A Response to Religion and Science: Toward a Postmodern Truce

In his column Religion and Science: Toward a Postmodern Truce, Philip Clayton (9/11) suggests a third, postmodern, period has turned the religion-hostile New Atheists into dinosaurs. Unless his postmodernism can move beyond the extreme relativisms that have wracked the social sciences and humanities in intellectual circles, his will be a hard case.

As the Unitarians and Universalists were merging in 1960, I had the good fortune to chair a study commission on Theology and the Frontiers of Knowledge. Four years later, Ralph Burhoe and I went to Meadville/Lombard seminary at the University of Chicago to create a new curriculum based on the sciences. We were the founding co-editors of Zygon, Journal of Religion and Science. My published position at that time was Science is the way we know the world, religion is a way that we change it. (I preferred the more neutral change to more directional terms like evolve or regress).

Dialogue was then, and still is, a risky term since it suggests conversation between equals. Theologian X may want to add something to the worldview of Scientist Y, but in order to change something in Y’s science she too would have to become a scientist (and her theology positions would be irrelevant in defending such changes). When, for instance, the Vatican accepted evolution, it insisted that special creation of the human soul must also be affirmed — but has never argued that this is more complete biology or psychology!

There have been dialogues within cosmology about continuing creation versus big bang; within biology about group versus individual selection; within psychology about how blank the slate might be. But these get resolved by more persuasive evidence. Such conversations between theology and science flounder because there is no agreement on what constitutes useful evidence. And dialogues among religions have an even tougher time!

Generalizations about any passing of the confrontational stage of science-religion conflicts must remember that the fundamentalists won the Scopes trial — and that some forty percent of Americans reject evolution and think the world less than 10,000 years old. When our referent is religion, those educationally-cheated neighbors must be included.

The crucial issue is cultural change. Consider the long human history of misogyny. Can science establish that insistence upon a burka is wrong/false/undesirable? Or that divorce is wrong? Or that producing unintended children is wrong? Or that ecology is preferable to divinely-ordered dominion? Or that pre-marital sex is wrong? Hardly! No doubt data about the consequences of such behaviors can be assembled and published. But true believers can usually be convinced to accept those consequences as parts of a divine plan.

Many of us, and probably most readers of Religion Dispatches, endorse cultural changes in such issues because of the undesired consequences of a status quo. And we often do it because of values that to us are religious. But if we are honest we will admit that most opponents of changing their cultures also would give religion as their basis. And the us/them demographic is daunting!

Beliefs DO have consequences. And as long as we pretend that umbrella terms such as religion are meaningful, we will have a hard time discussing things with our more empiricist colleagues.