Enough Tupperware
by Leslie Lawrence '72


In ancient times, much of what we now call science was the handmaiden of religion. In ancient Babylon, for instance, only priests were permitted to study astronomy and mathematics. Egyptians used geometry to build pyramids and estimate the volume of water in their reservoirs. But religion may have been a limiting factor. Neither Egypt nor Babylon turned to science when mulling over the nature of the universe. For that, they relied on mythical explanations.

By contrast, the Ionians, who had emigrated from Greece, lived in a far more hostile environment and weren't tethered by religious restrictions. Spurred by necessity and freed from theocracy, the Ionians asked fundamental questions about how the universe worked, according to author James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed. An early Ionian, Thales of Miletus, is credited with using the constellation Ursa Minor as a point of reference for navigation. With his students, Thales investigated weather patterns, magnetism, condensation, and other aspects of the world around them.

In the Middle Ages, as Europe spurned science, Moslem scholars kept math, astronomy, and biology alive by expanding upon the sciences of ancient Greece. In particular, the Koran deemed biology as being close to God. Much of this knowledge was preserved in great libraries built by the growing Islamic empire in Spain, notably the library established in the city of Toledo. The city fell to Christian crusaders in 1085 and, soon after, Christian monks translated the works into Latin. It made sense that this task fell to the monks; until modern times, only priests and the wealthy were sufficiently educated for the job.

Later, in the mid-1700s, European philosophers argued that science and religion were separate disciplines. And yet, hostility didn't ensue. Enter Charles Darwin, who shook segments of Christianity with a theory of evolution that conflicted with the words of Genesis, and science and religion were officially at odds. In his 1874 bestseller, History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion, medical school professor John Draper fueled the belief that the Catholic Church was the enemy of science, blocking progress "by the sword and the stake." Adding to the controversy was Cornell University President Dickson White's 1896 book The History of the Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. As the clash of words continued, perceptions changed, and the image of the two sides being at war prevailed. So it has remained since the latter part of the 19th century.

In reality, the issue is far from cut-and-dried. While fundamentalist Christians in America continued to denounce evolution, a 1996 conference sponsored by the Vatican Observatory and the California-based Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences concluded that evolution and Christianity were compatible. "Religions have often supported scientific endeavors," says Oberlin's Joyce McClure, assistant professor of religion. "There's no inherent conflict between the two disciplines, in my view."

But recent developments, particularly in genetics, are already fostering new dissension. "Any form of genetic manipulation of humans or animals has the potential for causing a problem for religious persons," says McClure, who teaches courses on ethical issues facing science. But simple genetic manipulation may not be enough to set off warning bells among Christians and Jews. Both traditions have embraced the
idea that change--through evolution or through humanity's manipulation--is part of the nature of things, she says. "There's nothing new about that.

"The best candidates for a problem," McClure adds, "would be things that reduce complexity. If it becomes possible--and widespread--to select pre-embryos for intelligence or physical strength, for instance, we would be selecting one group over another, one that would have an advantage over other segments of the population."

Ironically, the Big Bang theory, among the most complicated and controversial theories to emerge in the 20th century, wears well in many religious and non-religious circles. "The idea that there was this event that brought space and time into existence is appealing to people of faith," says McClure. "The idea of God as being eternal and outside of time has been long-standing. And that concept is not specific just to Christianity."

Go to Page | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |