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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

We live in a world torn between science and theology, where a war rages between truth and mythology. In the balance hangs our response to climate change, species extinctions, resource use, wilderness preservation, the biological health of the Earth.

Religious mythology is as old as man, indoctrinated in youth and handed down from forebears with a heavy emotional content that makes it almost unassailable. Science is the newcomer, a beacon of light against the deep, murky darkness of ritual and superstition.

Fundamental religions, wrote nature philosopher John Burroughs, are often bulwarks against science. He warned that irrational religious belief systems thwart our essential understanding of and vital connection to the natural world.

Burroughs described the “Natural Man” as a thinking, rational being who uses intellect to distinguish between scientific fact and religious myth. “Artificial Man,” he wrote, is ruled by arbitrary, often dictated, beliefs that condemn logic in favor of dogma.

Environmental science routinely comes up against the conflict between these viewpoints, especially over the entitlement of “dominion,” as described in Genesis. This Biblical edict is often interpreted as the right to exploit anything in nature deemed non-human – even other races. One might as well profess the Ptolemaic view for all the logic dominion carries in the world today.

For many, the notion of dominion mandates a God-given mission to war against nature until the natural order is pinned to the mat by the superiority of man. To the disciples of dominion, the natural world sits at the feet of humanity, like a step stool.

“How dormant and puerile man’s scientific faculties were during the early centuries of Christianity,” reflected Burroughs. As scientific evidence grows, however, religious myths are diminished as surely as the sea erodes a sand dune.

The challenge for religion, said Burroughs, lies in differentiating between conviction and faith. Conviction applies to the teachings of moral and ethical precepts. Faith is a blind adherence to the myths and miracles themselves, and in the admonitions and entitlements they afford to only the faithful. Science knows no such divisions.

“Every original mind,” wrote Burroughs, “may have a philosophy of its own, a religion of its own, a political creed of its own. But every mind cannot have a science of its own. One man’s science must be another man’s science. All science is a whole – a pushing farther and farther of the lines of knowledge into nature. In subduing and in utilizing this world, or adjusting ourselves to it, we have no guide but science.”

Burroughs wrote these words in 1900, and still the battles rage between reason and faith, logic and myth, science and dogma. Consider the debate today on manmade climate change. Science is slowly building a body of proof while naysayers shout irrational denials. “We have no guide to objective truth,” Burroughs said, “but our rational faculties.”

The automobile provides an apt analogy. To most of us, cars are a form of magic that operate under mysterious principles. To a car mechanic, however, there are no mysteries, only the logic of mechanical functions. Environmental scientists are far more challenged in their struggle to grasp the often unfathomable mechanical relationships of the living world, for which there is no operating manual.

Still, we tinker with nature as if we are its masters. Through ignorance we lay waste to air and water and write it off as a necessary sacrifice to “progress.” We distance ourselves from plants and animals, assuming our superiority. We know not what we do, said Burroughs. “The opposite of the natural man is the artificial man, a man upon whose mind has been foisted an artificial system of beliefs not encouraged by nature, but opposed to nature.”

Salvation, according to Burroughs, does not emanate from the divine approbation of a heavenly mystery alone. It must also come from cultivating a respectful relationship with the cosmos. “The universe is going its own way with no thought of us,” he warned. “To keep in its currents is our life, to cross them is our death.”


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