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Religion and Science, Again

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Religion and Science, Again

All Saints Church Doors
All Saints Church Doors
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According to Nietzsche, Luther was a villain because he resuscitated a Christianity that was, what with the rampant corruption in the late Medieval and early Renaissance Church, obviously on its deathbed. This is one of those rare cases where the brilliant Nietzsche goes astray. Actually, Luther, thinking to break the Catholic Church's monopoly on theological wisdom by putting the Bible into each Christian's hand, no doubt expected that each reader would independently arrive at more or less the same correct conclusion (i.e., Lutheran). What he reaped instead was, as Catholic polemicists predicted, the fragmentation and the eventual break up of Christendom. Thus Luther was the unwitting Moses of subjectivity and deserved Nietzsche's approbation rather than excoriation.

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The new central problem was that, if Catholics read the Bible one way and Protestants another way, how could an earnest, truth-seeking bystander tell which side was right? In the absence of an objective tribunal or an interventionist God, how could one even try to prove either position beyond all doubt? And if both sides were equally sure of themselves, one side had to be wrong; the consequent fact that one can be wrong even while being completely certain opens the door to the possibility that both sides, though equally convinced, were equally wrong. The resulting confusion and factionalism led to individualism, agnosticism, tolerance, secularism, pluralism, multiculturalism--"plagues" which would have horrified Luther and which made Nietzsche himself possible.

Above all, these changes led to the rise of the scientific method, which in turn exacerbated those subversive developments in the West. Science, as Nietzsche (in one of his good moments) mischievously pointed out, was created by Christianity's emphasis on finding the truth. Christianity's child eventually seemed to turn against the parent, and uninformed people now often speak of the alleged conflict of religion and science.

No such conflict exists, however, because not all the books in the world, nor all the well-intentioned organizations and symposia dedicated to harmony or synthesis, can reconcile these mutually exclusive disciplines. Religion is about the supernatural, spiritual realm; science is limited to the natural, material world. Religion begins and ends with faith, while science depends on doubt. Religion operates with words, science mainly with numbers. Religion gets its bearings from a past filled with revelations and great seers, but science, fleeing the past as benighted and superstitious, looks rather to the future for answers; it is also leery of sages unarmed with empirical findings. Religion is rooted in revelation and scripture, science in experimentation. Religion celebrates text over experience, science does the reverse. Religion requires tradition and authority; science is an individualistic and innovative enterprise. Religion is unfalsifiable, science is falsifiable or it is not science; if a Texas high school football team prays before the game and then loses, a scientist would say that the proposition that prayer leads to victory does not hold, while a clergyman would say that the loss proves rather that the team did not pray long or intensely enough. Religious truth is consequently eternal, and scientific truths are tentative.

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In short, with different assumptions, procedures, rules of evidence, versions of truth, forms of authority, goals, and paradigms, religion and science are unable to either neutralize or reinforce each other. Whether text trumps experience or the reverse is a matter of taste and cannot be proved. Thus religion and science are separate but equal. Apples and oranges; alternate universes.

 

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.

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