Science and Religion

I’ve seen a few op-eds saying that science needn’t interfere with religious beliefs.

Some even said that science and religion, faith and reason, get along fine. Those were nearly always Catholic publications.

The one I saw this week was in Forbes, an American business magazine. That got my attention.

Seeking and Using Knowledge: an Ancient Tradition

Folks like Aristotle and Anaxagoras studied the natural world.

They were systematic about it, and tried to understand what it is and how it works. In that sense they were “scientists.”

But they weren’t “scientists” in today’s sense. More like natural philosophers.

“Science” is how the Latin word “scientia” sounds in my language.

Scientia means knowledge. Or it can express ideas like skill, expertness, awareness — depending on context.

Science, in that sense, predates the ancient Greeks by a very long time indeed.

So do practical uses of scientia. The earliest medical text I know of was written around the time Ahmose I ran Egypt.

It’s almost certainly copied from older texts. We’ve developed more effective medical technology since Egypt’s 18th dynasty, but haven’t found a better treatment for Dracunculiasis. (May 12, 2017)


Folks feeling edgy about studying nature isn’t new, either. It didn’t start with Christianity.

I could claim that Aristarchus was almost charged with impiety because he said the sun wasn’t divine.

That might have seemed “relevant” in my youth, or whatever’s the current term for ‘kinda now, kinda wow.’

A remarkable number of folks assume that religion, particularly Christianity, depends on ignorance.

A few Christians do, too, although they probably don’t think of their alternative reality as “ignorance.” (October 29, 2017)

Being “relevant,” or “Bible believing,” or whatever, isn’t an option for me.

I might like fitting in with a well-defined clique. But I like truth more. Much more.

I’d have to ignore what I know about a botched translation of Plutarch’s “On the Apparent Face in the Orb of the Moon.” (March 24, 2017)

Don’t get me wrong. I take the Bible, Sacred Scripture, very seriously. Also read it and think about it. That’s ‘being Catholic 101.’ Catechism 101133, actually.

Now, about that translation. Plutarch said that Cleanthes, who saw the sun as divine, jokingly told Aristarchus that he should be charged with impiety.

Gilles Ménage garbled Plutarch’s grammar, turning the joke into a flat-out accusation.

The Ménage translation went to press around 1600.

A Legend and Mr. Squibbs

Galileo’s and Bruno’s trials were fresh memories in the early 1600s. European politics were more volatile than usual.

Some folks seemed fearful of any new ideas. Others were arguably eager to embrace ideas because they were new. (June 2, 2017; March 17, 2017)

Imagination and selective memories inspired now-familiar tales of a legendary confrontation between scientists and the forces of ignorance and oppression.

It makes a good story. I think it’s about as reliable as some ‘based on actual events’ movies. (November 5, 2017)

Europeans recovered from the Thirty Years’ War, eventually.

The era gave us an enduring legacy of state-run religions, famines, plagues and witch hunts. Survivors had good reason for taking a long, hard look at old assumptions.

Enlightenment ideals — like a more egalitarian society and better-informed public — were, I think, reasonable. Some outcomes, not so much. (August 20, 2017; November 6, 2016)

I’ve never heard someone actually denounce “tampering with things man was not supposed to know,” as Mr. Squibbs put it. Not in those words.

But I’ve known a fair number who apparently had the attitude, or a close approximation.

Some were Christians, some weren’t, and all seemed badly rattled by what we’re learning.

I can understand that.

The ‘inevitability of progress’ idea was getting replaced by the currently-fashionable ‘we’re all gonna die’ outlook in my youth.

There’s something to be said for the old optimism, but I don’t think either attitude makes sense. (June 23, 2017; October 30, 2016)

We didn’t start calling a particular sort of natural philosophy “science” until a few centuries back.1

Calling them “scientists” is even newer, dating back to the 1830s. (March 31, 2017)

Albert: A Busy Friar

(From Chemical Heritage Foundation, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
(1929 trading card.)

Albert of Lauingen’s studies earned the admiration of scholars.

They also inspired tales of wizardry and dark arts. And a Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company Trading Card.

Albert was a natural philosopher, among other things. But he wasn’t a scientist. Nobody was in the 1200s.

Folks speaking my language often know Albert as Albertus Magnus.

Those of us who are Catholic recognize him as a Saint. He’s a patron of natural sciences and scientists.

Also medical technicians, philosophers, students, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Folks like him and St. Hildegard of Bingen helped lay groundwork for today’s sciences. (October 27, 2017)

I get the impression that Albertus Magnus kept busy. He was a Dominican friar and served as a bishop for three years. He studied Aristotle when he wasn’t doing his own research, and was the first European to comment on most of Aistotle’s work.

That helped make Aristotle available to other European academics. Other scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, thought Aristotle’s ideas made sense. Some of them took another step, looking at how Aristotle got his ideas.

That, I think, was a very good idea.

Others got overly excited about the ancient philosopher’s ideas. Grabbing Aristotle’s conclusions, they took off running. Right off the ragged edge of reason.

God: Large and In Charge

Some folks in Medieval Europe were ignorant and superstitious.

The same is true today.

But we knew Earth is round in the Middle Ages. Those of us who pay attention, and think about what we see.

I’ve talked about that, the (real) dark ages, Leo XIII and truth before. (November 5, 2017; July 23, 2017; July 15, 2016)

One of many topics of the mid-1200s was whether or not we were on the only world. The question made sense at the time.

Telescopes wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries.

Observations and analysis refined Aristitole’s cosmology epicycles and the like, but not the basic ideas. Our moon’s cyclic phases and occasional eclipses were another matter.

Basically, Aristotle said Earth, the world we stand on, was at the bottom of an otherwise-perfect and unchanging reality. I’m oversimplifying the idea something frightful.

Given what folks knew in Aristotle’s day, it made sense. So did what Aristarchus said. But Aristotle was more famous in his day. His model was my civilization’s default assumption until a half-millennium back.

Agreeing with Aristotle made sense in the 13th century.

A few scholars had reasons for thinking maybe ‘one mutable world at the bottom’ wasn’t the only possible model, but precious little data and less proof.

Observations and analysis confirmed post-Ptolemaic Aristotelian models pretty well.

That wasn’t enough to stop academic debate. Still isn’t for that matter. And that was no problem.

Then Aristotle’s fans said other worlds couldn’t exist: because Aristotle said so.

That’s a problem. I’ve mentioned Proposition 27/219 of 1277 before. It’s been rescinded, but the principle still holds.

God decides how reality works. We don’t. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268)

It’s not a new idea.

“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
(Psalms 115:3)

The way I see it, God is large and in charge. Part of my job is appreciating this universe. Not telling the Almighty how it should work.

Wonder How It Works? Ask!

(From Forbes, used w/o permission.)
(“The Earth at night, as viewed from the International Space Station….”

Yes, Science Is For The Religious, Too
Ethan Siegel, Starts With a Bang contributor group, Forbes (January 9, 2018)

“If you want to figure out how the Universe works, you have to ask. Not by asking some authority figure, but by finding a way to ask the Universe itself: to theorize an idea and to test it, via thorough experiments, observations, and measurements. The ability to formulate an idea, to infer and calculate what the physical implications of that idea are, to gather data that tests those implications, and to then draw conclusions is the hallmark of scientific thinking.

“The scientific method insists on taking this steps in a rigorous, repeatable fashion, and teaches us the scientific answer to any question we’re clever enough to ask. Science is both the method of investigation and the full suite of knowledge we gain from asking such questions, with the joys and wonder of discovery open to everyone. Despite the widespread perception that science and religion conflict with each other, the overwhelming majority of people experience no such conflict. Anyone can learn how to investigate the world like a scientist, and a scientist can belong to any religion. Around the globe, this is exactly what the data shows….”

First off, I read this online. Subscribing to Forbes might be fun, but it’s beyond my budget. Far beyond.

I take the second-to-last sentence with a grain of salt.

I think the vast majority of folks can learn to ‘think like a scientist.’ If that means learning to see what’s fact and what’s not; and thinking about how facts fit together, not relying on what emotions they trigger.

Agreeing that a scientist can “belong to any religion” depends on how “religion” gets defined. The assertion makes sense, given what I’ve learned, if “religion” means one of the world’s more-or-less major belief groups.

I have no trouble imagining a scientist who grew up with and follows the beliefs and practices of, say, Islam.

Good grief, philosophers in Christian Europe learned by reading translations of work from what we call the Islamic Golden Age, about a thousand years back now.

I think Islam’s good times weren’t perfect. Neither were Europe’s Renaissance and other cultures’ high points.

I think we’re in one now, although it’ll probably take a few centuries for many to see it. Maybe a millennium or two.

We don’t have a perfect civilization either. But we’re learning. And, I think, correcting some faults. I’m glad to see more recognition of folks like Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Kindi in my branch of Western Civilization. (October 6, 2017; September 29, 2017)

Imagining scientists who believe and practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or Christianity isn’t hard, either.

Imagining a competent scientist who also follows the beliefs of a Christian outfit that demands rejecting science? Or at least the parts of reality they don’t like?

That might be possible, with great effort.

Folks of that ilk came up with “creation science” in the 1960s. What I’ve seen of it is imaginative and displays an admirable grasp of fun facts about this world.

I like that a whole lot more than the older distaste for physical realities.

Active rejection of what we’ve been learning in the several centuries? How physical reality works, how it all fits together? That strikes me as unreasonable. (July 23, 2017; March 31, 2017; December 16, 2016)

The Universe and Me

(From NASA/GSFC, via Forbes, used w/o permission.)
(“There is a large suite of scientific evidence that supports the picture of the expanding Universe and the Big Bang, but that does not necessitate a conflict between scientific conclusions and religious beliefs.”

I was born during the Truman administration. Quite a bit’s happened since then.

A kindergarten teacher wisely let me spend available free time in a semicircular ‘book nook.’ There were, reconstructing images in my memory, maybe upwards of a dozen shelf feet of picture books there. Those were good times.

I’ve been — not so much an avid, as a nearly-constant — reader ever since. I’d read ingredients labels, textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, dictionaries. You get the idea.

Yeah, I’m one of those people.

We’ve learned a lot about how our brains work since Truman’s time.

Folks with non-standard neural circuitry often get caught early. (November 19, 2017; April 9, 2017; March 19, 2017)

I think efforts to prevent or cure people like me are well-intentioned. Usually. It might be a good idea, in some cases. (November 19, 2017)

That’s not what I was was talking about. Not quite. Where was I? Science, religion, Truman, breakfast cereal. Right. Belief and the Big Bang. Also Genesis and me.

Like I said, I was born during the Truman administration. Most science books I had access to in elementary and high school had been written quite a few years earlier.

That let me experience a sort of fast-forward look at current scientific knowledge from around 1900 to 1970. In a few years. I loved it, but I’m quite sure some wouldn’t. At all.

Let there be LIGHT

And that gets me to Genesis and the Big Bang.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth—
“and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—
“Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”
(Genesis 1:13)

I take the Bible seriously. That’s ‘Catholicism 101,’ like I said earlier.

I think the Bible is true. That needs explaining, given more-or-less recent silliness.

Taking Sacred Scripture seriously and thinking that it’s true isn’t even close to imagining it was written by an American. Or a Jacobean scholar with a taste for slightly-antique prose.

Or even someone with today’s Western attitudes, and a whacking great chasm where poetry and metaphor should be.

Style and Assumptions

Oddly enough, I’ve yet to see someone say the Bible can’t be true since religious folks say God is the author: and the Bible shows no stylistic consistency.

That’s hardly surprising, considering it includes poetry and prose from many centuries. Millennia, counting oral traditions. I think God is the author. And that God decided that humans would do the actual writing.

That’s why the Bible looks like it was written by many different folks, living in different eras. It was. And God inspired the human writers. (Catechism, 105107, 109111)

Expecting a contemporary Western worldview from folks living just west of the Fertile Crescent after the Late Bronze Age Collapse isn’t reasonable.

Never mind oral traditions that were likely enough ancient when Abram lived in Ur. More than just “ancient,” and that’s another topic.

Neither is imagining that they’d know what we’ve learned about this wonder-filled universe in the last few decades. Or what we’ll be learning when the 42nd century rolls by.

The Big Bang and Beyond

I grew up in 20th century America, and have been paying attention.

I understand why saying that the Big Bang model “does not necessitate a conflict between scientific conclusions and religious beliefs” makes sense.

But I think saying it “does not necessitate a conflict” is an understatement. From my viewpoint, anyway.

I can see the first chapter in Genesis as a wonderfully poetic description of what’s happened in this universe from the moment it began to “now.”

A scientist wouldn’t describe a point of infinite density and temperature as “without form and void.”

But a scientist didn’t write Genesis.

Besides, that sort of thing we can work out on our own. Have worked out. And we keep finding new puzzles.

Kvetching because Genesis 1 talks about days instead of eons or eras is an option, but not a reasonable one.

I figure God’s viewpoint and mine aren’t quite the same. On the other hand, I think conforming my will to God’s is a good idea. Kairos, chronos, and all that will wait for another day.

Siegel has more to say. I do, too.

Basically, I think his op-ed is worth reading. And not what I’ve gotten used to seeing. Particularly since he took the trouble to back up his opinions with facts. Nice touch.

Living in the Real World: Or Not

Being offended by Wiley Miller’s “Church of Danae” gags is an option, too.

So is calling upon those who hold dear their assumptions to mightily smite folks who like living in the real world.

But I don’t think it makes sense.

I might be offended by Non Sequitur’s take on Danae’s religion. If I thought it was attacking my faith.

As it is, I think real analogs to Danae and Captain Eddie, another Non Sequitur character, have a funny side. Not the people who cherish such beliefs. What they believe, and how they express it.

I suspect the ‘back to the days of yore’ fringes of American beliefs encourage more easily-found headlines. These two, from 2015, were near the top of my recent ‘science religion opinion’ Google search:

  • “Why Religion and Science are Mutually Incompatible”
  • “Science & Religion: A Centuries-old War Rages On”

Next, how I see autopsies and movies.

Skittish About Science and Autopsies

Quite a few folks are squeamish about autopsies. That’s understandable, I think. But I know they can be useful.

Elizabeth, our youngest child, died shortly before birth.2 After medicos were sure my wife would survive, a doctor asked me if we wanted an autopsy.

I wondered if it was likely to yield practical information. That seemed like the only reason for asking. And a good reason.

It’s not why the doctor asked. Seems some parents are concerned about details I think are irrelevant when someone’s dead. That’s yet another topic, for another day.

I said no. An autopsy seemed like an unnecessary complication. Religious scruples or superstitious fear had nothing to do with the decision. I’m pretty sure about that.

I could understand a recently-bereaved father feeling that an autopsy would offend God. But I wouldn’t agree.

Autopsies are legal these days, and not particularly controversial.

That could change, if we dig up and reanimate old-fashioned values. I don’t think it’d be a good idea.

Textbooks often said autopsies were illegal in Europe because Europeans were Christian. That was back in my ‘good old days.’ I don’t miss them.

There’s a little truth in it.

Many Europeans saw themselves as Christian. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were flat-out illegal in parts of “Christian” Europe. (June 16, 2017; March 31, 2017)

Autopsies, I mean. Not Europeans. Pronoun trouble.

I see the attitude more as Europe’s adoption of Roman imperial law and custom.3

The Church of Danae, Autopsies and Togas

Greco-Roman culture and beliefs didn’t allow autopsies.

That’s why Galenus studied monkeys. (July 15, 2016)

Squeamishness and ancient attitudes may help explain the lasting popularity of Shelley’s “Frankenstein” tale.

Mary, not Percy. It was Victor, actually, and I’m rambling again. (August 5, 2016)

Seeing aversion to autopsies as a plot by progress-hating clerics, feeding on the ignorance of a superstitious rabble might make a good story. But it’d fail fact checks. (October 30, 2016; July 15, 2016)

The European branch of Western civilization inherited much of the ancient Roman set of values and scruples, which had thoroughly pagan roots long before our Lord arrived.

Old Roman values aren’t particularly bad, but let’s get a grip: the Roman Senate did not write the Decalogue. I don’t have to wear a toga to be a Christian.

Studying the natural world is okay. Including our bodies. Worshiping nature would be idolatry, and a bad idea. (Catechism, 282283, 21122114)

Folks who understand what the Catholic Church says realize we can study nature without fear of offending ‘the spirits.’ We should, anyway.

Christianity’s attitude toward reason and the study of nature allows autopsies and makes other scientific research possible. The Catholic version, anyway.

On the other hand, mad scientists make such nifty heroes, antiheroes and villains.

Fiction: Like Frankenstein and Lovecraft’s Tales

(From Cornhill Publishing Company’s 1922 reprint of “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein…”, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Frankenstein’s do-it-yourself project, from a 1922 reprint of M. W. Shelley’s tale.)

I’ve enjoyed the occasional ‘mad scientist’ tale.

Their real-life counterparts are, happily, few and far between. And anything but entertaining. (November 11, 2016; October 16, 2016)

One of these days I may read Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” I understand that it’s more substantial than the seemingly-endless succession of ‘Frankenstein’ movies. Which wouldn’t take much, I’ll grant.

I have read Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” We’ve learned quite a bit since 1886, so the Stevenson’s fictional science seems more fictional than it would have at the time.

But I think it’s still a good story, and suffers from an image issue similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Like I said, I enjoy some ‘mad scientist’ tales. I think they can be useful cautionary tales, making ideas like ‘consider risks before acting’ memorable.

But I see them mostly as entertainment. Which I think is okay, in moderation. I’ve talked about enjoying life, Ecclesiastes, and the Epic of Gilgamesh before. (October 8, 2017; November 11, 2016)

Expecting a science education from watching the likes of “The Devil Bat” isn’t reasonable. Not that someone’s likely to assume that’s the case.

Assuming that ignorance is a virtue isn’t particularly sensible either.

On the other hand, finding folks who act as if they agree with a Lovecraftian assumption about ignorance isn’t hard. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” says it’s the only defense we have against cosmic horrors.

I like some Lovecraft tales, don’t agree with his philosophy, and that’s yet again another topic. Topics. (March 31, 2017; December 16, 2016)

Movies and Attitudes

I doubt more than a few, if any, folks would think “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” represented state-of-the art medical science of the late 1950s and early 60s.

But the ‘beware tampering with nature’ attitude that I see in the Sterling Productions movie is pretty common.

There’s a little wisdom in it. We’ll be cleaning up the mess from Industrial Revolution blunders for a long time.

Assuming that God gave us brains and we offend an irritable Almighty by using them? That doesn’t make more sense. Not to me.

The version of Christianity some folks have seems to have more in common with old-school beliefs, where tiptoeing around capricious spirits made sense. I’ve talked about that before. (November 5, 2017)

Also blaming Mother Nature for disasters, Edward II and the Little Ice Age, Ecclesiastes, Heraclitus and a defunct Packard factory. (November 17, 2017; September 10, 2017; August 4, 2017)

Had enough? If not, there’s more:

1 Origins of science and scientists:

2 I’d rather not go through that again. But I see no point in being miserable. Trouble happens, life doesn’t come with guarantees, and I’m looking ahead:

3 Remembering some of the ‘good old days:’

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Science and Religion

  1. This brings to mind a bunch of those video games I’ve played before. Like, the sort where there’s this complex world of magic and/or futuristic technology, and the plot is basically kicking the butt of some top monster or some top criminal through the help of some paranormal (read: above average magic at the least, mindbending logic breaker at the most) force for “world peace,” “universal peace,” or even “multiversal peace.” Fun to go with because of the action, which gives me a feeling close to the feeling when I’m “doing something,” and even the whole philosophizing that they try to do along with their different yet relatable world, but still, I wouldn’t call them perfect. Relatable, but not perfect.

    Anyway, I think I enjoy them now like how you enjoy sci-fi stuff these days. Putting effort into keeping touch with reality some more while still enjoying those things until a certain level, I’ve realized that sci-fi and fantasy are pretty much part of them attempts at educational and introspective simulations of our lives depicted with different settings that won’t numb our brains and hearts further, be it in refreshing ways or in painful ways. But fiction is fiction, and we’re not meant to stay there and just believe without reason. They’re imperfect reflections of us imperfects, and questioning is something that has to happen to them.

    And hey, thinking about that, I guess God Almighty really does a lot for our progress, no?

    • Yes. Indeed. Giving us big brains and insatiable curiosity, for starters. 🙂

      *Using* our various gifts is an option. A good one, I think. Using them wisely – – – that’s a bit trickier, but well worth the effort. In my experience.

      About fiction: including but not limited to fantasy and science fiction. Agreed. It’s worthwhile. And, although not “true” in a literal word-for-word sense; I think no story would be even remotely interesting if it did not reflect some truth.

      That’s a topic I’ve touched on, but not really dug into. Last year’s “A Writer Who is Catholic” is about the most I’ve done. ( )

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing comma: “A few Christians do too, although they”

    Missing article: “He was Dominican friar and”

    Missing vowel: “Kvetchng because Genesis 1 talks”

    Another missing comma: “I do too.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!