Modernism and Religious Orthodoxy
Heliocentrism, Evolution, and the Bible
Modernity does not have a good track record with some religious enthusiasts. In the eyes of many religious conservatives, modernism is associated with a godless secularism and a culture of excess, sexual libertarianism, and moral relativism.
Although scientific inquiry has been around a very long time, it has often had to stand its ground against Christian Biblical literalists who, at one time, claimed that the earth was the center of the universe, contrary to the heliocentric mathematical model of the Polish cleric, Copernicus, in the 16th century.
In the next century, Kepler was to have discovered elliptical orbits and Galileo, with his telescope, confirmed the evidence for heliocentrism with the added scientific information that ours was not the only universe.
More recently, evolution is still seen a theory by Christian creationists who believe the empirical evidence for evolution is just another devious attempt at steering American culture towards atheism. Because the Bible gives us only one story about human creation—that the world was created in seven days, that Adam and Eve were the first parents of the human race—conservative Christians view evolution as an atheistic intrusion upon the divinely inspired “word of God,” the final word, according to this view, only to be found in Holy Scripture.
In addition, the notion that humans evolved from animals is antithetical to what many Christian conservatives see as God’s intelligent design in crafting the human body as a perfect and whole entity unto itself. To taint human creation with any kind of evolutionary process would be to question God’s benevolent gift of human life to the world, a gift that could only be sullied by any association with a degrading evolutionary process (some of us find this argument somewhat disingenuous given the constant references many conservatives make to humans’ primitive, sinful-leaning “animal instincts,” and to the higher status conservatives give to humans on the animate life chain—suggesting, of course, that animal metaphors still come in handy).
So, heliocentrism and evolution continue to be the two classic modern scientific discoveries that have historically challenged the more conservative Bible-driven Christian world view of the universe and creation. That world-view has made its peace with the sun but the Christian conservative jury is still out on evolution.
If you will excuse the pun, modernity is still evolving. And this evolution reveals no lessening of tension between the more recent scientific discoveries and the conservative Christian critics of those discoveries.
Condoms, Birth Control Pills, Intra-Uterine Devices
Although there is some evidence of condoms made from animal intestines and other examples of human inventiveness, rubber-based condoms are a fairly modern invention (the first rubber-based condom production was in 1855).
It didn’t take long for many Christian conservatives to criticize the use of condoms because of what they believed would encourage chronic bouts of unbridled lust. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, saw the use of condoms as an artificial intrusion upon God’s natural law—the unsheathed penis and the unclogged vagina have always curried favor with modern Catholic theologians. (Ironically, the avid pornography crowd often searches out videos of unprotected sex scenes believing, I suspect, that there is something more “wholesome” about “unaccommodated” or “unaccessorized” sex, not to mention the added raw-danger element that becomes a kind of aphrodisiac to some viewers).
Aside from being over 90% effective in preventing births, the condom also protects both partners from sexually transmitted diseases. The disease-prevention aspect of condoms, however, does not seem to have influenced religious conservatives to change their minds. Condoms, to this group, will always encourage pleasure-bound sexual activity and unbridled sexual desire outside the sacred bonds of matrimony (in spite of the biological realities of human desire that have been around a lot longer than the institution of marriage).
The birth control pill, another modern scientific invention, became fully legal in the US in 1960 but weathered some heavy storms when Pope Paul VI, in 1968, declared his opposition to the pill. The pill also took a hit from many in the African-American community who felt it was the white race’s genocidal attempt to decrease the births of black children. And the Bayer pharmaceutical company, in 2010, was still being sued for some of the toxic effects of its pill.
In spite of all the moral and legal battles, however, the many variations of birth control pills are still being used throughout the globe.
Aside from the many pharmaceutical variations of intra-uterine devices to prevent pregnancy, the morning-after pill is one of the latest scientific advances that prevents the entire fertilization process if a woman has had unprotected sex the night before.
Birth control, of course, is not just a moral issue; it is also an environmental issue, which, to many of us, is more profound than whether or not an illusory “natural law” is being violated by using a condom or taking a morning-after pill. When our planet’s resources become even more finite than they already are, we will be very thankful that the advances in science have made it possible to lessen the population growth of our planet.
Embryonic Stem-Cell Research
A more recent controversy has arisen with embryonic stem-cell research. Religious conservatives believe that life begins at conception and that the embryo, regardless of its non-viability (non-survivability outside the womb), is still considered life.
Orthodox religious arguments fail to take into consideration the fact that the embryonic stem cell research occurs at the crucial window of biological opportunity (four or five days) after the egg has been fertilized. That window is shut after that period because the cells then begin to develop into tissues that will eventually be niched into specific organs and other aspects of the body’s physiology and anatomy.
That four-to-five period allows scientists to research what are called pluripotent cells, cells that have the potential to develop into multiple tissues, thus making it theoretically possible to use those cells to create multiple therapies for multiple organ and tissue related dysfunctions and diseases.
More recent stem-cell research indicates that there may be a possibility of inducing pluripotent cells other than through embryonic stem cell research. This, of course, would satisfy conservative concerns about the sacredness of the embryo as the incipient stage of life, as they define it.
However, conservatives fail to recognize, in my judgment, that the embryo, during that four or five day period, has no sentient capacity and has none of the qualities of a viable life form, as we know it in the real world.
The Healing Powers of Science, Penicillin, and God’s Will
Modernity has a way of challenging a lot of moral assumptions that have become part of many received-wisdom traditions. Many of us on the more progressive or liberal side of the science-v-religion debate try to be respectful of those traditions and recognize how important those traditions are in maintaining some kind of moral grounding for so many people of traditional faith journeys.
However, as liberals, we also know that scientific research and discoveries have their own histories of healing miracles that have enriched the human race. We know more about AIDS than we ever have. Successful by-pass heart surgeries are becoming more common. Routine medical tests have discovered all kinds of early symptoms, symptoms that, left undiagnosed in the early stages, would often sound the death knell for those who choose not to take advantage of those early tests.
Many of us know that chronic, long-term reliance on synthetic pharmaceuticals has often led to collateral biological damage, especially to the liver. However, for many of us, cholesterol and blood pressure medications have kept us alive far longer than we would have been without them. And penicillin is not called the “wonder drug” for nothing.
Modern science and technology will continue to have very niched nay-sayers who would claim that humans are intruding upon what is “meant to be.” And, of course, that always means, “God’s Will,” a will that is often subjectively projected upon an anthropomorphized divinity. And a will that is often arbitrary, even seemingly capricious (although “capricious” implies intent, another human trait).
The Drone, The Electric Chair, and Life-Support Systems
Modern science has invented the gas chamber, the electric chair, lethal injections, drones, nuclear and chemical warfare, mace, electric shock treatments, tear gas, life-support systems. All of these inventions have a moral/ethical dimension. However, they should force us to ask the ultimate question about their efficacy: Cui Bono (“for what good”).
We can choose to live in an anti-modern vacuum. We can live in the narrow window of a sacred text or a mandate-driven church hierarchy that, more often than not, lives in some parallel universe based on an overly simplistic reward-and-punishment moral paradigm.
But that model is too often not a good fit for answering the more subtle questions revolving around modern technological and scientific advances.
Yes, the condom certainly makes non-procreative sex more accessible. But it also prevents diseases, diseases that take their toll on a health-care system. And that toll can snowball into distracting us from other diseases and medical treatments.
Drones certainly kill. But they also limit the collateral civilian damage far more than traditional use of combat troops or other forms of broadly targeted weaponry. On the other hand, if the use of drones has the opposite effect of increasing the intensity of retaliation against the innocent, then we have to go outside the box of just looking at the intrinsic benefit of drones. (I purposely do not address the extreme position of universal pacifism because I believe in the concept of a just war.)
Life-support systems are important in modern society because they offer a chance of survivability against extreme odds. However, when the odds are 99% against the survivor, then we have to look at whether withdrawing those life-support systems has a greater ethical efficacy.
The Modern Principles of Adaptation, Assimilation, Accommodation
In the end, the advances in modern science are a reality. Traditional mandate-driven religions too often fight against those advances. In my judgment, those religions could learn a lot from the modern principles of adaptation, assimilation, and accommodation. Unless they do, they will continue to work against the very sacredness of life many of those religions espouse.