Science and Religion: What Does Pop Culture Have to Say?

In the age where modes of media rapidly change and contribute to the shaping of culture, we as consumers and creators of culture ought to develop deeper understandings of the ideas that surround us. As a Christian and science student, one topic that I continually research is the religion and science discussion. This ever-changing story between religion and science—where they meet, where they disconnect, and what this relationship will look like as ideas advance—remains an increasingly prominent topic within contemporary society as a whole. The most dominant image within popular culture today is the idea of a great schism between religion and science, providing consumers of media with a skewed, incomplete image of this complex and long-standing relationship. Ultimately, failure to highlight the day to day reality in which the ideas of religion and science have intersected and cooperated can be stifling, putting an unnecessary limit to the degree in which a diverse society can work together.

The great discussion between science and religion contains a vast amount of branches and levels. Probably the most popular and flamboyant topic is about evolution and religion. However, it goes beyond evolution, present in all fields of science and in many forms. Ethics, research, philosophy, and even aspects like work team diversity are in some way impacted by the interactions of science and religion.

In 2014, one of the hottest topics to surface in this great discussion between science and religion was the live debate between scientist Bill Nye and intelligent design advocate Ken Ham. The purpose of this meeting is straightforward: it was an intellectual faceoff between two well-known thinkers in the creation discussion, debating topics like the age of the earth and differing worldviews in relation to science (Youtube).

On the debate’s cover image, the epic black and white portraits of Ham and Nye are pictured and divided by a solid orange bar, reminiscent of a scoreboard for a wrestling match. The purpose, content, and form of this debate sends a clear message to its vast audience: their fields of expertise are inevitably opposed. This message isn’t just offered to Ken Ham and Bill Nye enthusiasts; it’s also present in the popular Christian movie, God’s Not Dead.

In the main storyline, college student Josh Wheaton embarks on a journey to combat his angry atheist Professor Radisson and prove God’s existence to his entire philosophy class (Cronk). While the movie functions to reinforce the ideals of its Christian audience, the string of fiery debates between Christian student and atheist professor also relays the message evident in the Ham/Nye debate that this is a war—one wins, and the other loses. The story unfolds over the media like a dramatic relationship doomed to end in separation. To put it more broadly, the prevalent spirit of debate between religion and science within popular media transmits the idea that science and religion have no common ground, and therefore, animosity is inevitable.

From the front of popular culture media, it seems that this great, tense debate is the only way religion and science can interact with one another. However, this isn’t the case in all avenues, nor is it an idea reflected in all members of society. In a study by Baylor University, participants offered their response to the degree in which they agreed or disagreed to the question, “Are religion and science compatible?” The highest percentage, 48.4%, answered that they disagreed with this statement (Baylor).

In addition, research centers, such as the Krakow School in Poland, study the interactions between science and religion and how they can work together, highlighting that religion has played a role in the advancements of science, medieval reasoning to modern methods of science (Brozek). Searching beyond the surface reveals that there is more to the relationship between science and religion than debate and discordance.

Along with studies and research, TV shows and media sites are recently presenting a more multifaceted view. National Geographic aired a new series in 2016 called The Story of God, narrated by Morgan Freeman. In the episode, “Creation,” he interviews scientists and researchers from different backgrounds regarding their ideas on the relationship between religion and science.

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman/episodes/creation/

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Vatican Observatory astronomer and Catholic priest Giuseppe Tanzella-nitti offers his view on the evolutionary aspect of this discussion: “Creation, from a theological point of view, is perfectly compatible with the Big Bang, because you need [always] a first cause” (National Geographic).   

Similarly, the website “Closer to Truth” provides a thread of interviews and resources in which scientists and researchers from various backgrounds explore this topic. Molecular Biologist and Evangelical Christian Denis Alexander states,

“I see the relationship between religious knowledge and scientific knowledge as complementary. They’re very complementary narratives about the same reality. And the important thing is to not mix…the languages of the different narratives up.”

https://www.closertotruth.com/series/are-science-religion-war

 Alexander views this relationship as complementary—each with different roles (Alexander). TIME magazine’s article, “God vs. Science” by David Van Biema exhibits this same motif of science and religion as complementary. In the article, what first begins as a reflection on the prevalent societal idea of a “caged death match between science and God,” turns into a dialogue between well known contributors to science, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins (Biema).

Francis_Collins

Francis Collins

Houghton Mifflin provided this photo of Richard Dawkins, authror of `The God Delusion.' (AP Photo/Houghton Mifflin)

Houghton Mifflin provided this photo of Richard Dawkins, authror of `The God Delusion.’ (AP Photo/Houghton Mifflin)

Collins concludes,

“I find absolutely nothing in conflict between agreeing with Richard in practically all of this conclusions about the natural world, and also saying that I am still able to accept and embrace the possibility that there are answers that science isn’t able to provide about the natural world… that in no way compromises my ability to think rigorously as a scientist.”

Similar to Alexander’s counsel to distinguish between the languages of science and religion, Collins states that faith doesn’t diminish the capacity to do science.

Perhaps the greatest aspect popular culture consumers must be aware of is this: the most flagrant aspects of the science/religion discussion do not speak for the discussion in its entirety. While the debate between religion and science does exist, consumers of popular culture must recognize that the negative, antagonistic tone sometimes carried furthest and highest throughout the media is not true or accurate in all cases. It is not always a war.

In reality, the field of science is diverse, filled with people from many different backgrounds and worldviews. Collaboration between all these different views is what sparks continual conversation and further advancement of bright ideas. Media’s spotlighting of society’s loudest, sometimes most negative voices within the realm of religion and science doesn’t offer the full picture of how science and religion interact daily amongst people. Popular culture ought to reflect society’s diverse attitudes toward the religion and science discussion by portraying the many different ways in which this relationship continues to play out, including instances of opposition as well as compatibility. Debate is “healthy,” as Alexander says, insofar as it gets members of society thinking and collaborating. However, when the image of hostility or war between science and religion displayed in media is considered the whole picture of the story, discussion is stifled. Deliberation has been and continues to be a valuable tool in society’s propagation of new and bright ideas, and this should continue as religion and science continually cross paths.

 

Learning Moments:

From this class, I learned how we as popular culture consumers are heavily affected by our input of information. In week one, we discussed how the internet can be a tool to filter out viewpoints different from what we’ve been accustomed to.  We can tend to use sites, apps, and modes of media that best fit our views. In order to avoid this narrow influx of knowledge, diversity amongst thinkers and deeper, wider research is important to implement. I think that strongly relates to what my popular culture essay is all about: being aware of the diversity of knowledge regarding the topics that most affect us. Before making a judgment about a big contemporary topic or issue, different sources ought to be considered beyond mainstream headlines in order to gain a more substantial, multifaceted understanding of the situation.

The second lesson I learned from this class is our tendency as pop culture participants to detach a person from their portrayal in media. The excerpt, “Eliminate the Middleman” by Sara Vowell showed how we can create distorted impressions about people based on how they’re covered in the news, all while becoming less aware of their normality. Her work with George W. Bush was most interesting to me, as it shed light back onto the reality that there’s a lot more to people than what media portrays—but strangely, “a lot more” is really just the heart beneath the face on our TV screens. She shows a different side of Bush when she mentions his regular morning habits like drinking coffee and that he loves his dogs. Linking the face with the real person is difficult but important in today’s culture, considering that an extensive amount of interaction is now electronic. The synchronized meeting was a really good way putting this to practice: even on an online interface, it brought more original and lively elements to our discussions, reminding us that behind each of our profiles and screens is a real person.

 

References

“Are religion and science incompatible?” Baylor Religion Survey, 2007.

“Bill Nye Debates Ken Ham,” Youtube. Feb 4, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6kgvhG3AkI

Brożek, Bartosz, and Michael Heller. 2015. “Science and Religion in the Kraków School.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 50: 194–208.

David Van Biema. “God vs. Science,” TIME. Nov 5, 2006. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1555132,00.html

Denis Alexander, “Are Science and Religion at War?” Closer to Truth. 2016.

Harold Cronk, God’s Not Dead. 2014. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2528814/

National Geographic, “Creation.” The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. April 24, 2016.

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