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Can Science Rescue Religion?

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I suppose it was foreordained. Had to happen. In the midst of a terrible cold spell around the Northern Hemisphere, the new theology of denial has embraced a deadly arctic chill as a sign from God. A sign of what, you ask? Elmer Beauregard, head of Minnesotans for Global Warming, is pleased to explain:

"We prayed for snow at Copenhagen and God answered us big time and He doesn't seem to be letting up. It seems like He is reminding us who actually is in control of the weather."

So, you see, people are shivering from Texas to Tblisi because God meant to send a message to the Climate Change Conference, but it got here late and all kinda spread-out like. The Old Man must be having trouble keeping his hand steady.

Sigh... Bonehead theology can be amusing, but after a decade of intensive engagement with science-and-religion issues, I've come to feel that it represents the worst among many threats to humanity.

The braiding of warming denial, rightwing politics, and fundamentalist religion is an obvious manifestation. We cannot even hope to meet the challenges of climate change if the public refuses to take the threat seriously.

Maddening though that may be, global-warming denial amounts to a single tremor amid tectonic shifts in civilization. As when continents collide, the clash of ideological systems can result in devastating upheavals. In the 20th century, civilization barely survived global conflicts over political and economic systems.

After two world wars and the near-death experience of the Cold War, humanity has emerged with a rough consensus on these big issues; in principle, at least, we all embrace representative democracy and open markets. Even mad dictators like North Korea's Kim Jong-Il and Burma's generals pretend to like elections and trade.

There's more. Science has become a truly global undertaking. How archaic the term "Western science" sounds now. Exploration, discovery, and innovation are just as likely to take place in India, Japan, Brazil, Korea, Israel, or China as in America or Europe. Meantime, kids around the world are dressing, dancing, and texting their way to convergence in a global consumerist culture.

Government, economy, science, pop culture -- why stop here? You know the answer. Against this floodtide of togetherness stands a great wall of divisiveness: its name is religion.

Despite the general good will of people of faith, ancient ideologies embedded in the world's major religions make reconciliation among them virtually impossible. At best you get polite condescension. At worst, you get unholy war. We don't need to check Google Trends to know which is on the rise.

On the polite side stands the Pope. He may offend Muslims, Jews, and Protestants, but he always apologizes afterwards. Still, you have to wonder what he really believes.

Actually, you don't. Before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, "With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by Him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith ... rules out, in a radical way ...the belief that 'one religion is as good as another.' " Suppose he has changed his mind since? No chance.

Even if he had, the leaders of other "revealed" religions have not. Islam has no single spokesman, but Osama bin Laden was certainly far from alone when he said, "Death is better than living on this earth with the unbelievers amongst us, making a mockery of our religion." Pity his wish hasn't been granted.

Apart from the problem of pious terrorism (which, though heavily concentrated in Islam, has infected all major faiths in recent years), religion threatens human civilization in other ways. It drives overpopulation. It promotes superstition, obstructs science, and deliberately undermines public acceptance of scientific findings. And, at a moment when we urgently need to find new energy sources, respond to climate change, defuse the population bomb, and achieve peace, it fosters fatalism.

Disgust with this sort of toxic ideology has led some intellectuals -- Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris leap to mind -- to speak out for a "New Atheism." Indeed, the ranks of atheists have grown in the West. Given what we now know of human nature, however, it seems unlikely to me that atheism will supplant religion. What to do, then?

The answer, I believe, is to reform religion in the light of science. That may strike some as even less likely to come about than universal atheism, but there are reasons to be optimistic. First, people can shift their beliefs with remarkable speed. Less than a lifetime ago, sexism, racism, and homophobia were legitimate ideologies. Now, though many remnants lurk in dark places, as ideologies, they have been repudiated nearly everywhere -- except in religion. The snag is that the Good Lord has supposedly enshrined such inequities.

But let's be fair to religion: it too evolves. It no longer sanctions slavery. Many congregations now welcome people regardless of sexual orientation. One day, religion's ancient prejudices against women may fall. Even the Mormon Church -- hardly a bastion of liberalism -- has shed polygamy and racism.

Second, science has much insight to offer religion about the natural world, including religion itself. Now that we know religion sprang up independently many times in human history, and that the scriptural religions came to the party very late with an armload of dubious claims (four corners of the Earth?), we have good reasons for a rethink.

Just as important, however, science gives us scope for hope. It cannot answer questions about whether there is a Creator, but it can clear up claims about the world we inhabit. It cannot tell whether there is anything more than the natural world, but it can reveal the boundaries and beginnings of that world. Nothing in science rules out something more, beyond those boundaries. It only sets limits on what we can reasonably say about the material universe we inhabit. That, for example, it is nearly 14 billion years old, that it operates according to laws and chance, and that on at least one tiny blue dot in an ordinary star system, life has evolved into many splendid forms.

Last and foremost, science offers us common ground on which to gather and a light by which to redraw our various religions in ways that can allow them -- and us -- to coexist. In future posts, I will explore how this can be done. I will also suggest how rational religion can once again inspire science.

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Clay Farris Naff (claynaff.com) is a science writer with a special interest in the rational reconciliation of religions with science. An award-winning journalist and author, he has been a science-and-religion columnist for the Metanexus Institute, an editor for Greenhaven Press, and a freelance writer for various publications, including most recently Earth magazine and The Humanist. He serves as executive director of the Lincoln Literacy Council. You can follow him at Twitter: @claynaff

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