Sacred in the Mundane: Closing Arguments on Science and Religion

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankApr 14, 2008 3:00 AM


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So it’s time to finish the thread on this discussion of science and religion. Many thanks to Melissa and DISCOVER for giving me the space to paint some ideas on this most contentious but vital subject. I am also extremely grateful to everyone who shared his or her thoughts in the comments. I learned a great deal from those discussions. In closing, I think its appropriate time to ask why the issue of "Science vs. Religion" or "Science and Religion" or whatever you want to call it matters at all. Why should we care? To answer that question, it’s best to face backwards. Some time between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, something wonderful happened inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The light went on. We woke up to a sky full of repeating patterns, to an Earth incessantly shaped by wind and water, to environments shared with a wild abundance of life. Most importantly, we woke up to interior lives that responded to this vast "found" world with an emerging culture of painting, carvings, and music. An essential aspect of this new human culture was mythological narratives of origins and endings. These grand myth systems set us in context against the backdrop of the experienced universe. Our mythologies created meaning by both explaining the world and interpreting the human place within it. Imagination and observation were braided strands of these narratives. Builders of Neolithic monuments with their multiple astronomical orientations were, in their way, paying attention to the world while simultaneously attending to internal responses to the night sky and the cycle of the seasons. These were our beginnings. These were the imperatives that would later evolve into the modern forms of science and religion. We have been at this game for a long time. The reason I, as a non-believing scientist, care about the so-called science and religion debate is because it touches something very deep and very ancient in us. As a passionate advocate for science, I believe the current form of the debate, with its insistence on a narrow choice between faith and reason, misses something elemental in our long march across those millennia. Asking questions about science and spiritual endeavor (as opposed to institutional religion) means going beyond what science explains. While the tired traditional debate is always about explanations (the sullen arguments for creationism) a broader discussion does not have to keep this focus. In the end, we are asking what science means as cultural endeavor. We are asking how it creates meaning as a background of ideas and stories which sets us against our day-to-day lives. And that is exactly the point at which we might see something simultaneously ancient, new, and full of possibilities. A different and enlivened perspective on science and religion would remember where we came from over 50,000 years. It would acknowledge the function within us that spiritual endeavor carried for all that time. It would understand how we cannot help but carry on with these traditions of thinking and feeling. Then it would use what we have learned and take us someplace new. Science is one of the supreme achievements of human culture—it is one measure of the best we are capable of, and the best we can aspire towards. Our lives have been made immeasurably richer through its practice and its boons. What has mostly been missed, however, is the capacity of its worldview to open us up to that character of life that can only be called sacred. Rather than thinking of this contentious word “sacred” as speaking to some imaginary supernatural realm, we could see it differently. We could see it as that attitude of attention that science asks of us in response to even the smallest thing. Every sunrise, every birdsong, every anthill passed on the way to some errand is worthy of rapt of attention if we are willing to step through that doorway. Science is not a philosophy; it’s an approach to the world with rules which guide our attention and reason. In that approach, it shows us what is sacred in the mundane. It makes the ordinary stand out and speak for itself. Through that attention, science simultaneously connects us with many millennia of spiritual tradition, and turns those traditions on their head. What is sacred is not part of some far-off realm of ideals and angels. It is right before us, always. There is no doubt that the fruits of science and technology have enriched our lives. There can also be no doubt that our world has become saturated with its poisons as well. From climate change to resource depletion, we face issues so vast and so new that marshaling the collective will to act will require new mythologies of our planetary habitation. Any path forward to get us through this dangerous bottleneck cannot focus simply on the application of science. It must go farther to embrace the wise application of science. That will not be a simple matter of reason. Our response to the challenges we face will also come from what we hold most dear, what overflows with value for us. In a word our response will come from what we take to be sacred. That is why the science and religion debate matters. That is why finding a different perspective on science and spiritual endeavor is about more than echo chamber debates about creationism vs. Darwin. Fifty-thousand years ago, when we began the radical, ceaselessly creative act of creating culture, the seeds of both science and religion were already present. Now, with a fully mature scientific tradition developed, we come to another turning point in evolution that will likely demand a creativity that is just as radical. I’ll keep posting on these other topics at while starting work on my next book (and continuing with the astrophysics day job of course).

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

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