Friday, November 21, 2008

The Conflicts Between Science, Religion and Democracy

Retired UCSD Professor Lew Perry Speaks to Humanist Fellowship


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Lew Perry is officially retired from his former job as a professor at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), but he’s still teaching a class there on the conflicts between science, religion and democracy. He came to the San Diego Public Library downtown on the afternoon of November 16 to give a one-hour synopsis of his 10-hour class and to talk about some of the experiences he’s had teaching it — including the reactions of some of his more strongly religious students. At the invitation of one student, he recalled, “I went to one church with 2,000 people and the preacher’s opening remark was, ‘Was your daddy a gorilla?’”

In teaching the conflicts between science, religion and democracy, Perry said, he deliberately kept the class size down to 25 students — freshmen at UCSD typically attend lecture classes of 200 — “to have a dialogue so the students could start talking.” He wanted both believing and non-believing students in his class to make sure the dialogues would be lively and all sides of the religion/science/democracy conflicts would be well represented. And as far as Perry is concerned, such conflicts are inevitable as long as religions make pronouncements about physical reality — like one he cited often, “The Bible says the earth is fixed in space” — that don’t match the scientific evidence.

Perry argued that the world-views of science and democracy are inherently in conflict with those of religion because of their different attitudes towards authority. “In religion, the information comes top-down from God, sometimes through the intermediaries of holy books or religious officials,” he explained. “Science and democracy are both error-based. If you put out a theory or a law and it doesn’t work, you change it. Science and democracy correct errors from the bottom up.” Perry added that religious information comes in two categories, “heavenly” — dealing with inherently supernatural questions like what is heaven and what is hell — and “earthly.”

As long as religion sticks to what Perry calls the “heavenly” — to making supernatural claims about God and the universe that can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed scientifically — it won’t be in conflict with science or democracy. But, Perry argued, “When the Bible says something in earthly terms — like when it lumps all homosexuals in with drunkards and scoundrels — we can check whether that’s true factually, and the answer is obviously no. From a scientific standpoint, the Bible says a lot of things that aren’t true, like the earth is fixed in space — and if the Bible says the earth is fixed in space, who’s going to rewrite the Bible?”

Perry listed three ways people have historically tried to resolve the conflict between science and religion. “One way,” he said, “is to say that Genesis is a metaphor. Another is the Fundamentalist way: the Bible is right and the scientists are wrong. In between, there are people who find plenty of ways to put the two together. The head of the government’ Human Genome Project says he can accept his faith and Darwin’s theory, and the two don’t fight each other. I’d prefer to say there are conflicts and ask, ‘Which one is right?’ You get a lot farther by addressing the conflicts than avoiding them.” Among the religious/scientific conflicts Perry cited as “indigestible” were evolution and abortion. “You can’t accept Darwin’s view and still believe in Biblical creation,” he said bluntly.

According to Perry, one reason he launched this course in 2005 was because he was troubled by “the Bush administration’s impact on separation of church and state.” He went into the meeting hopeful that the incoming Obama administration would reverse Bush’s attacks on church-state separation — and was disappointed when two people in the audience mentioned that during his campaign Obama had pledged to continue the Bush administration’s office of faith-based initiatives. Perry regards the faith-based initiatives program as one of the most dire attacks on the separation of church and state in U.S. history and cited the memoir of its former deputy director, David Kuo, which said the Bush administration had spent most of the money “for political reasons” to buy the support of religious leaders for the rest of their agenda.

But, Perry conceded, the Bush administration’s attack on church-state separation went far beyond the office of faith-based initiatives. “Bush’s administration had people edit scientific papers for political reasons,” he recalled (particularly to remove politically inconvenient references to humans being responsible for global warming). He remains hopeful that Obama will sign the bill for federal funding of stem-cell research (which Bush vetoed twice) and will respect the advice he gets from the scientific community instead of having it rewritten to suit his personal religious or political agendas. He also hopes that Obama’s administration “will support comprehensive sex education instead of ‘abstinence-only’ programs which don’t work, and will allow contraceptives to be sent to AIDS-stricken areas.”

To protect democracy, Perry said, “we must ensure that the Constitution is the law of the land and that it protects freedom of religion, freedom of science and separation of church and state. Our ship of state is held together by a constitution we must honor. In science, we must ensure that science and scientific education are controlled by the scientific community.” Noting that there are about 4,000 different religions in the world, Perry argued that once you decide that religion should be the basis of your laws, the question arises: which religion?

Perry also called on religions to be guided by their “humanistic philosophies,” and as an example mentioned the cut-and-paste version of the New Testament Thomas Jefferson put together, which eliminated all the supernatural incidents but left in Jesus’s parables and the moral lessons Jefferson thought were valid whether or not you believed in Jesus’s divinity. “What Jefferson took out of the Bible was what he thought were universal truths for humanity, including the Golden Rule, which has evolved in some form in almost every culture.”

The discussion period was lively and gave audience members a taste of what Perry’s classes might be like — especially towards the end, when a young man named Matt walked in the room, identified himself as a Christian and said, “The Bible defines truth and vision as humanity treating each other fairly.” One of the other attendees started rattling off all the incidents in the Bible — particularly the Old Testament — where God specifically instructs the Hebrews to commit genocide, and Perry once again referred to the Bible’s statement that the earth is fixed in space, versus the scientific understanding that it orbits the sun.

Other audience members mentioned specific conflicts between science and religion, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prohibition of blood transfusions to the case reported last year in the New York Times about a deeply religious anthropology student who correctly applied carbon-dating techniques to determine a fossil to be 280,000 years old even though he was a “young-earth” Christian who believed the universe was no older than 6,000 years. (According to the audience member who brought this up, the student eventually became a teacher at Liberty University, the fundamentalist college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.)

One young woman said she and her friends had toured Lehigh University and decided against applying there because they met with a biology professor who told them he did not believe in evolution. Perry suggested that students look up university Web sites before applying, and added that despite this one teacher’s opinion, “in biology Lehigh teaches what UCSD teaches.” Another student asked about humanist authors like Francis Collins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, and asked if Perry thought they were being “dishonest” by attempting to finesse the conflict between science and religion instead of acknowledging it. Perry said he respected Collins’ ideas but thought Gould’s were phony and pretentious.

“I think there’s a set of natural laws and truths the world works on, and science documents these,” Perry said. “Francis Crick [co-discoverer of the structure of DNA] crossed over the magical line and wrote a book saying you and the soul are just a bunch of neurons. Gould said science and religion are in different ‘magisteriums’ and he gives them a Latin name just to sound erudite. The president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State says religion and science are ‘complementary,’ but how do you describe it when the Bible says the earth is fixed in space and science says it isn’t?”