Category Archives: Religion

Science, Religion, and a Messy, Messy Universe

Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

It is an almost unspoken truth in the West that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Western religion (historically, Christianity) says that the nature of the universe can be understood by, in an anthropological sense, listening to our elders.

Western science, on the other hand, says that we can understand the universe through observation. How could these two views not be in conflict? These are two very different approaches to what “truth” is.

By extension, they end up also being very different windows into the natures of people, the universe, and knowledge itself. But a question we need to ask ourselves is: “is there only one way to understand something?” An underlying assumption of both systems of thought is that there is one, and only one, “best” way of knowing.

The Rise of Science

It has been argued that Science has been growing in the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has, in some respects, replaced the authority of the Church in Western culture. Belief in the power of science has become (perhaps ironically) a status marker.

We’re all very familiar with the observational part of science — the root of experimentation. But the second part of science, which we often either take for granted or ignore completely, is the collaborative part of it.

Science, as a way of building knowledge, depends on both observation and collaboration. Sometimes we talk about science as if the observational part were the whole of it. “Scientists have discovered” say the headlines, as if science were wholly a journey of discovery, and not discovery followed by careful collaborative work.

Scientific research, then, implicitly argues that “we can all agree…” on whatever the evidence shows. This aspect of science allows for the testing of theories across different times and places.

After all, if my scientific observations and yours don’t match, it’s clear that we’re going to have to further develop theories so that all of the data can be explained. Science doesn’t depend on the work of lone experimenters slaving away in laboratories, but on their coming together to agree.

Western Science, Western Religion

Back when Science was getting started (going back to 1453), there certainly was a need to cast off the “old ways” of knowing , especially in the domains of knowledge where science was beginning to assert itself and the Church (the big authority on Truth at the time) was saying “nuh-uh.”

Christianity, after vanquishing the pagan ways of knowledge of the Roman empire, had spent more than a millennium enjoying its day in the sun in Europe. It wasn’t until the rise of science that it it experienced any serious challenges to its way of seeing the universe.

This “struggle” between science and religion is ongoing. Sometimes this conflict between scientific and religious followers simply comes down to different assumptions about the nature of the universe. Scientists as a group generally argue that the universe is understandable through observation, measurement, and collaboration (with other scientists). The proponents of religion (in a very Western sense of the word) have a very different view of truth and authority.

The two “opposing” systems still duke it out from time to time, but the official decisions of the government and the upper strata of society are much more in line with scientific knowledge. The easiest way to be certain of this is to “follow the money” and determine whether, in a market sense, scientists or theologians get paid more.

But It’s a Messy, Messy Universe

The argument between science and religion is a little like the conflict between Coke and Pepsi. Both contain an underlying assumption that they want us to swallow. In the knowledge wars, like the cola wars, the assumption is that we should be drinking either exclusively!

Holidays — The Best Christmas Gift

Santa's Arrival
Sure, we all like the parties and the presents. But sometimes we take the days off for granted.

If we go back in time not too far, just a couple of hundred years, then we can be certain that much of the West was Christian. This wasn’t just a matter of ascription, as religion and the law were strongly intertwined. In other words, it wasn’t that people were Christian, so much as the whole culture was from top to bottom — but especially at the top.

Unsurprisingly, the word “holiday” originally came from the Old English hāligdæg meaning “holy day.” That is, originally the days were all religious observances.

Not only did people “get” the day off, they were required by law and religion to not work. And maybe more interesting, the idea wasn’t so much about partying as performing religious observances.

Days Off

The whole idea of not working on holidays comes from its religious origin. Going back to Christianity, one of the rules is “keeping the sabbath day holy.” In the Middle Ages, this was extended outwards to other days of religious observance. Apparently it was used to good effect by the church in making wars more difficult.

Since, in many ways, the Church only had power over “holy” matters, they made an end-run around secular authority and would declare certain days holy so that they could make the warlords stop fighting. That is, they would take certain “feast days” into their sphere of control so that they could stop, or at least slow, wars.

That, combined with the idea of keeping every Sunday work-free, has come down to us as government-recognized holidays. So we can thank the Church’s interest in preventing useless bloodshed for the days off we now enjoy. Enjoy your days off, and Merry Christmas!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas

The War on Christmas is a shorthand for one front in the West’s “culture wars,” which address a number of cultural bones of contention. The central question of this war could be framed “Is the West primarily Christian?”

If we think about Western Culture as the thread of belief and knowledge that has come down to us through history, stretching from the Greeks and Romans (and the Ancient Egyptians, though they got short shrift in my middle school history books, and probably yours), then the West is Christian.

Historically, the Christians fought a battle for political supremacy in the first handful of centuries CE. They took over the Roman Empire and set the religious and scholarly tone for our culture. In short, they won.

The victory of the Roman Christians for political influence meant that power resided either in the hands of the Church (or one of the divisions that came after the Protestant Reformation), or in the hands of people at least nominally beholden to the Church. That lasted, in many ways, until the end of the European colonial era.

The West isn’t the West Anymore

Since the end of World War 2, however, something else — something critical — happened to the West. It stopped being the home only of Westerners.

Starting with the Age of Discovery, which began around 1492, there was increased trade and influence passing back and forth between the West and the rest of the world. For Europeans, the world got a lot “larger” as everyday people came into contact with thoughts, ideas, and people from around the globe.

The European colonial era came to a dwindling end around the close of World War 2. What arose in its place was a postmodern world, where the flow of people and ideas became more and more rapid, and where people of non-European descent could “take their place at the table.”

Human Rights Are for (All) Humans

Sure, there were many non-Westerners in America before the mid 1900s. But those groups lacked many fundamental rights. They were not, legally or culturally, seen as equals. They lacked many of the freedoms enjoyed by nominal Westerners.

For instance, in many cases, non-Westerners in America could not vote, have full citizenship, own land, or marry as they chose. More important for consideration of Christmas, their religions were not recognized.

However, since the second half of the 20th century, a new spirit of religious freedom has enveloped America. It’s an era when the ideas of human rights, which had historically been only applied to white Westerners, were applied more evenly. Non-Western, and non-mainstream Western, populations now have an expectation that the separation of Church and State means something.

The War on Christmas

So it comes down to this: the “War on Christmas” is actually a push to make human universal rights, well, universal. It isn’t a silly argument, though. It’s a full-blown struggle to define “the West.”

Is Western culture just the Christian descendents of an ancient line of thought? Or is it more beholden to these new ideas of equal freedoms for all?

Star Wars Isn’t Racist

Today I went to the San Jose Tech Museum, where I saw the Star Wars exhibit on its last stop of its tour. While it was a very cool exhibit, one thing that I (anthropologically trained) really noticed was the treatment of the “other” in Star Wars, the mythology of my generation.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Storm Troopers on Patrol
Storm Troopers on patrol at the Tech Museum of Innovation — San Jose, CA

To understand the impact of Star Wars on our impressionable young minds, we first need to dispense with the idea that the franchise is science fiction at all. Sure, they have laser blasters, robots, radios, and space ships, but it’s really fantasy (…in space!).

How do we know it’s fantasy? Because against the fairly dystopian cyberpunk background, we’ve got good guys in white, bad guys in black, glowing swords, and magic powers blooming left and right. And let me say this clearly: if we have good and evil wizards battling it out in the distant past, it’s not some vision of our future.

Science fiction, as a genre, is one of the ways that our culture tries to make sense of rapid cultural and technological change. We’ve been experiencing this change since the beginning of the scientific era and industrial revolution. But that’s not Star Wars.

Star Wars is about our colonial past, the nature of good and evil, the proper role of mysticism, and necessity of righteous rebellion against tyranny. In other words, it’s not a projection of our future, but a mythic retelling of our own past.

The Mythic Past as a Window to Our Own Past

The Millenium Falcon
The coolest cat in the universe clearly needs the coolest car…spaceship…whatever.

Back in the 70s, when science was “gonna change the world,” Star Wars gave us a chance to see something that was quite the opposite of the Humanist and spiritually sterile Star Trek. But the differences don’t end there. While Star Trek treats all aliens as foreigners with their own political interests and idiosyncrasies, Star Wars treats them as archetypes of our own culture.

In other words, George Lucas might not be racist at all. But he’s betting the bank that we are. And, historically speaking, that’s a safe bet to make.

Only a hundred years ago, the British Empire ruled a big chunk of the world, “race” was a dominant political-economic creed, and everyone “knew” that religion was true and culture was an a priori category. We’ve come a long way in changing our views about matters of race, religion, and gender. Heck, we’ve come a long way since the 70s.

Defining the Problem

Tusken Raider
Extremely territorial and xenophobic, Tusken Raiders will attack with very little provocation.” Little provocation after the humans took their planet, that is…

We live in a culture that would be unrecognizable to the people of a century ago. But that doesn’t mean the change is over. We still understand these archetypes, use them in our stories, and to a certain extent keep them as part of our culture.

Just as science fiction plays with the cultural change wrought by technology, Star Wars as science fantasy deals with our own changing culture. The aliens aren’t really meant to be aliens, just people in funny suits with motivations that we can quickly apprehend and use to drive the plot forward.

You know, archetypes. Stereotypes. We can get all jumpy about the way Star Wars uses these cultural shorthands to paint a quick, recognizable picture. But the problem doesn’t lie with the authors. The issue isn’t that Star Wars is racist. The problem is that we are.

Belief, Knowledge, and Culture

Carl Spitzweg's The Alchemist
Why are those who seek knowledge such romantic figures?

I’d like to return briefly to the topic of science, and explore further the difference between “science” as in “what researchers do” and Science (with a capital “S”) as in “what researchers have told us.” The first is a way that we learn, gather data, and test it. The second is the collective wisdom of a certain part of our culture.

What I’m saying is that science is two different things in culture. There’s “science is what scientists do” and “science is what scientists say.” The first category helps build a trove of knowledge that is like nothing the world has seen before. The second category is built from the first, but it has a level of cultural interpretation built into it.

An Example

Science, unlike some other forms of knowledge, isn’t designed to tell us how to guide our lives. For example, one might argue from a genetic perspective that the whole purpose of life is based around perpetuating one’s own genes effectively. That makes sense, right? It’s a useful tool of analysis.

However, living with genetics as the sole guiding principle of one’s life misses two things:

  1. everyone kinda knows this already — it’s why there’s so much sex on TV, and
  2. people are not rational, culture-less beings who live their lives according to decisions they make.

Remember, we’re primates, right? Anyone who truly and wholly tried to live by these genetic assumptions, while holding onto Western notions of culture, ethnicity, and the individual, would be setting themselves up to emulate racist, sex-obsessed sociopaths.

While science might analyze our actions based on genetic closeness between individuals, that doesn’t mean we should use such data proscriptively, to guide our decisions.

But Scientists Say…

Most people in Western culture are not scientists. According to InsideHigherEd, only 17% of college graduates earned their bachelor’s in STEM topics. And that’s only the percentage of the total group who attended college. For graduate degrees, the number drops to 13%.

And even if we look at the whole group of graduates as “scientists” (and, admittedly, if we only regard STEM topics as “science” — a debatable question right there), it’s hardly a majority of Americans. Most people are just getting by, not engaging in cosmological investigations at any level.

Even more, since scientists are usually specialists in one field or another, a whole lot of scientific knowledge is being propounded by people who have not done the research for themselves. Their belief rests on their acceptance of science’s authority. We don’t test gravity, we take their word for it.

Science: Rhetoric and Dialectic

In other words, most science is taught, used, and discussed outside of research circles; it’s not being shared by field research specialists. That transforms it from science — a way of learning new things and exploring the world — to Science — a way of viewing the world.

Is this a problem? Does that make the proponents of Science somehow wrong? The short answer to that question is “no.”

The longer answer isn’t “yes.” It’s closer to, “oh, now I can see the influence of Western culture on Science.”

Why? Because as soon as scientific knowledge moves from the realm of dialectic (discussion between scientists) to the realm of rhetoric (discussion between scientists and non-scientists), it lacks the surety that comes from the receiver being able to test the assumptions for themselves.

The rhetorical discussion of scientists with non-scientists is unlike the dialectical one between scientists. The point of rhetorical discussion is winning and strengthening social status, rather than synthesizing a more complete truth. Or to put it more simply:

Participants in a dialectical argument are, on a deeper level, working together. Whereas those engaged in rhetorical debate are much more likely to be working at cross purposes.

But to come back to the key point, the scientific method, and associated research activities — science with a small “s” — is (or should be) distinct from Science with a capital “S.”

The corpus of all the knowledge that humanity has learned, mixed in with a number of cultural beliefs that are accepted on Scientific authority, is what we call Science.When we add the big “S,” Science reflects our cultural values.

It is Science, not science, that argues there is no God, or that research will solve all the world’s ills, or that drinking eight glasses of water a day will protect you from harm.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 1)

Though it has earlier origins, modern science arose in the time following the Black Death in Europe. For 1,300 years, the Church had held the reins when it came to the Truth. The beliefs of the Church had carried binding power in nearly all aspects of life. Legitimacy had come from adherence to the orthodoxy of the time.

Detail Academy of Sciences - 1666
In the year 1666, Louis XIV founded the Paris Observatory.

Science, the Revolutionary

There had been more than a millennium of (partial) intellectual stagnation. The Faith had held not only religious power but also political recognition. Religious officials held offices that granted them legal status as authorities.

To understand the influence of the Medieval clergy, we need look no further than the Three Estates system in Medieval Europe. The Three Estates were the way Europe understood its own culture and authority.

The clergy were the First Estate, the nobility the Second estate, and the important (and bourgeois) commoners the Third Estate. Such divisions were explicit, not implicit. When bodies were set to advise kings, for instance, they were often developed along these lines. While the peasants were known as the Fourth Estate, no one cared much what they thought.

In representative bodies, and in general, the First and Second Estates tended to band together to maintain the status quo. Since there was a fair amount of interpenetration between the clergy and nobility, the division between the two was more often theoretical than real.

The Church Loses It

The Black Death
The Black Death killed 30-60% of the European population.

The Black Death (CE 1348 – 1350), as well as repeated plagues, ripped apart Europe up through the 19th century. In the wake of the death and destruction, the religious hierarchy started to lose its grip on authority. The clergy had promoted certain rules of cause and effect in the world — their authority was founded upon their understanding of the nature of the world as a place created by God, and misfortune as His punishment.

In the plagues, there was massive destruction that made few distinctions in class and wealth. As the Black Death killed the saint and sinner alike, it became harder and harder to believe that the saint was anything special.

The destruction of the plagues went on for centuries. As the Church began to lose credibility, there was an authority vacuum. Into that vacuum stepped Science, which told people (rightly) that these horrors were not personal, but mechanistic –not ineffable, but comprehensible.

Thus was born Science the Revolutionary. The new worldview told Western Culture to throw out all the old ways, so that we could start fresh.

These are still matters of some debate even today. The West has not wholly thrown away religion. But science did displace (or perhaps replace) religion. In the time since then, Science (writ large) has moved into a place of cultural authority.

Science Grows Up and Gets a Job

Hampstead Garden Suburb by Ben Brooksbank
Science got promoted, and moved to the suburbs.

Science went from being a (metaphorical) wild-eyed revolutionary — who wanted to burn down the old order and build something new and utopian — to a protector of a new status quo. I’ll be the first to argue that science does a lot of good in the world, and that it still has some of that revolutionary zeal. But in the past six or seven centuries, science has gotten established, respectable, and middle-aged.

Once, science depended on a bunch of guys tinkering in their sheds and workshops, writing to each other. They were always on the edge of either a great breakthrough or breakdown (ahem, Isaac Newton, ahem).

Now, scientific progress is expensive, incremental, institutionalized, and — above all — patented. Did science “sell out”? Did it “go bad” or “get lost”?

In a word, no. Science (if I can anthropomorphicize once more) won the battle for authority, and has a respectable job as an administrator. Science lives in the suburbs with two cats, three dogs, and a mortgage.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2) will publish on September 15, 2013.

The Mythology of Science

Athena Pallas by Luca van Leyden
Athena the Goddess of Wisdom.
If Justice is blind, then Wisdom is heavily armed.

Science, as an intellectual development and a way of seeing the world in its own right, arose in the time of Robert Hooke (CE 1635 – 1703) and Isaac Newton (CE 1642 – 1727) as a new way of defining truth. The West was coming off more than a millennium where truth had been defined by a narrow hierarchy of authority that had limited research through its own brand of conservatism.

Sometimes we think of science rising up and “conquering” the ignorance of backward times. More accurately, it was a “divorce” of the scientific and academic community from the spiritual power structure, the Church.

One only has to look at the history of medicine and the impact of Galen (CE 129 – 216) to see how much science just had to rebel against. For instance, the work on the circulatory system published by Galen in the 2nd century CE stood until the 16th and 17th centuries. Medicine, up until the advent of science, had been tied heavily with spiritual matters. And as the masters of all religion-related matters, the Church could outweigh any evidence offered.

Next, on Ecumenical Divorce Court…

Science left the Church in a messy and bitter divorce that still reverberates today. After all, that’s what the “debate” around Intelligent Design is really about — how to we define “Truth” as a culture?

So why did Science and the Church split? This drastic, and politically touchy, maneuver was a necessary response to the politicization of religious authority — a politicization that goes at least as far back as the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

For much of that time, at least in the West, the Church had a lock on the Truth. Religious truth, yes. But also academic truth and political truth as well.

The divorce of science and religion was a necessary step in the growth of science and Western Culture as a whole. The Western Church had gotten itself mired in any number of matters. Its unquestioned authority on religious and spiritual matters, when combined with a dash of Neoplatonic theory (the spirit is the source of the physical, God is greater than the world, etc.), allowed justification of one of the greatest power grabs ever.


To be fair, the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire had left something of a power vacuum. It was actually reasonable for an educated, organized elite — the Catholic priesthood — to step in and put some order among the warlords. The Church, one could argue, saved Western civilization.

In the long run, the Church had ended up with “too much” authority outside of its own bailiwick — 1,300 years of institutional empire-building will do that. The growing academic system of the West eventually started straining at its leash. By Copernicus’s time (1472 – 1543) things were getting testy, and by Newton’s, science was ready to spring forth — like Athena from the head of Zeus.