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Montana Tech forum on faith, science presents fireworks of ideas

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The Montana Tech auditorium was humming with excitement. The crowd that filled it to the brim was also spilling outside. It was refreshingly diverse: young and not as young, students and faculty, members of the community, believers and unbelievers. It gave the kind of sensation you expect before games or highly anticipated concerts. But this was a very different occasion: a Veritas Forum on Faith and Science with MIT plasma physicist Ian Hutchinson.

There is something electric about the exchange of ideas. The free flow of original and deep thoughts is the ferment that is at the Genesis of the wonder of Greek philosophy. Cultivating it is one of the most meaningful missions of Academia.

Ideas have power. That they scare us so much is an eloquent testament to it. We spend so much time eluding them by avoiding conversation, silencing voices and compelling the proverbial preacher to stick rigorously to his or her choir. The explicit purpose of the Forum was dialogue.

Professor John Ray is an internationally respected Hegel scholar, a likable gentleman blessed with a sharp and brilliant wit, and a member of my congregation. Invariably, I enjoy reading his columns. His perception of the Forum was so different than mine, that it confirmed, beyond a reasonable doubt, the legendary frustration that detectives and attorneys experience with diverging eyewitness accounts. Psychologists call this phenomenon cognitive bias.

POINTS RAISED IN OP-ED

During the Forum and in a subsequent opinion piece, in the Standard 02/08/16, Ray raised interesting points. I would like to offer a different perspective on some of them.

He writes: “Religion tends to promote a dogmatic and authoritarian view as to how truth is discovered …” I have been familiar with this opinion all my life. It was the one held by many of my public school teachers in Europe. However, since high school, I found it to conflict with my reading of the history of science and my observations of society at large. It appears stuck in a time period vaguely surrounding the French revolution during which its purpose was essentially political. Doctrines have prodigiously long shelf lives.

The truth about the relationship between faith and science is substantially different, much more complex, and infinitely more interesting. In considering the history of it, it is critical to include the variety of ultra-secular experiments when faith was forcefully removed from the equation. This approach was conceived during the French Revolution. Stalinism introduced it systematically; Nazism practiced it ruthlessly; and the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” elevated it to a murderous climax. Studying the scientific practices, frequently sadistic, of these atheistic regimes offers a very sobering balance to those concerned primarily about the influence of faith on science. Freedom of conscience has always made dictators compulsively uncomfortable.

Rabelais (1494-1553), an iconoclastic and irreverent Renaissance humanist and precursor of the age of Enlightenment, prophetically warned that Science without conscience can only bring ruin to the soul of humanity.

It is undeniable that Faith and Science have had a turbulent relationship. It is the nature of the human condition that over time all relationships endure stormy episodes. It is an historical fact that churches attempted, at times, to control science. But as the superb historian David Lindberg wrote: “Many of the most important developments in Science have been produced by people committed not to autonomous science but to science at the service of some ideology, social program or practical end. For most of its history, the question has not been whether science functions as a servant but which master it serves.” A recent and fascinating illustration of this, is the extensive role of corporate ambitions in the competitive race of the Human Genome Project. Independence of science is largely a myth.

Although it played no part in the Forum, Ray, in his column, pivots to Politics: “Similar problems have occurred when religion attempts to control democratic politics.”

AUTHORITY QUESTIONED

Secular democracies are not exempt from ethical requisites. A majority opinion may have power, but it is not necessarily just. Public polling can never replace a moral evaluation. Moral principles come from philosophy and from religion. Their role is to inform opinion, question authority and challenge power. To subject morality to public opinion effectively deprives it of its autonomy and reduces it to just another subjective feature in the political landscape. In our country, we are now actually allowing party politics to form our thinking on fundamental ethical questions, clearly not a recipe for wisdom. As a result, we risk giving even more power to people not well morally equipped to exercise it.

Dogma has never been the monopoly of religions.

I share with John Ray a devotion to the notion of tolerance. But I see no evidence, at all, for his optimism that the removal of faith from the democratic process enhances it. First because excluding faith entirely is itself intolerant. Then, the hate that overloads the Internet political opinion sites justifies the exact opposite impression. The vitriolic acrimony with which disagreements are expressed shows that political statements are no longer intended to persuade but rather to intimidate -- a universe apart from the Socratic ideal of discovering truth through dialogue.

Montana Tech, Veritas, MIT Professor Hutchinson, Professor Ray, the moderator Evan Barrett and all Forum participants deserve credit for making possible an enlightening evening. The exchange of ideas took place with respect and tolerance. An environment outside of which the future of neither Academic Freedom nor Democracy appears particularly promising.

-- Father Patrick Beretta serves the Butte Catholic community.

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