A Science and Religion Free for All–George Johnson report in NY Times

Writer George Johnson profiles a
a forum this month at the Salk
Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. as a free for all between
science and religion.

…the world
needs to
wake up
from its
long night-
mare of
religious
belief…
Steven Weinberg
NY Times

A forum discussing science and religion at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies this month became a free for all, according to an article by George Johnson, reported in the New York Times.

The remarks of Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate marked the peak of discussion about the negative effects of religion, according to Johnson, but there was plenty of sharp criticism of religion and religious belief.

Comments by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion” were widely quoted in the media. His book is on the bestseller list. Dawkins claims religious belief is delusion and he equates religion with a virus. This has made Dawkins the object of considerable derision among some religious groups, a position in which he seems to take delight. An interview of Dawkins by Gordy Slack appears on Salon.com.

The substantive issues raised in this debate, however, cut to the core of religious belief and the value of faith. Dawkins claims that a system of belief based on lack of verifiable evidence is leading to a “theocratic Dark Age” in the United States.

We who are Christian and follow the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul, however, recall Paul writing that the essence of faith is to believe even in the absence of evidence. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible,” Paul writes. (Hebrews 11:1,3)

This is exactly what Dawkins finds untenable. He makes a full frontal attack on the beliefs of most, if not all, religions. But, it’s my opinion that this argument is based on an incomplete definition of religion. It rests on belief which can too easily be compacted into doctrine.

What if, for example, Christian faith were defined as the way those who follow Jesus practice acts of compassion and justice? And what if those who are disciples of Jesus express faith as the action of healing a divided and broken world, rather than a set of doctrines that divide? And what if religion were seen as a motivation to understand the creation–the physical sciences, astronomy, biology, and a host of other specialized areas of knowledge–and not as a refuge from them?

If religious folks are not defensive about this frontal assault but instead go about living morally and ethically consistent lives, doing no harm, doing all the good they can and attending to those acts that inform and strengthen them, such as worship, prayer, Bible study, partaking of the Holy Communion and fasting and abstinence, this debate might take on a different character.

These are the general rules John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught his followers as the marks by which they were to live. I don’t know if this would change the debate because it’s based on a conception of faith that creation is purposeful and faith is discovering one’s place in this purposeful creation of God. Dawkins rejects design as an adequate way to understand the universe because it still doesn’t explain the designer.

But Dawkins tells Slack, “It (the world) would also be a better place if morality was all about doing good to others and refraining from hurting them, rather than religion’s morbid obsession with private sin and the evils of sexual enjoyment.”

These practices neither deny nor negate the value of science, but instead, uphold an understanding of life as a sacred journey lived with meaning and purpose by those who believe in God and who, as a result, also believe they are called to transform the world by making it more compassionate and just , especially in partnership with the poor and vulnerable.

As I’ve just been involved in a conversation about these rules and their relevance in our time, they are fresh to me, and they lead me to ask another question: If Christians were to practice these things, what is wrong with that?

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