Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nation well acquainted with disruption. The tangled history of the Balkans and the misplaced zealotry of political machinery has left this part of the world to rely on faith more than many others. So when a sinkhole suddenly opened up in Sanica, locals began to look for explanations beyond the scientific. Sinkholes are reminiscent of biblical-type punishment. They are relatively unpredictable even in our high-tech era, and they are just a bit eerie. Fear of falling is, psychologists tell us, one of the deepest phobias embedded from our youngest days. It can translate to acrophobia in some adults, but even those who don’t fear high places still shy away from an abrupt edge that appears below our feet. A story by Amel Emric on NBC narrates the responses of some villagers to the growing pit that is already fifty meters wide by thirty meters deep. The hole appeared under a pond shortly after the death of the owner who claimed that he would take everything when he went. The locals wonder whether he absconded with his pond and took it to the afterlife where, I hear, the fishing is choice.
The beliefs of the average citizen flummox the religious specialists. Perhaps it’s because religions have to struggle so hard for any kind of respectability that folk beliefs are simply labeled “superstitions,” but it is what hoi polloi believe that constitutes the main body of religion. One might counter, “but that’s not what really happened”—surely a ghost did not drain a lake and replace it with a perfectly natural sinkhole. Then again, quantum mechanics also tells us that what looks like reality isn’t really what it appears to be either. It may be that a ghost stealing a lake is a lot more plausible than a scientific explanation sometimes.
In a completely unrelated story, my relatives recently gave me an opinion piece from the Des Moines Register. A reader signed as N. W. Iowa Mystic wrote: “Budgets go astray, schedules get out of kilter, plans fail. Why? They are all graven images and the Second Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.’ Laugh if you will, but that explanation is as good as any.” I had to stop to ponder in what way a budget was a graven image (I likely would not recognize an actual budget if I saw one). Or a schedule, or a plan. Who am I to say that they are not, however? My definition of “graven” may not match yours. I might consider the name of Job’s friends common knowledge, but for others they have fallen into that sinkhole of multiple bits of useless information. I’m not laughing at our mystic friend. I’m pretty certain that the earth has some very deep holes lurking just beneath the surface.
Sink hole or graven image?
Posted in Current Events, Mysticism, Natural Disasters, Posts, Science
Tagged Amel Emric, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Des Moines Register, ghost, NBC, Sanica, science and religion, sinkhole, superstition
In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.
Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.
When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Blade, comic books, Erebus, science and religion, Underworld, vampires
Hidden knowledge is sweet. Belief in it is very old. Kocku von Stuckrad’s Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge offers its own kind of hidden knowledge—well, it’s not so much hidden as it is simply ignored—that even science owes a debt of gratitude to the draw of the esoteric. We are trained to treat such “New Age” ideas with contempt from our tender years, and we are assured that the light of reason has dispelled the gloom of occluded wisdom. Von Stuckrad, however, clearly demonstrates that the desire to explain our world streams from the same font as the belief that a larger, if hidden, reality lies behind what our senses perceive. Such ideas originate in antiquity and continue in various forms up to the present. The impetus to explain it all shows in Galileo’s belief in astrology as well as astronomy and Newton’s fascination with alchemy as well as calculus. Great minds have always been willing to be stretched.
In more recent, and self-assured, days vocal spokes-folk have declared a single way of knowing, and it is empirical and imperial all at the same time. That which cannot be explained rationally cannot be explained at all. Still, our experience of life often suggests otherwise. Sometimes it feels as if science overuses the coincidence excuse, and maybe there is something more going on. The esoteric, without fail, has been assigned to the category of religious thought because, in the current paradigm, the only real opponent to science is religion. If it’s irrational, it must be religious.
Ironically, von Stuckrad’s research demonstrates that the culture that led us to science, in many ways, has its basis in esoteric beliefs. That gnawing suspicion that not everything is explained by numbers and experiments has been with us since the days of Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, and Stonehenge. Each of these monuments (and many others besides) were astounding feats of engineering—and engineering is applied science—while all being profoundly religious. Science in the service of the unknown. Such complexity need not be considered naive; even scientists can be subject to religious ways of thinking. Von Stuckrad does not advocate esotericism in his book; he merely documents it and treats it non-judgmentally. There is perhaps a hidden lesson here for all of us as well. Instead of declaring a single heavyweight champion of all the world, perhaps true wisdom lies in being fully human with all its complexity and contradictions.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Mysticism, Posts, Science, Sects
Tagged alchemy, astrology, Galileo, Gobekli Tepe, Isaac Newton, Kocku von Stuckrad, New Age, pyramids, science and religion, Stonehenge, Western Esotericism, Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge
In the medical sciences building of the University of St Andrews stands a glass display case cradling a mace. The mace, a symbol of smiting authority that goes all the way back to Old Kingdom pharaohs, has a long tradition in academia as well. In all the pomp and glitter of an academic processional, a dean, provost, or chancellor carries a symbolic mace, as if to keep an unruly faculty in order. (I am sure that most of them have wanted to use that mace a time or two in reality, but have been constrained by both convention and the rule of law.) Medical science is among the fields of research quickly moving away from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of medieval superstition. We are, after all, simply soft machines, doing as nature has programmed us. What more could there be to it?
Looking more closely at the mace, I see on its ornate base, a flanking ring of winged oxen. Perhaps obscure to medical students, the winged ox is the symbol of the putative Gospel writer, Luke. Each of the Gospels emphasizes different aspects of Jesus, and the symbol assigned to Luke has been the ox. If the wings didn’t give it away, the explanatory placard on the wall nearby confirms my analysis. Eyes traveling up the silver shaft, the crown of the mace houses yet another saint, this one an apostle. St Andrew (of course) tops the mace, holding his X-winged cross. Underneath is an amorphous structure for which I need to turn to the placard to have explained. The fountain of healing waters, it tells me.
From tip to tale, then, the mace of medical science is inherently religious. My reading of late has been from scientists claiming that, in the words of the old commercial, “parts is parts.” There is no underlying life-force or animating principle. Life is biological robotics, so I’m told. So as I stood in St Andrews last week, considering this metallic mace, I was poised on the edge of science and symbol. There is no biological need for such symbols—indeed, the mace was originally a weapon to inflict grievous bodily harm. Now, chased with silver, intricately ornate, it begins and ends with religious implications. I can’t help wonder what the robots make of that.
Posted in Art, Bible, Britannia, Higher Education, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Christianity, Higher Education, medicine, science and religion, Scotland, St Andrew, St Andrews, St Luke
It was a groggy, foggy morning when I stepped off the bus in St Andrews. I’d been here before, but it had been over two decades ago, and with my wife, who is my navigator. I knew the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting was here, but I didn’t know where. Instinctively, I headed toward the medieval part of town. A religion conference, I reasoned, would best fit there. Seeing no signs of the inimitable professorate that I associate with the Society, I finally stopped into a university office where a dubious-looking receptionist peered at the conference letter and shook her head. The she spied a familiar address on the letterhead. “Ach, that’ll be doon this way, past the second roond-aboot.” Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I understood. I suppose if I’d just read the materials sent ahead more closely, I would’ve known that we were meeting in the newest part of Scotland’s oldest university.
A religion and science reunion came in the form of the physics and maths building where the meetings were being held. Science grad students, somewhat bewildered by so many biblical scholars, pushed open their lab doors with a sense of wonder—and perhaps disbelief. Could so many educated people seriously spend their time on the Bible? Science, after all, now has cornered the market on truth, hasn’t it? What hath Jerusalem to do with St Andrews? Ancient universities were generally founded to study theology. In 1413, when St Andrews opened its academic doors, God was the undisputed arbiter of truth. Now high-tech fighter jets scream overhead in nearby Leuchars, and we are secure in the ability of science to save us. And still biblical scholars, like the horseshoe crabs, come together in huge numbers on the beachhead of the human psyche every year.
To the student trained in the sciences, I have no doubt that we appear superfluous. Nevertheless, without religious belief, or the Bible, our society would not be where it is today. Although now it seems that science and religion bear deep hostility to one another, they actually grew from the same root and have a similar goal—to discover the truth. Science finds no evidence beyond the material, but religion declares the material as the perennial under-achiever. Scholars of the Bible from around the world, many of them not religious believers, expend their limited resources to come to one of the more inaccessible tourist destinations of Scotland and meet in a clean, modern, comfortable sciences building. Across town, in the heart of the old, medieval district, stand the remains of a once grand cathedral. Still majestic in its glorious decay, the church towers over a town once ruled by religion where now science and golf define the new reality.
Posted in Bible, Britannia, Higher Education, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged 1413, Leuchars, science and religion, Scotland, Society of Biblical Literature, St Andrews, St Andrews Cathedral, truth
After a rough week at work, nothing helps so much as simple escapism. Thinking back to my glory days in the classroom, I remembered the movies I used to get students thinking about how the Bible is represented in popular culture. One of those movies was The X-Files, I Want to Believe. Not that the movie was my favorite, but escapism isn’t picky—there’s one reality I want to escape, and just about any other will do. As I watched the film again last night I was struck how very much the whole movie is premised on religion. I suppose the title should’ve given that away, but since it is the slogan of Mulder’s famous poster, I’d not really given it serious thought. Scully is now a practicing doctor in a Catholic hospital, and the number of lingering scenes with stained-glass icons in the background simply can’t be ignored. She has given up chasing monsters in the dark, and come to live in a very Gnostic kind of light. Through a pedophile priest (Father Joe), the darkness finds her again. How could I have missed the centrality of a priest to the plot?
The scene I always pointed out to my students was where Father Joe goes into a seizure while quoting Proverbs 25.2, again citing Gnostic hidden ways. The Bible slips from his trembling hands and falls, closed, to the floor. Later, as Mulder is literally about to be axed to death, Scully finds him by noticing the mailbox number 25-2. A proverb was a prophecy and the Bible retains its ability to guide the believer toward salvation. Through paranormal means, of course. After all, this is the X-Files.
Faith versus science, religion versus reason; these are the underlying motifs of the entire film. Scully the skeptic is the one who believes. Mulder, the high priest of the preternatural is just waiting for her to come home. It isn’t the greatest of movies, but it is based on some classic themes. Wanting to believe, but not being able to believe—isn’t this one of the most religious tensions possible? For years now the internet has been buzzing with rumors of a third, and probably final, X-Files movie. And yes, many people are wanting to believe. And if work continues with weeks like this past one, I’ll be needing a lot more escapism as well. Yes, I want to believe.
Posted in Bible, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Bible, Gnosticism, I Want to Believe, Mulder and Scully, Proverbs, science and religion, X-Files
Where, exactly, do science and religion come together? Since both are human mental enterprises, they must at some point at least glance off one another. Both religion and science attempt to make sense of human experience in the world, and, given the limitations of human time, being a true expert in both may be impossible. The John Templeton Foundation, as any religion scholar knows, supports research and awards handsomely those perceived to have succeeded, at least somewhat, in bringing the two together. A single lifetime, however, is not long enough for either, let alone both. Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Science of God illustrates this point. Subtitled The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, and produced by a major publishing house, the pitfalls of applying the Bible to a scientific worldview become apparent almost from page one.
Somewhat unusual in the field, Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew addressing the questions that the Bible raises for science. He is also a credentialed physicist. Most attempts to force religion and science into bed together come from Christian researchers—secular scientists usually have a headache—and a hidden agenda is often not too difficult to discern. I read The Science of God knowing nothing of Schroeder’s religious sensibilities. By narrowing the focus from science and religion to science and Bible, however, I knew the enterprise was doomed without even opening the cover. The Bible is one of the least scientific of all human writings. That’s not to say it has no value, but it is an honest observation by a lifelong reader of the Bible who believes science has a proven track record for making some sense of the world. Schroeder begins with that most specious of arguments, the anthropic principle. Few ideas raise such ire in my limited scientific understanding. The suggestion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a moot point in principio. Who are we to say that life wouldn’t have emerged if the Big Bang were one degree cooler or hotter? It might have been life with different parameters, but the anthropic principle seems to point to nothing more than the tenacity of life.
While Schroeder does raise some valid points, it is clear from his challenging of the fossil record that the Bible will only ever sleep uneasily with science. For a physicist, Schroeder spends an awfully long time using God-of-the-gaps reasoning to fill in biology. In a disguised day-age “hypothesis” he gives us the creation order of Genesis 1, while skirting around Genesis 2 where humans are created before animals. And, I’m sorry, but the Bible does not mention dinosaurs anywhere. It’s a pity really. Schroeder’s book addresses some important issues, but using the Bible as a measure of scientific credibility fails every time. The science of God, it seems, is more a concluding unscientific postscript, but without the philosophical sublimity.
Posted in Bible, Books, Creationism, Evolution, Genesis, Posts, Science
Tagged anthropic principle, Evolution, fossils, Genesis 1, Gerald L. Schroeder, God of the gaps, science and religion, Templeton Foundation, The Science of God
Reductionism is beguiling because of the exalted status it gives to the human intellect. It is presumed that rational thought can explain everything. Still, reason sometimes leads to paradoxes—we’ve all heard the (admittedly theistic) one asking if God can create a rock so heavy s/he can’t lift it. Given the premise, two strands of logic conflict. A similar sort of phenomenon, it appears, accompanies quantum physics. In a story from last year on Big Questions Online (a website supported by the Templeton Foundation), Stephen M. Barr submitted a piece entitled “Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?” The article requires some concentration, but the basic premise is simple enough to explain: quantum physics does not sit well with reductionism. There seems to be will in nature. It may not be God in the machine; it may not even be a machine at all.
I have always been fascinated by science, and I am not one to castigate it. Its string of successes stretches all the way from atoms and their explosive tendencies to the moon and Mars and beyond. At the same time, most of us have experienced something that “should work,” in which no fault can be discovered. Reductionism would declare the fault is indeed there, just undetected. If, however, at the sub-atomic level, particles sometimes act uncannily, don’t those effects climb the ladder into the visible world in some way? Logic would seem to demand it. The problem with putting will into the equation is that will can’t be quantified. There have been many documented cases of an instance of superhuman strength coursing through a person when they have to rescue a loved one. We raise our eyebrows, mumble about adrenaline and pretend that will hasn’t affected nature in this reductionistic, strictly material world.
Denigrating human brain power is not something I undertake lightly. Logic works most of the time. A thinking creature who has evolved to be a thinking creature, however, must realize that its own intellect is limited. Simply because we are limited doesn‘t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve, but it does mean that ex cathedra statements, whether from pontiffs or physicists, should be suspect. One would be hard-pressed to label Einstein a believer. Yet even he made the occasional remark that left the door open for, well, maybe not God, but maybe not reductionism either. I was once told, and I believe it to be true, that you can tell a truly educated person not by how much he or she claims to know, but rather by how much she or he claims not to know. It may not seem logical, but down there among the particles of the quantum world, I suspect those willful quarks agree.
Erwinrossen’s image of atoms, the sight eyes can’t see
The deeper you peer into the mouth of nature, the more Lovecraftian the world becomes. Just days after I had posted a little meditation on Cthulhu, the great old god of H. P. Lovecraft’s unholy pantheon broke into the mainstream news. No less a source than NBC ran the headline “Tiny Cthulhu ‘monsters’ discovered in termite guts” only a few days ago. The microbe with the scientific name Cthulhu macrofasciculumque lives in the digestive system of termites, helping them in their destructive work. True, Lovecraft described Cthulhu as a bit bigger than that, but the first appearance of the microbes, according to Megan Gannon, reminded the discoverers of the eponymous terror of the Cthulhu mythos.
From microbes to the major football leagues such as the Baltimore Ravens, writers of the macabre have left their mark on our culture. The darkness they describe so richly is something we all feel at some level, but that we sublimate most of the time so that we can get on with our lives. Cthulhu macrofasciculumque may be very, very small, but the super-viruses and bacteria that we are encountering have the ability to destroy us just as surely as the chimerical colossus of Lovecraft’s nightmares. When we look for a way to describe these terrors, we have brave literary heroes from whom we might draw. We would be lost without them. They make it safe for us to venture into that darkened room, for they have been there before us. Lovecraft gave the world its first scientific description of Cthulhu, and although that description defies adequate reconstruction, we recognize it when we see it.
As Lovecraft saw him.
Science has brought us so very far. We can now see to almost the brink of an infinite universe and delve into the guts of termites. We have the ability to prolong life and increase physical comfort for those who can afford it, and we can annihilate entire nations at the press of a button. Drones can fly overhead and do the dirty work, and we don’t even have to step outdoors. Yet when we meet something that shivers our scientific spines, we turn back to the old gods to name it. Yes, religion may be the bête noire of science, but the dark night of the soul is not illuminated by LED’s or lasers. To see in this dark you need to have the night vision of literary perception. And those lenses, according to Lovecraft, reveal that the old gods are dead but still dreaming.
Posted in Current Events, Deities, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Cthulhu, Cthulhu macrofasciculumque, Cthulhu Mythos, Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Megan Gannon, NBC, science and religion
Catholics, secularists, and even a Pharaoh or two. Loud, pounding music. Dancing teenagers. It must be FIRST Robotics season again. Although I’m ambivalent about the implications of a world filled with robots, I can’t help but be impressed by what high school students can do when they are mentored so closely by adults eager to share the tricks of the trade. If you’re not familiar with FIRST Robotics, here are the basics: each January a new game objective is released. Participating high schools throughout the world have six weeks to plan, design, construct, and program a robot to perform the tasks spelled out. Since this is a busy time of year for many schools, dedicating extra hours to building a robot leads to complaints and loss of sleep—maybe a skipped supper or two. When they come together on the playing field, however, all that is forgotten and the wonder is that kids, who are often disparaged in our society, have managed to construct a working, complex machine capable of tasks impossible for many adults (for example, doing chin-ups).
Every year I can’t help but think how like a religious service these events are. The robots are like deities to be served and the technology flits about like mechanized angels. There is an increasingly complex hierarchy of officials telling you what you can’t do (now this is beginning to feel like work!). At the end of the day, however, the kids get to be the stars in a competition that puts brains over brawn. And the robots are treated with extreme deference, because we know that we wouldn’t stand a chance if they had a will anything like the deities of yore.
The religious imagery, however, is never absent. Technology represents humans doing things without divine intervention. These are empirically devised devices, performing according to the laws of physics. And yet, teams from Catholic high schools, bearing mythologically-laden names, join in the world where no gods need apply. Robots, as initially named by Karel Čapek, were human servants, the ultimate in godliness—making images in our likeness to do our bidding. And yet we can’t escape the language of religion when thinking about our own creations. The fascination applies to non-parochial schools as well, with some teams claiming names echoing themes from holy writ. Creating autonomous beings is next to godliness. We make our own future, and, god-like, we hope that nothing goes wrong.
Humans and machines
Science is how we know things. Most things, at least. One of the fundamental aspects of human life not yet grasped by the great empirical method is creativity. We generally have an idea how it works, but, like so much of human experience, it is difficult to describe precisely. When I saw this month’s Scientific American fronting with the headline “Evolution of Creativity”—two of my favorite topics—I knew I’d have to read it. The article by Heather Pringle zeroes in on the archaeology of very early human history. Before modern human, actually. I’d been telling students for years that the development of such traits as artistic representation, burial, music, and an awareness of some forces “out there” could be found tens of thousands of years ago. These, I suggested, marked the beginnings of religious sensibilities. I’d be willing to go even farther, however, and suggest that we share some of these traits with our fellow creatures. Religion may have a biological basis. That’s not where Pringle is going, however, and she addresses not religion, but creativity.
Pringle suggests that evidence for human technology—modest though it may be—stretches back further than the 40K epoch that seemed to house an explosion of human innovation. She shows how sophisticated knowledge of the environment and corresponding innovations were occurring 77,000 years ago, and even earlier. Some of it stretches back before Homo sapiens; stone weapons may be as early as Homo heidelbergensis and kindling fire as early as Homo erectus. Even our Australopithicene cousins seem to have been happily knapping stones two-and-a-half million years ago. The evidence, at the moment, seems to end there. I wonder, however, how far back cognitive development goes. We tend to underestimate the thinking abilities of animals, despite our constant surprise at how smart they seem to be. How very human! How very male, to assume that everything else is here for our use and pleasure.
Scientists often come upon with astonishment ideas that creative folks have been pondering for centuries. Science must be careful—that is one of its limitations. Creativity, the phenomenon Pringle explores, contains, in the words of Lyn Wadley’s team in Science, chemistry and alchemy. Creativity, like religion, isn’t afraid of magic. No doubt, some scientists will claim that true intelligence only begins with humanity. Looking at the way we treat each other, sometimes I doubt that it begins even there. If there is any hope for us, I would humbly suggest, it will come in the form of creativity. It is that very alchemy that keeps me coming back to science, and science will teach us, eventually, that animals are creative too. When we place ourselves among them, we will have created a world.
Posted in Animals, Consciousness, Evolution, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Australopithicus, creativity, Evolution, Heather Pringle, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Lyn Wadley, science, science and religion, Scientific American
So this is the way epiphany works. (I know it’s Lent, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) I sat down to check my personal email after a horrid day at work, and since I have a Verizon account, I can’t help but see the news headline that’s on the page when I open it. When the headline said something about a new continent discovered by scientists under the ocean, I’ll have to admit that Atlantis sounded better than anything I’d heard in the office. So it was worth a click.
Turns out that this isn’t Atlantis at all—I have this habit of making naive assumptions—but a continent just north of Madagascar that sunk some nine million years ago. No happy lemurs or Homo sapiens around then. So when this Atlantis sank, there was nobody around to see it. At least not Plato.
The story was broadcast by Newsy and it made mention of Science World Report. Here’s where the epiphany piphed. I’d never heard of Science World Report. When I went to their site, the wonders of the universe spread out before me. “Dying Stars Reveal the Clue to Extraterrestrial Life: Earth-like Planets Unmasked” read one headline. “How Dinosaurs Evolved the World’s Longest Necks While Giraffes Fell Short.” These are the things I need to brighten me after a rotten day. A world with wonder in it. A world where money is not the sole, or even the highest good. A world where an intellect need not go to waste.
“Human Language May Have Evolved from Birdsong: New Meaning for Communication.” This website is like my eternal monologue in headline format. I’m not naive enough to suppose this website will be the nepenthe for all my workaday woes. But it does serve to remind me that science and religion are not always foes. A religion only becomes belligerent when it takes its truisms too seriously. We evolved in a world of wonder, but we’ve taken great care to remove the wonder from it. As if joy and delight were puerile phantasms with no place in the serious adult world of finance and industry.
I became an educator because I’ve always been in love with ideas. I lost my job in education because I was an idealist. Yes, continents do indeed sink. And while it may not be Atlantis down there, a simple click led me to a world of wonder. And that is, if anything can be, cause for hope.
Posted in Current Events, Evolution, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Science
Tagged Atlantis, dinosaurs, Epiphany, Lent, Madagascar, science, science and religion
God, Reason and Religion, the title of Steven M. Cahn’s book, fit uneasily together. Or so it would seem. Cahn, a philosophy professor, collected together in this little book a set of sixteen short, provocative essays keyed to major topics of the philosophy of religion. I’m always skeptical when I see Reason and Religion together on a book cover. It seems like an unholy plotting is going on. Perhaps it’s because those of us who study religion are often classed together with those who use slipshod techniques to “study” a subject they’ve already made up their minds about. Any scientist who’s seriously tried to learn Akkadian might have to reevaluate that premise. Happily, Cahn is not trying to promote such an idea. He states in the introduction, “My conclusions may be surprising, for although I am not a traditional theist, I find much to admire in a religious life, so long as its beliefs and practices do not violate the methods and results of scientific inquiry.” For books with Reason and Religion on the cover, that can be quite a concession.
One of the biggest faults of religions is their lack of introspection. That is a gross generalization, I know, but there is truth in it. Most religions have been severely challenged by the empirical method. Reason, it turns out, can explain most of what required one—or a multitude of—god(s) to accomplish. At the same time, religion makes people feel secure and happy. My experience of science has often been enlightening, but decidedly prickly. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Nevertheless, Cahn takes the reader through a maze of ways to think about religions from different angles. What is the tie between religion and ethics? How do we tell a good deity from a bad one? What is faith and is it a safe bet? Do miracles happen? These kinds of questions, when viewed rationally, don’t always have the dreadful results so often feared. So maybe the laws of physics aren’t violated, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop praying. Did I mention that Cahn makes concessions?
We are the cultural children of our logical, Greek forebears. They taught us to trust our reason and we’ve developed that to a high skill. Yet reason has its limits. Consider the Republican Party, for instance. Or Snooki. In life not everything adds up. Facing their final moments, few have the fortitude to keep their thoughts purely on the rational. What lies beyond we just don’t know. Science has no way of answering. So Reason and Religion should get along. There may be more than one way of knowing, and some things in our world may bridge that deep gulf between Reason and Religion. That bridge may sometimes be difficult to find. If you decide to seek it out, however, I would recommend taking Cahn along for some good reading. Even the most serious search must offer some concessions.
Religion concerns itself with the big issues. The biggest. As a child, I remember wondering how anyone could be concerned with less than the ultimate. No, I wasn’t a nascent Tillichian, I was just someone who saw things in what I supposed was a practical light. If you’ve got the temporary, the fleeting, the insubstantial over here, and the permanent, immortal, supreme over there—who wouldn’t go for the gusto? I suppose by my reasoning that all people would end up clergy of some sort, we would all be fixated on why we’re here and what our purpose was. You’ll still find pockets of theologians here and there who debate these kinds of issues, but our existence has grown comfortable enough that, for some people at least, if this ends up being all there is then, gosh, it’s been a fun ride thank you very much. But I don’t want to get out of the train just yet. I wonder if there’s more than the ultimate. It is a religious question.
For a while I grew enamored of the trappings of religion. Ceremony, ritual, strong rhetoric in sermons—these things can move you, and become beguiling. Somehow, knowing there’s an infinite universe just outside the church doors gives me pause for consideration. The ultimate must be very big. Walking through a large city helps to provide some perspective. I find myself next to buildings that cause me to tremble when I consider the implications. Next to those tons and tons of stone, steel, and glass, I am the smallest spark. But those buildings are dwarfed by the city that contains them, and that city a mere pinpoint on a map of the country. Even the planet is less than an atom in the universe of infinite size. Who can help but to be concerned about the scope of it all? Ever since I was a child I’ve worried about this.
In the media today, religion is all about hypocrisy and whose pants are at what latitude vis-a-vis whom. While matters of love are ultimate in their own way, we, as people, have a much larger space with which to concern ourselves. Science has stepped up to the dock when it comes to sworn testimony about the universe we inhabit, but even scientists shrug once we get back before the big bang. Time is even more inexorable than space—there’s always got to be a time before time. Like any child we can always ask, and what happened before that? Perhaps time is the true ultimate. Thank you for spending a bit of your ultimate reading this. It’s time for me to catch the bus, but work will never inspire me the way the rest of the universe does.
Hubble’s eye view