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.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

One Size Fits All

The divide between religion and science is often artificially widened by one side or the other. Of course the divide’s artificial—both science and religion are human constructs, after all. This is illustrated well in the sense of wonder in an article titled “True Story Of Volcanic Eruption Told By Aboriginal People For 7,000 Years” by Robin Andrews on IFLScience!. The very concept that a scientifically verifiable event survived in oral tradition for thousands of years completely unbalances those accustomed to think that the ancients were superstitious dupes who looked to the gods to explain everything. What’s often not realized is that the gods were an early version of science. Think about it—ancient people observed their environment for cause and effect. They couldn’t use the empirical method because it hadn’t been invented yet. That didn’t mean they were unsophisticated.

We look at the pyramids and wonder. How could such archaic people construct such advanced monuments? The rudiments of science actually begin to appear in the human record very early. Our species is a curious lot. The explanations for the close observations tended to be mythological. Gods are great for filling gaps. What we don’t see is any conflict between knowledge acquired by reason and ideas conjured by imagination. They fit together nicely. Human brains evolved that way. Belief is a strange thing—it influences reality, at least on a quantum level, but somehow it must be denigrated when compared to “pure science.” A large part of the blame, of course, has to go to those who had learned to take the Bible literally, particularly beginning in the eighteenth century.

The Bible had a disproportionally influential role in the founding of European empires. From the regular Roman under Constantine to the Holy Roman under Charlemagne, what became Catholicism informed political structures. In the British Empire, ever vacillating between Catholic and Protestant, the Bible played a major intellectual role. Real problems developed, however, when the idea of science alone took over. This was after Newton, Galileo, and Darwin. None of these lights suggested religion had no place. The real issue isn’t vanquishing, but finding proper balance. No matter how well calibrated our instruments may become, until we learn to detect “spirit” we have to admit that science can’t replace religion. Such harmful ideas as eugenics and behaviorism indicate that we need a balance and not a slam dunk. Who knows? Some of even the Bible may be true. Unless we learn to admit we don’t know all, those sitting around the fireside telling stories should be given credibility regarding what they’ve seen.

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Loving It

Given my remarks on occasion, some readers may conclude I dislike science. Nothing could be further from fact. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by science and secretly—or not so secretly—wanted to be a scientist. Complex mathematics, however, has always been beyond me. My brain simply doesn’t think that way. My gray matter is more inclined towards literature and abstracts, ideas. I am, it is true, distressed by a type of science that starts making philosophical claims as dogma: materialism. Those who make this claim have no scientific basis for doing so—it is a belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but to belittle those who suggest that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know about the unseen world seems poor sportsmanship to me. Case in point: IFL Science is a fun website. I enjoy the articles I read and it is refreshing to have those who stand up to creationists and other posers get such limelight. Interestingly, a recent article strayed into the uncanny valley.

Clown

Leading with the questions “Why Are So Many People Afraid of Clowns?” the article is categorized The Brain. Or psychology. This is one of those fields where we’re really out of our depth. We don’t understand the way that we think, and even raising the question of clown phobias seems a little odd. History can help to answer some of the questions, but IFL Science does a nice job of suggesting a scientific approach. Historically clowns were outcasts. They are liminal figures who create unease by their very existence. Those who didn’t feel accepted came to do what those who don’t feel accepted often do: try to get others to laugh at you. Sad comedians are more than a stereotype. Those who’ve clowned already know that.

Since I was a clown in college, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the craft. Clowns were a way of laughing at misery, but also of gaining some sympathy. By exaggerating human features, they become caricatures. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who are different, but clowns exist to be excoriated. And deep inside, I think we all know, that those who are ill treated will eventually demand payback. It is a lesson that the world could stand to learn even today. Of course, we don’t want to be told that those who are different share something as personal and important as human feelings. Clowns make natural targets for our fears because they represent something that we know shouldn’t exist—inequality. If you can’t get accolades through hard work, making others laugh provides its own reward. The phobia may arise, I suggest, because we know that every laugh comes with a price.

Pillars of Science

I sometimes wonder if science would have the appeal that it does, if it didn’t have religion to shock and awe. I’m thinking of not only the fact that The Humanist magazine quite often has a focus on religion, but even websites, irreverently named to make the sensitive blush, frequently use it as a foil. My wife likes the site now more commonly known as “IFL Science!” Web acronyms have taught us what the second of those letters denotes, but perhaps because making the name more family friendly leads to more hits, it’s been muted a bit. In any case, the most recent post I’ve seen has to do with that marvelous Hubble image of interstellar gas and dust columns where stars are being born, know as “The Pillars of Creation.” Apart from the stunningly beautiful images, I’ve always been taken by the way that implicitly or even subliminally, concepts of deity lie behind this scene. When the image was first published, I remember staring at it in rapt fascination—here we had stolen a glimpse into the private chambers of the universe. We were seeing what, were we in the midst of, would surely prove fatal. It is like seeing, well, creation.

Eagle_nebula_pillars

Creation is enfolded in the language of myth. Reading the description of this great, gaseous cloud, we are told of the tremendous winds in space (what I had been taught was an utter vacuum) where dust is so hot (I was taught space was frigid) that it ignites into stars, like a silo fire gone wild. It’s like witnessing the moment of conception, although Caroline Reid tells us the dust will be blown away in 3 million years. Perhaps ironically, scientists are scrambling to study it before that happens. Or before that will have happened. At 7000 light-years away, it will have been gone as long ago as Sumerians first put stylus to clay before we know of it. We still have a couple million years for a good gander. And the Sumerians, the first writers of which we know, were writing stories of creation.

It is really a shame that science has, in general, such an antipathy towards myth. As scholars of biblical languages, indeed, nearly any language, know, the language of myth and poetry is especially useful when standard prose breaks down. “Wow!” is not a scientific word. Nor is “eureka!” What other response, however, can there be to seeing the act of creation with our own eyes? Meanwhile there will be those who use science to belittle the worldview of the myth maker and and thinker of religion. Our world, it is widely known, is that of superstition and ignorance. We are those who think only in shallow pools and deny the very reality that is before our eyes. That reality can be full of stunning beauty, but were we to describe it in terms empirical, we might have to keep the interjections and useless adjectives to a minimum.

Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

Waking Up in Galilee

One voice can’t be heard. Unless, of course, it has a publicist. For years, it seems, I have been suggesting in my obscure corner of the internet that we’re not quite ready for the death of religion yet. I’ve never really doubted science, but I have noticed that science frequently draws the same conclusions as religion. Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists exclaim, with some surprise, that religion has a survival advantage. Of course, big men with white beards sitting on thrones in the sky just won’t do, but the underlying concept has utility. So we’re told. Now Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, one of the four horsemen of the new atheists, tells us that it’s okay to experience what has been known as, conventionally, a religious experience. Call it transcendent (I always do), but no matter what the chemical mix you concoct in the brain, it will feel good. Perhaps better than anything merely biological ever will. You’ll sell a million books. If you’ve got a publicist.

To me it seems that the religion question is a no-brainer. It wouldn’t persist if we had no need of it. Unlike the appendix, which seems not to have taken the hint that it is entirely vestigial, religion helps people (and perhaps some animals) survive. It doesn’t have to be sitting on an uncomfortable pew on a Sunday morning. It might be in the giddy heights of the Rocky Mountains where you can see to eternity and beyond and the rarity of the oxygen makes you lightheaded with a hologram of immortality. It might be the piercing peace that comes with light refracted through a glass so blue that superlatives fail you. It might be in imaginary vistas of an ice-bound Arctic where, you’re just certain, Nordic gods linger just out of sight. Transcendence can even come from traditional religious experiences, or so the stories of the saints proclaim. Anyone can participate. Those who have never forget.

The New York Times, in the Sunday Review piece by Frank Brunl (Between Godliness and Godlessness) introduces Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. I know I’ll read it. According to the article, Harris discusses his own experience of transcendence. When Harris has such a revelation, it is a best seller. Or it will be. For those of us who quietly suggest moderation between bombastic religion and bombastic science, it is merely another day in the life of the quiet ones who observe without being heard. True, it takes courage in this culture to dole religion a knock on the head. It is not, however, going to send faith to a premature grave. We still need our religion. We might not call it that any more. Name it spirituality, or transcendence, or mystic mumbo-jumbo, but when it hits you it’s like an atheist in Galilee. Some call it a electrochemical reaction in the brain. Others call it walking on water.

Dore Walk on Water

Quantum Uncertainty

Physics has moved beyond the point of comprehension for the average citizen, if I might be permitted to class myself as that. I got the concept of the atom, although I always wondered about the spaces in-between. No god-of-the-gaps there, but it didn’t fit with experience that everything was full of holes. An article my wife sent me now has me wondering if I’m a hologram. Physicists began to lose me with quarks—I can understand atoms being made of something, but what of ups and downs and leptons every way to Sunday? Then string theory. Then those particles that can be two places at once, until you look. And now I’m being told that The Matrix may be more fact than fiction and quantum uncertainty rules the day. Indeed. Physics tells us what we’re really made of. Religion used to tell us what it all means. That precarious balance seems to have tipped and religion has no other role than to motivate violence and science will save us. Help me, Neo!

I can’t even figure out my taxes any more, let alone what the universe is made of. How we could all be jittery two-dimensional particles is unclear to me. Well, the jittery part I get. I was never really satisfied being limited to three dimensions of motion. Is it ever clear which way is really forward? Height and depth seem terribly geocentric, and even a circle could be divided into more than 360 degrees, a legacy of our Mesopotamian forebears. Spheres—my primitive view of atoms—only touch at the edges. I think there must be something more. Then comes the math. The truth is in the numbers, it seems. Glad I have a calculator.

Although I don’t have the weak nuclear force at my disposal, I have tried to build with marbles many times. You can’t build upward without the bottom row rolling away. Perhaps in our world spheres just don’t balance that way. They don’t hold together. Pixels, however, have edges. They seem to fit together more fully, but leave the universe full of jagged edges. That fits much better with my experience, I guess. Shards of reality lie all around me. Religion used to be the way of putting the pieces together, but, I’m told, that’s all a myth. Instead we have a universe that the average person is incapable of understanding, and that seems to be held together by forces that are fully explainable only by math. Once upon a time, Hell was a mythical, fiery place underfoot. Now it is a universe of formulas and equations that are held together only by quantum uncertainty.

"HAtomOrbitals". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

“HAtomOrbitals”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

Just Passing Through

SpaceTimeTransientsMichael Persinger is a curious and rare scientist. Apart from occasionally making it onto Through the Wormhole episodes, he is also known for his somewhat unorthodox willingness to ask unfashionable questions. I just read his book, co-authored with Gyslanine Lafrenière, Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events. What makes Persinger (the lead author here) so unusual is that he is willing to admit that unusual events happen. Most scientific studies begin with the assumption that the uncanny is unreal, and that people who witness the unusual are unbalanced. Most of us, I would venture to say, have noticed that strange things do happen from time to time. Those who read all the way through Space-Time Transients may be surprised to discover that Persinger and Lafrenière offer an empirically-based hypothesis that places many unusual events squarely in the realm of scientific explanation. The acceptance of woo this is not.

For an old religious studies student, such as me, it is refreshing to see scientists at least asking the question rather than sweeping all the unorthodox evidence off the table. Not everyone who has experienced a fall of fish from the sky or a poltergeist in the bedroom is a deluded liar. Strange things do happen. Space-Time Transients, however, asks what seems to me the perfectly logical question: what’s going on here? Yes, some accounts are exaggerated. Others are fabricated. Still others clearly remain. Should we call names or should we try to figure out what is behind all this? One of my favorite unusual events is the coincidence. There may be nothing supernatural at work, but the oddity of the situation leaves us wondering. Shortly after being hired by Routledge, on my way home through a very crowded Times Square, I saw someone crossing Seventh Avenue drop a five-dollar bill. This person was hurrying in the opposite direction from me in the midst of a crowd, and was far enough away that calling out “you’ve dropped some money” would have only caused a feeding frenzy. It was only a fin. The next morning, coming to work over on Third Avenue, I found a five-dollar bill on the pavement. With the exception of pennies, just about all the dropped money in Manhattan is quickly scooped up by the needy. Could this have been the same dropped bill from over twelve hours before, on the other side of the island? Perhaps not. But why a fiver in both cases? Money does not grow on skyscrapers. The story gets even weirder, but you’re not here to read about that.

Scientists who are willing to admit that strange things happen (the names of Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin come immediately to mind) often face difficult times being taken seriously. They are, however, asking the big questions. Ironically, it is often the notice of strangeness that leads to advances in science. As one quip has it, science grows not because an observer says “Eureka!” but rather, “that’s strange.” In a world where strangeness is associated with religion, and religion is for the deluded, we have perhaps cut off an obvious avenue for learning about our strange universe. As Persinger and Lafrenière point out, we live in a very small habitation, viewed as a cross section of a planet that is itself not terribly massive, in an infinite yet expanding universe. To think that we’ve figured it all out by now is perhaps the strangest idea of all.

Truth Fully

An article on science reporting on the BBC has me thinking about truth. Again. Truth is, of course, a philosophical concept. What it means is a matter of debate, and always has been. The way that it’s used, however, is reflected in the debate-oriented situation in the story. According to IFL Science’s Lisa Winter, the BBC has been tasked with tightening up its science programs to avoid the dilemma posed by the “two sides to every story approach.” While not denying that debate is the lifeblood of science, assessing the strength of the debate is essential. For example, there is a true scientific consensus about global warming. Those who deny it are generally backed by either corporate or religious causes that motivate them to claim the truth lies elsewhere. Truth is a very slippery term. And anybody can use it and claim it. In philosophy there’s no answer key in the back of the book.

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Science, which I’ve admired from my earliest years, has a really, really strong track record of describing the physical universe accurately. Truly enormous paradigm shifts are rare in science and must be accompanied by stringent evidence. Sometimes critics grow frustrated at the slowness of science to accept something that seems obvious, but scientific thinking is nothing if not careful. Enter religion. The claims of most religions lay far beyond the reach of science. And yet, religion too has a really, really good track record—not of describing the physical universe (at which it often does abysmally poorly), but of providing meaning to human lives. Scientists have actually studied this. Religion, like it or not, does help. When it makes a claim on truth, however, a religion often comes into conflict with science. And the problem is that policies based on faulty scientific outlooks can have catastrophic consequences.

So what is truth? If we define it as what really, physically describes the material universe, science is onto it. In fact, science has the best chance of giving us an intellectually honest answer. If we define truth as what a certain deity declared law about a particular aspect of human life, science can’t help. Science doesn’t concern itself with gods or their putative decrees. Religion, however, does. And a vast part of the population votes for leadership based on religious beliefs rather than on scientific principles. And most have not taken too many classes in philosophy. In a democracy we both benefit and suffer under the weight of public opinion. And right now, it seems, public opinion considers philosophy as waste of time and would prefer the truth shrink-wrapped and ready for easy consumption.

The Call of Madness

mountainsofmadnessPicture this: the wind is howling outside your tent, violently snapping the fabric. The temperature outside is well below freezing, and you are camping at the base of a mountain nobody has ever explored. You are hundreds of miles from any possible help, in the midst of Antarctica. What do you do? Read H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” At least that was the decision John Long made on his journey to collect fossil fish in the most inhospitable continent on the planet. Mountains of Madness: A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica is one of those rare books where a rational, educated man of empirical approaches allows the creative, emotional aspect of life speak. I picked the book up at a library sale, based solely on the title. I recognized the Lovecraft in it, and wondered whether it was accidental or not. Besides, reading about polar regions has always fascinated me. Indeed, according to the records of those who’ve trespassed into those regions, madness is not a rare consequence.

Long’s book is not religious, but it is filled with wonder. The mechanistic science that’s often fed to the public is frequently technical and lacks those mysteries we’ve evolved to love. Nowhere in this book is the compelling aspect more relevant than in Long’s accounts of Christmas. The population of Antarctica—a select group by anyone’s standards—is mostly scientists and technicians. Deep field expeditions, it stands to reason, take place in December, which is the summer of Antarctica. In the case of those in the field, they are far removed from their home base, and even the earliest explorers noted in their diaries that Christmas was celebrated, in however minuscule a manner rations and perilous conditions allow. Nobody bulking here that it’s all just a myth.

Lovecraft’s story places explorers far from help in the mountains of Antarctica where they discover they’re not alone. The story inspired such movies as The Thing from Another World, and therefore John Carpenter’s The Thing. Lovecraft, like Long, was a disciple of science and yet, even in his atheistic world deities break in. It’s like Lewis’s Narnia where endless winter with no Christmas is unbearable. Long makes it clear in his account that Antarctica changes a person. Transcendence, those of us who linger over religions know, can express itself in many different ways. For some it is the grandeur of barrenness and inhospitable weather of an unfeeling environment where both macro and micro-predators have trouble surviving and penguins gather to struggle through weather humans can barely tolerate. For others it is camping below the very mountains of madness. Without some wonder, we just don’t survive.

Engineering Meaning

ExistentialPleasuresofEngineeringEngineers have been a part of my life in many ways. My mother’s father was an engineer. Although she did not know it, my grandmother’s grandfather was also an engineer. My wife’s father is an engineer, and grandparents on both sides of her family were either scientists or engineers. My daughter is studying engineering, and other relatives have made it their profession. In fact, had the peril of my everlasting soul not caught my early concern, I would likely have headed into the sciences myself. Not that I would have made it in the profession, but the interest is certainly there. Many years ago my wife bought me a copy of Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. Unlike my claims about engineering, I can boldly declare myself an existentialist. The moment I found out what existentialism was, I knew it was my outlook. Now that I am firmly settled in a profession about as far from science and engineering as I can be, I decided to read the book.

Quite surprisingly, I found Florman turning to religion from time to time. Existentialism isn’t inherently religious, but engineering is inherently empirical. Florman notes that the New Testament, with its spiritual values over the physical, often presents serious problems to engineers, enmeshed, as they are, in this universe. That made sense, even if it surprised me a little. A few pages later, however, I was astonished that Florman praises the “Old Testament” for its more earthy viewpoint that has a great appreciation for the physical world its god has created. Perhaps there was a reason my life took this track after all. Although I’m not Jewish, I always felt an attraction to the Hebraic outlook. Maybe I should’ve been an engineer.

Toward the end of his extended essay, Florman once again turns his thoughts toward the spiritual. Noting that massive works of engineering tend to evoke the divine—the most obvious, but by no means only, example being cathedrals—we glimpse a sense of the sublimity in the greatest of human edifices, sacred or secular. The engineer still has recourse to the spirit which is, to a frustrated scientist, a cause for great hope. When I pulled a book on engineering off the shelf, I certainly did not expect to find any religion in it at all. Of course, the book was written before science and religion had become entrenched in such a shrill standoff as they seem to be today. There is balance here, and an appreciation of beauty. And when the engineer does the impossible, it is indeed a work of human divinity.

Vive la différence

Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.

Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.

We could learn a lot.  (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

We could learn a lot. (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.

Reach Out and

Contact_ver2Carl Sagan, one of the great proponents of the idea that earthlings have never been visited by aliens, wrote a novel entitled Contact. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but many years ago, on a long plane ride, I caught part of the movie version—most of it without the sound on, as I recall. While the ideas have been brewing for about a decade, I’ve been meaning to get around to watching the film. It is a bit of a slow-starter, but I finally sat down to watch it, with sound. While the movie ultimately remains agnostic—with a Twilight Zonish twist at the end—about whether the contact is truly alien or not, one aspect leaves no room for doubt: the movie is really about the relationship between religion and science. Eleanor Arroway cannot raise faith in anything but science, especially since her father’s premature death. Although she has a brief affair with Palmer Joss, a theological journalist, she just can’t believe what her senses don’t confirm.

Once the alien signal is announced, the response of the populace is overwhelmingly religious. One sect in particular seems to channel its faith into the hatred of science, and even Palmer, now an advisor to the president, questions whether science alone can really help humanity to progress. He is the one who nails shut the coffin of Dr. Arroway’s hopes of going to Vega to see the aliens. The reason: she doesn’t believe in God, and therefore is not qualified to represent the human race. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. When she finally does get a chance to visit space, the results are both Freudian and religious. She finds her father in a place like heaven, but her beloved science makes no record of her journey. At a congressional hearing she is made to admit that she believes in what happened without proof. Science is now standing on faith while the religious look smugly on.

Despite the pacing, Contact is an enjoyable movie. In many ways it hasn’t aged much since its 1997 release. Science and religion are still at loggerheads in some camps, and we are no closer to the stars than we were a decade and three-quarters ago. Reading books on the nexus of religion and science, one often gets the impression that the two are inevitably foes. Much of it goes back to a principle that recurs throughout Contact—Occam’s razor. The idea that the simplest explanation is the best does not seem to serve science (or religion) well. Although it works most of the time, it is because, as a friend recently said, we are willing to sweep the stuff that doesn’t fit off the table. Contact showed Occam’s razor with its indiscriminate cutting. Both the religious and the scientific end up bloody when it’s all over (metaphorically speaking, of course). It seems what religion and science really need is indeed contact.