Science and

Do science and religion have to fight? It’s not evident that they do, but some on each side of this divide like to keep the conflict going. Many religious believers feel threatened by the incredible success of scientific explanations. The gods who used to explain everything are now responsible for so little that it’s easy to feel foolish for believing. It doesn’t help that the most vocal scientists have made religion their personal court jester, adding ridicule to the mix. Krista Tippett’s book of interviews with scientists, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, is a refreshing counter to this trend. Although it’s a few years old now, the book just landed under my tree, so I started off the new year with it.

A blend of interviews with scientists, quotes from their books, and personal observations, Einstein’s God is a fascinating and quick read. Covering topics from the wonder many scientists feel about their discoveries to medical understandings of how spirit effects healing to the ongoing debates about evolution, this book looks at the big picture. The scientists Tippett interviews, although some are atheists, don’t dismiss religion. In fact, many of them suggest religion in some form is necessary for healthy human living. As scientists they don’t dismiss science either. It’s refreshing to read about how those with scientific bona fides sometimes come to the same conclusions that those of us without the credits have surmised.

Once I began working at age 14, one of my earliest purchases was a subscription to Discover magazine. I was a charter subscriber. I was also a Fundamentalist. Not realizing that science and religion should be squabbling, I read science that could be digested by someone without professional training. Until I felt the tug of the ministry, I had intended to be a scientist. The only professional religionist interviewed in Tippett’s book is John Polkinghorne. A physicist cum priest, Polkinghorne has come to prominence among those involved in the debate between how we know what we know (the fancy term is epistemology). I wondered as I read this how it might differ from the other direction. Some of the interviewees were raised religious—Jewish and Hindu, notably—but none started out as professional religionists who went into science. That, I learned after college, is a much harder transition. Perhaps it says something about the nature of reality that to move into science as a career you must start with the undergrad prereqs if you ever hope to make the switch. Otherwise, those who start out with A’s in high school physics end up watching from the sidelines while others set the terms of the conversation.

Thoughts in a Cemetery

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Being distinguished, indeed, getting noticed, is increasingly difficult to accomplish. When you read a lot of history, you realize that anyone who managed to write coherently in the past few centuries seldom had difficulty getting a publisher, for instance. The key to getting noticed was publishing books, or being lucky enough to have landed a highly visible job. I was reminded of this, and was given a slight inferiority complex, by a recent visit to the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Princeton. I’ve gone by this cemetery dozens of times, but only recently took the time to get out and explore.

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History buffs will know that Aaron Burr is buried there. Burr was from a family of privilege; his father Aaron Burr, Senior, was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, better known by its current name of Princeton University. The vice-presidential Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who also rests in this very graveyard where one hopes God is somewhat more forgiving of sinners than rhetoric might suggest. Although he was the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr is now remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel not far from where my bus rumbles every workday. One kind of conflict exchanged for another. This odd and tragic duel ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. As the bad boy “founding father” Burr has found a number of supporters posthumously. His grave is perhaps the most celebrated in Princeton. This despite the fact that President Grover Cleveland is only a few yards away.

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There are, however, more enlightened minds buried here as well. Being in the presence of Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann is a humbling experience. The presence of Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident, is, however, missed. Einstein was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Standing in the cemetery in which so many of his compatriots rest on an overcast, damp December day, it felt like some slight compensation. Political power and ambition often lead to obscurity. I look to those who would be president and shudder. Here in this quiet cemetery, thinking of the common fate of us all, self-aggrandizement seems to be in such bad taste. Einstein, as so often, had it right. Those who are truly noteworthy seldom leave any traces in this world.

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Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

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Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.