealized either religion or science. Both have their pluses and minuses. Long before I became a UU, I rebelled against most of the mindlessness of "orthodoxy", of unbelievable creeds and dogmas, of neurotic worries of how to get into heaven and keep out of hell, of metaphysical speculations about God who (as someone said) "has become progressively less essential".

While I object to much of the mindlessness of orthodox religion (all varieties!), I also object to much of the "soullessness" of science and scientists. Along with most of us here today, I am appreciative and am grateful for so many of the achievements of science - miracles of modern medicine, automobiles and jet planes, radios and television, motion pictures and computers, and more than I have time to name. So I say, "Thank you, science!"

But there are hesitations. Many of us deplore the legacies of science, both those intended and unintended - smog, pollution, environmental destruction, global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, along with the development and use of nuclear weapons -- all this with the realization that science is not a new panacea designed to save humankind. It is not fair, really, to lay the blame for the misuse or scientific knowledge on all scientists, for there are uses beyond their control. But neither are they blameless. There are areas of moral accountability in all of life. The scientist who chooses to work on vaccines to prevent or cure such illnesses as polio or AIDS can also work on projects perfect the murderous task of germ warfare. The scientist who works to build safer jet planes for the millions of air travelers, can also choose to become part of an endeavor to design planes that will deliver larger and faster cluster bombs to maim and kill. Neither a scientist (or any one else) is exempt from moral responsibility. Something the tobacco companies and other industries are finding out. There is such a thing as responsibility and accountability.

And at this point, surely, religion should come in. Part of the function of religion is to name the wrongs, to uphold values and principles for living, to speak for humanity. But not just any religion! In a world of so many varieties and options we soon find that not all of them are the same, not all compatible, not all are acceptable. Over the past 25 years, after years among the orthodox, I rind that Unitarian Universalism suits me just fine. it is a religious faith that is not at odds with science or the scientific method. It does not insult our intelligence. It does not ask us to leave our thinking at the door. It does not put its into doctrinal straight jackets. It does not try to defend the indefensible or believe the unbelievable.

What Unitarian Universalism does do is invite you on a religious and spiritual journey to rind for yourself what is of value and meaning and worth in your life and our world. Most of us probably would agree with Tabbi Kushner who said, "My religion helps me to answer two questions; Why am I alive? And why should I do what is right?" We are a religion of aspiration, in agreement with the person who said,

"Come up higher. Come up higher,
From the lowlands and the mire,
From the mist of earth - desire,
From the vain pursuit of pelf,
From the attitude of self,
Come up higher, come - up higher."

Unitarian Universalism is a religion that reaches upward and outward to what is finest and best in human life. It is also a religion that seeks to go deep inside of us as it elicits commitments to those things which make its truly human. Ours is not an "otherworldly" religion, for we are concerned with the here and now. We are much more concerned with the things like prejudice and discrimination, with caring for the environment and eliminating poverty, than we are with abstract metaphysical problems about God, the unknown, and the unknowable.

Ours is a religion that rinds its faith tinder girded from many sources. We are not bound by any one person, any one book, any one authority - but we are free to pick and choose, to rind what is of value and inspiration, from many religious and secular sources.

From a Jesus - who taught and lived and died for his commitment to love and compassion and service to people, even "the least of these: the hungry, the sick, the prisoners, the outcasts of society".

From ancient prophets - like an Amos who cried, "Let justice roll down like waters" and an Isaiah who called for "swords to be beaten into plowshares".

From the agnostic, Bertrand Russell who wrote: "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life; the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of humankind".

From Albert Einstein: "the ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth."

From the Apostle Paul: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is of good report . . . . think on these things."

And surely front Martin Luther King Jr: "I have a dream!'

Science has opened up wonderful (and terrible) new worlds. We are grateful for the good. But science has never made obsolete the real work of religion - that of transforming and tinder girding the human spirit. "Hitch your wagon to a star", wrote Emerson, "Work for those interests which the divinities honor promote - justice, love, freedom, knowledge, utility."

Note: Rev. Pontier's book is entitled "Rescuing Jesus from His Friends (and Other Liberating Ideas) by Raymond J. Pontier (1999). It contains many sermons and articles from his long, activist life. It is $10.00, postage paid. It can be obtained from him at 1112 West Beacon Road, #43, Lakeland, FL 33803 or from his e-mail address: beppo2797@aol.com.