Sunday, August 05, 2007

Some observations regarding certain doctrines of faith

For the past few weeks, correspondents to the Irish Times have been furiously debating a recent Vatican document (Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of Faith) that said Christian denominations other than Roman Catholic are not "proper churches." Irish Protestants are put out by what they take to be one more example of Catholic arrogance. Catholics point out that the Vatican was only reasserting its age-old belief that the apostolic succession in Rome is an essential part of Christ's plan for his Church, and that --well, yes -- Protestants might get into Heaven after all.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict's private secretary Father Georg Ganswein says that the pontiff's hugely controversial remarks about Islam last year in Regensburg were "prophetic." As you may recall, the pope quoted a medieval source describing the teachings of Muhammad as "evil and inhuman" -- and the Islamic world went wild.

A new fundamentalism is apparently afoot at the Vatican, a shoring up Rome's claim to be the one true church, presumably stoked by the worrisome inroads that Islam is making into traditionally Christian Europe.

As regular readers of Science Musings will know, I have been reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. On the eve of the famous Indian Mutiny, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last of the Great Mughals, presided over a court of tolerance and shabby splendor in the Red Fort of Delhi. Poets and philosophers were in ascendance. Muslims, Hindus and European Christians lived respectfully side by side. The Sufi-minded theologians of the court believed that God should be worshipped not because he has commanded it, but because he is such a lovable being. Anyone capable of expressing his or her love for God was welcome at Delhi, regardless of religious persuasion, gender, or place in the social order.

Into this tolerant milieu came Christian fundamentalists from Europe, following upon the triumph of British arms, intent on bringing salvation and civilization to "ignorant heathens." Soon enough, Hindus and Muslims -- Sunnis and Shias -- felt their religion and culture to be under assault. The tolerance so carefully cultivated by Zafar fractured. Soon every faction was insisting upon its unique possession of the truth, and a rather nasty multisided upheaval followed.

If the British experience in India in the mid-19th century seems familiar, it only shows how little we have learned in a century-and-a-half. Benedict's stirring up the pot of religious and cultural divisiveness can only exacerbate an already nasty situation.

The one human activity that has by and large transcended cultural and religious sectarianism is science. There is no such thing as Christian science, Hindu, science, or Muslim science. Scientific research done in China is indistinguishable from that being done in New Delhi, Moscow, Rome, or California. It all gets published in the same journals, all gets peer-reviewed by anonymous readers who might be of any religious or political persuasion.

Some postmodern academics assert that the universality of science is itself a new form of cultural imperialism, an imposition of Western values on other peoples. Does this assertion hold water? I think not.

Science has no armies, no missionaries, no promise of salvation or blissful immortality. If science is universal, it is because nature is universal. The touchstone of scientific truth is not a prophet or holy book, not history or tradition, but quantitative, reproducible experiment. If a researcher in Malaysia repeats an experiment described in the journal Nature, say, she should get the same result; if she doesn't, you can be sure she will whip a note off to Nature, and other researchers worldwide will confirm or reject the original paper.

Since science is open-ended and subject to revision, it inevitably appeals to open and curious minds of every cultural persuasion. If the scientific way of knowing has been adopted so widely, it is because it has been so manifestly successful as a way of gaining effective control -- for good or ill -- over the natural world.

It is no surprise that scientists tend to be more skeptical in matters of religion than the average person. Skepticism is a default stance of the scientific way of knowing. And, of course, the more we learn about the world, the more we understand that traditional religious cosmologies stand wanting.

The empirical way of knowing does not necessarily confer wisdom. We will always need our poets and our saints. We will always need artists and writers who see nature whole. We will always need moral teachers who understand that we love the world not because some deity has commanded it, but because the world -- which includes, of course, our fellow humans -- is lovable.

Further Reading

William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.