Priests or Professors: By any Other Name

I had an interesting discussion with a young science teacher this week. His assertions intrigue me:

1. All suffering and injustice in the history of the world not directly attributable to natural processes (hurricanes, scorpion bites, etc.) has been and always will be a direct result of religion. Science, on the other hand, has never caused suffering or injustice and is the only hope of the future.

I asked if he’d ever heard of the medical experiments performed by the Nazis, or Hiroshima.

He said those weren’t a result of science, but of corrupt men and politics using scientific principles for their own gain.

Oh. So kind of like religious principles have been used by corrupt men and politicians for their own gain?

He couldn’t explain why my comparison was ridiculous, except to assert that I can’t possibly be making any sense because I’m religious, and all religious people are without exception grossly ignorant. (Also, that it’s “unfortunate our community is infested with so many” [religious people]. Only he didn’t use such polite terminology. “Disgusting pigs”, “reprobates”, and “psychopaths” came up a few times.)

Which brings us to his second assertion:

2. Reasonable human beings should only believe things we can actually see evidence for with our own eyes.

To which I would respond: Duh.

Of course we should only rely on the evidence of things we can see–no matter what the discipline.

If science tells me that eating and exercising in a specified way will result in certain health benefits and I desire those benefits, I’m absolutely going to examine these claims in light of what I already know. If the claims seem logical and unlikely to harm myself or other people, I’m going to try those specifics out. If the promised benefits materialize, then I’ve got evidence that these principles are true in my own life. I no longer believe them to be true; I know this particular regimen works for me.

If it doesn’t, I suspend judgement, knowing that it might work for someone else, and that I have no way of proving that it won’t. I’m not going to advocate for those principles, but I will be perfectly happy to hear how they worked for someone else. I’m certainly not going to attack that someone else for engaging in a process of inquiry into the validity of those principles. There are millions of scientific theories I don’t have enough lifetimes to study; my only recourse is to suspend judgement, and to watch with interest when someone else makes a discovery regarding them.

Some sources and theories I find more credible than others because I see the fruits of them all around me–advances in technology, medicine, space exploration, etc. But no, I don’t accept anyone’s theories as fact, no matter who they are, just because they have a lot of letters behind their name, or have published in mass quantities. That would be irresponsible. There are some authorities I have found more reliable than others and I’m more willing to test their theories out, but should any one of them prove fallible, my “faith” in the usefulness of scientific inquiry will not be shaken.

I see no difference between this process and the acquisition of religious faith/belief/knowledge. If a religious leader or text or tradition tells me that behaving in a specified way will result in certain benefits and I desire those benefits, I’m going to examine those claims in light of what I already know, and if the claims seem logical and will not bring harm to me or others, I’m willing to try those specifics out. I do not engage in any religious practice or belief that I have not proven to myself. Every aspect of my faith, I have tried and proven.

And no, I don’t expect anyone else to accept the results of my experimentation as the basis for their own actions. Everyone has to discover truth for themselves through a series of (sometimes grueling, extended) experiments.

How is the evidence gained from this type of experimentation valid only when dealing with science?

In fact, how is science any different from religion?  Aren’t we all just testing out theories, keeping the ones that work and discarding the ones that don’t? It doesn’t make any difference to me if a professor or a priest tries to tell me tobacco will damage my lungs or that gratitude will heal my heart–I think I’m intelligent enough to test out those assertions, or to act on them in “faith” based on what I already know about human nature and the world around me and past experiments in which I’ve engaged, and for which I’ve collected evidence.

And I see that evidence all around me–evidence that religious principles of all sorts bear positive fruit in the lives of the people who choose to experiment with them. I see Catholics and Jews and Mormons and Lutherans and Muslims who are raising responsible, educated, compassionate, and  honest children, and making the world a better place in which to live.

I see the evidence with my own eyes.

You expect me to ignore that evidence and believe you instead?

How arrogant of you to ignore the accomplishments of every man, woman, and child of faith who has built this community with blood sweat and tears, and to dismiss them all as ignorant.

People are flawed. Religious people, and non-religious people both.  Corrupt men and women will always cite authority–religious, political or scientific, to accomplish their own agendas. That speaks to the corrupt nature of man, not of science or religion.

What I find most puzzling is why we had this conversation in the first place.

I have never once come into your classroom and challenged the way you live your private life. In fact, I am not threatened at all by your experimentation–no matter what form it takes.  You can smoke pot or shoe leather, or marry your own brother or go on a diet of plums for sixteen weeks. You can even show me pictures of your wedding or mention in passing that you ran out of shoe leather and had to start using vinyl, and it won’t make me think you are trying to force me to join you. Nothing you say about your experiment will offend me. I’ll probably ask questions because I find the diversity of the human experience fascinating. It won’t threaten my peace of mind. Quite frankly, if you don’t bring it up, I’ll never think to ask about such things. I have a full, vibrant life of my own to live.

What is it you find so threatening about my beliefs that compelled you to spend so many years of your life researching and authenticating sufficient primary sources that you now feel you have a solid basis from which to attack those beliefs?

Or did you not do that?

Did you, instead, dismiss the living, breathing evidence produced daily in the lives of good people all around you, and in violation of your own stated ethics, present as “evidence” things you’ve only read about, and cannot possibly experience first hand, unless you have access to a time machine?


3 responses to “Priests or Professors: By any Other Name

  • Linda

    Perhaps some people are inherently afraid of thought and therefore attempt to bully others about what to think. The philosopher, René Descartes, had some ideas about man’s senses. He taught, “If a man doubts his own existence, then someone or something must be doing the doubting. Therefore his very act of doubting proves his existence.”
    Descartes is perhaps best know for his statement Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” Man perceives his body [and the world around him] through the use of his senses, but his senses are unreliable and often deceive him. . . . Nevertheless, for Descartes, “man’s reason is always superior to his sensory observation. Man figures things out first by thinking, and only later by making observations.”

  • Jayne crook

    I hate this kind of confrontation. Only because it usually catches me off guard, I get tongue tied, and it’s only after that I’m able to think of all the things I should’ve said! You said everything I would’ve wanted to say but couldn’t think of until it was all over.

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