In my inbox a few days ago was a report from Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture on whether young people are losing their faith because of science. The report starts by mentioning a young college student named Jesse who had been brought up in a devout evangelical home, and grew up with a passion for defending his faith to friends and acquaintances. At college, Jesse encountered significant cognitive dissonance between the evangelical background of his birth and some of the ideas his professors were calling him to consider. One professor had recommended Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a read that left Jesse devastated. Unbeknownst to his parents, Jesse had complained to a few friends of a growing inner turmoil he was facing as the trusted authorities in his life presented completely conflicting worldviews. Just one hour after also expressing this struggle to an uncle, Jesse took his own life.
While Jesse's parents and faith community were undoubtedly well meaning in gifting their child with a fixed and indisputable belief system, this story exposes depth and extent of the disservice involved in this worldview. In so far as our universe is way larger than the evangelical community, a parent's responsibility should be to prepare a child to face the diversity of views and conflicting opinions with which he will be presented as he moves out into the larger society. Instead, some religious adherents bury their head in the ground and pretend they can "protect" their children from our troubled world by reinforcing limited and provincial understandings related only to their particular culture.
The report goes on to quote statistics on the relatively high percentage of scientists and professors who do not believe in God, and the percent of our population that believes the findings of science are in direct conflict with religious faith.
Certainly professors and scientists presenting stark, unmoderated atheistic views do just as great a disservice as literalist parents. Anyone setting him or herself up as an authority should shoulder the responsibility of representing the broadest, most inclusive explanations possible. Both atheism and religious literalism are guilty of the same type of insularity. They fail to take into account any perspectives with which they themselves disagree. This of course is human nature - or at least human nature as we know it.
But new concepts are arising that point us beyond this problem. For one, scientists are recognizing that a strictly materialist view of science is not the most reliable road to existential truth; there is room for doubt and mystery in science. On the religion side, recent findings by bible scholars are shedding new light on what Christians have always considered to be revealed truth. In theology new definitions of God are opening up, most of which involve something quite other than an actual Supreme Being. As an example, I recently sat in on a seminar given by top theology professors where they spent a lot of time seriously considering the sentence: "God is change."
All of this means that a person alert to more sophisticated understandings will not position himself on one side or the other of the religious believer versus nonbeliever divide. There are many more factors than any one human being can ever fully consider. With the influx of new information with which we are being bombarded on all fronts, science and religion included, human nature is being called to rise to a higher standard. Informed and sophisticated humans must come to recognize the limitations to the old binary logic of black and white thinking. They must rise above the limitations of religious literalism and above literal atheism as well. They must come to appreciate the paradoxes a fully honest encounter with our complex, multifaceted reality offers us.
Rather than risk a child's life by presenting him with only one side of a hotly contentious issue that will eventually be refuted by someone else in this vast and diverse world, responsible parenting must prepare a child to deal effectively with the wide diversity of worldviews he will be forced to face in life. Fully accountable parents must encourage their children to boldly evaluate the inevitable influx of new information with which they will be presented, and prepare them to deal openly with any resulting cognitive dissonance. Responsible science and philosophy professors will want to do the same.