Writing about a recent TV debate on whether the nature of Islam conflicts with Western values of tolerance, Slate Magazine writer Andrew O'Hehir argues against the view of Islam critics TV host Bill Maher and especially his guest Sam Harris. For O'Hehir, Harris' opinion is colored by his particular brand of atheism which views religion as "failed science."
This attack on Islam as opposed to those who take a more conciliatory attitude about the religion reflects, according to O'Hehir, the difference between science majors and liberal arts majors. He writes, "When I say that one side is primarily concerned with facts and the other with narrative, or that one side understands the world primarily in subjective, experiential, and relativistic terms while the other focuses on objective and quantifiable phenomena and binary true-false questions, that may help us frame the profound mutual misunderstanding at work. Harris' conception of religion as bad science, which seems like a ludicrous misreading to those who understand religion as a mythic force that shapes community and collective meaning, is a classic example. One side insists that the only important question is whether the truth claims of religion are actually true; the other side says the question doesn't even matter, and then wonders what 'truth' is anyway. It's the overly literal-minded versus the hopelessly vague."
Author Lyanda Haupt in The Urban Beastiary sees no conflict in incorporating both myth and science in her descriptions of animals. Early in the book, she quotes Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth that "mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings." Armstrong considers it "a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought which can be cast aside when humans have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera, or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities."
My own view is closer to Haupt's and Armstrong's than to O'Hehir's. My degree in history 44 years ago came from the University of Maryland's College of Arts and Sciences. It is now the College of Arts and Humanities, but the old name better suits me. As I wrote in this blog last December in a post titled "Between Poetry and Science", I'm comfortable in that position, respecting both the scientist systematically extending our knowledge and the artist inspiring us.