In Theory: Is the U.S. at risk of becoming a religious state?

An article published in a September issue of the Week calls predictions of religious decline in the face of science unwarranted.

“Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularization — that science would be a  secularizing force,” the article states. “But that simply hasn’t been the case.”

Although leaders like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru “championed secular and scientific ideals,” the majority populations of nations forged from secularism have seen their  governments “replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of  influential religious nationalist movements,” the article states.

In the U.S., with its First Amendment built — in the words of Thomas  Jefferson — as “a wall of separation between church and state,” the battle between science and religion in classrooms and public spaces has  been long fought and wide-ranging, with evolution, the Big Bang and climate change among contentious issues.

Recently, the media has made known the concept of “Dominionism” in American politics, with reports that members of the Trump administration believe the U.S. is or should be a Christian nation.

Q. Does an association with science put secular governments at risk of becoming theocracies? Could religious objections to science lead the U.S. toward becoming a theocratic state?

First, let’s not make the error of assuming that science and faith are opposites, that by nature they are at odds with one another. The person of faith understands that God made both natural, physical laws and moral, spiritual ones. That’s an important thing for the secularist to understand. Science doesn’t “cure” people of faith. In fact, humanity’s deepest existential questions can never be answered by science. By his design, creation points us to our creator. This basic fact will never be changed by governmental policy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, religious extremists certainly have dominated other countries and suppressed scientific inquiry. But in our country, disagreements over science versus religion will not lead to a religious coup.

Psalm 50:6 and Psalm 97:6 say, “The heavens declare his righteousness.” Romans 1:20 says, “since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” People of faith should never fear science. But they should be cautious of those who try to twist science to serve a secularist agenda.

Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank

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I hate that religion is being pitted against science. Science is not unlike religion in many ways; it seeks to understand the world and our place therein, but it stands on the back of earlier science to peer into the unknown, making faith decisions regarding the outcome of its current investigations. That’s called hypotheses (reaching from the known and believing things about the unseen). Scientists are often very good at their educated guesses, but they also change their minds and apprise us later that there really weren’t certain evolutionary hominids as science textbooks taught, that it wasn’t really a brontosaurus, or that trans fats are no longer good for us. In other words, science is good yet faulty, like religion. But if scientists believe their field is ultimate truth that should eradicate the spiritual, then Houston, we have a problem. Man is naturally religious, and some of our best scientists were Christians, but today it’s difficult for godly scientists to excel amid the atheistic climate of scientism; kind of like Christian actors having little representation in morally miscreant Hollywood.

In the 1960s, anthropologist Anthony Wallace prophesied, “Belief in supernatural powers is doomed … as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge.” It reminds me of John Lennon declaring the Beatles greater than Jesus Christ. Then there’s neuroscientist Sam Harris’ final solution, “Science must destroy religion!” Here are the scientific elite; how can the majority of us not bristle at such hubris, and how can science and religion peacefully co-exist when one wants to burn the other?

Christians don’t hate science. It has been useful for advancement, but it’s also people of faith who have created the environment for free scientific inquiry. In atheist countries, scientists may only be useful for helping strengthen a totalitarian state. Then what noble end has science?

As to the question, if the science community would value religious views, then religious people might more try to discover how faith is strengthened by science and how science is validated by Scripture. We’ll never agree on every theory or hypothesis, but we certainly won’t agree with any government that takes science and uses it as a bludgeon to kill God. If there’s no God, that’s one thing, but it’s our belief he exists that will cause us to rise against the forces of anti-god (Anti-Christ?). Could America become a theocracy? Anything’s possible.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem

Tujunga

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Being a member of a Unitarian Universalist community appeals to me because I can come up with at least two reasonable answers to that question. First, the answer is yes, and we can see evidence in our elementary schools.

As the parent of school-age children, I often marvel at their stories of the recess-yard antics of their peers, especially ones involving “doubling down,” the popular phrase for asserting a belief despite mounting evidence against it (such double-downs usually involve boasts of Minecraft achievements, and one family favorite concerned how a schoolmate of my son’s simply would not yield ground on her statement that Katy Perry is her godmother). Sadly, I can’t tell my kids that the market corrections of adulthood have been effective in stamping out such behavior, especially recently.

Instead, I tell them about the Jefferson Bible, in which one of our founding fathers, in his ample free time, removed mentions of Jesus’ divinity and miracles from his personal Bible, leaving just his “life and morals.” I tell them such a thoughtful document is a way of capturing the spirit of the Bible — love your neighbor, let’s say — rather than the often problematic and easily refuted letter.

Today we have a president whose base supports doubling-down against contrary evidence, as if our civic life is a game at an Atlantic City casino. I think the cynical co-opting of the evangelical vote, in which clergy encourage Trump’s behavior with “Sometimes God works with faulty tools” is evidence that yes, a theocracy is possible when such a relentless fear of intellectualism is evident.

But I also think that, just as the public pendulum shifted toward Bush after Clinton and toward Obama after Bush (and then disengaged entirely), there is a growing understanding that a quest for scientific truth is not at odds with spirituality. What are science and spirituality, after all, if not voyages into the mystery? So I’m prepared to say that no, we’re not in danger of being a theocracy, even if Mike Pence becomes president after his boss wanders off somewhere.

Marty Barrett

Vice President

Unitarian Universalist Community

of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)

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