Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Random Science

Our world is defined by science. Empirical method demonstrates again and again and again that physical properties follow the same tired pattern without any divine intervention. Saturday was Rutgers Day. Instead of our usual visit to College Avenue to sample French cheeses, we went to the Busch Campus of science and engineering. There we were treated to a 90-minute physics lesson that consisted mostly of demonstrations for the kids with things blowing up, glowing, and being broken after being dipped in liquid nitrogen. Outside the building we watched a chaos pendulum which a grad student explained never followed a predictable pattern. Back in the day when I was subjected to religious rules stricter than any laws of physics at Nashotah House, I used to read about chaos theory. It is the most biblical of scientific ideas. As anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park knows, it means that ultimate predictability is futile. Well, there’s more to it than that, but I’m merely an amateur.

Returning home, I read an interview with Matthew Hutson, about his new book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane. It is now on my wish-list, but I haven’t read it yet. Despite the fact that Hutson is an atheist, he recognizes that magical thinking is both healthy and unavoidable. A door creeps open for the scholar of religion here. We are able to see that non-rational thought is human, so very human. We don’t often think about how driven we are by our emotions. When we see a friend we ask, “what do you feel like doing today?”, not, “what do you think like doing?”. Visiting someone recovering from hard times we ask how s/he is feeling, not thinking. Emotion is, after all, built on the root of “motion”—it is our motivating factor. Seldom is it scientific.

Not to demean science. I have read science books and magazines on my own since I was a teenager. The truths that have been revealed through science are endlessly fascinating and pragmatic. They work in a way religions seldom do. Nevertheless, I became a scholar of ancient religions, studying them scientifically. In the Middle Ages it was said that philosophy was the handmaid to theology. Truth was revealed, not discovered. Reason, thankfully, began to show the way forward. The epithet Dark Ages gained currency for a reason. Science is our means of comprehending our universe, and yet, superstition is hardwired into our brains. I am glad for the scientific worldview even when the chaos pendulum still swings crazily, unpredictably before me. Seldom do those in my field get to consider themselves Renaissance women and men. The pendulum swings where it will.

George Ioannidis' chaos pendulum

Praying for Rain

Stomping the mud of another county fair off my shoes and doing yet another load of laundry with enough dirt on it to begin my own excavation, I ponder the weather. Although we are daily reminded that we have no effective control of the weather, one of the most common prayers I hear uttered is for “good weather.” I could have done with a little less rain and a bit of broken sunshine with a temperature of 78 and humidity of 20 percent, but I didn’t bother to ask for it. Once at Nashotah House we the faculty (and the student body) were asked to pray for good weather for an outdoor liturgy. I was both bemused and alarmed that a high-ranking priest made that request of us in all seriousness. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, as much as we like to deny it, we are like other creatures considering our immediate environments. We lack the big picture.

Our neglected atmosphere is the key to life on Earth. So immense that it coats our entire planet with the gases we all need to breathe, as well as some gases that have little apparent function in our particular setting, it is a simple matter to take our atmosphere for granted. And yet the weather affects every aspect of our lives. When we ask the Weatherman for an adjustment in our region, we are requesting a graduate-level course of calculations in fluid dynamics to be undertaken just so we can get the right mix of weather conditions for our picnic or day at the beach. Hackneyed to the point of caricature is the rain dance — that ritual that is expected to end a drought.

In the twenty-first century, people who rely on science to keep them safe from severe weather by predicting hurricanes and tornadoes with accuracy still pray for the weather they want in their little corner of the globe. If watching Jurassic Park taught me anything, it was that a butterfly flapping its wings in China might cause rain in New York. Chaos theory has demonstrated the intricate connections between all components of a complex system. The atmosphere is one of the most complex systems on earth (well, around the earth, actually). Rev. Chuck’s church picnic weather is integrally tied up with typhoons that may be drowning thousands of people in low-lying coastal regions of Asia. And yet we just can’t resist asking for the weather to tip in our favor. In the Bible it worked for Elijah, so why shouldn’t it still work for us?