Tag Archives: science and religion

Noah’s Phone

The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.

When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.

Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

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.

Wise Women

At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.

Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.

The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.

Anneliese or Emily?

If it weren’t for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the name of Anneliese Michel would undoubtedly be less recognized than it is. Probably the first exorcism movie since The Exorcist to move the genre in a new direction, Emily Rose was based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel. There were significant differences between film and reality, however. Michel was from Bavaria, and she died at the age of 23 rather than being an American teenager like Emily. The story caught media attention because it was discovered that Michel had died after an extensive, months-long exorcism. Charges were made and the priests and Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of negligent homicide. The movie plays the whole thing out in the courtroom with flashbacks of the possession.

The book which led to the film was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman, who died in 2005, was a rare academic who wasn’t afraid to address the supernatural. Trained as a linguist, she had years of anthropological fieldwork experience and a medical background. She was also not dismissive of religious experiences. Naturally, this makes her suspect among academics, but her treatment of Michel’s case is both sympathetic and masterful. After narrating events pieced together from court records, diaries, tapes of the exorcism, and information supplied by some of those involved, she offers her own hypothesis of what actually happened. Anneliese Michel was a religious girl caught up in a religious altered state of consciousness that was treated scientifically by drugs. The result was fatal.

Throughout history, and even today, shamanistic persons exist. Whereas in tribal cultures they tend to become prominent, in the “developed world” they are often quite hidden. They experience what Goodman calls religious states of altered consciousness, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as requiring chemical healing. There have been many thoroughly documented cases where such individuals do “impossible” things. The rationalistic world has no place for them, however, for like capitalism, materialism takes no prisoners. Religion is part of who we are. Human beings do have spiritual needs. Such needs can be placated by other means at times, and we can continue to believe that everything in this universe is made of atoms, or super-strings, or quarks. Or we can perhaps admit that theres’s much we do not know. Goodman admits that her solution is an educated guess, but it does put all the pieces together rather nicely. And she doesn’t declare unilaterally whether demons are physical or not. In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, they were undeniably real.

Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.