I’ve talked about politics with gay abandon, so I figure it’s about time to headbutt that other party-killer, religion.
Mike Brotherton, the man behind the Launch Pad Lectures, posted recently about the Templeton Foundation. He joined many other scientists in criticizing the Foundation for blurring the line between science and religion, of the analytical and the mystical.
I’m agnostic (which, as I’m sure we all know, is derived from the Latin for knowledge–gnostic–suffixed ‘a’, meaning without… just the same way ‘atheist’ means ‘without God’–‘without theism’). I’m not particularly spiritual, and I don’t have a sympathetic bone in my body for rituals. I don’t even have any kind of writing rituals. The thought of having to do something in a particular place at a particular time and in a particular way fills me with ennui and dread (a fun combination, as you can imagine).
The core foundation of my beliefs is that we can’t know what’s out there. If there is any kind of guiding force in the universe, it’s far too big for us to see and too alien for us to comprehend. And if we haven’t found any ‘scientific’ proof of its existence, it’s because we’re not looking in the right places and we don’t have the right tools. We’re using a metal detector to look for unicorns in our sock draw.
The arrogance of both sides in the debate frustrates me. From the Christian who takes the Bible as absolute truth to the chemist who insists on pointing out God has no line on their mass spectroscopy graph. We’ve been around as a species for about fifty-thousand years. The universe has been around for about thirteen billion. And both these groups seem to believe that the humanity of here and now has reached its apex, that there’s no further intellectual or spiritual growth in our future.
That’s clearly nonsense. In five-hundred years’ time, people are going to look at us the same way we look at the religiously-obsessed, slave-owning, pox-ridden, plague-swept European Middle Ages. Would either side hold up a man from 1612 as the apex of human intellectual and spiritual growth? So why would they do it with a man from 2012? (It’s always a man they hold up, you’ll notice.)
What sticks in my mind is that, since we first emerged from the murky depths of evolution, humanity has always been a spiritual species. The very first manufactured items ever found were religions icons, and current thinking is that we out-survived the Neanderthals not because we were smarter or quicker, but because we had a shared culture they lacked. A culture based around shared religious beliefs.
There’s something inside a lot of humans that can only be satisfied by the spiritual. By belief, by shared experience, by ritual. Maybe its Abrahamic religion, maybe it’s football, maybe it’s UFOs. I mean, look at the reaction to the death of Princess Diana in the UK. It was out of all proportion for a woman who, before the car accident, was known for sleeping with rugby players and wearing awful clothes. Her charity work was almost never reported. But suddenly, there was this outpouring of reverence, this desperate need to quench a thirst.
I write about fictional scientists quite a bit, which I suppose isn’t surprising for a spec-fic writer. The soulless scientist has been under steadily-increasing fire from my pen*. A scientist who cares only for their data is going to have a far harder time in one of my stories than a scientist who falls in love with the sunset. Their research isn’t some perfectly isolated little sub-section of reality, it’s as much a part of the world–influenced by it and influencing it–as the trees and the clouds and the grass. When I’m writing, it tends to end badly for people who forget that.
If we polarise the sides and use stereotypes, I think science has the right approach: look for questions, accept what the evidence suggests. (The opposing ‘religious’ approach being: look for evidence which justifies your opinions.) As I’ve said before, if we look through our tiny human lens, all we’ll ever see are tiny human things and we’ll miss anything outside our expectations. However, we’re all humans and scientists can twist evidence to support their own beliefs (and do, consciously, or subconsciously obeying their social programming) and religious people can have their worldviews turned upside-down and inside-out by new evidence.
Which brings us back to the Templeton Foundation ‘muddying the waters of science with spirituality’. A lot of respected and notable scientists have heavily criticized the Foundation’s methods, so it would be incredibly remiss of me not to hold deep reservations. The big problem is the Foundation sits right at the point of polarisation–religion, or science. There’s no gray area, no common ground, no room for arguing validity on mutual terms, just two sides in their concrete trenches bombarding each other. If you show any hints of supporting the Foundation, you’re a religious nut-job stuffed into the same box as young-Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design fruit-loops. It makes forming my own opinion on them very difficult. All the people who know far more than me, who I’d normally defer to, have their own agenda they’re pushing.
Anyway, my point is that I’m not just kind of sympathetic to the Templeton Foundations stated goal, it’s one of my own core beliefs (though please see the previously-stated disclaimer about the Foundation itself). Science and religion are two different paths heading towards the same goal: enlightenment. The sooner they can stop squabbling and start working together the better. I’m not saying we should chuck the scientific method out the window–far from it, it’s one of the best tools we have right now–I’m just saying people who draw strength from their faith should be studied and, more importantly, listened to instead of being openly mocked.
Science arguing with religion is like red arguing with blue. Same spectrum, same rainbow, same source. Science without spirituality is as bad as spirituality without science. Lets start looking at the spectroscopy lines of the big bang for God’s fingerprints, and lets remember that it’s going to look like nothing we can imagine.
*I write on my computer, using my keyboard. I haven’t written seriously with a pen since I left school. However, ‘from my keyboard’ doesn’t sound nearly as good as ‘from my pen’. I’d feel dirty if I didn’t come clean about that.
Science in My Fiction linked to this piece in Science Daily. The headline is that more than 20% of atheist scientists describe themselves as ‘spiritual’, out of a survey of 275 natural and social scientists.
“These spiritual atheist scientists are seeking a core sense of truth through spirituality — one that is generated by and consistent with the work they do as scientists.”
For example, these scientists see both science and spirituality as “meaning-making without faith” and as an individual quest for meaning that can never be final. According to the research, they find spirituality congruent with science and separate from religion, because of that quest; where spirituality is open to a scientific journey, religion requires buying into an absolute “absence of empirical evidence.”
Hm. Food for thought. It would be interesting to see how this compares with scientists in fields like astrophysics.