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The Adolescent Squabble of Science vs. Religion

One of the books that I have been looking forward to reading for some time is Marilynne Robinson’s recent collection of essays called When I Was a Child I Read Books. Happily, a little brown package arrived in the mail today! I have enjoyed Robinson’s fiction immensely (Gilead and Home obviously come to mind), but haven’t had a chance to read her nonfiction just yet. I am very glad for the opportunity to correct this regrettable deficiency.

At any rate, the arrival of this book combined with my research on the new atheism in grad school, combined with bit of writing I recently did for another publication which touched on similar themes, reminded me of an interview with Robinson in The Atlantic that I recently bookmarked. I was particularly intrigued by her response to a question about whether or not science and religion are “mutually exclusive” and are destined to remain locked in a struggle for “possession of a single piece of turf.” Robinson’s response strikes me as wise and accurate, on a number of levels:

I’m not impressed by the quality of the conversation on either side of that controversy. There’s better religious thought, and there’s better scientific thought, and they don’t engage.

There are people who, for one reason or another, have a bad experience with religion. They drop out at the age of 12—this seems to be characteristic of most of religion’s major critics. And then they spend the rest of their lives attacking a 12-year-old’s conception of religion. Part of the responsibility certainly does lie with religion, because the people who claim it often don’t do it any justice at all.

On the other hand, there’s an idea of science which is not serious. A notion of science which presents itself as all-knowing, all rationalizing, when in fact the best science has always engaged with mystery. With the possibility of error. And the whole complexity of how human beings can know what they know, and so on.

Science is very alert to error, excited by it, pleased by it! If someone can reverse some important position that science has taken, a thrill passes through the scientific community. That tends not to be the way that it’s represented. So I think there’s something tacky, and sort of below the dignity of both sides, in the controversy that’s going on now.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I don’t think Robinson understands science or the challenge to faith posed by holding a Darwinian understanding of the origin of species. In her Atlantic interview she referred to science coming to believe in a “beginning” only recently and she cited Einstein and the Hubble telescope in that context. Her remarks are uninformed. Science accepted the idea of a beginning until recently. She may be thinking of the “big bang” metaphor. That is a theory about the expansion of the universe. It refers to a singularity, and not to the “beginning” even remotely in the way that expression is used in the Bible. Of course, at the same time, we cannot really say what was meant by that expression in the Bible or the way that expression was understood in the ancient world. It may refer to a time when a dragon was slain and order established, and not to anything such as a beginning of time or the universe.

    She is right about science not holding that it is all-knowing. The false idea that science is all knowing may owe its origin to religion, which is to say, to Christianity.

    May 22, 2012
    • Robinson’s remarks about the findings of science may be “uninformed” in some areas, but I think the general picture she paints in the passage I quoted is correct. It certainly fits my experience of the debates around the new atheism and its detractors over the past 7-8 years.

      She is right about science not holding that it is all-knowing. The false idea that science is all knowing may owe its origin to religion, which is to say, to Christianity.

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. There are a number of things I could say, but I would want to hear more about what you intended before venturing a comment.

      May 23, 2012
    • Ken #

      I see what you mean. I guess her dismissing such concerns as reflecting an immature view of God or a misunderstanding of science is what I was reacting to. I don’t agree with Dawkins assessments of religion either. Still, I think he has more understanding than that of an adolescent. I do, and I see problems where apparently Robinson does not. At the same time, I find the arrogance of Dawkins and others like him to be inappropriate and unjustified.

      I remember a biologist I once knew who became a pastor, and who had a somewhat evangelical faith. I asked him once how he reconciled Darwin and his faith. He said he saw nothing to reconcile and that the Biblical account of things is wholly compatible with Darwin. He then changed the subject. My impression from his body language is that he was avoiding an answer, and from my high assessment of his intellect, that he was lying. (In addition, he frequently studied the works of Polkinghorne and others who were concerned with such problems.) Robinson strikes me that way too. She swaggers in her language about this subject.

      Re the origin of the false idea:

      What I wrote is confusing. I am unable to straighten it out. It was a passing thought that I let fly that I should not have released in this context. I was thinking about the tendency in modernity within Christianity of seeing science as revealing truth about God’s creation, of being reliable. Of course, one could also trace this tendency to Athens rather than Jerusalem.

      Even if I don’t react favorably to Robinson’s words, I am with you (and her) in your resistance to those who say that science makes religion irrelevant. I am most sympathetic to postmodern analyses in this respect, such as those of Max Oelschlaeger who wrote, The Idea of Wilderness.

      May 23, 2012

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