Religion and Spirituality Archive

What Religion Has Lost to Science, Part Two

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Several comments last week asked me to clarify what I mean by “religion.” I’m using the word to mean Christianity, the normative religion of the U.S. Your constructive comments and critiques are most welcome.

Continuing last Monday’s Musing (Part One), here are six more areas in which our developing “hard” sciences replaced or marginalized religion in Western cultures (the first four have strong family resemblances):

7. Symbols and metaphors were replaced by scientific literalisms and facts. If scientists had nothing more exact than symbols and metaphors, they could never build a bridge, a rocket, or make reliable diagnoses and prescriptions. An unfortunate but probably unavoidable side-effect of the scientific culture is that it has made us all much more literalistic, where an aphorism like “A fact is what you get when you stop thinking” could broaden and deepen our discussions and visions.

8. Beliefs became intellectual. Unfortunately, the stories that could connect our intellectual beliefs by weaving an adequate mythology haven’t yet evolved far enough. The stories of evolution, the 19th and 20th century myth of Progress, or the emerging stories of cosmology and Deep Time aren’t warming many hearts or helping many see life in more integrated and nuanced ways.

I’m reminded of the picture of Atlas holding up the world. That image wasn’t created to answer the question “What’s holding up the world?” It was meant to let us feel that this world in which we live, love, hope, achieve and die rests on “shoulders” not only strong, but also friendly. Our modern sciences do the first part better than the second.

9. Wisdom was replaced by Knowledge. Or, more poetically, warm knowledge was replaced by cold, hard facts. Even in the Middle Ages, theologians knew the difference. They wrote often of the categorical distinction between sapientia and scientia. “Sapientia” is the Latin word for wisdom, as in our self-flattering species name, homo sapiens. “Scientia” is the Latin word for knowledge. At its best, our sciences embody a spirit of inquiry helping us to strengthen the “shoulders” for future generations. At its worst — and what is understood by the majority of non-scientists — our “scientia” means millions more facts than any of us could ever understand.

10. God was replaced by Science as the authority on who we are and how we relate to the larger world around us. People have always ascribed human qualities to Yahweh, the God of the Bible. We say things like “God says,” “God tells us” or “God loves us,” as though God were a humanoid who could speak, know or love. But now, in our newspapers and on television, we hear people saying “Science says” and “Science tells us” — though, tellingly, never “Science loves us.”

There is no such thing as “Science” spelled with a capital “S.” In the same way, “God” isn’t the name of a Fellow. Both Judaism and Islam are clear about this: Christians, less so. There are many sciences, and many scientists, as there are many religions and theologians. Scientists and theologians say things, and don’t always agree. But when we construct a sentence that begins with the words “God says” or “Science says,” we have created a humanoid fiction, an imaginary Atlas.

11. The scientific method has largely replaced the “revelatory” method. Some examples of people using this latter method include the Pope speaking ex cathedra, evangelical preachers claiming God has revealed something to them that is binding on others, the Mormon teaching that everyone can receive trustworthy revelations from God, and the funny but real bumper stickers that say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The scientific method – when it’s followed – doesn’t care who or what “said” it, only whether doubters can verify it for themselves through empirical, repeatable experiments.

Another way of putting this is to say that the “revelatory method” posits a kind of imaginary alpha figure (usually an alpha male), while the scientific method is more democratic and secular, at least within each science’s accepted paradigms and assumptions.

12. This leads to the last of these twelve ways in which religion lost much of its authority for growing numbers of people: The birth of agnosticism and apatheism. It shows itself in the ironic coincidence of two historical events taking place in 1869-1870.

A. The first was Vatican I. We’ve heard of “Vatican II,” the liberalizing of the Catholic Church that took place from 1962-1965 under Pope John XXIII. But we seldom hear anything about the first Vatican Council: Vatican I. It occurred from 1869-1870, when Pope Pius IX declared that if a Pope ever spoke ex cathedra, as he was doing, then his pronouncements were binding matters of faith for Catholics. It would be risky for a Pope to try this however, since if time showed their pronouncement to be wrong or foolish, the pretense of papal infallibility would be over.

The only Pope since 1870 who has spoken ex cathedra was Pope Pius XII who, in 1950, proclaimed the physical, bodily “assumption” of Jesus’ mother Mary up into Heaven. Joseph Campbell, the historian of world religious myths, pointed out that the bodily assumption of anyone was only coherent in the scientific picture of the world before Copernicus and Galileo shattered the ancient “three-story universe.” As Campbell put it, even if we assume that both Jesus and Mary “rose” up to heaven, and granted that they may have traveled at the speed of light, by now — 2,000 years later — they would be only 1/13th of the way to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. And what, he asked, would they do when they got there?

B. The second thing going on in 1869-1870 was Thomas Henry Huxley’s coining (1869) then publishing (1870) the new word “agnostic.” Huxley’s new word was made up of Greek word parts, and expressed the new spirit of the times, as more and more people were becoming comfortable saying they didn’t accept the assertions of the churches, and just didn’t know whether or not there might be a God. Unspoken, but far more destructive to traditional religion, was the fact that they also didn’t care.

In the 20th century, as I’ll explore next week, religion lost even more important functions, both to new sciences, and to developing elements in our secular culture.

Read the original article at INEWP.

americafascism Davidson Loehr is the author of America, Fascism and God.

What Religion Has Lost to Science, Part One

Monday, January 17th, 2011

With most “Science vs. Religion” harangues centered on the theory of evolution — did Adam really have a pet dinosaur? — it’s easy to miss the larger fact that even by a century ago, religion had already lost most of its territory to sciences.  American churches have not kept up with population growth in over a century (1). By 2005, church attendance was declining in all fifty states (2), with only about 18% of us attending any church regularly (3).

During the 19th century, at least a dozen of religion’s domains were taken over by our developing sciences.  Here are six of them:

1. Salvation was replaced by Progress. Christians work on earth to reach a future ideal state in heaven. Scientists work here to contribute to Progress which, they believe, will lead toward an ideal state here on earth in the future.

2. Revelation was replaced by Discovery. For centuries, the churches had been where you went to find revelations of God’s word, the ultimate Truth. Now revelation began losing intellectual respect, as we trusted the discoveries of sciences more than the revelations of priests. We still do. Yet if you look up those two words, revelation and discovery, you’ll discover that they mean the same thing. To reveal is to remove a veil. To discover is to remove a cover. During the 19th century, the job of removing that veil or cover was transferred from religion to science, where it remains today.

3. The priest’s black robe was replaced by the scientist’s white lab coat. Both are costumes, but for over a century we have regarded the people in the white costumes as more authoritative than those in the black costumes. Even if preachers dress up in academic gowns, they’re not likely to convince many people that they know more about facts than a scientist.

4. Reverence for the past was replaced by reverence for the future. To every traditional culture in the world, the phrase “the new improved model” is simply insane.

Cultures are grounded in the wisdom of their elders and their sacred past. With the myth of Progress, ancient truths (and the wisdom of old people) were and are shrugged off in the faith that “newer” means “better” and the future will be superior to the past.

5. Biblical criticism arose from within religion, presenting itself as a scientific study of the Bible. It began in Germany in the 1820’s and 1830s, and by 1840 students at Harvard were learning that the Bible had been written by many people over many centuries, rather than falling from the hand of God in a black leather binding in the King James translation (4). The conspiracy of silence among both preachers and teachers of religion has been duplicitous: for nearly two centuries, scholars have known basic facts about the bible that people in the pews and the streets still aren’t being told.

6. After all the advances made by the sciences, the church began losing its hold on colleges. Harvard had always had a minister as its president, and one had to have the church’s endorsement to get a college degree at both Oxford and Cambridge, as well as many American universities. But in 1855 the Reverend James Walker, president of Harvard, recalled nostalgically, “It is within the memory of some of us when professors and tutors were taken, almost as a matter of course, from among clergymen and students in divinity; now, as a general rule, a professor is as much a layman as a lawyer or a physician is.”  Fourteen years later, the president of Harvard was a chemist; Harvard has never again been led by a minister (5).

1.         David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis [Zondervan, 2008], pp. 144-145.)
2.         Olson, Ibid., p. 37.
3.         Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler, “How Many Americans Attend Worship Each Week? An Alternative Approach to Measurement”) in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 3 (September 2005): 307-322. Also see David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis (Zondervan, 2008), p. 23)
4.         James Turner, Without God, Without Creed, [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985] p. 147.
5.         Turner, Ibid., p. 121

Read the original article on INEWP.

americafascism Davidson Loehr is the author of America, Fascism and God.

The Metamorphosis from Religion to…

Friday, January 14th, 2011

The radical transformations of Western Christianity from about 1800 to today can be seen as three acts in an unfinished play.

Act One was staged against the background of the ancient three-story universe that was assumed by those who wrote the Bible, and still believed by most of our country’s founders in the late 1700s.

That ancient universe was a small, local affair. The sky – the “firmament” – was made of stone. The Greeks had assigned their strongest god to hold it up, and Apollo towed the Sun across the sky with his chariot every morning. At night, the light “from above” came through the holes in the firmament (We call them stars). These were the heavens that opened, through which the voice of God could be heard acknowledging Jesus as his son (Luke 3:21-22), and to which Jesus “ascended” after his death. Below the flat round Earth was Hell, from which fire and brimstone erupted through volcanoes, as anyone could plainly see.

Everything in this tiny universe was created by Yahweh, the God of the Bible. The whole universe was about 6,000 years old, a date arrived at by adding up all the time periods listed in the Bible. All forms of life on earth were created at about the same time, and no species could ever become extinct. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson inspected a huge fossilized bone, a bone too large to belong to any known animal. Jefferson wrote: “Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.”* One of the (minor) reasons that he sent Lewis and Clark out west to explore was to find the animals from which that huge bone came, for Jefferson was sure they must still exist somewhere (it was later identified as coming from a giant sloth, long extinct). Most people believed that the only major geological upheaval there had ever been happened about 4,000 years ago, during the Flood. Most importantly, we humans were at the very center of God’s concern, and his whole plan for the universe gave us a special and cherished place in it. This was our home, made to serve all of our needs by our heavenly father.

Those ideas are so foreign to many of us today that it is hard to remember they were simply assumed, and by even the best minds.

Act Two featured the rise of natural sciences – especially geology and biology – which fundamentally changed the worldview within which Western religions had been born, and in which they had some intellectual coherence. I wrote of these in the last two Monday Musings — see here ( and here (

Act Three has been going on from the late 1800s to today, between Science and Religion, broadly defined. Each world picture lacks an indispensable element they are still trying to provide. Literalistic religion is trying to regain intellectual integrity (or at least political power) for the ancient world picture, while sciences try to claim topics like empathy, compassion, “good and evil,” morality, human nature, and how we should live.

Fundamentalists have tried to make arguments for the truth of a literal picture of the ancient worldview since the late 19th century, most famously at the 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, TN, where Clarence Darrow caricatured both fundamentalist (and former friend) William Jennings Bryan, and fundamentalism itself as ignorant and anachronistic. That “young Earth” fundamentalist worldview went underground, but didn’t go away. If you find yourself in Petersburg, Kentucky, you can visit the Creation Museum. There, you can see Adam and Eve living in the Garden of Eden, where children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s rivers, the serpent “coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” and so on. It’s a 70,000 square foot showplace for literal facts that are cold, hard, and wrong (

To many, this is pathetic, but there is a lot of pathos behind it. Science has “won” the argument over whether the Earth is just 6,000 years old, heaven is “up,” etc. A recent Pew Forum on religion and public life reported that Americans are religiously illiterate – even atheists and agnostics know more about religion than “believers” ( People are voting with their feet: the biblical stories no longer have a foundation in facts, and are no longer interesting. For the past century, we have increasingly adapted stories from literature, movies, radio and television to fill the hole formerly filled by stories from the Bible. Today, movies using computer-generated images are blurring the line between reality and fantasy. But the best of the films — like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Avatar and Inception — lure us into their mythic worlds because they are dealing, like all good myths, with the enduring yearnings and fears of humans. It’s a safe bet that people under 40-50 know these stories much better than they know stories from the Bible.

In the meantime, some sciences are working to fill the void in the scientific picture of the universe, by creating factually supported stories that include us in important and inspiring ways. Premiering in 1980, Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part “Cosmos” drew millions of viewers to watch this charismatic storyteller try to make the ideas of nearly infinite time and space accessible to non-scientists. It’s still the most popular such television series of all time. A dozen years later, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry’s influential book The Universe Story was written as evangelical cosmology — its subtitle was, “From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos.” A few years earlier, historian David Christian produced a course on what he called Big History: from the origins of the universe to the present. And primatologists like Jane Goodall, Roger Fouts (and his famous chimpanzee Washoe, who learned to communicate with humans through sign language), and Sue Rumbaugh-Savage (and her remarkable bonobo Kanzi) have documented a range of behavior and emotions in these apes with which we can easily identify. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we share over 98% of our DNA with both chimpanzees and bonobos.

The most prolific and persuasive ethologist — ethology is the study of comparative animal behavior — today is probably Frans De Waal. He has published many observations of animal behavior (aka “stories”) to argue that what’s left of religion’s traditional territory is more properly claimed by sciences: “For me, there is nothing more logical than to look at human society through the lens of animal behavior.” This isn’t anthropomorphizing animals, but realizing how much of our characteristic behavior came from ancestors common both to the great apes and us. Just a few of his book titles outline his argument:

Chimpanzee Politics (1982) Newt Gingrich assigned this book to men and women in Congress in 1994. The message seemed to be, “If you’re going to play politics at this level, you need to understand how it works.”

Peacemaking among Primates (1990)

Good-Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1997)

Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are (2005)

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009)

Speaking from within the scientific world view where life began on Earth four billion years ago, and our species separated from the other great apes over five million years ago, De Wall is amused by the idea that religions could have much useful insight into human nature, because “They’re just too new.”**

Many sciences are contributing data to construct a persuasive story of humans against a background of four billion years of life on earth, and ethical/moral behavior we share with an increasing number of species from a few million years ago to tens of millions of years ago.

Right now, Act Three looks like the metamorphosis from the ancient religious to the modern scientific stories of creation, human origins and nature, good and evil, compassion and empathy. It is a time of creative chaos. Right now, it looks like the biblical world view is the “caterpillar” and the scientific worldview will be the “butterfly.” If so, history will have shown both humor and irony – the Greek word for “soul” (psyche) also means “butterfly.”

* John C. Greene, The Death of Adam (Iowa State Univ. Press, 1959), p. 88.
** Personal conversation.

Read the original article at INEWP.

americafascism Davidson Loehr is the author of America, Fascism and God.

For Those With Ears to Hear

Monday, April 19th, 2010

This article originally appeared on Daily Kos.

I want to offer another perspective on the escalating scandal within the Catholic Church, and alert readers to a good recent essay on these sordid topics. In “The Pattern of Priestly Sex Abuse,” Harriet Fraad offers some important data many of us didn’t know.

Figures from the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, for example, estimate that since 1950, about 280,000 children have been sexually abused by Catholic Clergy and deacons.  With the shame and denial that accompany sexual abuse, the real number must be much higher.

Worse, this is not just a recent phenomenon. Father Thomas Doyle, a priest, and Richard Sipes and Patrick Wall, former monks, have written that the Catholic Church has recognized the problem of abuse by priests for 2,000 years. Their book, Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse (Volt Press, 2006) was based on the Church’s own documents.

And far from being the case of a few bad apples, Brooks Egerton and Reese Dunklin have reported that even eight years ago, two-thirds of sitting US Bishops had been accused of moving pedophile priests to new assignments.   It is not the apples that are bad; it’s the barrel.

Under authoritarian rule – whether political or religious – the high ideals preached by leaders have no necessary connection to their behavior.  That is the disconnect, the lack of integrity, between a church preaching Jesus, while practicing the sexual abuse of “the least among us” — then covering it up by moving pedophiles to fresh flocks.

It’s worth recalling just a couple teachings from this man Jesus, who hangs on the front wall of every Catholic church.  

He measured the quality of our belief by whatever we do to “the least of these,” and said what we do to them, we do also to him.  He said those who mislead children would be better off with a millstone tied around their neck, thrown into the sea.  And he thought these were among the bedrocks of decency that should be obvious to all “with eyes to see and ears to hear.” This is part of the background against which any individual or church calling itself Christian must be judged.  

Authoritarian leaders and institutions can blind us to the abuse of children, women, other races, sexual orientations or beliefs.  They are always prone to making God their hand puppet, so He believes the same as they do.  Far too often, they have turned children into mere playthings, used for the selfish desires of the priests and deacons — or left unprotected from the abuse of others.  

The Catholic Church has been a great and important institution for many centuries, and much of what it has done is very good.  But beneath the surface, the Church’s refusal to integrate all the children of God into their priesthood – including women, married couples and gays — has not only made the Church exclusive (and “exclusive” is the polar opposite of “catholic”), but the passage of time has seen their obstinacy become mere bigotry.  They remain trapped in a one-sexed institution, often attracting men who like to be around other men, and some whose natural perversion or moral blindness have led them to see children as appropriate sexual objects.  

The consistent abuse of children by priests is not a peripheral facet of the Catholic Church; it is the logical consequence of an entrenched male hierarchy’s inbred sense of its own privilege.  Of course such behavior is the antithesis of the ideals Jesus taught.  But that is another way of saying that the Catholic Church can too easily become the mortal enemy of those high ideals that are the Church’s only justification for existing.

The worldwide outcry from people representing the entire religious spectrum is saying Enough!  Enough of these men pretending they have the moral authority to preach on matters of sex, about which they remain so willfully ignorant.  Enough pretending that their habitual abuse, secrecy and cover-ups should be tolerated by anyone – especially the victimized children, their families, and the societies that make them tax-free because they have been seen as a healthy and stabilizing part of the larger world around them.  Enough of priestly myopia that lacks the eyes to see even the most heart-breaking of their transgressions.

For twenty centuries, according to the Church’s own records, a dangerous and frightening number of its priests and popes have been unable to see these abuses as evil.  The current outrage – which must also have roots 2,000 years deep – comes not only from Catholics, but also from millions of others, whether they care for religion or not.  People the world over are trying to say that there is something fundamentally and intolerably wrong with the Church and its popes, when these moral imperatives are screaming so loudly that even 200 deaf boys could hear them.  



Davidson Loehr is a former musician, combat photographer and press officer in Vietnam, owner of a photography studio in Ann Arbor, then a carpenter and drunk. He holds a Ph.D.  in methods of studying religion, theology, the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, with an additional focus on language philosophy (The University of Chicago).  From 1986 to 2009, he served as a Unitarian minister.  He is the author of one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005).  Now retired from the ministry, he is building a platform to become involved in national discussions of religion, science and culture. His book in progress is The Rise of Secular Religion in America.