Religion 101

In some of the community college world religions courses I teach, as the end of the semester draws near we sometimes begin to shift our focus away from looking just at individual religions, from exploring the details of their particular origins and histories or their specific beliefs and practices, in order to sort of “take a step back” so as to look at them all, more or less collectively, and in some sort of perspective.

After studying where all of these various religions have come from, and where they have been (or what they have been through) over the centuries or even millennia of their individual histories, we might begin to wrap things up by wondering where all these religions might be going henceforth. The various challenges of modernity have had significant impacts, in varying ways, upon each of the world’s major faiths. What new challenges may they face tomorrow? How might religion fare, in the future?

One particularly noteworthy challenge that modernity has posed for religion today has been religion’s encounter with modern science. That encounter has undermined a number of formerly widespread beliefs and assumptions of old, many of which were (and in some cases still are) part and parcel of certain religious worldviews.

For example, it was once widely believed that the earth was flat. The understanding or picture of the cosmos which even the Bible seems to assume, and to reflect within its pages, is one in which the world consists of a flat earth, covered by a kind of solid dome (the sky or “firmament”); sun, moon, and stars were affixed to the surface of this arched dome-like ceiling, above the earth. Some believed that beyond the solid vault of the sky lay God and heaven.

Science has, of course, long since discredited this ancient cosmology.

Later on in history, the Church affirmed a cosmology which maintained that the earth (by now a globe suspended in space, rather than a flat plane covered by a solid dome) was in fact at the very center of this vast universe, the actual axis point of the entire cosmos, around which therefore everything else in the cosmos quite literally revolved. This geocentric view held that the sun, the moon, and the stars all rotated around the earth, which was regarded as the very pinnacle of God’s creation. (Galileo famously got himself into hot water with the Church for challenging its geocentric view of the cosmos.)

Once again, of course, science has established that this medieval view of the cosmos is also incorrect.

Primitive religions of the prehistoric past, and many indigenous religions of today, likewise believe that behind many natural phenomena and events — from lightning and thunderstorms, to plagues and famines or other natural disasters, and even to dreams and nightmares — lie supernatural forces or spiritual causes. Science, by contrast, has repeatedly and increasingly demonstrated that behind such events and phenomena lie perfectly mundane and natural explanations.

Many observers detect a definite and constantly repeating pattern here, according to which as science advances, religion often must beat a hasty retreat. New discoveries undermine and disprove old assumptions about many things. As science continues to advance, will this pattern continue? Will religion continue to be forced to retract claim after claim, assertion after assertion, gradually diminishing and withering away until it eventually vanishes from the scene altogether, for lack of any remaining explanatory power — all of its claims and assertions having disproven and debunked by science as mere myths, thereby rendering religion redundant?

Some suspect so. Others, however, have reason to doubt that this will ever occur. Why? Because, in their view, science and religion, when properly understood, can in fact never actually challenge or genuinely contradict each other.

How can that be so? Stay tuned!

(To be continued, in Part Two.)