Barry SCHWARTZ (Barijo ŜVARC) (chemoelectric) wrote,

The role of scripture in scientific orientation

The picture icon for this entry is me struggling with the contradictions of fact required by Judaism. Can you see the torment in my eyes? Not to mention an anguish, which at the time I did not recognize, of being "Jewish" and at the same time a pastor's stepdaughter's grandson. Can you not see the weight of the world upon my hunched shoulders?

If I were required now to join an organized religion (and no more than that), probably I would not resist, but would join a Unitarian Universalist congregation. There I would be free to remain atheist, and maybe even would "fit in," at least in some congregations. I might even find it easier to call myself a Unitarian Universalist than a "secular humanist," on the grounds that in modern times even good religious people, outside of a few contexts, are both secular and humanist.

I have never been associated with or witnessed a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and my opinions, based purely on meagre "book study," and having known a Unitarian Universalist or two, might prove unreliable. Somewhere, though, if I did join such a congregation, I would run into trouble. Where?

Let's read a passage from the Unitarian Universalist Association's on-line FAQ:

In most of our congregations, our children learn Bible stories as a part of their church school curricula. It is not unusual to find adult study groups in the churches, or in workshops at summer camps and conferences, focusing on the Bible. Allusions to biblical symbols and events are frequent in our sermons. In most of our congregations, the Bible is read as any other sacred text might be--from time to time, but not routinely.

We have especially cherished the prophetic books of the Bible. Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and other prophets dared to speak critical words of love to the powerful, calling for justice for the oppressed. Many Unitarian and Universalist social reformers have been inspired by the biblical prophets. We hallow the names of Unitarian and Universalist prophets: Joseph Tuckerman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and many others.

We do not, however, hold the Bible--or any other account of human experience--to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books (or the newspaper)--with imagination and a critical eye.

We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world--we look to find truth anywhere, universally.

Here is where I break with the Unitarian Universalist method. Probably I seek mostly the same goals for the same reasons as most Unitarian Universalists, and surely I have a feeling of "fulfillment" in my life similar to that I would get through "worship." My method, however, is different. I don't discourage anyone from reading the Bible; I like to do so myself and keep a copy of the public domain World English Bible on my hard drive. But I grew up fond of reading stories from ancient Greece and Rome, and now I classify the Bible together with those Hellenic and Roman stories; therefore, reading the Bible is to me no more important than reading Homer's "Iliad" or Ovid's "Metamorphoses." It is something you do mostly as a diversion.

I say my orientation is scientific as opposed to religious. What does this mean? I will tell you how scientific orientation affects the reading of books. I earned a master's degree in electrical engineering. In no course did we refer to the writings of Isaac Newton. Never did we refer to the publications of James Clerk Maxwell. In the well developed sciences, you seldom if ever need to study a past generation's formulations. Have electrical engineers discarded the theories of Newton and Maxwell? Hardly, but the theories of Newton and Maxwell have been so refined and improved, technically, that the original formulations are useless to an engineer. A budding engineer need never read anything but recent books and papers, and will end up anyway able to make the predictions ("prophecies"?) of a Newton or Maxwell.

Why in the world can't matters like "reverence," "ethics," etc., be treated in the same way? The need to refer at all to ancient writings is a sign of decadence. We should be able to pass our "beliefs" to the next generation in a form we have improved, simplifying and amplifying it. The Bible should have been rendered obsolete hundreds and hundreds of years ago. To me the Bible is not one "sacred" text among many; rather, it is an obstruction if taken seriously. Indeed, taking it seriously probably is the main reason we haven't even tried very hard to replace it.

* * *

Postscript: It is embarrassing to me, as a U.S. "representative" of the European Society for General Semantics, that we still use books published in the 1920s and 1930s as our main texts. Science and Sanity, for example, has chapters employing long refuted biological theories; these chapters, not having been marked obsolete by the book's publisher, are doing more harm than good, for new readers take them seriously. Furthermore, there has been no significant advancement in technique since the 1940s, which is a sad state of affairs for a field that fancies itself a kind of engineering or applied science (seeking effective, efficient ways to produce scientific orientation in the human nervous system).

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