Religion vs Humility


Modern times have been characterized by a collision between religion and science. Not because what science said (at least at first) was necessarily so controversial, but because it was contradicting the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. That the planets revolved around the sun instead of the other way around was less a strange thing to say than a challenge to orthodoxy (literally “right belief”), a challenge that continues to reverberate more than four hundred years later. That’s because the Church was in the business of defining reality, and derived a lot of its power that way. When other voices were allowed to be heard, religious power was diminished.

A lot of people have believed this was terrible, especially after the concept of evolution became known, as if humans could define the tools God (or His representatives) were allowed to use. What it really represents, though, was the overreach of religious authority, which claimed to know things it didn’t. That’s the reason for so many scientists having become atheists, I think: they’re repulsed at the power grab–which doesn’t stop some of them from trying to grab power themselves.

That’s at least part of what’s behind climate change denial, for instance: a backlash against science, partly by religious people who believe they ought to have more power and influence, and partly by the wealthy who derive THEIR power from the coal and oil industries, and are threatened by the possibility of green energy.

At about the same time that the Church was having its issue with Galileo, the Thirty Years War was demonstrating just how destructive religions could be when going to war, an example the American founders took seriously when separating church and state. The American Revolution was occurring about the same time Fundamentalism became important in both Protestantism and Catholicism as a reaction against new perspectives and as a sign of great insecurity. If one’s faith can move mountains, why should it be bothered with the idea of evolution?

Scientific analysis didn’t end with astronomical observations. It was applied to study of the Bible too, and the analysts discovered that the supposed Word of God was extremely inconsistent. Bart Ehrman, who has made a career of studying the history of the Bible, and who personally went from being a conservative evangelical to being an agnostic, points out that (for one thing) the book of Genesis has two different creation stories that disagree with each other, and the New Testament is possibly even less consistent. In one Gospel Herod murders all boys in his kingdom beneath the age of two, forcing Jesus’s parents to take him to Egypt. No other Gospel mentions this, as if they either hadn’t noticed, or had forgotten. And there’s no historic record of any such thing. That’s only one inconsistency. There are many more. Ehrman’s point is that writers of the New Testament weren’t concerned with historical accuracy (history as a discipline had only barely begun, and probably no more than ten per cent of the Roman Empire was literate), but with making a theological point. What a lot of that point was becomes clear with the Gospel of John, in which Jesus declares, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.” Only Christians are henceforth going to be allowed power.

Which is why a lot of Fundamentalists feel so injured: their power has been taken away by defining their perspective as nonsensical. They naturally dislike this.

But wasn’t humility supposed to be a large part of the Christian message? No, humility wasn’t a virtue many religious leaders aspired to when Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome, nor do many of the most vocal aspire to it now. Political and religious leaders often share a trait: they like to tell other people how to behave and what they’re allowed to believe. Denial of the human part in climate change (for instance) becomes part of religion, just as do religious prohibitions of homosexuality (I think it’s worth noting that Jesus never commented on this) and other things religious people don’t like. Scientists at least aspire to be impartial, though they don’t always achieve it; a lot of religious leaders don’t even aspire to it.

The lesson I derive from this is that humans tend to be power-hungry. Even Christianity, supposed from the beginning to be a religion of love, also became very early a religion that believed no one else had the truth. They may have possessed a truth that few or none other had, but their declaration of this had an ugly side: anti-Semitism has already begun by the time the New Testament is complete.

And anti-Semitism and related bigotries continue today. Those are things extremists like, and we happen to have an extremist president who stirs up and reflects a lot of our country’s baser passions. There are people on both ends of the political and religious spectrum who would gladly start another Inquisition if it would enhance their power. The president represents part of this tendency, as can be seen when he denounces “fake news” or anthropogenic climate change. He’s using the same weapon science has used against religion: discrediting the point of view of anyone you disagree with, though I suspect that initially there was less malice on the part of science. That sort of behavior should have nothing to do with either religion or science, and does only because of the shadow side of human nature. We don’t like being humble.

There’s a saying that science doesn’t care what you believe. That’s science as it ought to be, but isn’t always. Nature, on the other hand, REALLY doesn’t care what you believe. If we are believing the wrong things, especially about our duty to the natural world, nature is very likely to let us know. If the climate scientists are right, there is likely to be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth at that time.



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