Tag Archives: science and religion

Exobiology

Are we alone in the universe? The answer is every day growing more and more certain that we are not. Humanity may experience shortages of many things, however, pride is not among them. For millennia we’ve been convinced of our own superiority and, of late, we’ve become convinced that we must be as good as it gets. We’ve mastered logic and our material world. We’ve sent probes to land on Venus and Mars, and flying by just about every other planetary body close enough to reach. We sure are smart. So it stands to reason that we are the brightest beings in a universe that we tell ourselves is infinite. A recent article on Exobiology that my wife pointed out to me on The Conversation, traces the history of the idea of life outside the earth. Not surprisingly, the idea has its origins in religious thought.

Giordano Bruno was an early modern Dominican who was burned at the stake for his heresies. Like his near contemporary Galileo, he was fascinated by the sky and postulated that the world up there could be full of life. A church increasingly under pressure from the pesky Protestant movement had no time for flights of fancy among the faithful. No, religion at the time wanted its feet planted on solid ground. The only life up there was angels and God. Still, the idea had been broached. Since the world’s major religions have been geocentric, as a rule, they’ve had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the idea of the other other. God as other is one thing, other creatures as other is quite another. How do earth-bound religions account for the possibility of life in space? This is not merely academic fancy at play. We will almost certainly discover life elsewhere—whether it comes to us (or already may have), or we go to it (which might take a little longer), we will discover that a universe that is infinite has infinite possibilities. Will religion keep us grounded?

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Ironically, one of the areas where science and religion have broadly agreed is in the superiority of humankind. Both remain staunchly geocentric. Religions and tend to say we’re sinful, but other than that, pretty much the best the earth has to offer. Although biologists say evolution is non-teleological, they still have a hard time imagining something more advanced than us. We are pretty self-absorbed. Meanwhile, we are discovering water is likely not unique to earth. Rocky planets seem to be the rule rather than the exception. And there are billions and billions of stars in our own galaxy alone, among billions of others. What are the chances we’re alone? Virtually none. Here is one place that both religion and science might learn a lesson based on early spiritual teachings. In the face of the unknown, humility is the most logical response. I’m impressed in how far we’ve come in the last several millennia of civilization. I think, however, that we’d better be prepared to meet exobiology with a realization that Genesis 1 was only the beginning.

Scientific Seminary

Old Testament. New Testament. Church History. Pastoral Theology. Systematic Theology. Homiletics/Liturgics. This was a typical kind of seminary curriculum about a quarter-century ago. Obviously there were variations, but the basic topics were Bible and its application. When I attended seminary science was already in the ascendent (seriously, it wasn’t that long ago!). Nobody much worried about how it might impact religion. People in the United States still attended church in large numbers but no one I knew really considered science a threat to belief. They were essentially different realms of inquiry and although some on each side asserted the superiority of their enterprise, the debate seemed to be good-spirited and without excessive rancor.

IMG_1656The situation has, of course, shifted radically since then. We’ve become a society guided by business principles and technology, and religion has all the appearances of being quaint at best, likely just useless, and, at worst, dangerous and deadly. Civilization, however, was built on the premises of a religion that permeated every aspect of life. That influence has been slowly replaced by that of a materialistic reductionism that suggests all things, this blog included, are but the random results of dry atoms bumping about a cold universe. Naturally there has been a reaction. The most vocal of believers, the Fundamentalists of all stripes, have directly challenged science in the arena of veracity. As we all know, however, Fundamentalists aren’t really equipped to convince the masses. The Bible, the underlying strength of the literalist, has come under scrutiny and has been demonstrated to be more inclined to myth than history. What more does a scientific worldview need to weld shut its superior outlook? And yet, reasoning, non-reactive religion still exists. Still has a place in this mechanistic universe where miracles are disallowed.

I recently read about a Templeton Foundation initiative that is funding programs on religion and science at seminaries. Some scientists excoriate the Templeton Foundation for trying to keep religion in the picture, but my humble opinion is that Templeton and its money have nothing to do with it. Religion is a very human response to a universe it can’t fully understand. Empirical method seems to work, and the results are so complex that few can even hope to comprehend. All but the most hopeless, on the other hand, can understand “love thy neighbor.” Religion continues to guide countless lives—most of them for the good, and not for the incendiary responses of a challenged literalism. The time has come for seminary curricula to adjust to the world as we know it. That world is run by inhuman forces that may help or harm humanity in equal measure. Religion, however, need not battle with science. It must, however, add it to the curriculum.

Catholic Nones

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article pondered the future of Catholic universites in an age of nones—those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition. As with so much in life, the evidence countermands expectations. Enrollment is stable and even non-Catholics are attending. Part of this, no doubt, is because a greater number of high school students are being channeled into college, but there seems to be more to it than that. Those interviewed suggest that it is often that students, nones included, favor an education with a moral grounding. Materialism doesn’t give one much to go on besides human convention. Even if students don’t accept Catholicism, there’s no doubt that the Catholic Church presents itself in a way that admits little doubt over what’s right or wrong. Even if you choose not to observe the strictures, there’s a comfort in know they’re there.

One of the schools foregrounded in the article is Marquette University in Milwaukee. While at Nashotah House I came to know some members of the Theology Department there, and I visited the campus numerous times. One of the interlocutors in the article is a physics professor who, admitting concerns at first, has found Marquette—a Jesuit university—remarkably open to science. The days of Galileo are over. Even Catholics know science is science. Indeed, the Vatican itself employs scientists and a Catholic priest was the first person to formally postulate the Big Bang. As someone who has applied to many Catholic universities over the years, and who has had a fair number of interviews, my sense is that the close-mindedness comes with theology, not science.

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Especially in the days of retrenchment under John Paul II, control over hiring for religion (“theology”) faculty at Catholic schools underwent renewed scrutiny. I was informed that I was not selected for positions because I was not Catholic. You could, however, be a none physicist and land a job. This discrepancy of knowledge has led me to fine tune the Chronicle’s question a bit. The Catholic Church is well funded. Its universities would only be in danger from radical drops in student numbers. This favors the hiring of mainstream professors in every discipline. Except religion. It is as if this small presence on a large campus, such as Notre Dame, could hold out against the humanist knowledge emanating from every other department. A candle, as it were, in the hurricane. And that candle, amid all the nones, must accept official doctrine. At least on paper. And all will be well.

Thinking about the Universe

Conscious Universe Notwithstanding appearances, I have been reading. Despite the determination, disruptions to my commuting schedule always throw me off a bit. Having recently read The Holographic Universe, I decided to follow it up with The Conscious Universe. Subtitled The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Dean Radin’s book is one of those that you don’t want other commuters examining too closely, although, however, they probably should. Radin is a fully credentialed scientist who has a rare trait: a willingness to follow where the evidence leads. Respectful of traditional scientific method and even mainstream science writing, Radin demonstrates in this book just how risky it is to go against the trends that are like deeply rutted wagon tracks over a sun-baked prairie. Science progresses by examining the evidence, but today science is, in some senses, over-reacting to the refusal of religious thought to, well, give up the spirit. Religion persists and rationalists can’t understand why. Investigating “spooky effects at a distance” is not entirely welcome in such a climate.

Radin, however, approaches psi with scientific rigor. Laboratory experiments, as he thoroughly demonstrates, have revealed with greater evidence than many readily accepted theories, that there is something behind psi. In fact, the government and private industry have invested, and continue to invest, in it. And in our more unguarded moments, most people will generally admit that sometimes coincidences are a little too odd, or that you might, from time to time, really be able to send a thought to someone else. The laboratory results, as Radin clearly shows, are simply dismissed as aberrations because they don’t fit into preconceived (frequently materialistic) worldviews. It is far easier to laugh than to sort out how all of this might actually work.

There is no triumphalism in this. It is simply the willingness to ask honest questions. Quantum mechanics, as physicists know, are not always as mechanistic as they seem. Even Einstein was willing to keep an open mind concerning the larger picture. The universe we envision today is not the same as that which Einstein knew. It isn’t easy to summarize what Radin is addressing in his book, but if I were to try I would say something like this: consciousness is essential. I know materialists dismiss essence, but I believe the evidence goes against them here. Consciousness is an integral part of the universe, and we can’t even define it yet so that all parties agree. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly know what it might not be able to do? Radin does what seems to be the only logical response in such a situation: he keeps an open mind.

Christian Computing

Science and religion are often portrayed as fighting like dogs and cats. Both claim superiority and a comprehensive worldview that should make sense of everything. With reality television probing deep into the lives of rural folk who still hold to the old ways, it is easy to think that religion is awkward and backward and an embarrassment to the technologically sophisticated. In electrons we trust. As with most simplistic views, however, this dichotomy is overly dramatized. I recently found a flier for Computers for Christ. I didn’t have time to read it carefully, but the space-age font immediately told me that this was vintage 70s or 80s, back when computers were still so new that most of us had never seen an actual exemplar and we had to guess what the future might hold. Would these things catch on or not? A little closer reading revealed the date of 1982, back when I was a college freshman. I had, by that point in my life, never knowingly glimpsed a computer.

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Sitting here with a computer on my lap, and another in my pocket, I wondered what ever happened to Computers for Christ with its space-age crosses and early embracement of technology. I didn’t find anything that really matches it with a half-hearted web search, but it did make me realize that some enterprising Evangelicals had latched onto computers long before I ever did. I recall making a pact with a couple of friends my senior year in college that we’d never give in and use computers. Since I can’t find them online, my guess is that they kept their end of the deal. As usual, I caved. By 1985 computers had found their way even to Grove City College. A strange thing called a “server” allowed people to access it via multiple “terminals.” The computer science professor wore a large cross around his neck. I would go on to seminary and graduate with a second degree not ever having used such a device.

Dogs and cats are both mammals, and neither regularly preys upon the other for food. Although Computers for Christ may no longer exist, the internet has been fully exploited by some of the religious. Jesus was an early meme. I remember when “the winking Jesus” was all the rage since an image on screen was actually animated! The savior virtually moved an eyelid! Now we can find Jesus doing everything from walking on water to riding on dinosaurs. The son of God has adapted to life on the web quite well, and often with a sense of humor. There are those who would argue that this is a travesty of true faith. There are others who would argue that it is a silly use of serious technology. I grew up with both dogs and cats and learned that when domesticated together they seldom fight. As I file away this aging paper, I wonder how the world might change if people behaved so sensibly.

Darwin Down the Road

Chapman TrialsThe accidents of birth are the stuff of evolution. When I first heard of Matthew Chapman, direct descendent of Charles Darwin, over a decade ago, I was determined to read his book (then new). Like the accidents of birth, the finding of books at used bookstores is also a kind of evolution, so I picked up Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir recently and finally read it. Mission accomplished. It had been long enough that I couldn’t recall what the reviews said that made me so eager to read it—I had been developing a course on science and religion at Nashotah House and had been reading about evolution—but I’m glad I got around to it. The book was neither what Chapman nor I had expected. Maybe I’d better explain.

The year 2000, apart from its millennial aspirations, was also the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Chapman, a screenwriter from England, decided to go to Dayton, Tennessee to report on the reenactment of the Scopes Trial that was caused, accidentally, by his great-great-grandfather. With acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he narrates how he missed the performance by arriving for the wrong weekend and yet how he’d already begun the book based on it. Instead of reviewing the reenactment, he wove his own life story into those of the people he met on his two trips to Dayton, and left us with an engrossing memoir. Most Europeans, we know, consider American reaction against evolution with some puzzlement. As an Englishman, Chapman shares that curiosity and also, he admits, kind of wanted to make fun of southerners. His encounters, however, forced him to realize just how human all people are.

There’s a healthy dose of exposure to some of the weird ideas of fundamentalism here, but Chapman pulls no punches. The people he met treated him kindly. Some fundamentalists were even likable, even though they could not agree on much. At turns very funny and very sad, this autobiography represents, in its own way, the tensions of any life. The sensual confessions would have made famously squeamish Darwin blush, no doubt, but demonstrate to the reader that a man who can make a lot of money writing movie scripts can be very human as well. And so can the religious. The denizens of Dayton didn’t convince Chapman that their exclusive faith was true. They did, however, open him to the realization that such faith is not as simple as it may seem. A fortnight may have passed since the millennium, but creationism has continued to gain ground. Until more people take Chapman’s cue and actually try to understand those who believe, the trial of the century will continue to go on and on, ever evolving.

Know It All

Perhaps it’s the fact that I had a career malfunction in the middle of my chosen vocation, or perhaps it’s a natural consequence of earning an advanced degree. Whatever the cause, I am convinced that I know less than I used to know. That’s not the same as not having learned—indeed, it is a consequence of precisely that. You see, my education has led me to believe that things I thought I knew were not, in fact what I knew them to be. We all live with false assumptions—the sun rises and sets, the earth holds still, and that we aren’t made up of particles so tiny as to be invisible and that are mostly empty space. There was a time when I believed that science gave “the truth,” but we now think of science as ever provisional—the best theory to account for the facts at this time. It is open to change. And in fact, we know very little.

A deep irony lurks in the fact that many people treat their religion as the locus of certain knowledge. This is a known fact; Jesus resurrected, Muhammad was a prophet, Maroni spoke to Joseph Smith. When confronted with contrary data, such thinking withdraws into itself claiming all the more loudly that it knows the truth already. Learning should, I think, may one more humble. More circumspect. Of course I think I’m right about things. If I thought I was wrong, I would change to the correct way of thinking. What I know, however, is a different matter. As I set out to learn a new career, I find I know less than I thought I did. I know little and I know less all the time.

As an academic I can’t help but to spend my life trying to gain knowledge. I read voraciously, I try to engage in intellectual exchange with others. If I’m lucky, I learn something. And know that much less. That which I learn teaches me that I know less than I did before. The world is vast. The universe infinite, according to our best understanding at the moment. We travel through it all, picking up information and treating it humbly as we go along. I’m moving toward knowing nothing at all. Perhaps that is the true goal of all of this—to get to the point of knowing nothing. Then we shall be truly educated. Except, of course, for the true believers who already know everything there is to know. Of course we are all mostly empty space. I think.

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