I have been leading a study group at Central Christian Church that examines critical issues in science and religion. Not surprisingly, the group was quite interested in analyzing the opinion piece by psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson and medical writer Clare Aukofer.
They argued that religion is an adaptive product of the human brain that we have now outgrown, something like the vestigial appendix that often can do more harm than good.
The article makes some valuable points. However, one could hardly call them groundbreaking insights. It is commonplace that religion at times has been used to incite violence, promote intolerance, manipulate the citizenry, encourage superstition, impede education, censor free speech and the exchange of ideas, and justify all sorts of reprehensible moral practices.
But the piece is impossibly one-sided. The writers construct a straw man and proceed to knock it down.
The core of the article is based on an informal fallacy often introduced in the first few days of elementary logic classes. The genetic fallacy tries to discredit a subject based on its origin and to ignore its present merits or demerits. It is as if I were to discredit psychiatry by pointing out that its first practitioners were witch doctors.
Many religious beliefs, past and present, are false. However, the psychological origin of religion — if it be such —has nothing to do with its truth, value or utility.
Unlike Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, his great contemporary, held that God gains access to human societies through the unconscious mind.
For Freud, the intellectual grandfather of the commentary's writers, the unconscious is a God generator, an infantile projection based on fear. For Jung, the unconscious is the generator of creativity and a receptor of the Holy Other in which we are enveloped, in which we live and move and have our being.
Thomson and Aukofer are very selective about what they include and leave out. Physicists and astronomers wonder about the countless physical contingencies following the big bang that had to be — like baby bear's porridge — "just right" for us to be here. Astronomer Fred Hoyle said that he abandoned his smug atheism due to the extremely narrow tolerances in stellar formation that allowed carbon and oxygen to form, without which life would be impossible.
The human brain is the most complex object in the universe by far. One can be an orthodox neo-Darwinian, as many religious people are, and still believe that something more is going on here than simply random matter (whatever that is) in motion.
Our enlighteners trot out Osama bin Laden, apocalyptic fear-mongers, and political phonies to prove their point. Yet they have nothing to say about St. Francis, Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa or the prophet Amos. The authors' suggestion that St. Paul's vision on the road to Damascus was probably an epileptic seizure is nothing but pure speculation.
They fail to consider that the very research they cite hinting we are born with a bias toward altruism and fairness might be a gentle prompting from God about how things are supposed to be.
Conversely, over the last two and a quarter centuries the atheistic utopia predicted with the reign of pure reason has not lived up to its promises starting with the excesses of the French Revolution's guillotine, continuing with the Nazi holocaust, the Soviet gulags and Mao's cultural revolution.
It is tragic that so much contemporary piety is based on sheer authoritarianism, fearful faith masquerading as certainty.
Our beliefs about the gods have changed dramatically over the millennia, and much of that change has been sparked by new scientific knowledge. There is no reason to expect this progress not to continue.
There does not have to be a war between science and religion, between faith and reason.
Good science — with its models, theories and paradigms — can help us understand a little bit about the mysteries of nature.
Good religion — with its myths, parables and poetry — can give us a sense that the divine mystery is meaningful, purposeful and a sufficient ground for human hope.