Finding a balance in the Science-Religion debate in school curricula.

“I’m a post-modernist”, claimed the graduating high school student in his Theory of Knowledge paper, “and I believe that soon we will be able to teleport ourselves around the universe…and there is no God as science has proved this fact”.

It’s taken a scientist, a quantum physicist no less, not a philosopher, to provide the answer to Heidegger’s imponderable question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing. Stephen Hawking’s answer, outlined in his recent publication, The Grand Design, that spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing.

Hawking made news around 12 months ago with his claim that given the projected size of the universe –around 100 billion galaxies-aliens exist, and that we should avoid contacting them. He, didn’t of course offer any explanation as to why they haven’t yet arrived to our distant lonely blue outpost in the universe by their millions, to claim us as their intergalactic slaves, or perhaps to liberate us from our own delusional belief in a Divine Creator. According to Hawking, earth isn’t the only planet to have life or where life has developed. Not surprisingly, he has absolutely no evidence for such a fantastical claim, and asserts simply speculative conjectural theories, based on dubious, obscure theoretical physics, which upon closer examination amount to no-more than sophistry; despite claims that the gigantic Hadron collider recently found the God particle (they’re still sifting through the data to see if it’s still there!)

According to some graduating high school students, life does exist on other planets in distant galaxies, and aliens also exist, and have visited earth many times, abducting people, and performing scientific experiments on them. Such claims are upheld by a significant number of educators around the world as fact too, as evidenced in the several thousand ToK and philosophy essays I have assessed over the last decade. Yet the claim Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven is met with outrageous contempt as superstition and simply impossible, with the late Christopher Hitchen’s derisively claiming it as a “Christian fantasy” (Hitchens, 2007), while he, along with Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins adhere to a fantastical world view which claims that the ideals and principles of truth, beauty, justice and goodness, emerged from some primeval slime pool.

I have just completed another assessment season of essays, on a variety of topics, including the nature of truth and the use of evidence in supporting ideas and beliefs. The dominant responses and themes to the set topics included claims like, religions have no evidence to substantiate their right to proclaim a faith, that science is correct and exact because it uses evidence, technology will provide for our future energy needs, including fixing solar panels around the perimeter of the moon to collect inter-galactic energy into laser guns and fire laser beams of energy to receiver stations on earth; life exists in abundance on other planets in other galaxies which we have to discover, because global warming will destroy the earth, (presumably before a laser beam of inter-galactic energy fired from the moon does), God doesn’t exist because science and the Discovery channel have proved it, there are no universal moral values and standards, because we perceive everything differently, and we cannot agree on anything because we are all different, and we have to follow our own subjective experiences, and that is where we will find truth.

These claims among others are made, without any serious understandings of their inherent assumptions. Moreover, they are made without any genuine investigation of the primary sources from which the original claims emerge and for the most part they are made on the basis of what has been taught through teacher opinion along with school based textbook learning. They are quasi-knowledge claims which are asserted with no evidence and are not critiqued in anyway. Yet, the reliability of the arguments and evidence of the grand narratives claiming certainty of belief in God, universal ethics, right and wrong, justice, goodness, truth and beauty are constantly ridiculed as being without foundation, and according to quite significant number of graduating students, the momentous achievements that are being made in science and technology today tell us so.

Terry Haywood, in his insightful, reflective and intelligent questioning of the potential and problems of religion and spirituality warns of the disservice we may do to our students by trivializing and ignoring their religious and spiritual traditions, along with their innate need to ascribe meaning to their lives (Haywood, 2011). I would assert that there’s plenty of evidence around now to indicate that the balance is weighted towards the rational and cognitive at the expense of the spiritual, emotional and intuitive side of their nature.

There are two of these gross distortions which I seek to address, namely the claim that Heidegger’s question has been answered through the theories postulated by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and secondly, that the accrued achievements of science have contributed to a more balanced, rational understanding of our collective human history and this is evidenced through student learning.

The first distorted view I challenge begins with the idea that science and everything pertaining to it, whether it be in physics, biology, chemistry or any of their sub classes, makes a constant upward progress for the good of humankind, or as Mary Midgley so eloquently writes “we go from “gas to genius “and beyond into some super-human spiritual stratosphere” (Midgley, 1985). An informed layman’s view of the history of science tells us that this is simply not the case. Western general science, as we know claims its modernist beginnings with the birth of the Renaissance and the cultivated intellectual beauty of Copernicus. Yet, the story of Copernicus, a Roman Catholic cleric himself and his professional, political and personal relationship with Roman Catholicism and Christianity is somewhat misunderstood, and eschewed today in favor of an erroneous view, which argues that his ideas were rejected and quashed by the Catholic Church, and as a consequence he was branded a heretic. Many of the essays I have assessed commonly assert this view, along with the late Hitchen’s crude generalization that “religion poisons everything” (Hitchens, 2007).

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Professor Richard Pogge of Ohio State University in clarifying the religious objections to Copernicus, confirms the view that Pope Clement VII and several Cardinals showed an interest in the theories of Copernicus, and it was Protestantism in general, and Luther specifically, a contemporary of Copernicus, who were vehemently opposed to a heliocentric model of the universe (Pogge, 2005). Luther’s pejorative description of Copernicus as an astrologer, as well as his bitter account of him as “a fool who went against Holy Writ” (Pogge, 2005) illustrates the enmity he felt towards his peer. It is such historical details which are often misinterpreted, misrepresented, or conveniently overlooked in the re-telling of the achievements of science today. It is seldom mentioned that the views of Copernicus, were debated in both Catholic and Protestant universities throughout subsequent years, despite intense opposition, and attempts at suppression by the Catholic Church. It is also interesting to note that students are very quick to censure the Church’s condemnation of the heliocentric model, but conveniently fail to mention its imprimatur for The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems published in 1632.

For many senior students it seems a far easier choice to click on the mouse, Google Copernicus, and without any critical appraisal of the source they’ve hit upon demonize the whole of Christianity, and Roman Catholicism from the 1st century A.D. up to the present day, discount its greatest thinkers and reformers, and its most compassionate men and women, and cast it as the demon of all western civilization’s ills which has led us down a descending pathway into ignorance and superstition (Hitchens, 2007). And unfortunately, this is the case with the majority of scientism’s claims in its clamor to usurp the veil of Belief and be crowned heirs to the metaphysical reality of an apparently already obsolete and discredited religious orthodoxy.

It is generally acknowledged that science has contributed enormously to the development and progress of humanity. And the contribution from the ancient world, including the Middle East, Greece, India and the whole Asian subcontinent has to be acknowledged in this accolade too, because the emerging myth in secondary school education is that modern science began with Darwin. A more erudite and accurate summary is that from the domestication of wheat to the development of writing, our species has developed some magnificent, yet quite imperfect civilizations (including our own). And, there’s clear evidence to argue that throughout the histories of these civilizations, empirical science and its use of evidence to support its claims of the day, hasn’t always been that successful. Science, like religion, Gould reminds us, is a “socially embedded activity, it progresses by hunch, vision and intuition” (Gould, 1984) Lewontin extends this view and it is worthwhile to share this in its entirety:

For an institution to explain the world so as to make the world legitimate

it must possess several features. First, the institution as a whole must appear

to derive from sources outside of ordinary human social struggle. It must

not seem to be the creation of political, economic, or social forces, but to

descend into society from a supra-human source. Second the ideas, pronouncements

rules, and results of the institution’s activity must have validity and a transcendent

truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its

explanations and pronouncements must seem true in an absolute sense and to derive

somehow from an absolute source. They must be true for all time and all place. And,

finally, the institution must have a certain mystical and veiled quality so that

its innermost operation is not completely transparent to everyone. It must have an

esoteric language, which needs to be explained to the ordinary person by those

who are especially knowledgeable and who can intervene between everyday life

and the mysterious source of understanding and knowledge….any revealed religion

fits these requirements…but this description also fits science and has made it

possible for science to replace religion as the chief legitimating source in modern

society. (Lewontin, 1991)

Science shares a flawed and fallible history with all religions, and its failures often outweigh its successes, especially in the fields of biology, physics and chemistry. Simple facts bear this out. We have had to wait tens of thousands of years to simply understand that washing of hands significantly decreases the risk of bacteria borne disease, yet hand borne bacterial infections still remains a primary source of illness today. Throughout their short histories as sciences, chemistry has given us poison gas which has killed millions of people from 1915 up to the present day, while physics has given us the atomic bomb, an equally pernicious weapon of mass destruction, which has killed millions of innocent people too. We have had some wonderful theories too, including Polygeny and Craniometry before Darwin’s theory, which argued that the more one’s head resembled a primate, the less human one was. Then there was the body measuring of the 19th century which argued that the more apish our bodies were the closer to that species and the less human we were. And on the cognitive side we had the development of the IQ test, including Binet’s scale which asserted that intellectual superiority was “tied to cerebral volume” (Gould, 1984), these later spawned a number of theories linking social class with levels of intelligence, moral degeneracy and evil.

Today, biology has given us the human genome and the unraveling of the DNA structure of human beings. The unlocking of this code, it is argued, has enabled all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of miraculous cures to occur. These include spectacular claims such as paraplegics and quadriplegics will walk again, multiple sclerosis sufferers will be cured, and cancer will be eradicated. And let’s not forget the now infamous, South Korean veterinarian researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s now widely discredited assertion that the human embryo had been cloned, creating the world’s first cloned human being.

Despite such fantastical claims and lies, science as a general academic discipline is viewed by educators, and a significant number of adults and Theory of Knowledge students, to be above society, and to be the holder of all truths. If it is critiqued in any way it is done so within the canons of its own writings and is held completely unaccountable until a scandal breaks, and then such scandals are for the most part ignored by mainstream media and educational institutions. The exception to date is climategate, and the fudging of figures on supposed global warming and climate change, but the attention this received in mainstream media and educational textbooks is miniscule compared to the adulation science receives in debunking religious world views.

The current euphoria being shown to Theology’s secular equivalent, cosmology, and theoretical physics, is not dissimilar to the glorification of biological determinism’s hoopla over the mapping of human DNA. Yet their claims to truth are as equally disturbing as they are flaky. Two deserve consideration here. The first one, leading from theoretical physics is that lead can be turned to gold. This was raised by one a student in his essay on the nature of truth in the natural sciences. He had found a source for this miraculous scientific claim on the internet. He cited Ann Marie Helmensteine, PhD, who claimed that particle accelerators like the hadron collider will change lead to gold. In fact she claims this had happened twice already in the 20th century, once in 1951, by Glenn Seaborg, a Chemistry Laureate, and again in 1972, Soviet physicists achieved this monumental feat. (Helmenstine, 2011). She of course doesn’t offer any explanation as to why this failed to prevent the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union, or why today we aren’t all billionaires, with our own metallurgy forges in our sheds and garages, churning out gold bars from our now obsolete lead pencils.

Such truth-seeking insight is not lost on Stephen Hawking either. His very recent claim that he has found the answer to the philosophical conundrum of why there is something rather than nothing not only astounded the religious establishments, fellow scientists and many philosophers, it has literally bewitched senior high school science students. Hawking and Mlodinow claim that gravity alone has enabled the universe to come into existence. (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010), what’s more not only is God dead, but so is philosophy. The whole Western philosophical and epistemological canon, including philosophy along with every major world religion has been annihilated and is no longer worthy of study, according to these two writers. Notwithstanding such naïve arrogance, neither has understood Heidegger’s question, and like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, before them, Hawking and Mlodinow venture into the metaphysical areas of Philosophy and Theology of which they know nothing about and their ensuing arguments collapse to the point of the absurd. Theories like vibrating strings, two dimensional membranes and blobs are the work of script writers on the Dr. Who series, and are very poor examples of science fiction fantasy.

Hawking and Mlodinow fail to understand that Heidegger posited the metaphysical question, why is there something, rather than nothing? since he was aware that western philosophy (like western science today) had become so preoccupied with its own narcissistic assumptions about its a priori existence that it had failed to consider the very nature of being itself. Heidegger’s question called for a re-evaluation of western philosophy. His intent was to re-trace our philosophical routes and return to an understanding of being, one which wasn’t separate from the 15th century philosopher and cleric Bishop Berkeley’s equally absurd and meaningless claim that matter doesn’t exist.

Heidegger’s vision, although not realized, was analogous to the Eastern paradoxical notion of Nothingness, or as Mathew Fox calls it the Via Negativa (Fox, 1983) in which self and ego are diminished to the extent that our true nature is revealed. Hawking and Mlodinow, in arrogantly claiming to have answered Heidegger’s question, completely misunderstand and misconstrue it. Their assertion that spontaneous creation is why there is something rather than nothing is the ultimate trick in the illusionists arsenal of make believe and is akin to the alchemist’s claim of being able to turn lead into gold. But, then is this surprising coming from a once eminent scientist who has dedicated a greater part of his life to theoretical fantasies? There is  no clear, concrete evidence for black holes, quarks, dark matter and other suggested matter, including neutron degenerated stars as postulated by the theories of quantum physics and cosmology. There is quite frankly more sound reasoning in St Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God than there are in all the theories of quantum physics and cosmology. Yet, it is Aquinas, and not Hawking and Mlodinow, who is cast as the myth maker, and whose ideas it is asserted belong in the realm of superstitious fantasy.

Notwithstanding its commitment to critical thinking and rational enquiry, it seems to be the case that there is no room in the debates and arguments of international education for faith and belief, along with the sound reasoning and arguments of religious world views. Rather, it is more acceptable to promote scientific theories which invoke a fantastical world occupied and haunted by aliens, two dimensional blobs and membranes, string theory out of a can, and interstellar cloud bursts of spontaneous creation from which soar blood sucking vampires, werewolves, Harry Potter impersonators, and personal avatar gods created through the equally flaky notion of virtual reality.

Where in amongst this phantasm of fairytales and horror stories masquerading as reality, are the arguments for a civilized, sound, rational world view?

Dewey asserts that despite living in social groups like families and communities, we are not by any means civilized. We are, at a base level using each other to fulfill primary and secondary needs. He explains that the relations between parents and their children, teachers and their students, employers and their employees are not civil, if they remain in an imperative mode of simply actions and results. The formulation of real, genuine relationships of knowledge and understanding, leading to a civil society, needs to take place formally and in an educational setting based on sound principles of inclusiveness of ideas and beliefs, justice and goodness, the application of sound reasoning, the promotion and development of empathy, and compassion for one another, and a vision of shared values, and common ethical frameworks. (Dewey, 1916). It is these integral aspects of the grand narratives of western civilization which have been under attack for decades. Epistemology, along with critical thinking entails a measured, balanced assessment of all arguments and evidence, before drawing conclusions. Such an approach is noticeably lacking in a majority of the essays I have assessed and despite the warning signs, no-one, above all in the scientific community, and in international education in general, seems to be understanding that humans as “organisms do not find the world in which they develop, they make it” (Lewontin, 1991)

Bibliography

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fox, M. (1983). Original Blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Company.

Gould, S. J. (1984). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Penguin.

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.

Helmenstine, A. M. (2011, January 1). About.com: Chemistry. Retrieved April 22, 2011, from About.com: http://chemistry.about.com/cs/generalchemistry/a/aa050601a.htm

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is Not Great. New York: Atlantic Books.

Lewontin, R. (1991). The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology. London: Penguin.

Midgley, M. (1985). Evolution as Religion. London: Routledge.

Pogge, R. (2005, January 2). A Brief Note on Religious Objections to Copernicus. Retrieved April 21, 2011, from Ohio State University: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Unit3/response.html

3 comments on “Finding a balance in the Science-Religion debate in school curricula.

  1. Wilson says:

    I’m with Hitchens on this one

  2. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get
    three emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove
    people from that service? Thanks!

    • I apologize and am sorry you are receving these notifications. I have tried to adjust it from my blog but I think you might have to unnotify yourself-I don’t have any control from my dashboard. If you cannot let me know and I’ll contact wordpress directly.

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