Novak (novak) wrote,

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Theological Notebook: The Movie "Contact" and the Myth of a Conflict Between Science and Religion

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?
Tags: cultural, faith and reason, movie review, movies/film/tv, mysticism/spirituality, philosophical, scientific, secularism/modernity, theological notebook

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