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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: The Movie "Contact" and the Myth of a Conflict Between Science and Religion 
6th-Dec-2007 10:02 am
I See You!
Here's a question: Why? In fact, that's my favourite question! But it's not too clear by itself, so let me give a little background so you can understand my specific use of the question.

I've been re-watching the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact in a number of sittings. A good flick in itself, I'm particularly interested in this movie because it attempts to articulate something about the relation between science and religion. It does manage to say something beyond some of the more adamant and ignorant clichés in that topic, although this is diminished by still articulating the chichés along the way, and thus we see the predominant Secularist picture of religion as backward, ignorant and violent highlighted for us before going on to some of its further points. The voice of "Science" (or, really, Science-as-ideology, which is something other than Science as such, but few people ever notice this slight-of-hand) is expressed in the character of Ellie Arroway, portrayed by the always-winsome Jodie Foster, one of our nation's true acting treasures. The voice of "Religion" is ultimately given to be Palmer Joss, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, although his voice is diminished by the swarms of religious fanatics one sees protesting the discovery of the signal from space. (Although I'm a little baffled to try to understand even what the religious fringe would think they would achieve by "protesting" such an event.)

Now, wait a second. I have to ask myself, am I "stacking the deck" in reading the debate within the film as tilted against "Religion?" Do not the legions of government functionaries, epitomized in the wonderfully disagreeable character of presidential science advisor David Drumlin, played by Tom Skerritt, serve as the opposite number to the religious fanatics? I submit there's a key difference. While those who subordinate science to political goals or to sheer expediency or personal gain represent a true corruption from the purpose of Science as a quest for Truth, such corrupt characters never call the very nature of Science into account. We are not tempted to assume that Science is all a load of crap because someone manipulates it to evil ends. Yet this is the leap in logic that is presented all the time by those who speak from an anti-religious agenda: those excessive religious fanatics, because of their evil, help "prove" that the whole of religion is a plague on the human race.

But let us restrict ourselves to the more agreeable figures of Ellie and Palmer, even though these are still hardly ideals of the type, and still speak from more of that American Left ideological bent with which Hollywood and the East Coast academy are more comfortable. Ellie still recites the standard accusations against Religion to Palmer, having read his book but not augmented her Ph.D. with an Intro to Theology or Philosophy text, or else she would know how cliché and inaccurate her statements were.

In an unintentionally sillier moment, Ellie invokes Occam's Razor against belief in God, first having to explain to Palmer what Occam's Razor is, as he thinks it sounds like the name of a slasher flick. It is a scientific principle, she explains, that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is likely the right one: and thus isn't it more logical to think that we made up God, since there's no evidence for God? (She apparently means physical evidence for God, although she neglects as scientist to offer any idea of what physical, in-universe evidence for the Creator of the universe might possibly look like.)

Palmer, as anything remotely like an educated theologian, would be perfectly familiar with the Razor, as William of Occam was a Franciscan friar, a theologian, and this piece of logic was articulated as a theological device: one of the many pieces of medieval theology and philosophy that would give birth to Modern Science. (He does at least recover and ask her to prove, scientifically, that she loved her father, to her bafflement: one of the many ways in which the exclusively empirical definition of proof is inadequate.) Palmer, too, is made to be more agreeable and perhaps less threatening to the creators or intended audience of this story. Palmer is never explicitly and thus uncomfortably Christian, speaking of God and faith in vague-enough terms to satisfy a Presidential speech-writer, and is a seminary dropout because he couldn't live with the celibacy requirement, thus allowing him to quickly sleep with Ellie shortly after they meet. (Score one for theologians!)

Like I said: these are characters meant to be amenable to a certain kind of intellectual culture. Their opposition is of a broad, finger-painting kind, although I suppose, to be fair, this is a movie and that's probably more useful for the medium than even the allusion of Palmer discussing Theology in an educated or detailed way.

So where does this go, ultimately, in articulating a relationship between Science and Religion, as they are conceived in this tale? Ellie's extra-ordinary journey leaves her in a position where all she can offer is an account of experience, and a plea to be taken seriously on the basis of the content of her character. This puts her, we are intended to realize, in the same position as those who speak of evidence of God in their experience. This is thin soup, of course, because then one has to deal with a large mass of experiential data, some of which conflicts, and this is were the sciences of Theology and Philosophy come in, but we're so scared of Theology and Philosophy that we don't even want to admit them as sciences, and so as a culture we commit the inexcusable sin of not even learning the basics of the fields, in the un-scientific belief that ignorance keeps us "neutral" and thus more in a position to make sound judgments, the soundest judgment of all, of course, being the confirmation of our own theological neutrality.

Is this jaded of me? I don't know. This brings me, at long last, to the specific "Why?" I wanted to ask. As I watched this film again, I thought over the stupid portrayal of the relationship between Science and Religion as what CNN called "the eternal war between Science and Religion" ("eternal" in this case meaning it goes back to a philosophical shift of the last 200 years). I've written about this a number of times in the pages of this journal, as one of the most obstinant pieces of ignorance I have to deal with, as every bit as ignorant as the Creationism of Protestant Fundamentalists.

So. Given that:
1) the idea of a fundamental conflict between Science and Religion can easily be proven historically to be an ideological construction of a particular philosophical moment, rather like racism and the vast support it received from the scientific establishment right up to the Second World War, and that
2) it is easy today to find writing and teaching which affirms and defends the utter compatibility of Science and Religion as two distinct but related investigations into the truth of reality,
my question, then, is: Why does the notion of a conflict between Science and Religion persist? Why, despite decades of far more evidence to the contrary in our clearest thinkers in both fields, does the popular mind fail to have any sense of another, more educated and constructive option?
6th-Dec-2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
Hey, that's why I left the (pre-)seminary, too!
6th-Dec-2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
And a grateful world thanks you!
6th-Dec-2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
Amen! This movie was silly enough on its own (all the questions in the world are answered if there are other beings out there somewhere in space impersonating our dead relatives?), but it was such a horrible perpetuation of a false conflict and inane pseudo-arguments that I wish I could stop anyone else from ever seeing it.

Worse, I watched it over three class periods in a high school Physics class, where my teacher seemed to think it was the most brilliant articulation of "Science vs. Religion" ever made. Also he liked the part at the beginning where it zooms out past planets and other galaxies into the universe. (And he stopped it at every stage to explain what we were looking at and every five minutes thereafter to explain what had just happened. This is why it took us three class days.)

But I do love Jodie Foster!
7th-Dec-2007 01:28 am (UTC)
And I suppose it's good that a teacher like yours is trying to do something he thinks is progressive regarding the dialogue between the two disciplines, but I suspect that this is a good illustration about the dangers of "a little knowledge."
"A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again."
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709
As I try to look at this dynamic in our culture, as awful as I find both the political Right and the political Left, I think I have to blame the Secular Left on this score, for the smug dismissal of any more reflective look at Religion (in the Theological or Philosophical mode) because they've already been taught as dogma that it's all been disproved long ago, thus excusing them from doing the work themselves. I hope that's not dismissive, myself, or a gross caricature: it really does seem to be what I observe time and again.
7th-Dec-2007 02:02 am (UTC)
I think I would have taken it better if he *had* been trying to address "dialogue between two disciplines" - but, as you describe so well, I don't even think it occurs to him that theology has a right to call itself a discipline. He mostly talked about presenting a "cultural" dilemma - that is, in our society there are intellectual scientists with a discipline, and then there are some very feeling and intuitive people who have some challenging, but subjective, (at best) insights or (at worst) fantasies. (And you also have to be careful, because these same people also like to protest in hordes whenever mankind tries to make some kind of progress that contradicts their monolithic religious ideology!)
7th-Dec-2007 02:12 am (UTC)
(Here via frey_at_last)

It never really dawned on me until I read this, but I really should DESPISE this film, and for all the reasons you've listed here. And yet it's one of my favorite films of all time. Part of it is that I love space-y movies in general. I love Jodie Foster as an actress as well. And Jena Malone as the young Ellie was wonderful. But everything you've said here is spot on.

I printed out this post so I could read it at lunch time, and have it so marked up that I don't think I can even reply without copying half your post, LOL!

If you're at all interested, my running commentary on it is HERE.

If I wasn't so very exhausted, I'd say something more intelligent. So I guess I'll just say thanks for such a thoughtful commentary. Would it be ok to link to this on my journal?
9th-Dec-2007 02:48 am (UTC)
Oh, of course you can link to it: you don't need my permission to do that, once I've made the mistake of publicly posting something! :-)

I don't want to give the wrong impression: I love this movie, too, even if it annoys me at times by wallowing in misunderstandings or stereotypes that belie its lofty agenda or self-conception.

Yes, while recognizing Foster's great acting, Jena Malone gets props, too: I also wondered whether she used that gift or went on to do other things. (Huh. I just looked her up on IMDB and see that she has indeed continued acting. I see she worked on Foster's project The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, which a DRE friend of mine discussed with Foster at the Sundance Film Festival. And that she was the standout as the daughter in Stepmom, which I'd never put together....)

Now I"m off to your commentary....
9th-Dec-2007 03:39 am (UTC)
I record my reply to mosinging1986 here for record-keeping's sake.
9th-Dec-2007 03:39 am (UTC)
Your point about the reduction of religion to faith is pertinent: there are significant implications in that as both what the culture has come to believe, and even more now that it has gained legal force in the United States with the Supreme Court in Locke v. Davey legally defining it as merely "belief." (See the First Things symposium on "Theology as Knowledge".) Reason itself has been isolated from Faith, whereas I always try to point out to my students that that in the other parts of our lives (along with the "religious") we clearly build Faith upon Reason: we apply data and experience and judgment to decided to have faith in a friend or not. But if you define Faith as "belief," instead of "trust," even though it far more means the latter in Christianity, you'll soon get that problem or mock-solution of setting Faith and Reason up as opposites, rather than as part of a continuum of something deeper that includes the two, that maybe we could call Reflection, or hell – let's get really Christian and theological (and maybe even problematic) and call it Wisdom.

Yes, and I sympathize with some of your later frustrations: the "worst of the worst" litany of being kicked out of Sunday School for "asking questions," or the utterly awful "can't understand God's will" response to her father's death. These are awful responses from within Christian perspective, much less from without. As a Christian I don't hold to the biblical literalism behind her childish Genesis reading, even though many American Christians do, and I see no problem with either the biological and cosmological idea of evolution, nor the idea that the first 11 chapters of Genesis contain literature of very mythological style. I still think myth has truth to teach, and it is the mythological truth of Genesis ch. 1 that the creation – the material world – is good which will eventually give rise to what we call "modern science" in the West, and not from any other advanced human culture. Also, I would minimize the sense of the priest's statement: I don't think the theological pictures this assumes – that God actively wills all events – makes a lick of sense. It succeeds in making a monster of God, though, but it fails to acknowledge both the freedom of human will, and the freedom endowed by the Creator into the creation itself: that "randomness" we speak of in science.

I think Palmer's point was more that he couldn't in good conscience send someone to represent humanity who didn't "disagree" with 95% of the planet by not believing in God or such, but who actively thought that that 95% was delusional, stupid, lying to themselves, naive, etc. It's the bigotry which he objects to, of the reductionistic Richard Dawkins sort, and I thought that was a stronger point, which could have been made stronger in the film, yes, but would have been helped had "Religion" been allowed to show its rationality, evidences, arguments, etc. The truly funny thing about this "science vs. religion" dichotomy, which is turned into a "reason vs. faith/non-reason" dichotomy, is the strong defense of Reason Christianity is holding to in the face of philosophy today. Whether in John Paul II's Faith and Reason or in Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address, Christianity is lining itself up as the primary defender of Reason, which I think will lead to a natural alliance with the physical sciences once the scientists get the propaganda out of their heads and learn a thing or three about what Christianity is really about.

Yes, she comes down to "faith" in the end regarding her own experience, although I thought this was a bit of a weak way out of the "science/religion" debate: once the Evil Government Conspiracy falls apart and anyone else starts using the machine, the house-of-cards conspiracy falls with it. That was a weaker piece of writing/logic. But the recognition that even regarding "scientific" things, there's a huge space for human experience and testimony there, well, that's a little more an enduring point.

So you were what? 16 what you wrote this revue? Nicely done!
9th-Dec-2007 04:00 am (UTC)
So you were what? 16 what you wrote this revue? Nicely done!

Oh, goodness, no! I'm in my 30's, LOL. I'll have something more intelligent to say once I process all of this. Thanks for reading & commenting!
9th-Dec-2007 04:02 am (UTC)
Whoops! My mistake! :-)

I guess I took the date in your username as a birthdate, which I think is the more common tendency.....
9th-Dec-2007 04:09 am (UTC)
No problem. It is actually my spiritual birthday.
7th-Dec-2007 05:32 am (UTC)
I have only seen parts of the movie but really caught some of what you are saying. Thanks for the thoughts, what you wrote should be more commonplace knowledge in the world today.
9th-Dec-2007 03:40 am (UTC)
Well, I still very much enjoyed the film... but thanks!
7th-Dec-2007 11:14 am (UTC)
Probably because science is generally taught consistantly and logically throughout school, and stated as fact, whereas religion is rarely taught in a constructive and critical way, if at all, and rarely put down as fact, but rather, opinion. And sunday school and church (from a Protestant point of view) does not fill this gap either - I was forced to go to sunday school until I was about 16 and it did not convince me at all of the validity of Christianity in the way school convinced me of the validity of science.

PS This would be a good post for interacademia, which is sadly quiet at the moment... We need more people on board!
7th-Dec-2007 11:46 am (UTC)
whereas religion is rarely taught in a constructive and critical way, if at all, and rarely put down as fact, but rather, opinion

I really think that 'religion' is appallingly taught in the UK, and I am always heartened by novak's accounts of teaching high-school in the US. In the UK, I the pick-and-mix approach of most curricula up to age 16 seems to mean that religious studies is taught more as low-level anthropology (a description of social and cultural practices, with a superficial nod to the thoughts behind them) than as theology or philosophy. In trying to promote 'tolerance and understanding', we have reduced faith to a social activity.

I second the comment about interacademia. From a purely selfish perspective, I do not have enough scholarship influencing my life at the moment!
7th-Dec-2007 11:55 am (UTC)
Indeed, all I remember from RE classes (Religious Education, for the first few years of secondary) was a lot of Amnesty International information and a brief section on Buddhism or Hinduism (can't remember which). We did visit a mosque in primary school, which was interesting.
9th-Dec-2007 04:01 am (UTC)
Yes, as per the response I just gave to midnightmelody, I think that in our generation(s), what's happened is that teaching religion moved radically away from the hard-core content it used to focus on to a 1960s/70s emphasis on "feeling," which is fine in itself, to bring the faith to a more mystical, experiential side that was under-emphasized in a more purely dogmatic approach. But in the same way the physical sciences will die if you solely teach technology/application to the exclusion of theory, in the same way spirituality dies without theology/philosophy. Or its loses its depth and fecundity. And so you end up with nothing more than a sprinkling of progressive human rights politics, and an intimation of world-religions dialogue.

Good in itself, but pretty weak tea overall. The Buddhists and the Muslims aren't terribly engaged in dialogue with people so supposedly "open-minded" that they don't believe anything in particular. Instead, they see that as simple malaise, and in Europe, as you've probably read, many Muslims just see a continent ripe for the plucking, which is problematic if that means not just people engaging their freedom to believe what they want, but the end of the Western tradition toward freedom (which I would argue springs from its Christian heritage although I'll easily point to episodes of Christians not realizing that) and the rise of a legally Islamic reality. I don't mean to sound all conspiracy-theory in talking about that, it's just really quite alarming to hear European Islam actually articulating that as a strategy over this century, and seeing the demographic possibilities.
12th-Dec-2007 11:05 am (UTC)
Ah, the faith-in-action portion of the syllabus. :) Did you actually get to do the letter-writing, fund-raising part of Amnesty International?

Visiting a mosque sounds good, and I have fewer problems with lack-of-theology at primary level. (Since this is usually a time when kids 'do' Egyptians and Vikings and Tudors in the same manner that a 19th century gentleman might 'do' Europe.)
12th-Dec-2007 11:19 am (UTC)
I think there was letter writing and stuff. I wasn't much impressed with RE, and I remember being rather disturbed by some of the images they showed us.
9th-Dec-2007 03:51 am (UTC)
And yet, I'm only describing my experience teaching in a Catholic high school, and I know that many high schools do not get the kind of academic theological engagement that we gave our kids, where I was able to recruit highly-educated teachers out of Notre Dame's Theology and Philosophy departments. I get some students now at Marquette who did have high school theology, but acknowledge that their Intro to Theology class at the university is the first course they had that is making academic and intellectual demands of them, which is discouraging.

As much as I do not mean to downplay the horror of the child sex abuse scandal as it has played out in America (although that's just the tip of the iceberg for childhood sexual abuse more broadly as a problem throughout our culture), I think the biggest problem the church has had in the last few generations is just plain and simple teaching of Christianity. It's such an adult thing that I don't really know what is the right way to deal with it with kids, but by the time most people come of age, intellectually, they think the goofy seven-year-old's picture of it that they got as a kid is the real thing, and no wonder we all toss that aside!
12th-Dec-2007 11:11 am (UTC)
I think the biggest problem the church has had in the last few generations is just plain and simple teaching of Christianity

I was discussing this the other day - in large areas of England there was a shift shortly after Vatican II (and coinciding with Asian immigration) from teaching 'catechism' in Catholic schools/parishes to teaching 'faith', but neither provided intellectual engagement with theology. In the former, 'questioning' or 'challenging' Holy Mother Church was frowned on, in the latter it's impossible because of the relativism which pervades the curriculum.

Out of interest, what *is* the status of Religious Education in public schools in America? In the UK it's a statutory subject up to age 18 (although this tends to be ignored above age 14). Is it taught in some form in all US schools?
9th-Dec-2007 03:45 am (UTC)
That makes sense: given that you're not even trying to show that Christianity is claiming to make a factual argument as a whole, much less going into the huge variety of details and sub-arguments (which excuses you from having to do the work necessary to convey or judge those arguments and their supporting evidences), then there's no way of treating it other than as "opinion-removed-from-fact." And that, of course, is merely prejudice, as true opinions have evidence to support them, and can be judged as correct or incorrect.

And I completely forgot about interacademia, I confess. (I could re-post if you'd like. I didn't expect quite so broad a response to this one!)
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