God, Science, and the Tension We Could Do Without
God and Science have long been at odds, and –in many respects– this tension is understandable. The claims they make, after all, often contradict each other in serious ways. This rivalry is usually unnecessary, though, and there is little hope for progress in such a clashing. The attacks from either end are often petty, superficial, and slanderous. Heated religious figures will accuse science of being cold, hard, and devoid of moral or social sensitivity. They claim that the world of reason is a ruthless world in which right and wrong crumble and lofty notions like faith or love or charity cannot endure. The side of reason will often come back proudly wielding the banner of ‘the obvious’: The world is older than the bible says it is, God is an improbable being, the Bible is a vicious and violent collection of fiction, which if you follow literally, will turn you into a genocidal maniac. Both of these arguments carry with them a tinge of validity, but both, I think, miss the point.
A literal interpretation of the Bible is a rather new manner of Biblical interpretation. Like all myth, it was not originally written as historical record. Myth, rather than convey its meaning through the denotative significance of its parts, construed its essence in much the same way that authors of fiction do today. Children are not taught to read fables and assume that animals can speak or that rabbits frequently lose races to tortoises, but they do glean something else from such a tale. Namely, that ‘slow and steady wins the race’.
As Karen Armstrong points out in her book, A Case for God, the importance of keeping an accurate historical record did not generally arise until much later in history. Now, we take it for granted that everyone should do their best to portray events as accurately as is possible. The authors of the Old Testament did not share this inclination. Rather, they wrote stories that encompassed meaning in the form of underlying themes, archetypes, parables, practices and so on. Religion was, then, as Armstrong continually points out, a practice, not a theory. It did not matter that Adam and Eve were entirely fictional, or that God even –though I sincerely doubt they would have admitted this much –was fictional; it was about the relationship between humankind and what could only be seen as the divine magic of the cosmos that surrounded them, and it was about personal truths. The character of Yahweh, as a matter of fact, was not always so human-like. This was a later development in his ‘divine evolution,’ and probably one of the greatest contributing factors to the present-day confusion amongst religious communities. What this single, supreme being grew out of was a more unintelligible and transcendent sense of being altogether.
Many eastern religions maintain this sense of a transcendent divine. Nirvana, for example, is not an intelligible form, but rather an all-encompassing essence. The relationship between a human and Nirvana is not one in which thoughts and desires are communicated through some practice like prayer, but rather one in which the human being attempts to tap into the higher-level ‘unknown.’ Nirvana does not have a beard, nor does it have hands with which to smite. So too, was the sense of the Judeo-Christian God in its early developmental stages.
Science and reason came into play a little later. After interpretations of the divine became a little wild, people saw it fit to question their validity. Zeus, for example, had become more than a fictional means to a spiritual end, more than a myth. He, for many, had become a strong, all-powerful, wielder of lighting that resided atop an actual mountain. The early ‘scientists’, if you can call them that, were philosophers really. They wanted to reduce the world into intelligible parts. They believed that there was an explanation for everything, and that the universe was governed by some unknown laws. To them, the universe was not controlled by divine forms with names and desires and knowledge, it was rather a larger sense of something, some all-pervasive order that could, through the practice of rational thought –and later, the scientific method –come to be understood. These thinkers were inspired by the same sense of magic that inspired earlier humans to develop the divine in the first place. The magic that they witnessed, the awesome ‘transcendent’ order, was –for all intents and purposes –Nirvana, Brahmin, Yahweh. They rightly believed that this order did not have a name or purpose or teachings or demands, but they did believe that it could be understood. Their relationship to this order was exercised through the practice of rational thought and experiment instead of ritualistic sacrifice and meditation. They approached ‘God’ with different means of attaining a similar goal –of experiencing or understanding the order that they saw around them. It was a modified relationship with existence to be sure, but a relationship nonetheless.
The sides soon split, however, and went very different ways. Both have produced good in the world, both have produced bad. On the one hand, science has been a force of progress and understanding, giving us the modern conditions we all enjoy (and take for granted). It has eradicated many diseases that might have eradicated us, it has provided us with the technology that brought us to the moon, that brought us the cell phone, the airplane, the television. We live as long as we do now because of medicine. We travel great distances because of the progress in locomotion. On the other hand it has given us the atomic bomb and ever more creative and destructive means of warfare. Religion has provided immeasurable comfort, charity, and has been the driving force behind the production of much great art. It is also behind many suicide bombings, crusades, and violent discrimination. The detrimental usage of either science or religion is not the topic of this post, and really is beside the present point. The evil stemming out of either side is born out of wicked hearts, and does not truly inhere to either. The clash between science and religion, which often includes an exhaustive list of negative consequences such as the above mentioned, seems to be a petty turf war.
Despite many noble intentions to keep them separate, science and religion do overlap. Science has answered some questions that were once thought to be purely in the realm of religious or spiritual disciplines like, ‘How did we get here?’ ‘What is the Earth?’ ‘What are the heavens made of?’ Religious answers, which seem to be pushed away with each discovery, are forced into an uncomfortable corner. One natural reaction to being cornered is to lash out. This is why there is a rebirth of fundamentalist religion today, and why we continue to find ourselves in heated debates of the Creation vs. Evolution nature. Wherever science cannot explain something, it is the habit of fundamentalists to inject their Gods into the chasm. Where there are gaps in evolution, God is said to be responsible. Where there are gaps in quantum theory, it could only be God that resides within them. This is an unhelpful and time-consuming practice which has great minds like Richard Dawkins wasting his time and energy defending against non-arguments. The scientist sees these gaps as territory for further research, and is excited to delve into them. He or she is the first to admit that they do not know, and they do so joyously because they are inspired to find out. To put it in term that Dawkins himself uses often, “We’re working on it.”
While I think that scientists should probably just ignore these non-arguments and focus on their work, I can understand their frustration. Taking the Bible literally or simply pushing God into the scientific voids is illogical and ineffective. As I said before, the Bible wasn’t written as history. The ‘truth’ of the religion should not lie atop its text, but rather beneath it, in the practices and tales that bring about a change in attitude or understanding of the self without imposing any understanding outright. They are not truths in the scientific sense. The book of Genesis never was, and should never be considered a theory of universal origin. Religion, to bring Karen Armstrong’s point forth once more, is a practice, like Yoga or meditation. What comes out of the practice is meant to be rewarding and enriching, helpful in some way. Sadly, though, this view of religion is idealized, and many religious people insist upon the scriptures as historical fact, which aside from being frustratingly incredible, also makes for a lot of the unnecessary tension we see around us today. From this tension comes the bold claim that a world ruled by science and reason is a ruthless, dog-eat-dog world wherein the goodness of humanity slips away and self-interest alone comes to dominate. But how could this be?
It is true, we should not see science as a source for moral guidance. But does that mean that the scientist or the rational person cannot develop their own way to live morally? After all, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? Can a person, through rational thought, not come to the conclusion that they should not steal, kill, or lie? Isn’t it possible that rational people will develop personal religious-like behavior? Of course it is. To humor the argument, lets say that reason does end up leading one to a ruthless perspective with no requirement of morality. Is it so absurd to think that the person will rebel against their reason and act morally in spite of it? Morality, wherever it does come from –and I think there is no single source –can not only be attributed to God. After all, there are many Godless people about who do not murder or steal. Why? Because they have found, through whatever means were available to them, that murder and theft are bad. I think we can and should dispatch the claim that reason and science lead to moral decay. The practice of science is far from cold and lifeless. It is filled with passion and yearning and drive. It is, in many respects, a more profound and magical practice than any other.
As humans we cannot help but see the world as magically ordered. Everywhere around us, there is a ‘force’ at work. This force keeps the planets in orbit, it brings winter, spring, summer, and fall, it is in the striped rocks of the desert and the beating heart of the elk. It is in our parents eyes as they hold our infant bodies, in their breath as we lay napping upon their rising and falling breasts. It is in the air, somehow, all around us. It is in the stars at night and in the sun at noon. It is literally everywhere. It is existence, in all its infinite forms, and it is in our minds as we struggle –usually in vain –to perceive it. This sense of existence strikes reverence and awe into all of us. Some people find it pleasurable to develop a religious relationship with this sense of reality, and if this brings people the joy they seek, then it is a good relationship. Others, more skeptical perhaps, more critical, more rational, do not stop there. It is not enough to say that ‘it is magic and as such I will revere it.’ No. They go into the unknown, inspired by it, seeking to explain it. They dissect existence down to the particle and up to the universe entire. They do not do this in spite of whatever Gods our species has fabricated, they do it precisely because there is an underlying sense of God that is not fabricated at all. It is reality with all of its subtleties– the quarks, the charges, the cosmic microwave background, the relativistic effects of gravity. This sense has no name, no interests, no commands, and it does not do its inspirational work through fear or authority. It is there because the universe is there, and because we are here with our limited means of observing it.
Our ‘relationship’ with this unknowing is our own to define, but I believe that science, far from belittling such a relationship –as many religious figures imply –offers us an enhanced bond, one that is more beautiful and more magical simply because it is true. Contrary to what many might believe, I think it is science, not religion, that will come to give us a greater understanding of ‘God’. We do not need to sacrifice goats on an altar or ritualistically sing in special buildings. Instead, we smash particles together and send spacecrafts and radio-waves out to explore. In pursuing these more scientific ends, we not only enrich our experience of the world we live in, but we also increase our chances of living in it longer. Catastrophe marks the cosmic calendar, and prayer won’t cut it when, say, an asteroid comes rocketing our way. Science, though, whether it be with solar sails, reflective paint, bombs, or rockets, might stay that apocalypse and give us all more time on Earth. It will do this because it has peered into the unknown and now knows, because it does not accept that reality is a magic trick, but rather that it is a masterful illusion, whose meticulous workings we can, and should, attempt to understand. The scientific method may be a ‘faithless’ ritual, but it is through this ritual that humankind might someday come to know the God(s) that we have claimed to know since first we saw the heavens. It is the job of science know the cosmos, within and without the human mind. It is the job of religion to tend to the tumultuous human spirit, which, whether it exists or not, we cannot help but feel needs tending.