Shrouded 2

“Well, if I had my way, Lord, in this wicked world, Lord. If I had my way, Lord, I would tear this building down.” “Tear This Building Down,” Blind Willie Johnson

starry nightIn an email response from Anthony and a blog comment from my son, Gabriel, we exposed what I find to be a quintessential dichotomy with profound implications, a crucial discussion. The accepted secular wisdom based in pervasive skeptical humanism is that there is an irreconcilable divide between science and religion. This antagonism is promulgated and encouraged by the science only coterie and is depicted as the enlightened modern mind vs the deluded ancient superstitions of the ill-informed.

I’ve read Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, but personally found their “explanations” dissatisfying and smug. Sagan proclaims at the beginning of the popular “Cosmos” television series (and follow up book) of the eighties[i]The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be.” Neil de Grasse Tyson recently updated the series for PBS to great acclaim. He, too, subscribes to a philosophical structure called Naturalism, which holds that everything that exists is within one all-encompassing system of nature, whose cause will ultimately be explained only by science. As Gabriel wrote in his comment posted about the Shroud of Turin, the absence of an explanation using our current scientific abilities does not mean there is no explanation. Like you said, it’s a mystery… for now.”

The shroud is a mystery, but not exactly in the sense that Gabe understands it. Science has explained the ‘how” to a great degree: as was described in the previous post, it was not painted, but imposed upon a microscopically thin outer layer of the fabric in a phenomenon akin to a photographic exposure with an enormous burst of ultraviolet spectrum energy greater than all known sources of such energy in a burst of infinitesimally short duration in a perfect replication front and back of a body crucified and uniformly superimposed on the cloth. This was replicated, but only imperfectly on a very small sample of cloth because of the limitations of available energy and the ability to project it absolutely perfectly uniformly over a large area.

The problem with the defined “how” from a pure scientific method perspective is duplicating the experiment. Hypothesize, test, publish the results and confirm when the experiment is duplicated by others, right?[ii] Very difficult to duplicate since we have no way of generating such energy from the inside of a body scourged with a Roman flagrum, crucified and lanced: difficult to find a grant to fund such research and difficult to find a volunteer subject, I would expect. Perhaps as Gabe suggests, someday science will be able do so. Let me state for the record, I don’t volunteer as the guinea pig.

The dichotomy is not science vs religion, but naturalism vs theism.[iii] I suggested in my email to Anthony that naturalism and science are not the same, are not coterminous. Many advocates and practitioners of the scientific method have been and are theists as well as scientists.

To believe that eventually science will explain all that is, is a through the looking glass view reflecting back the much derided “god of the gaps” accusation leveled at the theists, wherein God exists in our minds only because we haven’t been able to explain something yet by science. But in the naturalist’s view, it is dogma that we will eventually with the right methodology and equipment explain it all. Just please acknowledge that “The cosmos is all that is, ever was, or ever shall be,” is every bit as much a statement of faith as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Naturalism, indeed accepting the scientific method as the sole arbiter of discovering truth, is a metaphysical concept.

“If you ask how such things occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man….” From “Journey of the Mind to God” by St. Bonaventure

Downstream of the institutionalizing of skeptical humanism in culture, for good or ill, has been profound change. For instance, with naturalism comes the death of God and with Him, the demise of natural law integral to not only physical ecology, but moral ecology. Truth has become subjective and self-interpreted, and as Justice Antonin Scalia stated in another outnumbered dissent last month, “Words no longer have meaning.” This does not seem to me an improvement. When there is no natural law accepted as a standard of justice or truth, we are cut adrift. There is no purpose. “What is the meaning of life?” or “What am I supposed to do with this life?” or “Why are we here?” become questions without relevance. Whatever truth serves to get us nervously whistling past the graveyard suffices, but objectively has no benchmarks.

When the majority of a court, no matter how august, (many times a slim majority of only five people) can redefine not only the U.S. Constitution, but reality itself, we get results that redefine our humanity. The court is merely reflecting the culture in which it is immersed. Dred Scott v Sandford didn’t make black human beings saleable commodities. Roe v Wade didn’t make pre born babies less than human. Obergefell v Hodges doesn’t make sweaty sheets or even abiding affection into a marriage. We create our own redefinitions of what’s real and what’s ridiculous. To wit: mutilating surgery doesn’t make a Bruce into a Caitlin or a hero, just a sad, disturbed, maimed human being who went from an outsy to an innsy with some ill placed cuts and hormone injections. Culture wars escalate, but natural law doesn’t change. Veritas vincit.

As I was weeding the garden yesterday, marveling at lush provision, I was struck by its simple splendor. Like looking up into the starlit wonder of a moonless, cloudless night sky, or wandering at leisure Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge, I am always delighted by gratuitous beauty. The old thought experiment comes to mind: waking up on the beach of an uninhabited island and in exploring I come across a tight roofed, freshly painted cottage near the water’s edge with a comfortable bed, a well-stocked pantry, and a relaxing chair on a pretty porch; I ponder its origins. I could, like the naturalist, make the assumption that the cottage was serendipitously left by eons of the fortuitous actions of wind, sand and water over time. Lots and lots of time. Maybe a meteorite, an earthquake or climate change. Or I could come to another, not unreasonable conclusion, that we live on this fragile, beautiful great blue ball as gift, similarly well provisioned. And believe it is fitting to contemplate origins and purpose, meaning and where we are headed. Is it not in such contemplation that we will find the peace our nature seeks?

“I could not exist unless I were in thee from whom are all things, by whom all things are, and in whom are all things…Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” Confessions of St. Augustine.


[i] Quote and some of the ideas on naturalism are shamelessly purloined from “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?” by Dr. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at Oxford University

[ii] Not all of science is easily repeatable or able to be duplicated. Cosmologists who spend their lives studying the origins of the universe and what happened in the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang would be dismayed to learn their work is not really science after all.

[iii] Giants of the scientific revolution were theists: Newton, Boyle, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and the list goes on. It is when ideology, beliefs outside of science or worse, politics, insinuates itself into the science that is at issue. Darwin would be a prime example. He determined that skeptical humanism would be enhanced if his theory of natural selection could explain all the great gaps in evolution (especially species jumps), so he spent much of his life proselytizing to great effect in the popular consciousness. While natural selection is a proven hypothesis for the most part, undirected evolution from proto proteins to human life is far from cast in stone. The APG climate change science rift is a current example of political and ideology’s unseemly influence over pure science.



Filed under Background Perspective

6 responses to “Shrouded 2

  1. Anthony Vinson

    Science and religion are most likely irreconcilable. Think oil and water or Trump and McCain.

    Consider that there are some 44,000 recognized sects of Christianity and their dogmas and dictates occupy a spectrum from the sublime to the insane. Each sect makes claims based on a variety of edicts or prophesies or visions or pronouncements or what have you. Most of these claims fall far short of producing any acceptable evidence, and in fact do not require any such evidence, relying instead on faith and belief to sustain them. This allows religious claims to stand despite their lack of supporting evidence.

    Science makes claims and then creates models based on data collected and reviewed and revised until there is sufficient evidence to support or refute the claim. Science is not perfect; it is no panacea. Science is certainly guilty of making erroneous, unsupportable, or even outrageous claims. Science is practiced by scientists who are human and as such are subject to all the inherent frailties and shortcomings of the species. That does not mean that the system itself is without value. In fact science is probably our greatest asset as a species.

    If religion were to hold itself to the same standard as science and produce evidence to support its claims, the playing field would be different. So far that hasn’t happened. I suspect it may never. So what? That won’t change the minds and hearts of believers. And if those beliefs bring them comfort or add meaning to their lives, then good for them. May no one ever take away their right to their religion or their beliefs! (Well, so long as they do not violate anyone else’s rights, but you knew that, right?) That’s a cause I would defend and fight for by their side.

    So for me science and religion are and will probably always be incompatible. And religious scientists and scientific religionists will always be with us. Neither make any particular point or case other than the obvious; that they exist.

    Jack, I disagree that Sagan’s statement was faith-based. Rather it was based on the evidence available when he wrote it, which is the point. He also had an agenda and was clear about it from the beginning. At least he was honest and, based on my recollections of the series and book, was also respectful toward faith-based believers and never condescended or scolded.

    As for the Shroud of Turin. What is the hypothesis being tested? That it is the burial cloth of the rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth described in the New Testament? How will that ever be possible? So far as I know there are no contemporary accounts of the life of Jesus. There’s no bloodline against which to compare any DNA collected from the cloth. There’s no established, unbroken provenance for the artifact. So… At best it might be possible to conclude that the shroud is something unexplainable and therefore a curiosity. And hey, you gotta love those curiosities, those mysteries, those things that consistently instill a sense of wonder and awe and beauty upon us. Without them it would be a dull, dreary world.

    Keep ‘em coming, Jack! I enjoy your thoughts even when I don’t agree. Or perhaps especially when I don’t agree since they help keep me thinking.



  2. Anthony,
    Thanks for the contribution to the discussion. I would suggest, though, that like all of us (including scientists), there is no contribution that doesn’t bear with it our preconceptions, biases and beliefs. Whether the Protestant Revolution spawned 33,000 store front spin offs or the Christian church remained as one, is irrelevant. Citing that is a bit out of context to the conversation and betrays an animus (or at least a deep skepticism regarding any faith based organization.) So in that sense, this sidebar is a category error. We’re not talking about the splintering of Christianity, but whether a scientist can have a religious faith and still be a scientist.

    To suggest, which I don’t think you are doing exactly, that faith in God would offer prima facie evidence to disqualify someone as a scientist is akin to saying making a faith choice for atheism would disqualify someone from being a dentist or a story teller – beside the point. Atheism is as much a faith choice as is any theistic belief system. There is no more absolute proof for its embrace than there is for faith in any belief system. And science, looking through a naturalist lens, is by definition admittedly agnostic at what existed, if anything, before the natural material universe, time and space came into being. Whether design is truly present in the complexity of life and physics, is a point of debate, and whether, if it exists, there is an accessible and understandable origin of that design, another. But please accept the both points of view are valid, evidence based and held in good faith (pun intended) by many people of intelligence and education.

    Any belief system can be used to foster obscurantism in science. Marxist scientists put great pressure and issued threats (sort of like withholding grant money, only with prison and beatings), to suppress Mendelian genetics at the turn of the nineteenth century because these scientific principles challenged some tenets of the Communist faith. Today withheld access to grant money, tenure and academic publishing as well as heaped on opprobrium accrue to any who cast any doubt on any aspect of the orthodoxy of APG climate change.

    That being said, as you would rightly criticize religious methodology in science, please accept that a methodology without exception committed to a naturalist solution and agenda is similarly biased. Neither a materialist nor a theist scientific methodology are helpful terms nor add particularly to the discussion. Is science truly impartial and always follows the evidence without agenda or preconceptions or fond hopes or ideology or theology? Of course not, and it is not just the theologically bent who subvert following the evidence.

    The rift as I stated is between materialism/naturalism and theism, both statements of faith, not between science and religion. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faith based scientists are many, and continue to be prominent. As we discussed in our email, one of the most illustrious of modern American scientists, Francis Collins, who is the head of the National Institute of Health and directed the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, which mapped human DNA completely, is a practicing and vocal Christian.
    There is plenty of evidence to support Christianity, including first person contemporary writings about Jesus of Nazareth and third party historians as well. No DNA, however, is available as you say to match up with the blood serum on the shroud. Its origin and the method of applying the image have been investigated thoroughly, and cannot be replicated, so, while it cannot be definitively shown to be the burial cloth of Jesus, it can be shown to be the burial cloth in the right time period of a crucified and tortured man with an image imposed by a process of great energy and suddenness impossible then and now.

    Be well and please continue to prompt me to think. For both of us: cogito ergo sum. j


  3. Anthony Vinson

    We may be arguing two different propositions. In your opening paragraph (current blog post) the question implied is, “Are science and religion irreconcilable?” My position is yes, they are. That was my point in enumerating the large number of Christian sects: Their beliefs are so diverse as to be, in many cases, unrecognizable as stemming from the same texts and teachings. Knowledge, being a subset of belief, has little place in the mix since great numbers of each sect’s adherents accept the doctrines of their faith without question. In fact, many religious sects discourage questions and in some cases even punish those who raise them. Any system that routinely raises questions, questions the status quo, or encourages questions is anathema to many religious organizations. Ergo, for all practical purposes my stand is that science and religion as systems are irreconcilable. Further I opine that trying to bring them together is a waste of time and energy best used in more positive pursuits.

    If instead the question is “Can a scientist can have religious faith and still be a scientist?”, my response is absolutely. There may be job-related conflicts, of course, that must be resolved. Say in the case of a pharmacist who refuses to dispense the so-called morning after pill based on religious convictions. How those conflicts are resolved would depend upon a variety of factors, most of them would probably be filtered through the application of employment law.

    Yes, people are naturally flawed be they scientist, evangelist, politician, priest, or storyteller. And yes, we all allow our biases and preconceptions to cloud our judgment and form our opinions in advance of all the facts. But that is precisely why systems such as science and law are important. At heart they attempt to overcome human biases and limitations through the application of rigorous tests, checks, and balances. And while they too are flawed and subject to human nature, they still stand as paragons of our species’ fundamental understandings of our own inherent shortcomings.

    To me atheism is not a faith choice. It is instead a position on the proposition, “Does God exist?” Those with the capacity to accept religious claims on faith say yes, God does exist. Those of us lacking the capacity to accept anything on faith hold our opinion in abeyance of evidence to support the claim. In the meantime I will remain both skeptic and atheist.

    Personally I support everyone’s right to believe and worship as they see fit – And to reiterate a point I made in my email to you, this right goes only as far as it does not violate any other person or group’s life or liberty. I am neither antitheist nor anti-religion. That said, I am aghast at the depths that some certain religions will go to in order to mislead their adherents. But I would feel the same way about any system doing the same including systems based in science or law. And if wrongly convicted (or even rightly I suppose) of a crime I would prefer that the jury make their decision based on fact and evidence rather than faith.

    As to naturalism v natural theology, I am not certain that I am conversant enough in both sides to present a cogent point. I will have to leave that to another or your readers. Besides, I’ said enough already!

    Again, thanks for the discussion. I really do wish we could hold these conversations over a couple of beers. I would not only enjoy the experience, I would also no doubt learn a great deal.


  4. Anthony,

    You are a lot of fun, I’ll give you that. Apparently you remain unmoved by cogent argument and firmly dug in. Or my position is unconvincing. Or both. We appear to agree on a lot of it except for a couple of points. I love to take a lunch break from lumber land to think of serious things, so thank you for that.

    As to sects that don’t allow questions. That may be the case, but is not in my experience. My church actively encourages questions and discussion. The unreflective life, etc…..

    Atheism in my mind most certainly is a choice and involves faith or a conscience decision to eschew religious faith. i.e. If one takes the left fork in the road, one doesn’t go right and is on another road, no? Here are a couple of quotes (From God’s Undertaker) pertinent to atheism being a faith choice and an a priori influence for science and everything else:

    From immunologist, George Klein: “I am not an agnostic, I am an atheist. My attitude (towards scientific inquiry) is not based on science, but rather on faith. The absence of a Creator, the non-existence of God is my childhood faith, my adult belief, unshakeable and holy.”

    Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin makes clear his materialistic convictions are a priori and do not derive from his science, but determines the nature of what he conceives science to be. “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism (i.e. naturalism). It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated.”

    In other words, a naturalist/materialist view of the world predetermines methods and results. Why that is not as predisposed as any religious faith based myopia could be seems to me the question at hand.

    OK. Back to work. We may just have to resolve this at the bar. I’ll buy the second round. This discussion has in part driven us to break the most visits to one of these blog posts in a single day record – 227. Thanks for that too.

    Hope all goes well, j


  5. Anthony Vinson

    I did not say that atheism was not a choice, but rather that it was not a faith choice. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods, that’s all. It requires no faith and need not necessarily require the eschewing of any church or religion. Atheism is a position plain and simple. Sure, some atheists reject religion, disdain theists, engage in petty name calling, etc. Some atheists are also antitheists. Not all and certainly not I. Theism, too, is a position. Some theists are members of religious sects, others are not. Theists believe; atheists do not. Theists have faith; atheists do not. Beyond that we diverge into other labels entirely and the discussion becomes muddled and murky and unworthy of either of our time.

    Appeals to authority aside… Sure, science presupposes naturalistic outcomes. How could it expect otherwise? So far every scientific discovery has proven to be of naturalistic cause. A supernatural phenomenon by definition would be beyond explanation by way of natural means. Supernatural causes would require an entirely different set of measures. Jeez, I can’t even imagine what those might be. At best we could say only that we (science) were unable to provide an explanation. That does not infer that science, as a system, presupposes outcomes, only hypotheses, and then tests for confirmation. Or not.

    Glad you’re having fun – So am I. I enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. Should I ever become too loud or burdensome just say the word and I will back slowly away from the keyboard. Also happy if I had anything at all to do with upping your page count! You should have a larger readership, although you might not care for the trouble of corresponding with too many respondents. Ah, the downsides of fame! 

    I would gratefully and joyfully provide the first round, so if we can ever make it happen, you’re on, sir!



  6. jeanneps

    Hi Jack – I am one of Mary Smith caregivers. she asked that I email you and see if you have any “family” stories you could send me so I can read them to her – she just LOVES them and I am sending the one about Charlie and prison to girlie for her……thank you so much. Jeanne​


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