Tag Archives: science and religion

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

Eclipse 2017

It’s the day after the eclipse. Perhaps it’s because of the internet, but the excitement about this somewhat common event reached a fever pitch. Maybe it was because we all wanted something other than Donald Trump to talk about. Maybe it was because we hoped that the eclipse might have brought about some profound change. In the days before science was a thing, eclipses were divine events. The sky doesn’t darken at noon. It is an uncanny, an eerie thing. The last eclipse—alas, only partial—that I experienced was at Nashotah House. My wife was still a student in Illinois at the time, and without her to remind me, I went about my classes as usual. When I stepped outside the eclipse was already in progress. Nashotah’s quite rural, but the birds and insects were silent. The light was weird. The shadows of the leaves were scooped crescents on the ground. I could understand why pre-scientific people trembled.

These days we know there’s nothing more to life than scientific formulas and a bit of sloppy chemistry. So why do we bother getting bothered about eclipses? The fact is they remain religious in our minds. This is nature acting in a way not normal. Apocalypses generally include the sky growing dark. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness. In the ancient mind the sun did not so much cause light (the moon could give light too) but it lived in the realm of light. If something blocked the sun that was one thing. If something invaded the realm of light, that was another. An eclipse was such an invasion. Even as monotheism began to take hold, people thought of the sun as a deity. It, after all, directs our lives.

In New York City I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went to street level with a couple of colleagues about 10 minutes before maximum coverage (about 71%) began. Knots of people stood on the corners on the eastern side of Madison Avenue—those who build skyscrapers don’t think of eclipse viewing on the streets below. What struck me most, however, was a kind of peace and awe. Strangers sharing various viewing devices with each other and looking up expectantly. Clouds had begun to move in, and I found myself talking to complete strangers, sharing out the eclipse-viewing glasses my wife had given me. We were participating in a moment of transcendence. Such moments are rare today. No, an eclipse is more than simply the moon moving in front of the sun. It is a human event as well. And one which, in the absence of the sun, brings out the best in us.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA

Becoming

It’s pretty difficult to summarize the feelings when watching your own child graduate from college. Of course, she’s not a child any more, but that’s always the way you’ll think of her. Binghamton University, a “public ivy,” is a competitive school to attend. Hard to get in, and hard to get out. And you know that there were serious struggles to get to this point. Courses conceptually impossible for a humanities ex-professor to understand marked the trail to this point. The academic robes, the positive energy, and the overall sense of accomplishment make this one of those joyous occasions that mark the transition from being the instructed to becoming the instructors. It’s a time unlike any other.

Most of my collegiate thoughts, despite my three degrees in religious studies, have focused on science and engineering. It’s not that the basis of truth has shifted, but the practicalities of “finding a job” have to take precedence these days. The STEM universe may be the only real one, according to those smart enough to know such things. It’s difficult not to feel that studying religion was chasing a chimera, if not a little deluded. Tomorrow, though, the college of arts and sciences will send forth even more graduates into a world where employment itself may be a reverie. Still, I can’t help but think these engineers from the Watson School are just a little brighter than their more humanities-inclined classmates. Parenting is its own kind of bias.

Commencement is a singular moment. Parents sitting in the crowd want to attract their child’s attention for just a moment. Each one down there is a star. You want to be seen by them, recognized if only for a fleeting smile or subtle wave. They’ve accomplished something and everyone is here to cheer them on. Your meaning is tied up in being associated with that person that you’ve coached through so many aspects of life, and you hope you’ve done it well. They’re ready to leave academia behind and experience a bit of the wider world. It’s a cycle as old as this planet’s first molten rotations as it revolved around a distant star. And as those walking across the stage are growing in magnitude, those of us cheering them on try to recollect what it was like to have so much loving goodwill focused on us. It’s difficult to summarize these feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d call them religious.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.