It seems like everywhere in our culture today, people more and more believe that science and religion are in some eternal struggle. If it’s not the Christian touting a 6,000 year-old earth and denying evolution as the devil’s work, then it’s the anti-theist screaming that there’s no such thing as talking snakes, that the Bible is a book of fiction, or that science, and only science, can bring us the knowledge and truth we seek.
Both positions lack nuance.
Pitting science against religion (or vice versa) is a false dichotomy. Religion is not the enemy of science; however, ignorance is the enemy of both.
Say you pick up a newspaper, and it has a sports section, a comics section, and a local news section. On this particular day of reading the news, the local sports is telling about a high school football team – the Tigers – who “mauled” a nearby team in a huge county-wide upset. In the comics section, meanwhile, there’s a strip about Garfield sneaking up behind Odie to push him off the table, and in usual form, the fat cat makes a snide remark or is lured away at the scent of lasagna. Finally, in the local news section, there’s a small report about an old lady’s cat that got stuck in her sycamore tree; the fire department had to be called.
Three stories. All about cats. But each story conveys a different “truth” about cats, and how we perceive that truth depends on what we expect from the story.
Imagine, for example, if I got all up in your face while you were reading Garfield and said something like, “I just read the article about the cat that was stuck in the tree. You’re so stupid for reading that comic strip with that talking cat. We can see from this other article here that cats don’t talk.” Then a friend steps in and points out that, on the sports page, there are cats throwing balls, “making plays,” and winning in complex games, so why not presume that cats can also talk?
It’s all just a little silly, isn’t it?
But that’s how people sound to me when they get into fights about evolution or about talking snakes. We know from science that the earth is much, much older than 6,000 short years. We know from science that we evolved from something akin the ape. No doubt, when Christians argue those points using the Bible, they need to be corrected, because the Bible is not a science book and shouldn’t be treated as such, or everyone will miss the point.
On the other hand, using science to debunk the Bible sets up a straw man. Science is very useful in debunking literalist interpretations of the Bible. But the world before the Enlightenment came along and ruined things wasn’t necessarily a world that believed in talking snakes to begin with. You had people like the mystics and the “dads and cads” from Clement to Origen to Maimonides who understood they were working with allegory and not history. In fact, most of the Bible’s writers knew they weren’t writing science. Or fact. Their truths hinged on something else; they were searching for something deeper – a way to let symbols and narratives help us gain meaning to our lives, simultaneously connecting us to an ancient community. They saw it as grey, and the fact that we live in this black or white world of theism vs. atheism is all just silly little dichotomies that miss the deeper realities of a good metaphor.
In the same way that we might read Garfield today and not care whether there was a talking cat because we were interested in what the cat had to say and what those words meant for us (presumably something comical), rather than obsessing over the lack of evidence on whether cats can talk, so too the Bible is an eclectic mix of genres – none of which have the aim to pursue (or negate) scientific fact. That’s something we’ve written into the text with our post-Enlightenment obsessions. If there are people who read Garfield and believe in talking cats, by all means, let’s correct them. But for the folks who just read the comic strip for a laugh, you’re kind of a schmuck if you think you’ve discredited them too when you proved that cats can’t talk. All you’ve done is made an enemy out of someone who probably agreed with you about cats in the first place. And you’ve missed a good opportunity to laugh with a friend.
Science has so much to tell us about our universe, and we need to hear what it has to say. Simultaneously, there are religious folks out there listening for a different kind of truth, one that has the potential to deal with matters of the heart, one that need not be mutually exclusive with scientific fact. We need to let science be science, let religion be religion, and recognize that the two can, in fact, be allies, if we’re just willing to let them be that.