The End of Science v. Religion? Not…

I just got home after attending the Clayton v. Dennett debate over at CGU.  I’m still processing, and will likely want to watch the debate again.  If you missed it or need to watch it again, the place to do so is here:

Here are a few thoughts I’d wish to share, and then I’d invite dialogue.  In other words, please comment!  And for those who read this blog on Facebook, please follow the link at the bottom to view the original post and comment there.  Thanks.

Before beginning, I recognize that this post is long.  It’s very long.  So let me summarize here my basic observations:

  1. Persons of faith need to do a better job (following the example of science) of openly criticizing extremists who say and do things counter to the majority of a faith tradition.
  2. Theology must take place in public.
  3. The most interesting people in the world – regardless of their ideas about faith – are those who are open and available to ideas and conversation from outside their norm.
  4. All humans must risk being wrong if they want the possibility of being right.

Now.  The debate in more detail.

The first half had to do with pretty detailed philosophy.  It’s like they were testing the waters.  It was almost an intellectual foreplay – to be especially blunt about it.  Clayton and Dennett seemed to be getting a feel for each other’s styles and approaches.  And maybe – thinking of this like a poker game – looking for tells, for vulnerabilities.

And then we got into the dialogue on religion.  I was only a little surprised to hear how much agreement there was between Clayton and Dennett.  I got the sense that Dennett has the biggest problem with those theists who say that their ideas are the only Truths and that anything else is wrong (or anathema or worthy of hellfire & damnation).  That is not, however, the position that Clayton presented.  I would argue in fact that a great number of Christians – counting myself in that number – would say that we are open to the multitude of ways that the Ultimate may be expressed.

Returning to the conversation about extremists in faith communities, the following exchange took place (my transcription isn’t perfect, so bear with me):

Dennett: In every religious tradition there is unpresentable radicalism, fanaticism and it’s everybody’s problem.  And moreover, it should be the particular problem of the people in the same religion…

The irony is, every person who goes out and does good works for whatever their religion is, is providing protective coloration for the bad people in the same faith.  The Mafia would be so clever if they would go out and build a lot of hospitals and things like that because then they would not be so obviously bad guys.

Every time a benign religious group does good works, they cannot help but give succor and cover to the malignant versions of the same religion.

Moderator: How is that different from science?  Isn’t there a lot of bad that gets done in the name of science?

Dennett:  Fortunately the scientific community is forthright in its criticism and its rooting out of that.  I do not see the liberal Christians going out and naming names and calling out the radical fundamentalist christians and saying “you are a disgrace to christianity” which is what the scientists say to the bad scientists.

Clayton argued that many Christians do just that, and it got me thinking.  I think progressive Christians need to do more of that!  I think progressive Christians have more work to do in becoming more vocal, more outspoken.  I think Christians must be bold, not only in calling out those whose voices are out of touch with Christian teachings, but also bold in talking openly and plainly about our theology.

Christians must no longer be relegated to the category of people who believe what they’re told.  We must challenge and explore, we must theorize and evaluate, and we must be relentlessly open to new ideas and new ways to express those ideas.  Science continually reports exponential advancement.  So where are the news articles of new advancements in religion?  This is not to say that progress is left undone; but where is that progress to be seen?

If the progression of religion is to be left in the academic institution, then it is to be left behind.  The forum for progress is in the open – just as in science – to be reviewed and picked over, and to be boldly and constructively criticized.  Let theology be released and renewed in the open.

Clayton and Dennett found common ground discussing what kind of persons they find interesting:

Clayton:  The biggest danger it seems to me is to say that all humans know we know with certainty, and the areas which are speculative or difficult to figure out – the hardest philosophical issues – leave us with no idea how to proceed.  I guess I would argue it belongs somehow to the nature of what it is to be a human person to grapple with those questions that stretch our reason into areas where we go as far as we possibly can go.

Dennett:  I agree completely with that.

It seems that the persons they found most interesting were those who weren’t dogmatic, who don’t claim artificial certainty, and who don’t claim to know the unknowable.  Instead, interesting people are those who are open to the new and the now, whether or not they ascribe to any particular faith.

As the dialogue came to a close, Clayton and Dennett began to discuss their differing views of “ultimate reality.”  Clayton paraphrased both their views saying that Dennett sees the universe as the only ultimate and cannot see what could possibly be beyond that; anything beyond is meaningless.  Clayton says that the universe is a product of – or is contained within – an ultimate reality which is broader and deeper.

Then Dennett asked what I thought was the most important question – and one that I argue we should all ask ourselves.  He asked, “If you changed your mind about that – about what’s ultimate – what difference would it make?  What would the world look like to you then?”

Here is the key to the openness that I think is paramount to the continuing dialogue among theists and non-theists, and also among differing faith traditions.  What if we had to face being wrong?  What if we woke up one morning and found out that everything that we held to be “True” with that capital-T was false?  Can we even imagine that possibility?

And I submit that we must imagine that possibility.  It is not until we face the possibility that we are wrong that we can have the faith that we are right – whether our convictions are theistic or non-theistic.  We must be able to admit that we could be wrong in order to be in fruitful dialogue with one another and to collectively come to greater understanding.  Anything less is inadequate and – I would argue – counter-productive.

And so, open to the possibility that I could be wrong, I invite comments and thoughts, criticisms and opportunities for growth.  Let the conversation continue.

6 thoughts on “The End of Science v. Religion? Not…

  1. I teach philosophy at Pittsburg St. Univ. in southeast Kansas and was unable to attend the debate, and, so far, I’ve not been able to access the video. So, I appreciate your summary and your thoughts. I have a few thoughts on what you wrote about the debate, but I’ll have to write them down a later as I am headed for classes.

  2. Seriously, thanks for the comments.
    I live in England and the debate was of great interest to me being a teacher of Law and Theology.
    Some good comments – and I agree with you, Christians have to do better at their work. If nothing else the 4 horseman have been good at making us better.
    Thanks again.

  3. Great comments, honestly.

    To make progress in a world of semantic representation, I often ask the following questions to those of religious faith:

    1) Does faith have doubt?
    OR
    Is the definition of faith to be certain in the face of uncertainty?

    If the answer is “no” (or for the second one “yes”)

    2) Are you certain that God exists (ie do you have faith that God exists?)

    If they say no, in my opinion they are not theists.
    They are agnostics.

    (Definition: Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable)

    Anyone who is certain is a theist.

    But, my definitions could be wrong. As I said earlier, wading through semantics is a tough thing to do.

    With those definitions in mind, Clayton, it seems, is an agnostic.

  4. The key distinction for me is that all religion, including the belief in no religion,is completely based upon faith.I have faith that there is a God, whom will greet me when my time comes, and has prepared a place for me that is far better than the current life I live now. Can I empirically prove this to be True? Of course not. It is on faith, that I believe in it.

    Can the scientific community emperically prove that the “big bang theory” is exactly how the universe and all the complex life forms that live in it came to be? Of course not. At best, it’s a likely story, and in reality, just a theory.

    I would ascert that the key differentiation between the faiths is the values we judge each other by when engaged in theological debate. The unfortunate problem with our society is that we allow for all peoples to engage freely in their own flavor of religion, largely without anyone playing the role of traffic cop to regulate the differing opinions and faiths. Exacerbated by this problem is that the few extremely passionate (read extremists) appear to lack the tolerance for anyone else having a differing view point.

    If only every person’s faith allowed for the tolerance for another’s faith to co-exist without encroaching on their existence, then a truely utopian experiece might be experienced by all.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Bob. And for asking for my humble, yet deadly accurate opinion.

  5. Quoting another opinion on the web related to agnosticsm, theism and atheism:

    “I think that both Theism and Atheism are beliefs about the ultimate NATURE of reality, while Agnosticism is a belief about the LIMITS of of our knowledge about that reality. If that’s the case, then agnosticism can be perfectly compatible with (at least most forms of) theism AND atheism. Faith and Doubt have a long, long history as theological partners. I myself live perfectly happily with doubt. It’s people who have “certainty on their side” who REALLY scare me.”

  6. Atheism is a not a belief system. Atheists have nothing in common except their rejection of gods. No amount of belief is going is ever going to make a god exist. External reality is not simply a matter of whatever one wants to believe. Things are either true, or they aren’t.

    God is an entity that exists, or it doesn’t.

    Christianity is either true, or it isn’t.

    There is no gray area. No amount of belief or faith is ever going to sway the central true or false of these propositions.

    So, you start false and prove true. Or you can set out to disprove the idea of a god. Either way, That is an honest inquiry into the matter. You do you need to accept assertions that god does not exist, because its quite possible to see the total lack of evidence without using faith. If you can’t show it in quantifiable and falsifiable way, then you have to reevaluate your methods or abandon the pursuit all together and conclude that a god does not exist or, if you’d like to persist, you can insist of calling whatever god you worship immaterial, but then again, that is the same as saying non-existent.

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