By Peter Espeut
It's all the fashion to attack religion, and Christianity in particular; and the attacks come from many sides.
For example, some natural scientists say religion is no more than superstition, since it is not based on empirical reality, while some social scientists claim that religion is the opium of the people, an invention of power elite to keep the masses docile and governable - an instrument of social control.
Others, uncomfortable with the ethical demands imposed by Christianity, seek to discredit Christianity in order to legitimise their lifestyles.
Personally, I believe that challenges to Christianity are healthy, for uncritical acceptance of any philosophy or system of beliefs is childish and immature. For the same reason, the natural sciences and the social sciences must similarly be challenged.
After all, during the trial of Socrates charged with atheism (not believing in the gods of Athens) and for corrupting the minds of the young, Socrates is quoted by Plato as saying, "An unexamined life is not worth living"; Socrates drank the hemlock rather than go into exile or stop teaching. Any Christian who has not challenged the contradictions within the religious teachings of his youth is not yet a serious, mature Christian.
Being both a natural scientist and a social scientist by tertiary academic training (and well versed in the attacks upon religion), as well as a clergyman grounded in theology and philosophy who has delved deeply into the mysteries of Christianity, I find that many people who enter this debate are not rigorous enough in their arguments. They either have only a passing acquaintance with religion, or a shallow understanding of science.
For example, no natural scientist worthy of the name can successfully refute the existence of God. The positivist or empirical sciences accept as data only those phenomena which can be observed and measured. By definition, God is a spirit, not detectable by the human senses or scientific instruments. Does this allow physical scientists to conclude, therefore, that God does not exist? Of course not! Every scientist and philosopher knows that it is epistemologically impossible to prove or disprove a negative.
Natural science is subject to the rules of reasoning and logic determined by philosophy (of which science, or natural philosophy, is a branch). If a scientist (or person who claims scientific literacy) states that there is no God, he has strayed away from science into some other discipline, for he cannot provide data to back up his claim; absence of data is proof of nothing!
THEOLOGY A SCIENCE
After all, belief in the existence of God is a matter of faith, not science. "Faith (according to the Book of Hebrews) is confidence in what we hope for and certainty about what we do not see." (11:1) Theology is also a science, but accepts data from a wider set of sources than the empirical sciences [e.g., from revelation (like the Bible) and from experience], and thereafter is subject to the above-mentioned rules of philosophical reasoning and logic. Because theology incorporates all the data of the physical sciences - and then some - theology is regarded as the 'Queen of Sciences'.
Atheism has all the characteristics of a religion unto itself, for it is based not on scientific observations but on faith (or the lack thereof, which is similar to faith). In these matters, a scientist who wishes to be true to his discipline must remain silent.
It is true that over the millennia, politicians and potentates have sought to use religion as a means of social control, and sadly and scandalously, oftentimes religious leaders and religious organisations have been co-opted and have cooperated in this.
Some religious traditions (like my own) have a catalogue of social doctrine which not only supports the struggle against oppression, but identifies the mission of Jesus and His Church with liberation from sin and its effects. This includes improper relationships between human beings (e.g., exploitation, corruption, human rights abuses), and improper relationships between people and the natural environment (e.g., pollution, deforestation, overfishing and environmental degradation). It is a caricature of religion that is the opium of the people. True religion leads to liberation of people.
Christianity will have a hard time making headway towards its goals in the current context because it is a divided reality. Inconsistent and untheological interpretations of the Bible and the pollution of Christianity with materialism have diluted its positive impact.
Honest and systematic examination of what we believe will deepen our faith and dispose of (to our satisfaction) the attacks upon our faith. The greatest enemies of true religion are apathy, sloppy reasoning, and dishonesty.
Peter Espeut is a chemist, a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to email@example.com.