Tag Archives: science and religion

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.

Science of Unbelief

An article a friend sent me from Science Alert back in December recently came to mind. Titled “Thinking About God Might Make You Sweat, Even if You’re Not Religious,” the article by Brittany Cardwell and Jamin Halberstadt discusses how religious ideas are deeply engrained in human psychology. Like people who say they’re not afraid of spiders or snakes, people who don’t believe in the supernatural have made an effort to become this way. For reasons poorly understood, human beings are natural believers. As the article takes pains to state, that doesn’t mean a non-believer isn’t sincere. Thinking, however, doesn’t come only from rationality. Many people hold to the Mr. Spock fallacy—the belief that reasoning can solve anything. We all know from experience that it can’t. The big decisions in life—whom should I marry? What house should I buy? For whom shall I vote?—are often made with the emotions rather than rationally.

Which one’s the captain?

Reason has taught us to be expert deniers. We can learn to overcome our natural aversion to snakes and spiders and we can learn not to believe in God. Sometimes that belief can even be knocked out of us by the silly, unthinking behavior of “true believers.” But deep down it’s still there. Funnily, those who claim that reason alone answers all things are in denial about their own evolution. The human brain is a direct adaptation of the “reptilian brain” with its fight or flight impulses. That viper doesn’t plan to bite your ankle—it’s reacting to fear. Emotions are an integral part of thinking. Crimes of passion are committed by otherwise rational people sometimes. That thing you keep on bumping into in the room is, in fact an elephant. As irrational as that may seem.

The Science Alert article discusses the empirical proof that people fear to dis the Almighty. Were the brain a computer I’d say it was hardwired into us. We’re not wire and circuits, however. We’re messy, organic, evolving stuff that at one time lived beneath the waves. It took a certain amount of lungfish faith to believe we could survive on dry land. As mates approved of such irrational behavior, the trait multiplied and became more common. Today our smart phones and our cubicle window posters tell us there’s no such thing as a deity beyond our own scientific rules. The truth is, however, at some level we don’t really believe it. You can learn not to believe, but you’ll still sweat the big stuff, even in laboratory conditions.

Creating Science

Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?

Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.

In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

Augustine’s Secret Sin

I’m curious: what do you think of Augustine? Augustine of Hippo was an odd blend of saint and sinner. I don’t mean “saint” in the sense of being so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, but in the sense of having reputable and progressive ideas. For example, Augustine argued that science, such as it existed in his day, had to be taken into account when understanding Christianity. If the Bible’s account of creation didn’t match what we knew of the world, then literalism had to go—that kind of thing. This was quite liberal for someone in the fourth-to-fifth centuries. He believed in reason, to an extent. The sinner side of the equation goes beyond his Manichean days, however. The sins I’m referring to are his dangerous and long-lasting theological assumptions that’ve helped to hold back civilization throughout history.

It was Augustine, for example, who gave us the idea of original sin being involved in sexual reproduction. The church has always been cagey on why we should reproduce when the second coming is right around the corner, but Augustine declared that from our very conception (which he couldn’t understand scientifically) we were tainted with sin. But that’s not the particular sin to which I’m referring. Augustine also spread the persistent idea that curiosity itself was a sin. Christianity, in his view, was a “need to know” religion, and curiosity about the natural world could lead to uncomfortable answers. He held this in tension with his belief that we should accept what science teaches, but there were many questions, he decided, we simply shouldn’t ask.

Religions have often come to this crux. Science has a strong explanatory track record. Religion is frequently based on old texts, written in an age when science was but an infant. As the power of rationality grew, the role of miracles shrank. Over time the proof of theological structures began to crumble. And since life was all about correct theology, those edifices had to be shored up against the onslaughts of reason. If this sounds hopelessly outdated, I’ll have to confess that many of my students at Nashotah House believed reason was tainted by original sin. Augustine had the answers they believed; somehow rationality had stopped with him. Human curiosity, Augustine felt, was a sin. All questions should’ve ended with his arguments. It’s this kind of theological bravado that gets us into the mess we find ourselves in today. Voting blocs that never question what their religious leader tells them. Never curious enough to ask “Why?” Augustine was a brilliant man, in many respects. He was also a sinner of the highest degree.