As two of the most influential forces in modern society, the relationship between science and religion is an uneasy one. Both pay lip service to respecting the other, but the fact is that they represent fundamentally opposing viewpoints in many areas of the human experience. The uneasy truce that exists between them, both being made up of civilised people, is fundamentally a polite ignoring of each other with occasional squabbles breaking out as each presents their view of the universe. There are sometimes very antagonistic episodes, as exemplified by the attempted assassination by terrorist and fanatically religious Christianists in the United States of medical doctors, scientists, who were providing abortions to their patients. These are not the norm, however. At least, they do not appear to be the norm, although the rise of militant Islam may give lie to that and could possibly lead to a further increase in the militant Christianity that led to these attempted murders.
There can be no doubt that science has led to a reduction in religious commitment throughout the western world. Surveys have shown a clear reduction in the numbers of people attending church regularly or who consider themselves to be members of particular denominations. In some countries, such as Canada, the majority now espouse no religious affiliation and it appears that the numbers are slowly growing.
This does not mean, of course, that spirituality is declining, although my own observation is that it is probably the case, nor does it mean that fewer people believe there is a god, although, once again, that is my personal observation to be the case. It is also clear that those who remain believers are accepting a more generalised concept of Christianity, in particular, with less emphasis on dogmatic doctrine. There also appears to be an increase in the acceptance of non-Christian viewpoints as being valid.
Interestingly, at the same time there seems to be an increase in the numbers of people adhering to the more fundamental approaches to Christianity such as are displayed by Pentecostal, Evangelical, Millennial, Mormon and other groups which have strongly emphatic belief systems in which the members are expected to know and understand the details of the church’s dogma and the bible passages which support those beliefs, along with a strong commitment to practice a lifestyle in tune with that dogma. This is the irony: that at a time when religious commitment is declining among the general population and the traditional churches, there is a rise in membership among those churches which demand a strong commitment from their members, although there is some indication that the increase may have ameliorated overall and has begun to plateau. Individual groups may be growing still, particularly those who aggressively seek converts, but the total numbers do not seem to be growing as fast as in the past.
Some of these religionists, being strongly committed to their churches and believing that theirs is the only proper way to approach god, have become politically active and are responsible for an increase in religious pressure on the state to bring about a legal system which is more in tune with their beliefs. It is not just Christianity that does this, and other religious groups may also be politically active. Main stream church members also exert political pressure in a similar manner to their more fundamentalist colleagues. In addition, there are some who go so far that they move into areas of illegal forms of pressure, such as the would-be murderers of doctors who provide abortions. These are, fortunately, a small minority and not reflective of the majority views of members of the respective religions.
This political activity sets up a conundrum for those committed to a western style democratic government in that people decry the involvement of religious beliefs as the grounds for determining what legislation should or should not allow but acknowledge that all citizens, including religious ones, have the right to work towards bringing about a society of which they approve. Due to this we have at least two major forces working against each other to forge our society. One group wants a society based on a fairly strict understanding of religiously based morality, while the other wants a society based on an individual’s right to live as they please, so long as it does not interfere with another person’s right to do the same. Much of the debate on basic aspects of Canadian society is based on this dichotomy and the continuum of opinions ranging from the one to the other.
Although science is sometimes disparaged by those with a strict religious focus, particularly when science shows that the religious outlook is based on factual error, in general it is respected as being impartial and that scientists are simply attempting to understand the world as it really is, that is, to understand the reality rather than the perception. For that reason the majority of the population, religious or not, accept scientific findings at face value and do not dispute them to any significant degree. There are the occasional blips, of course, but overall scientific findings have contributed significantly to the development of our society and continue to do so .
As our scientific knowledge and understanding increases many beliefs based on religious ideas come to be questioned. If a belief is shown to be incorrect and a scientific explanation proven to be correct there is a tendency to reject, not just the specific belief, but other associated beliefs as well. Homosexuality may be such an example. At one time, not so long ago, it was believed to be an immoral life choice over which the individual homosexual held control, but it has now been shown to be an inborn characteristic with the result that Canadians now accept much more readily the right of homosexuals to live as they wish. This change in acceptance has also led to revision of our marriage laws and the rejection of the religious views that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, and that its primary purpose is to produce children.
There are many such examples. Who now believes that the earth is 7,000 years old, or 50,000 years old? Who believes that all the animal species were saved on one big boat? Who believes that a woman turned into a block of salt just by looking behind her? Who believes that a huge fish swallowed a man whole for three days and that he stayed alive and survived? Who believes that people can be raised from the dead as the Apostle Peter is described as doing? There are many such examples of events which are now known to be impossible from a scientific viewpoint. As society becomes more knowledgeable about scientific principles and more clearly understands the limits that physics and chemistry place on biological and geological events, these stories are increasingly being relegated to the realm of myth which, in turn, makes religious groups whose dogma insists they are literally true less relevant to people’s lives.
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