By Stanislaus Ikechukwu Onuora (Rev Fr)
The question of the relevance of religion in the modern (sciento-technological) world has become pertinent owing to the heights and breakthroughs science, which at times is seen as a rival to religion, has attained, and also the speed with which people are abandoning the church. This is more so when one looks back at history and sees all that scientists have suffered in the hands of the church in their struggle to free science and reason from the authority of religion.
A GLANCE AT THE HISTORY OF THE STRUGGLE
The historical struggle between science and religion laid its foundation around 4A.D when philosophy which was the only science then and is still considered the first science Scientia rectrix, got in contact with Christianity and soon became Christianised. The Roman Emperor Constantine had declared the Catholic Church (the only Christian church then), the official religion of Rome. Rome then ruled the whole known world. The church was later to gradually assume political power shortly after the fall of Rome, and control of all aspects of the human society including philosophy (science).
Now the problem between science and religion or scientists and the church, is mainly on the issue of truth. The church claimed then to possess all truths, and therefore made it a rule that she is the highest authority on matters of truth both secular and sacred issues, and no one should dare to challenge her judgment. Philosophers or scientists then either were afraid to challenge the church or believed the church to be actually infallible in all matters.
However, soon came the first eye-opener which casted a doubt on the church’s infinite knowledge and which ignited the fire of revolution among men of reason. It was in the 15th century AD, precisely the year 1492 when the British adventurer Christopher Columbus overcame the limited vision of the planet by finding within the very world he thought he knew well, a new world—America. This discovery was a serious embarrassment to the church which thought and is believed to know the geography and centre of the world. The discovery forced the church to redefine her sense of the planet’s centre and the earth’s geography. The discovery revealed that there were a lot of things in the world the church does not know but claims to know. The world after Columbus was more difficult for the church to control. This event was enough to spur men of reason into questioning the authority of the church especially in secular matters.
If Columbus redesigned the world in the 15th century, Martin Luther, the German theologian redefined the church in the 16th century. Luther shifted the centre of the church from the Papacy to the New Testament, from the hierarchy to the people, from the sacraments to conscience, and from authority to consensus. Martin Luther though not a scientist, questioned the position of the church in everything. He advocated for the authority not of the church but of Reason, conscience, and people’s consensus. Though the church excommunicated him, this was later to give real scientists like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, e.t.c. the audacity to publicly take a contrary stand against the church on the issue of the solar system in the 17th century.
The Catholic Church, the dominant religion then, held that truth cannot be found outside of her, and taught that the earth is the stationary centre of the solar system, and that the sun moves round it. But Galileo after a painstaking research with his telescope discovered that it is the sun actually which is the stationary centre of the solar system of which the earth and other planets revolve round.
Galileo went further to declare as a result of this discovery, that “Truth is the daughter of time not of authority. Authority we might observe adds nothing to truth; it is truth that gives moral force to authority. Truth is larger than the church. The church can only proclaim the truth effectively if it learns to serve the truth”. The Church couldn’t take this (insult). Galileo was asked to recant his statements, but he went further to say that ‘you can’t make a man unsee what he has seen.’ Galileo was imprisoned and all his works burnt. He died in prison in 1642, some years after the Church burned Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who in 1600 taught that the earth moves. Other scientists were disappointed by the Church’s action. So they wrote:
“All the world knows is this; it was not Galileo that Rome imprisoned but a truth it cannot control and could not make less than itself.”
It has been said that Galileo himself shortly before his death shouted in moral triumph, Eppur Si Muore—the earth moves—and Rome cannot stop it… The truth is not made in Rome. Before the Truth, Rome is a servant. The Truth cannot be arrested in its forward movement or confined in the prison of lesser worlds.
However, the church continued to deal with her challengers especially the scientists with iron hand, but still the autonomy of the world continued accelerating. The scientists were becoming bolder in their assertions and were most importantly succeeding in making the people realise that the church is lesser than the truth and in fact not an authority especially in secular matters. The people began to see truth and reason in their theories and thesis.
19th century witnessed the climax of the struggle between science and religion. The struggle turned violent. This was the period of enlightenment. The masses took up the struggle against the church when their eyes seemed to have opened clearly, and so there was revolutions all over the west, particularly in France, America, and Italy. The truth has become seen as something that abides in the world as it does in the church, in the minds of other human beings as readily as it does in the members of the magisterium, in the texture of everyday life as surely as it does in the texts of scripture. The truth became clearly seen as the daughter of time rather than authority. It is not the work of one person, even the Pope, or one institution, even the church, but the collaborative and collegial work of the entire human family.
Now if Columbus changed the geography of the world, and Luther the definition of the church, and Galileo the boundaries of the Solar system, the French and American Revolution changed the constitution of the political order in the modern world. The people having seen the tyranny of the church and her myopic knowledge about secular truth, and being unable to endure her rule further, revolted. The Church and her leaders were attacked and defeated in a bitter bloody battle. The church was forced to submit her political powers and quit politics, and return to her original role as according to Martin Luther King Jnr, the conscience and moral guardian of the society. The human reason, truth and in fact science were therefore freed from the church’s authority.
SCIENCE FROM 19TH CENTURY UPWARD
Science and scientists eventually got their freedom with the resultant effect that from the 19th century upwards, the world witnessed and is still witnessing great and breathtaking achievements in science. Many scientists evolved and science became highly diversified with many branches. Somebody like Charles Darwin took up human biology and freed it to pursue its own truth. He dealt a severe blow on the church’s basis of her Ethics on the absoluteness of human biology,
by postulating that humans evolved from lower species of animals who themselves evolved from the combination at random of some atoms. Of course the church rejected his view but could do no more than that. Freud, the Austrian Doctor on the other hand took up the area of human psychology. Marx continued with philosophy while others like Isaac Newton went into practical scientific studies and inventions. Other areas of science continued developing. Soon there became a clear and continuous shift from Religion to Science. People started deserting the church and no more listened to her as they used to. Science and scientists were being turned to for answers to every problem both physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual. Science on its own part seems to have been living up to expectation as it provides answers to almost all human inconveniences and puzzles. Hence people continued embracing it all the more. It was these developments that led the controversial philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche to declare in the open that God is dead, that the people (perhaps science) have killed God. Nietzsche in making this proclamation may be said not to have actually said something strange or new, rather he just made what people has believed and practiced implicitly explicit.
SOME OF THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF SCIENCE
If Frederick Nietzsche were to be alive in this 21st century, perhaps he would have gone beyond saying that God is dead. In this our century, scientists seem to have taken more personally, the ancient injunction given to man by God to go and conquer the world and subdue it. Science has gone into all aspects of human life conquering almost all problems it faced. Take for example, in the area of communication, it is said that we are now in the computer age because science has turned the world into a global village with daily inventions of highly sophisticated and computerised gadgets. We now have the internet, mobile phones, e-mail network cable televisions, and other communication systems with which you can reach anybody in any part of the world in seconds.
Talk of arms and ammunitions. Scientists have produced highly sophisticated and computer directed weapons including weapons of mass destruction like nuclear and biological weapons. Wars are no more fought like in the olden days when men engage each other face to face with daggers, knives, and small rifles, rather, now we talk of war planes, missiles, drones, etc. The situation was summed up by Martin Luther King Junior when in his book Strength to love he said, ‘in a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war.’
It’s in the health sector that science seems to have scored the greatest breakthrough. It has devoured the human body and has come up with startling information about the workings of every part of the body including the brain, making the cure of diseases as easy as A.B.C. They have recently come up with the dust raising genetic engineering and human cloning where humans are produced in the laboratory. This has of course raised a lot of moral questions from the church but that’s just the much the church could do because it can’t stop or control science any longer.
Nowadays, transportation is no more a problem. One can easily travel to any part of the world now in hours whether by air, land, sea and even underground. People now even travel to the space and moon with ease, courtesy of new scientific inventions. In fact if one is to start enumerating all the works and achievements of science, he will never end. It will suffice to simply say that everything has gone scientific; the wave of science seems to be carrying everybody. Even the church and her leaders seem to be in the bandwagon.
THE CHURCH AS AT NOW
Looking at all these dominations of science, one cannot but ask, ‘is Religion and the church still actually relevant in this our modern age? Is science now not a superior alternative to religion? The question has become all the more timely than ever when one realises the rate with which institutional religion is phasing out especially in the western world where people no longer go to church, where seminaries and convents are steadily being deserted, where many clergy themselves are steadily turning into lay people and it is becoming a taboo for a priest to wear his soutane, and so on. People now turn not to the church but to their conscience and psychologists for their moral guide. It’s no more news now to hear that robbers killed a priest or went on a robbery operation in a church, or of infidelities among the clergy and religious. In fact the church leaders have almost lost their dignity and things seem to be falling apart with the church.
Having seen the state of these two parties, the upward movement of science and the apparent downward movement of religion, one may not hesitate to conclude that religion is no more relevant in our age. But I must say that a critical look and deep reflection on human predicament in this our age will tell one that religion is still relevant in our world. In fact much more than ever. Science has never and will never solve all our problems. Admittedly it has made life a lot easier at least on the material level, but then also at the same time through the same means, it has made life more mechanical, reckless and less valuable. Science in its failed effort to remove the idea of deity (God) from the universe by believing everything to be humanly possible has indeed made man’s life miserable. Science has deceived men into deserting God and seeking happiness in mundane things thereby compounding their problems. This is clearly manifested at the rate we hear cases of suicide, murders, mental disorders, broken homes, etc. In fact men since deserting religion have lived a more depressed and crime-full life than before. Of course everything that has an advantage has a disadvantage as well. Man has also turned the inventions of science against his fellow. Cases of abortion, euthanasia, electric chair, etc. are due to man’s wrong use of scientific drugs and equipments. In fact science has created more problems for man because many of its inventions like nuclear and biological weapons, hard drugs of different types, internet, etc. which perhaps are aimed at easing man’s life has also at the same time brought him destructions and unhappiness. Furthermore, science has failed man in many areas like finding the cure of such diseases as AIDS, Cancer, Hepatitis, Diabetes, etc. or finding a way of preventing death in man. All these show that science is not or has not the solution to all man’s quest.
At this point, one must conclude that after all said and done, man can never find peace and happiness which according to Epicurus is the end of all man’s actions, only in secularism and materialism. Man must ultimately look for God which is found in religion, for inner peace and tranquillity. St. Augustine of Hippo wasn’t mistaken when he said that our souls are restless until they rest in God. And there is nothing as important as the peace of soul, which can only be found through religion. Even some of the scientists themselves recognise the superiority of religion in man’s life. So let us embrace religion. Aristotle said virtue lies in the middle. Let us strike a balance between the two by giving each its due and place. By so doing, our life will be a lot better and balanced. Science should not transcend its boundaries and enter into religious and theological matters especially moral issues, the Church remains the guiding authority there. Religion on the other hand should not delve into scientific boundaries. When these steps are taken, we’ll find out that science and religion are complementary to each other and very much relevant in this our modern world. Martin Luther King Jnr strongly affirmed this when he said, ‘there is a widespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true. There may be a conflict between soft-minded religionists and tough-minded scientists, but not between science and religion. Their respective worlds are different and their methods dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals with facts, religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals, they are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the value of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.’
By Stanislaus Ikechukwu Onuora (Rev Fr)