Real world religion

I was listening to the radio while I was driving recently. The trip was short, so I didn’t hear much of the program. The topic of the program was astrology, a topic in which I have very little to no interest. So I wasn’t really paying attention to the radio. It was sort of background noise to my running of errands. In that background, somewhere, there was a speaker who was discounting astrology, saying that science has proven time and time again that there is no basis to the predictions of astrology. Then the speaker said that the thing she loved most about science was its ability to admit its own mistakes. This, she said, is something that religion cannot do.

I was offended, first of all that she seemed to speak of astrology as if it were religion. I don’t think of it as a religion at all. It is a strange set of unsubstantiated ideas that are used to manipulate people into feeling good and giving money to people who are self-named and self-educated.

As I have been thinking about it, I keep thinking that she doesn’t seem to know anything about religion in the form in which I experience it. We’ve been admitting our mistakes for many years. I confess that the church was a bit slow to admit that it had a problem with sexual exploitation. It took far to long for the stories of victims to he heard and for the church to institute policies and processes to protect the innocent. And there are still problems with sexual exploitation in the church, but we are aware of those problems and we are not trying to pretend that they don’t exist. I have been personally involved in misconduct investigations and I have seen the seriousness with which the church is able to admit to our problem and address it head on.

I also remember very clearly the apology that was issued by our United Church of Christ in 1993 on the centennial of its role in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Our missionaries and church leaders had made a mistake and the apology took a century. But the apology was present and we were able to admit that we had made grave mistakes.

We may not be as quick as science to recognize our mistakes, but we do recognize them. Furthermore we apologize for them. That’s something that I’ve never noticed science doing. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for the development of nuclear weapons. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for outdated medical theories such as blood letting. You don’t hear scientists apologizing for the formulas of ozone depleting chemicals. There have been plenty of scientific mistakes that caused a lot of damage for which there have been no apologies.

My experience in the church, however, is not of an arrogant and blind faith. It is not of people wedded to their certainties despite the evidence. In the past week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with people who are experiencing doubts and asking deep questions.

I spent some time with a young woman on Friday. She has been in excellent health and has a job that is physically demanding. She developed a cough last fall that she thought was just part of a normal cold. The cough persisted, however, and upon medical examination it was discovered that she has a very severe lung infection. Rounds of antibiotics followed. This weekend she traveled to Denver and tomorrow she will undergo surgery to remove a portion of her lung in an attempt to clear up the infection. She is, understandably, frightened. This medical procedure could result in her bing unable to pass the physical tests required for her job. It might mean that she has to change careers. It is a huge, life-altering event for someone who has not yet reached her 30th birthday. She is not anti-science. She believes in the power of evidence-based medicine. She is placing her trust in scientists and medical professionals. But she needs more than science can offer. For her, science and religion are not opposed ideologies, they are two different sources of strength and healing. She asked for prayers and she is getting them. Yes, she has doubts and deep questions. No, her religious faith doesn’t provide all of the answers. Neither does science.

That same day, I listened as a different person told me of a brand-new cancer diagnosis. It is a very serious and potentially life-shortening condition. It came out of the blue. He had no symptoms. A routine physical with lab work showed some abnormalities. Follow-up tests ruled out the least severe and easiest to treat conditions. One more test, coming up tomorrow, will confirm the diagnosis or sent him into another round of tests to figure out what is going on. He has access to the best medical care. He is literally placing his life in the hands of scientists. But science is not enough. Although he knows there are no answers to some of his questions, they persist: why me? why now? He doesn’t see science and religion as opposed. He simply understands that he needs both in his life right now.

When I meet with people like this, I don’t bring them answers. It would be naive to believe that I could easily explain the deep doubts and questions that arise in moments of life’s crises. I offer prayer. I offer a connection with a community of faith and prayer. I do not promise to solve their problems. I encourage them to seek the best of modern scientific medicine. I am also honest with the simple truth that all of us will one day die from this life. That can be a comfort after rounds of medical appointments in which doctors use every euphemism in the book to avoid talking about death. Doctors don’t like that topic at all.

In the real world situations I encounter every week, religion is not obsolete. It is not irrelevant ant. It is not a relic of the past. In the lives of the people with whom I work, religion is a necessary component of a meaningful life.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!