China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Jun

Conflict or harmony between science and religion?

How mainland China has changed! During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a Red Guard who was mystified by the Trinity, sternly lectured a Catholic: “There is no God, no Jesus, no Joseph. How can anybody believe such things?” Today, many former Red Guards attend church religiously.

Back then, an exotic species was spotted in Beijing: a tourist from the United States of America (USA). His tour guide sang the praises of Mao Zedong. In all innocence, the American commented, “Yes, Chairman Mao is a great man, just like the Buddha was.” He was surprised when she screamed in politically correct outrage. Today, tourists are more likely to see an image of Mao than of the Buddha hanging from the rear-view mirror of a taxi or a bus for good luck in traffic.

A few years ago, the owner of a pub in one city was looking for some way for his business to be noticed above the competition. So he dressed his waitresses in black as Catholic religious sisters, complete with a habit covering their hair, big rosary beads on a rope belt, plus miniskirts and high heels.

A priest complained to the Religious Affairs Bureau and those officials forced the owner to pay for a large advertisement in the newspaper to apologise to the Catholics and promise never to repeat his mistake. Meanwhile in the west, several fashion shows and art exhibits incorporated Christian motifs. When believers complained, they were condemned for trying to censor freedom of speech.

How Hong Kong has changed! University students recently printed a survey about a topic that used to be taboo. The government shook its finger at the school newspaper. In response, over 2,300 Hong Kong residents counterattacked. They emailed the Hong Kong government in an unsuccessful attempt to have the Bible declared indecent, the kind of publication that must be sealed in plastic with a big warning on the wrapper, to discourage those under the age of 18 from purchasing it.

Science conquers religion?

Science and religion have also changed. Two centuries ago in England, the crown employed a dozen professional astronomers who, in turn, employed “calculators” to do the tedious math with pencil and paper. The results were published annually in the Naval Almanac. Aboard ship, an officer measured the positions of the sun and stars, looked in the Almanac and determined the ship’s location. Astronomy also helps earthly cartography.

But amateurs wrote most of the papers on natural philosophy. The word “scientist” had not yet been coined. Clergy of the Church of England observed the rocks, plants and wildlife in their country parishes as a hobby and circulated their observations in the journals of learned societies.

By the middle of the 19th century, fields of inquiry were becoming specialised and scientists wanted to establish themselves as a profession distinct from the clergy-better informed and more worthy of respect. A “class struggle” ensued, with polarisation and increasingly harsh rhetoric.

In 1859, the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species added fuel to the fire. The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science appeared in 1875, depicting everything in black and white, with ignorant, corrupt and power-hungry clergy ruthlessly fighting a losing battle against rational, enlightened, heroic martyrs for science. Science was the bright hope for humanity’s future. A recent reprint of this book may be found on the shelves of at least one bookstore in Hong Kong.

In the USA, colleges and later, universities of science and engineering were founded with no ties to religious denominations. A few schools were openly critical of religion. A new degree was introduced in competition with the bachelor of arts. The dean of one old university joked, “A bachelor of science degree may indicate that the graduate knows some science. It certainly indicates that he knows no Latin.” By the year 1900, Latin, and the Church most closely tied to Latin, both seemed destined for the rubbish bin of history.

Science undermines common sense

In the 20th century, science changed. In 1905 and 1915, Albert Einstein published first the Special and then the General Theory of Relativity. But most people cannot picture four dimensions. In the 1920s and 1930s, the founders of quantum mechanics uncovered an even more bizarre world at the atomic level. As an alternate spelling of nuclear physics, someone suggested “unclear” physics. But nuclear weapons are no joke. One scientist, who helped build the first atomic bomb in 1945, commented, “Science has known sin.”

Today, the threat of nuclear war has receded, thank God, but people worry about pollution. Many have lost faith in the power of science to save the world. Science and technology are mixed blessings.

People who follow the New Age Movement tend to embrace all the weird phenomena of modern science. They rush into mysticism while ignoring the mathematics. But the problem with such “quantum hype” is that it is a selective harvesting of some of the fruits, without the mind-breaking work of cultivating the field of physics.

Biblical fundamentalists dismiss all this new science as “contrary to common sense.” Excuse me, where can you find a chapter and verse in the Bible that mentions common sense? Nowhere. There are many references to wisdom, which is something different. The reason the Bible is silent on common sense is that the term originated in medieval scholasticism. We hear a chirp and picture a bird. We are also able to relate the senses of touch and sight. For example, we can look at an orange on a table without touching it, then reach into a bag without looking and remove another orange, instead of a banana or an apple.

More than 800 years ago, philosophers coined a technical term, “common sense,” for our ability to coordinate information from different senses. It was not until the 18th century that common sense acquired its current meaning. Most fundamentalists who argue scripture and common sense do not know the history of common sense.

When God created the universe, was he restricted by the dictates of common sense? Is God limited to what ordinary people can imagine in everyday life? Certainly we have to say that God is logically consistent, but God “does great things past finding out, marvellous things beyond reckoning” (Job 9:10) and, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts about your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).

So the surprises found by science do not disprove God. Instead, they give us more reasons to praise his glory.

The Catholic Church responds

The Catholic Centre bookstore has a small bilingual pamphlet, The Origins of Science in Christian Europe (基督精神感染下的歐洲科學淵源). Modern science arose in Christian Europe, not in any other part of the world – and for good reason. A rational God had created the world. We are created in the image of God, so we can hope to discover the laws of nature at work around us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 279-324) discusses creation at length. God freely created the universe from nothing and people have a special place in the plan of divine providence. The Catechism notes a variety of explanations for the meaning of the cosmos and life (nn. 283-286) and finds inspiration in Genesis 1-3 (n. 289), but without reading those chapters as fundamentalists read them. Nothing is said about the “Big Bang” or the age of the universe. While Galileo is not quoted, it was he who said, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

Pope Benedict XVI has taken pains to stress that God is not arbitrary. God is not only power, but also love. He is faithful to his promises and also rational. Catholics do not fear to investigate the natural world, but we must take good care of everything that has been entrusted to human stewardship.

The Vatican Observatory continues to make its small contribution to astronomy. While noting that evolution cannot be the final explanation of life, recent popes have seen how it can explain many things in biology.

Observe and pray

Something strange is happening. While China is becoming more tolerant of religion in public life, many westerners are loudly demanding that any display of religious symbols be banned in public. Viewing religion as “the opium of the people,” the composers of an earlier version of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China wrote, “Citizens enjoy freedom to believe, freedom not to believe and freedom to promote atheism.” Now the Chinese media publicise the value of religion in forming good citizens and in creating a harmonious society.

In the west, by contrast, new books with titles like, God Is Not Great and The God Delusion, use modern examples to fight the anti-religious war of the 19th century and to issue a renewed call for eliminating the “virus” of faith.

Militant atheists and religious fundamentalists both see the other side in black and white, like a two-dimensional cartoon. Yet every science and every religion has depth, complexity and colourful details. Understanding another worldview is hard work. It requires long study. It is always easier to rely on stereotypes, knee-jerk responses and unquestioned prejudices. But those are dangerous.

When we dialogue with others, we would do well to pray to the Holy Spirit so that we can listen attentively and speak the truth in love. Otherwise we can easily say things even more laughable than the examples at the beginning of this article.