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A declaration of sanity

The Vatican recently declared that Catholic faith and modern science (including the theory of evolution) are compatible and not in conflict. The declaration is undoubtedly a promising sign of religious sanity. Whether all official Catholic standpoints (e.g. the Vatican's anti-condom stance) can really be reconciled with scientific findings may yet remain doubtful. Nevertheless, the declaration shows that not all religious movements are on the level of stone-age superstition, the regrettable plane where G. W. Bush's American Christian fundamentalists and Tehran's Muslim fundamentalists have squarely positioned themselves.

Metaphorically does it

The actual text of the Bible (or Quran) and modern science are in fact often in conflict. This is of course readily predictable with mythological texts written millennia ago. So the Vatican declaration states that the Bible should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally. Again, this seems like a sensible and most commendable way of approaching the contents of the Scriptures, be they Moslem, Christian or Jewish.

If a religion wishes to permanently stay out of conflict with science, like the Catholic Church seemingly does, then it should generally abstain from making empirical statements. Empirical issues belong to the scientific domain. Empirical statements run a considerable risk of being refuted by future scientific findings, thus damaging the credibility of any religion.

Good and less good

What then remains in the religious sphere are ritual and moral statements, which have long been considered the home turf of religion. Directions concerning execution of rituals and prayers will hardly conflict with scientific facts. Prescribing certain well-known behaviours as 'good' (e.g. charity) and proscribing others as 'evil' (e.g murder) is generally unproblematic, as long as the prescriptions or proscriptions are strictly non-empirical.

However, many seemingly moral issues are less straightforward. They often hinge on points which are essentially non-moralistic. Instead, such cases usually involve semantics, logic and sometimes even science. For example, the question of whether a foetus represents 'life' or merely 'biological tissue', can not be resolved by moral arguments. No moral discussions of the matter can take place until the problem of a reasonable definition has first been resolved. This in turn is an extremely involved, partly philosophical, partly biological problem -- is 'potential life' the same as 'actual life' or not? In what way does 'potentiality' differ from 'actuality? Do gamete cells (ovum, sperm) represent 'potential life' or not? -- etc., etc.

A call to caution

Such questions are clearly outside the scope of faith and religion. They are better resolved by judicial and philosophical reasoning, aided by scientific expertise on the particular subject matter. Hence representatives of all religions should be extremely cautious with their moral statements, carefully avoiding fields that don't properly belong to a clear-cut moral sphere. Unfortunately, today the opposite is the case, with religious representatives making all kinds of irrelevant "moral" claims (on homosexuality, abortion, family structure, etc., etc. …) on "religious grounds". Still, the Vatican's declaration that faith and science are compatible must be regarded as an important first step forward.

Reference:

http://ncrcafe.org/node/2122

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