Musings on Politics & Policy

An attempt to take an open minded view of current topics,
strip away excess detail and arguments,
and get at underlying issues —

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Religious Tolerance

It is one thing to teach that by accepting and following Jesus you will find your way to heaven. It is quite another to teach that all those who do not will burn in hell. The first encourages you to accept the love and understanding of Jesus and to reflect it through yourself. The second turns away from these teachings, claims ownership of the sole revealed truth, and speaks with intolerance against other religions and people. Since there have been many schisms of the Christian Church over differences in beliefs, and there are now many different Churches claiming to have the truth, this very intolerance brings into question whether any one of them have the sole revealed truth. Conflicts over religious beliefs have persisted over millennia.

While one might get into arguments concerning ex cathedra proclamations and what constitutes the body of the Church in Catholicism, it was nevertheless in the name of church doctrine that Galileo was persecuted for claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and it was in the name of church doctrine that Giordano Bruno was put in chains and later burned alive for refusing to abjure many heresies, among them that the stars are suns [Timothy Ferris, 1988, Coming of Age in the Milky Way]. Today we would question none of these so-called heresies; and, in fact, Pope John Paul II has essentially apologized, saying it was a mistake to have persecuted Galileo. ["...the theologians who judged Galileo were unable to see that the Bible does not make claims about the physical world as such. As a result they were mistaken in transposing 'into the realm of the doctrine of the faith a question that in fact pertained to scientific investigation' (John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 3 November 1992, pp. 1-2)" {quoted from a discourse on Science and Faith by Cardinal Poupard in 1995.} ]

It is part of the lore of our nation that the original European settlers came here to exercise religious freedom and to escape religious persecution. When our nation was founded, the separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Bill of Rights to ensure the exercise of religious freedom. And yet, today, we are once again struggling with issues of the separation of Church and State and issues of religious tolerance. While President Bush, in his bid for re-election, became a focal point in this debate, it is really deeper and more insidious. We have state boards of education proclaiming that we should not be teaching evolution in the biology classroom and dictating changes in science textbooks based on religious beliefs. And yet Evolution by Natural Selection is as much a fundamental part of all biology as Newton's Laws of Gravitation are a fundamental part of physics. Technical arguments over things like punctuated equilibria in evolution no more deny Darwin's theories than do arguments over relativity and quantum mechanics deny Newton's theories. They continue to be called theories because science is a fundamentally skeptical endeavor requiring that language.

Science cannot (and should not pretend to be able to) prove the existence or the non-existence of God. Neither should articles of faith in any religion be used to dictate science. Intolerance among religions has been the source of much pain and suffering in the world. Religious Intolerance imposed on science and education in this country could lead to a new generation that is inadequately prepared to face the world of the future. We risk our scientific supremacy in the world by allowing the separation of church and state to be broken down and by allowing articles of religious faith to dictate how we teach science. We risk everything by allowing religious intolerance and misunderstandings to drive conflicts both within our nation and around the world.



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