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Science, Science Fiction, and the New Western Religion

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Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

December 11, 2018

On the news recently was an announcement that NASA’s InSight probe had landed on Mars. Mission control specialists were celebrating as if this were the first probe landing on the red planet. The mission of the InSight probe is to find out whether human life on Mars could be possible. Other stories on the news concerned the massive migrant group that is arriving at the US-Mexico border, the phenomenon of “Giving Tuesday,” an outbreak of the adenovirus, and a doctor who adjusts the genetic make-up of babies. The approach of the broadcasters is very work-like, very orderly, and, in some sense, very modern and very scientific.

Science and the Undermining of Religious Belief

You and I don’t know anything other than the modern, scientific culture in which we exist. The stories of the Enlightenment, Renaissance, Medieval, and other ancient cultures are just that: stories. Even the biblical narrative is far removed from where we live. We can’t imagine what it would be like to live without running water, a restroom, daily showers, or telephones. We have come of age in a “modern,” “science-framed” world. It is our reality.

The terms are very revealing: “Modern” means, new, contemporary, or present. “Science” comes from the Latin, Scientia, meaning “knowledge.” The via Moderna or “modern way,” is foundational to a nominalist understanding of what is ‘real’. Nominalism denies the existence of universals or abstractions. So, the Modern way emphasizes the particular and thus sensory perception above supernatural reflection and experience: “If I can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch it, it is real.” Similarly, science emphasizes the empirical collation of data in the search for what it believes true “knowledge” to be.

Our Western culture, as a modern, scientifically-ordered culture, has slowly but surely undermined and replaced religious belief—which entails faith, imagination, and the supernatural—with scientific trust and modern religion. The consequences of this change are profound and disastrous.

Before we go any further, let me say that I enjoy and appreciate scientific achievement. I personally benefit from scientific advancement. But let me make clear that I do not give science a “magisterial” role in my life. Science is framed and balanced by Sapientia—wisdom—and Fides—faith. My position is that only in this matrix can science function responsibly. All three of these aspects of human thought—knowledge, wisdom, and faith—can adequately enable human beings to appreciate and honor the lives we live.

Science + Faith, Wisdom, and Imagination

But what happens when wisdom and faith are displaced by a solitary focus on science? Look at the world around you and you will see. The reduction of the value of the human person. A disrespect of the environments we occupy. A disregard for the character values of honor, honesty, respect, truth, and love; and an elevation of greed, lust, manipulation, and anger. Science is not concerned with moral perspectives, only in the knowledge we can accumulate and use to our advantage. Without a moral perspective, however, the advances of science can be—and indeed are—abused for the advancement of those who possess the knowledge and power. Interestingly, in a “post” modern culture, the hegemony of science is brought into question. This has proven to be both positive and negative. On the positive side, it means that faith, wisdom, and imagination now have a place at the table of reality; on the negative side, it means that those in power can simply dismiss the findings of science if it does not suit the agenda of greed, manipulation, or control.

Our world desperately needs a view of reality that honors knowledge, wisdom, and faith. It needs a view where science is a handmaiden to understanding, where wisdom informs our actions, and faith empowers love and hope. We have entered a time where our country is simply out of control. Our democratic republic needs to revisit a healthy worldview where citizens talk to each other about the best way forward. Where science is respected, wisdom is cultivated, and faith is the ground of who we are.

In the midst of this holy season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I ask you to take time to breathe. Disengage from the arguments you have with Democrats or Republicans. Be generous, be kind. Cultivate wisdom and seek energy and vision from the source of all living things: God.