by Frank Schnittger
Fri Jan 4th, 2008 at 09:30:52 AM EST
In keeping with kcurie's A Christmas tale and DoDo's Religion and Family I thought I would broaden the debate to include a wider theory of Religion and Science in Society as a whole.
Try replacing the word God with the word reality and prayer/meditation with attempts to understand that reality better - of which philosophy, science, etc. are other methods. We are all in the business of trying to understand reality better, and the dominant paradigm is now a positivist/natural scientific one.
Diary rescue by Migeru
In earlier times various religions and associated practices and traditions were the dominant methods of understanding reality. The languages, methods, traditions, and authorities change. We can all argue over which is the "best" one for describing reality and a positivist notion of Science is currently certainly the most dominant in western and far eastern societies.
However even Science has difficulty in describing reality at very small magnitudes (particles appearing from nowhere, and disappearing as they magically collided with others just as the others appear from nowhere) and very large magnitudes of time and space - multiple universes, multiple dimensions, what did come before the big bang?
In Extremis science begins to sound almost as much a mumbo jumbo as "religious" explanations of old. No doubt in a few hundred years time, current understandings of "The Big Bang" will seem like so much archaic folk tales and those who still think that light travels in straight lines will be looked at with amused derision.
The attempt to better understand reality and make sense of it is universal. The attempt to comfort the afflicted and heal the wounded is universal. The language, methods and customs used have to relate to the general level of understanding, technology and social organisation of the people engaged in it. Even if an old testament prophet or Buddhist sage had come up with the General Theory of Relativity, he would have had huge difficulty in explaining it to his peers in a language they could understand.
It is thus ridiculous to take some time frozen, culturally specific "explanation" of reality and transport it into a different time and place as some kind of absolute, ahistorical Truth. Just because the ancients had no notion of evolutionary time-scales or mechanisms doesn't make their folk-history explanations of the Creation any less valid in their time and in their context (because they had no other means of understanding it - e.g. by using concepts like natural selection or technologies like carbon dating). Thus the Biblical Creation stories represent the Truth of the best available or possible understanding of reality at the time.
What is truly archaic is the attempt retrofit a modern scientific culture with a bronze age understanding of evolution. It is the opposite of what true Science, and true Religion is all about - the attempt to better understand reality using the best available cultural concepts, methods and technologies of the time.
New discoveries become orthodoxies which are enforced by new generations of authorities - be they priestly or scientific. They can often become repressive and resistant to new ideas and social changes. In "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" many years ago, Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that major new discoveries involved a "paradigmatic shift" which made them incomprehensible in language and concept to the custodians of the old order.
As recently as the 1970's major Geological textbooks made no mention of the Tectonic plates, without which the earth's evolution is simply inexplicable - even given the evidence available at the time. Many prominent Geologists still flatly denied their existence.
So what is central to any progressive discourse is that it contains the ability to re-examine and rediscover and re-understand the very fundamentals of its own foundations. There is plenty of evidence of such evolutions in language, concepts and thought in both Judaism and Christianity, but the biggest shifts have taken place since the Empiricist Scientific revolution. These have changed not merely the way we understand the world, but the world itself through our intervention in ways that were unthinkable in previous paradigms.
But that doesn't necessarily address the second function of religion in societies, and that is the development of a group sense of belonging, identity, authority and order. Our individualist societies rebel at the very concept at having to conform to a preordained set of ideas - which coincidentally are also the basis of others having power over us. And thus there is often a revulsion against religion both because of its largely pre-scientific beliefs and methods of discovery, but also against the social order it seeks to impose.
Science has done very well at coming up with better descriptions of and interventions in reality, Medicine routinely conducts procedures that would rate as "miracle cures" in earlier times, but modern day secular and individualistic society has been less good at meeting the human needs for a sense of belonging, identity, authority and order which give children and adults a secure, or at least a stable place in the greater scheme of things. Indeed the scale and the pace of change, the complexity of social interactions, and the vastness of the urban jungle makes such relative "stability" ever more difficult to achieve.
Religion thus often has a residual role in socialising children and creating a sense of community amongst adults who otherwise are fully "scientific" and "secular" in their business and political views. Its "Truth" is an ancient one derived from ancient insights and traditions. Its quest for greater understanding, the relief of suffering and sin (= alienation in modern day parlance) is universal. Its methods and concepts for understanding that reality and relieving that suffering have long been superseded by Science, Medicine, and even (to some extent, and much less successfully) by Psychiatry.
It still, however, has an unrivaled ability to provide a sense of community for many of its adherents as modern political parties, business enterprises, social clubs or community organisations rarely do. If it works for them, why knock it, especially if it is no longer imposed on "non-believers"?