Page 7, 20th September 1996

20th September 1996
Page 7
Page 7, 20th September 1996 — BBC TV is looking at a new relationship between science and religion
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BBC TV is looking at a new relationship between science and religion

ELIGION AND daggers have have been at daggers

rawn since the 17th century when Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his view that the earth moved round the sun and not vice versa. Starting then, writes the American psychotherapist Scott Peck in his acclaimed People of the Lie, there has been a "non-relationship" between the two. Natural and supernatural have been split, with science concentrating on the former and religion the latter. "With few exceptions," Peck observes, "scientists have not even sought visitation rights, if for no other reason that the fact that science is supposed to be value-free".

However, change is in the air according to Science Friction, the current BBC1 Sunday night series which looks at the tension between the two great belief systems of human history.

As its topic, the final programme in this trinity of probing and thought-provoking investigations examines miracles and what it claims is a marked upturn of interest from the scientist in supernatural events in Italy.

While readers of the Catholic Herald might doubt the programme's attempt to create a newsy feel with tails of an unparalleled bout of "miracle-fever" over the years reports of new weeping statues, fresh apparitions, unprecedented faith-healers and charismatic stigmatists have appeared on the Herald's front page more often than John Ryan's Cardinal Grotti Science Friction does convince that scientists are finally, and in good faith, turning their inquiring and coldly rational minds to the question of religious faith.

Where in the past they may have done so only to ridicule the superstitious, today there appears to be a genuine note of fascination.

0 NCE FEELINGS were considered beyond the pale as far as scientists were concerned. Confronted by human emotions, they acted with the bemused detachment of Mr Spock when a weeping Lieutenant Uhuru sought comfort in one of my favourite episodes of Star Trek. Tears and upset were not logical, were beyond reason and therefore were blips in the scientific world view.

But, as the programme shows, science has come out of its straight-jacket and started getting to grips with the forces that distort or excite the human consciousness.

It began with attempts to understand the emotional trauma and mental patterns that prompt outbreaks of depression. Now those same techniques of inquiry are being applied in an effort to detect the physical changes in our brains caused by a rousing hymn or a decade of the rosary or a visit to the confessional.

DR MAGNIELLI, a Milan-based neurophysicist, is shown in Science Friction attaching sensors to patients as they perform religious rituals, searching for mental and physical signs that can then be measured scientifically. Meanwhile in the Tuscan Hills, in the spa town of Bagne de Lucca, the British neurologist Peter Fenwick is joining experiments to see if spiritual healing can actually be tracked and proved.

During prayer and meditation, he and his colleagues are asking, do the brain patterns of those taking part synchronise? Some scientists, including Ervin Laszlo, an adviser to Unesco and another of the experts at Bagne de Lucca, believe that there is a field connecting all our brains like an internee This field may then be in operation at collective acts of worship.

Science Friction charts the activity of other scientists as they confront some of Italy's oldest, strangest and most popular "miracles". Like the devotion to Saint Anthony Padua whose basilica is second only to 'Lourdes in terms of number of pilgrims who visit it. Saint Anthony's relics are said to have miraculous healing powers and the programme features one young woman, Elena Giacometti, who is convinced that she recovered her power of speech through the intercession of the saint.

And that hoary old chestnut, the phial of blood of Saint Gennaro in Naples, is also coming under fresh scrutiny.

Each year on the altar of his baroque cathedral, the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples performs a ceremony where a quantity of the saint's blood liquifies. If it doesn't, Neopolitans fear the worst for their city.

THESE OF COURSE are more than religious phenomena. They have folklorish and pagan roots.The Saint Gennaro ceremony, for example, is part of a continuing intertwining of primitive superstitions and mainstream beliefs in a city where successive natural disasters have resulted in something of a cult of death. The age-old traditions enexist with Catholicism there, ecclesiastical suppliers also doing a line in talismans to ward off the Evil One. At the Cimitereo della Pontanella, the superstitious come to a cave to consult and worship the bones of victims of plagues, with one skull, the capitano, allegedly able to predict lucky lottery numbers.

Separating the genuine miracles from the folklore has long been a task for the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints. But now science too is offering services.

The fear that wouldn't go

away when I was watching Science Friction, however, was that the scientists would always turn to the most extreme, the most preposterous manifestations of religious belief the weeping statues or the faith-healing-cumexorcism activities of semidetached figures like the exiled Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. The extraordinary Pino Casagrande also features in Science Friction. Ostensibly an ordinary, middle-aged man, sensibly clad in checked shirt and tank top, he suddenly lunges to his knees and falls into an ecstasy prompted, he claims, by an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

These are all figures of the margins of Catholicism, treated with a certain amount of distance by Rome, and chosen from a country given to excesses of piety and cynicism. They represent a way into the question of the relationship between science and religion, but for me it was rather like trying to judge the moral content of all films with only the example of Last Tango in Paris as evidence.

The mistrust between religion and science may be a thing of the past, but I had a nagging worry that scientists now have a rather cliched and extreme view of what it is to believe.That for the most of us consists not in visions, exorcisms or ecstasies, but in our prayer life, the sacraments, the parish, our family and trying to be guided by the Gospel in our everyday life. Nothing sensational there, and therefore little to gauge or monitor with electrodes and graphs. Yet if scientists are, as they claim they want to, seeking physical evidence of God's existence in the natural world, they have to find a way of looking for it in these more mundane manifestations.

AND, IF I'M HONEST, I'm not entirely convinced that I want them to. For after all, isn't religion meant to be about faith ie believing without copperbottomed proof and has not the search for proof in the past led Christians to mistaken devotion to what the old Penny Catechism used

to dismiss as "signs and wonders"?

Perhaps science is just the latest sign and wonder. It cannot, its more plausible practitioners will admit, fulfil the hopes invested in it and provide answers to all the questions that have troubled humanity since day one. Even Stephen Hawking's mathematical equation to show how human life began leaves me with 101 questions.

That is where religion and science will always part company; for religion is not about answers, but a way of approaching the questions of good and evil without ever expecting an outcome. It was what led Neanderthal man to a primitive belief in spirits and it is what still inspires us to turn to ours.

If Science Friction shows that a dialogue has begun, then those taking part must now find an appropriate language to enable a useful conversation to bridge that fundamental divide.

The final part of Science Friction, on miracles, is on BBC] on Sunday at 10.40pm.




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