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Moorhead Tragedy: Science And Religion Not Enemies

by Bruce Logan, 14 June 2002

When a child dies it is always very sad. But when a child dies who does not need to it is a tragedy. Such was the death of Caleb, the son of Dargaville couple Deborah and Jan Moorhead, the latest in a number of recent cases where religion and medicine have clashed. And now the Moorheads are to go to prison for five years.

But there is a sub-text of great significance here. The Moorheads were victims of a prevailing secular myth: that science and religion are enemies, they are worlds apart. Science is about facts, religion is about beliefs and values. The first is practical and about what happens in the public arena. The second is personal and should affect only private behaviour.

The truth is very different. Science and religion are the best of friends. Indeed, both live in the same house. They are not two independent phenomena dealing with two different kinds of reality.

Although New Zealand is no longer a Christian culture it is still Christianised. One of the greatest benefits of that heritage is scientific method, which sprang out of Christian and Jewish thought about the Creator and the nature of his creation.

Nearly all the early 17th Century scientists were Christian. They believed they could, even should, explore the world because it reflected God’s character. The world he created was ordered, open to examination, regular and measurable.

The old pagan view made science impossible because to them the material world and the spiritual world were of the same substance. The mountains, the rivers and the rocks were sacred and consequently not available to human analysis.

We might not like to hear it but the Moorhead case is fraught with a terrible irony. On the one hand they and religious people like them are claiming to trust God, but they were mistaken in the nature of that trust. In rejecting science they were actually buying into the old pagan idea of the division between the sacred and the profane, spirit good, body bad. Because they reject science, which is the child of true religion, they are really misunderstanding the character of the faith they claim to follow.

It’s a little like the story of the devout believer caught in a flood who was quite determined God would save him. The water was rushing through the house and some friends came in a boat. “No,” he said, “I’m all right. God will save me.” The water got higher and a helicopter came along “No,” he said, “I’m all right. God will save me.” He said the same when the helicopter came around again—and he drowned. Somewhat upset on arriving in heaven, he asked God why he was not saved. Well, said God, I sent a boat and a helicopter twice. What more did you expect?

The same confusion about the role of science and religion exists frequently when we talk about conservation. The old Christian notion is based on the idea of stewardship; informed and benevolent responsibility for the natural world. It carries with it the belief that the natural world is not sacred, but it is nevertheless the responsibility of everyone to use the world wisely. The principle is, leave it better for the next generation; the next generation is the focus. But the method is one of making use of all our knowledge, not just knowledge filtered through an ideology which suggests organic, good, chemicals bad.

Conservation is frequently in danger of becoming a religion disguised as an ideology. Implicit in the thinking of many conservationists is the belief that the natural world is sacred. The world in its natural state is a better place than the world developed by agriculture or horticulture. At the extreme edge of conservation, agriculture, particularly if it involves killing animals, is evil.

The connection with the Moorhead tragedy revolves around the attitude to science. Conservation easily develops the passion of a religion, but it is a single issue religion. That is why conservationists can destroy private property in pursuit of their aims or even harm people in the fight for animal rights. The pursuit of truth or even knowledge is not their aim, rather it is the enforcement of their particular ideology. Ideology and politics trump science. The present government stance on Kyoto protocol is another example of the same confusion.

Much conservation ideology drinks deeply from the stream that separates science from a proper understanding of religion and the freedom it should engender. And that is never a way towards truth.

Bruce Logan is Director of the Maxim Institute, a social policy and research organisation in Christchurch and Auckland.

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