Saturday, January 7, 2012

Science and Religion

Looking to the past one may find innumerable examples of how expanded knowledge leads to a better understanding of the world. Early mariners had maps of the Earth showing the known landmasses, oceans, sea serpents and the edge of the world that one would most certainly fall off of if they got too close. Then one day, a brave sailing captain navigated to the very edge of the map – and continued sailing. He and his crew did not fall to their deaths off the edge of the world; instead they kept gliding on into unknown waters, eventually finding land that was not recorded on any maps. This new knowledge changed what had been previously known, which in turn, led to even more discoveries and further knowledge.

We see yet another example in the field of medicine. To cure individuals of diseases and illnesses the practice of bloodletting was once used. It was believed that bleeding a person would help restore the proper balance of their bodily fluids and allow them to heal. Though surprising to us today, this was not a unique exercise but one that was used for almost 2,000 years by the Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs and others as well as by doctors during the U.S. Civil War. Today we understand that bloodletting is not helpful to those who are ill. This new knowledge has changed the way medicine is practiced and thankfully, doctors no longer use bloodletting to cure illness.

These two examples demonstrate the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. We, as a species, are continually learning more about the world around us and as a result, we understand more how and why things work the way they do. Many times new discoveries require us to think and understand issues differently than we have in the past. Living during this time of continual learning and research requires us to keep up with what is new in our ever-changing world. We need to be aware and honest enough, to correct information, even from our own belief windows, that has become flawed.

I experienced an interesting event recently. My husband teaches science and is also a religious individual. Some people have asked him how he can ‘believe’ religion and science at the same time and he has explained that they complement each other; his growing knowledge of science has actually strengthened his spiritual beliefs. He was asked to give a talk in our congregation and he spoke about the importance of finding truth in our lives. He discussed how it is valuable to find truth in the secular world, such as in his science classroom, and how it is also vital to continue to learn spiritual truths as well.

A few weeks after his address, the leader of our congregation called my husband in and reported that a few members of the congregation had some concerns about the talk he had given. They were worried that my husband actually believed all of the science he taught in his classroom. After some discussion, he asked my husband if he could assure these few, fatuous members that he did not think all of the science principles he taught were true. I tried to keep my jaw from dropping and could not believe what I was hearing. As my husband respectfully refused to declare that the science he taught in his classroom was untrue, my mind I was immediately transported to a lavish room in Italy at the top of an ornate spiral staircase. The room, with its frescoed ceiling was filled with several persons who were decision makers as well as the individual they were cross-examining. The accused had spoken what were considered to be blasphemous statements, which he acknowledged to be true because of recent evidences he had discovered while studying and experimenting with them. The ideas he shared did not fit with the archaic notions that rattled around in the minds of the accusers so they were certain he spoke falsehoods. This individual’s blasphemous idea was that the sun was the center of the solar system and not the Earth. So on June 22, 1633 Galileo Galilei was convicted of the heinous crime of “having held and believed the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world” (Sobel, 274).

Galileo believed that there was much to be learned about the world around him and that is was prudent to continue to gain knowledge. In a letter to his friend, Castelli, Galileo stated, “I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses, our speech, our intellect, would have put aside the use of these, to teach us instead such things as with their help we could find out for ourselves, particularly in the case of these sciences of which there is not the smallest mention in the Scriptures” (Sobel, 65). Galileo could see that truth could be found everywhere; both in secular and spiritual aspects of life and that those truths in the secular world did not threaten the truths of the spiritual world.

We live at a time with access to unlimited knowledge but do not always take advantage of it. The age-old battle between science and religion is not really a battle but a blending of truths from both arenas. By losing our fear of change and being brave enough to let go of outdated information we can expand our knowledge in so many more areas of our lives. As Galileo said about those who were against the truths he found through the lens of his telescope, “They seem to forget that the increase of known truths stimulates the investigation, establishment and growth of the arts, not their diminution or destruction” (Sobel, 67). As we bravely go to the comfortable edge of our knowledge and then proceed beyond, we can learn more than we ever thought possible. We will realize that the illusory brink was never actually there and that a remarkable horizon is before us, leading us to greater truths in every aspect of our lives.
Dava Sobel. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Penguin Books. 2000.