14. Religion, in Harmony with Science?
Updated: Jun 9
Back when I was a pre-teen, our national statistics showed that pretty much everyone in my country was 'religious', except for a few hardy atheists and communists.
Religion was for the most part like the recently ended war - not a polite topic of conversation - and attitudes to religion seemed to follow what would in future become the U.S. Armed Service’s attitude towards homosexuality, of 'don't ask, don't tell'.
Certainly neither were suitable topics for polite after-dinner conversation. But Sunday after-dinner was precisely when I'd raise these topics for my father's patient attention, thus necessitating that my brothers wash the dishes in my place.
As a child I had found Sunday School classes to be, for the most part, a pleasurable kind of story-telling event, during which parables were like fairy tales where amazing things happened, of seas being parted, and water turned into wine, and walked upon!
Each year my goal was to win the annual Sunday School prize; a well chosen book that would conveniently provide me with reading for the long school holidays ahead.
However, those pleasant story telling sessions became increasingly troubling when the forthcoming Religious Confirmation classes began insisting that if I was to become a truly committed Christian I must believe that hell lay beneath the surface of the planet, where souls of the unbelievers were condemned to eternal fire and brimstone, whilst heaven soared triumphantly above our heads, lorded over by a grey-bearded God on his throne, surrounded by adoring cherubim and seraphim.
At the same time, my science class taught contradictory things like the earth having a molten core, and the heavens being a vast universe of increasingly identifiable planets and supernovas.
The creation story of Adam and Eve was similarly perplexing. God made Eve from one of Adam's ribs? That didn't help the gender equity issues I struggled with, having been raised an only girl among brothers.
When my biology class began to teach about the function of ectoskeletons and endoskeletons, this suggested to me that ribless Adam must have had a hard time dealing with whatever dinosaurs etc. might still roam the earth in his day to require some manly conquering.
Unsurprisingly, I was labelled argumentative and certainly not encouraged for having such a 'thoughtful' attitude to my religious studies. Eventually, I could no longer ignore those insistent questions. Atheism triumphed over the ease of living a double standard, and I knew the time had arrived to 'come out'. That phrase with all its implications of shame and condemnation was how it felt to declare oneself an atheist back in the early '60's when it was assumed that everyone was Christian, apart from a negligible few immigrants.
Then, with the self-righteousness of the new convert, I insisted to my virtuous mother, who had been one of the very first women Elders in the Presbyterian Church of NZ, that she arrange for me to be formally excommunicated from our local church which she and my father had personally helped to establish, thus unknowingly passing on to them those same connotations of shame that I had experienced.
My naive sense of 'virtue' insisted that it wasn't enough to simply stop attending church services. I needed to make the point that I was no mere drop out. I was seriously challenging the status quo, joining the ranks of the heathen; an act that felt extremely courageous at that time, yet is merely typical of present standards.
However, I never lost the insistent feeling that there was something more to existence. It was over a decade later that I explored the Bahai teachings and realised that the early Bible stories I had rejected were our 'Europeanised' Semitic creation stories. Our 'Adam and Eve' were like 'Rangi and Papatuanuku' or, much later, like the morality tales of Hans Christian Anderson. They were 'teaching' stories which had served an important purpose at the time. However, now was a new age; now it was essential that religion be in harmony with science. And the only place I found that was in the principles and teachings of the Baha'i Faith.
The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. ---Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace -44-