Tag Archives: science and religion

Goblins out There

From Wikimedia Commons

You step away from the telescope for a few months and see what happens.  That may sound like a recipe for some kind of cosmic soup, but as we find ourselves so busy with earthly matters it’s hard to keep up with the heavenly.  I’ve just been reading about the discovery of “The Goblin”—appropriate as we tiptoe into October.  The Goblin is officially a dwarf planet named 2015TG387, which falls trippingly off the tongue.  For those of us who never even saw Pluto before it was demoted as a planet, the distance of this planetoid boggles the mind.  It also makes space feel somehow less empty.  In fact, our solar system’s much more crowded than it was when I took astronomy class in college.

The universe—space—is close kin to our ideas of religion.  “God,” however defined, is “up there.”  As Galileo encouraged telescopes turned outward we began to discover mundane, if complicated, ways of explaining the universe.  Nobody looked through the eyepiece and saw the deity waving back.  Space was cold, dark, and largely empty.  Then the idea eventually grew that it was full of dark matter which, like spiritual entities, can’t be seen.  Unlike spiritual entities, however, it can be hypothesized.  Calculated, even if not measured.  And since it isn’t supernatural, it’s just fine to keep in our cosmic soup.  The problem with any recipe, however, is that it seems that each time you make it the results are slightly different.

It’s somehow appropriate that our new space neighbor is called the Goblin.  The idea of a cosmos devoid of any intelligent life—supernatural or no—is somewhat scary.  Looking at the headlines of what we’re doing to one another down here, and nobody willing to take the reins of reason, we increasingly hope for something beyond mere nature in the cold, dark reaches above.  And that we’ve found such a thing as a goblin—a supernatural entity if there ever was one—is telling.  In fact, all our planets are named after gods.  We can blame the Greeks and Romans (and even the Mesopotamians) for that.  Still, the tradition continued onto the worlds they couldn’t see: Neptune and Uranus and, for a while, Pluto.  We can’t escape the idea that what’s up there is more powerful than our minuscule human troubles.  Our slowly eroding atmosphere is all that keeps us alive down here.  And now there’s a goblin circling all around us, so far away that few will ever even catch a glimpse.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Of Gears and Gods

We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.

Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.

Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.

Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.

Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Personifying Evil

Biographies seldom cover millennia. Even if one were to try to uncover all the scant facts on old Methuselah at 969 years, it would still fall short of four digits. So Peter Stanford’s The Devil: A Biography takes the long view. Even with that lengthy perspective, there’s little that might be known about the prince of darkness. Even with a role in the Good Book his appearances are few and details are lacking. What Stanford does, of course, is outline, more or less, the history of Satan. This is no easy task since few ancient sources focus on trying to provide explanations for exactly who this might be.

As with most books by non-academics (and I don’t mean to sound snobbish here) there are some overstatements. Some of the details aren’t so finely parsed. It’s the big picture the author’s after and he does quite well when it comes to the modern era. Not only is there enormously more material from which to choose, there is also a great deal of literature and even headlines available to harvest. All writers that I’ve encountered on the subject make the point of demonstrating that news of what’s happening in the modern world suggests either the Devil exists or that something (or things) is doing a great job parodying such a character. When seeing evil in the highest reaches of the government it’s not so hard to believe.

The thing about the Devil is that he almost died out. In the nineteenth century when the explanatory value of science was firmly kicking in, and industrialization was making our live both easier and harder, the dark lord went underground. Humans seemed capable of making and claiming their own evil, and even the professionals—the clergy and formal religionists—had admitted Satan was most likely a metaphor gone wild. The birth of Fundamentalism, a movement that became prominent only in the 1920s, necessarily resurrected the Devil. The Bible does mention Lucifer, so he had to be real. Since that day he’s learned a lot. Protean to the extreme, he bears many guises. No longer beholden to a demonic tail, cloven hooves, or a pointy beard, he most often appears clean shaven and wearing expensive business suits. Borrowing a phrase from the Good Book, it’s by his fruits that we know him. Stanford’s biography shows its age a little, but when you’re covering a couple thousand years of speculation, being outdated is only a venial sin.

Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.