The Sciences

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part VI

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 11, 2008 4:58 AM


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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.

No one can emerge from a consideration of religion without thanking William James. —Ursula Goodenough Last week we poked around trying to define the contours of the traditional debate on science and religion. I used terms like the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky to lay out the ways we have become conditioned to seeing Science and the domains human spirituality discussed in public. These debates often turn around familiar poles of evidence vs. scripture or faith vs. reason. The problem with the traditional debate, especially its creationism/intelligent design vs. evolution version, is that it sucks all the air out of the room. The debate has been going on for so long and with such vehemence that it appears nothing else could possibly be said on the subject. Today I want to begin discussing alternative approaches that don’t orbit the burnt-out sun of the creationism vs. atheism debate. The first step is to recognize that some very talented people have tread some of this ground before. The need to focus on faith in the religion and science debate seems to be taken, ironically, as an article of faith. This, however, ignores some vibrant lines of scholarship on religion and human spirituality over the last century. In particular, it ignores William James. William James was one of the founders of modern psychology and also an influential philosopher, which contributed to him being known as “that adorable genius” during his time. Though religion was an essential part of his childhood, as an adult he turned to science as the basis for his investigations. But as he reached middle age, his interest shifted to more philosophical issues, including religion. He was suspicious of academic theology, saying the systematic “block universes” they created were sterile creations of the Mind and never touched the real importance of spiritual feeling. So James stayed away from grand overarching theories that tried explaining everything under a single rubric. From this perspective he wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, a tremendously influential book that forms a staple of religious studies classes. In it James offers his now famous definition of religion:

Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine… The problem I have set myself is a hard one: … to defend … “experience” against “philosophy” as being the real backbone of religious life.

That turn from theology to experience irrevocably alters the character of the inquiry and the nature of questions James asks us to address. “Divine” is a word that many scientists blanch at, but James gives considerable latitude in his definition of the term. Most importantly he does not force it into the concept of God in the Abrahamic tradition:

A chance of controversy comes up over the word divine if we take the definition in too narrow a sense. There are systems of thought which the world calls religious and yet do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case… Accordingly, when in our definition of religion when we speak of an individual’s relation to what he considers the divine, we must interpret the divine very broadly...

What matters for James is not a person’s experience of God in any scripturally defined sense. Instead, religious experience provides the individual sense of an encounter with the source of the sacred. It is an encounter with the sacred character of the world as it is experienced. That experience may be interpreted in the context of a particular religious tradition but it need not be. James, that adorable genius, thereby gets to stick another feather in his cap: for providing us with a first step in breaking out of the confines of the traditional Science vs. Religion debate. So what happens if we turn away from doctrine, dogma, and creed? Where do we end up if we turn away from the fetish of Results? What if we turn instead to the irreducible domains of our own experience? What happens to the discussion of Science and Religion then? Next post in the series: Gimmie Back My Words! The Sacred in Science and Life

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