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The Sullen and the Silly: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part II

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankJan 27, 2008 4:18 PM

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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.

Not surprisingly, I managed to piss off a few people with my last post , as well as generate some thoughtful responses (including Sean Carroll's highly relevant thoughts). What I was thinking out loud about is the need for a different perspective on science and religion. The times demand both it, and our creativity. But getting anywhere new requires getting away from those ways of thinking that stopped being useful or interesting a long time ago. The public debate on science and religion has two dominant forms: the Sullen and the Silly. The Sullen are the snarly legions of Fundamentalists, Creationists, and Literalists who have clogged the courtrooms and airwaves for decades. They drive the endless, pointless debate about evolution vs. scripture. We’ll push that rusted hulk an argument off a cliff in the next post. The other mode of public debate—the Silly—focuses on new age enthusiasms for “quantum” spirituality. I’ll be happy to dance on that grave after we deal with the Sullen. But before we get any further, we have to make sure we properly spread the blame, like manure, where it belongs. In case anyone thinks the goal is here is a snarkfest about the ignorance of the scientifically unsophisticated I’ll remind you of sciences’ own prejudices. There are real and legitimate concerns that scientists have about discussions of the gray areas of human spiritual aspiration. But science as an institution has its own blind spot when it comes to this subject. From graduate school on, there are places we scientists are subtly taught it is best not to go. You don’t often see scientists admitting to a deep and abiding sense of the world’s inner life among our colleagues. It would be profoundly uncomfortable—kind of like getting hit upside the head with a basketball in seventh grade gym class and then bursting into tears. It’s a place everyone learns not to go (especially if you grew up in Jersey). These prejudices limit science and its response in the science v. religion debate. If we are not careful, we run the risk of being just as biased as those we condemn in their dismissal or disregard for science. Yes, the term “religion” is often colored by the taint of power and politics, but the lived experience of a spiritual dimension in human life is so common that to ignore it is just foolish. It’s an old, old feeling that speaks to an aspect of human being that is elemental. People encountering a sense of the sacred in the world represents a fundamental experience that has been constant across 50,000 years of culture. It is also an experience shared by millions of open-minded, thoughtful people today. There are many who experience “spirituality” as a lived presence in their lives, but are also touched by the beauty and power of science. (In a future post I will deal with definitions of words like “sacred.”) They are the ones caught between dogmas of both sides in the public debate between science and religion. These folks are open to seeing their own religious traditions as part of a worldwide continuum of spiritual longing. Most importantly they know their way is not the only way. They also experience the dimension of their lives as something real and present. It is this reality that the institutions of science may appear to deny, just as the institutions of religion so often police the borders of belief. It is this reality that the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins completely ignore in their (justified) beef with the Sullen. So yeah, religious literalism is dumb and dangerous. Lots of us get that. But that point does not even begin to exhaust all that can be said about science and human religious experience, or all that can be said about the true and the real. So it is time to move off the desiccated evolution vs. creationism axis and create a new direction in our thinking. Science’s vision is so powerful and arresting that seeing it as part of something larger and grander does not diminish it. It is time to go orthogonal and reach for some higher ground, to give us a better view of where and who we are. Next up: the blogger wrestles with the forces of Sullenity...

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