Some secular thinkers have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to convince religious people that science is more awe-inspiring than God or faith. Why aren’t we capable of appreciating the awesomeness of the Universe, they wonder? Is it the manmade ritual and imaginary miracles that we find exciting?
This was actually a subject of discussion at the Beyond Belief Conference as early as 2006. A group of conference participants debated if perhaps they ought to concoct some science rituals to replace religious ones. Maybe, the theory went, religious people needed some sort of awe and ritual connected to science to make them comfortable with it. The idea was broached by, among others, Caroline Porco, the head of the Cassini space imaging project.
The assumption seems to be that religious people find awe in miracles and what one might call “God lore” instead of the wonders of nature or human creation and imagination.
Really? I was raised in a Christian family. Not a marginally or nominally Christian family but an every day of the week, devoted Christian family. My mom was the choir director; both parents taught Sunday school. One of my best childhood memories was a “ritual” that we had. My dad would take me out into the front yard on clear nights and we’d lie on the lawn with a powerful set of field glasses ooh-ing and ah-ing over the stars. Staring at the Milky Way and desiring to fly “out there” was one of my favorite pastimes. I grew up loving astronomy, being fascinated by physics, geology, and volcanology, I told people I was from Mars—my favorite planet. Since we lived in tornado alley, I developed a fascination with cyclones and considered becoming a meteorologist.
That was then; this is now: just today we had a solar eclipse. My husband, our kids and our houseguest all stood on the back patio with pinhole cameras ooh-ing and ah-ing over the display of orbital mechanics.
To be sure, these things do remind me of bits of scripture. I can’t look at the stars without thinking of the 19th Psalm:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
Or pore over photos from the Hubble Space Station and think of the 8th:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
(Especially given his attempts to disown You.) My belief in God or—more to the point—the Psalmist’s belief in God, seems not to have decreased our sense of awe in the wonders of nature.
Despite the claim that religious people are blind and deaf to the awe of nature or of human creativity, I know too many religious people who are amazed by the cosmos and passionate about science to take it seriously. I’m frankly surprised that anyone does. And as to the creativity and mindfulness that makes humans capable of appreciating the Universe and our place in it, I have to ask: if the Universe is devoid of conscious creativity and mindfulness—with the obvious exception of the human spirit and intellect—whence that mindfulness and creativity?
Ah, yes, There’s that nagging question about the uniqueness of the human spirit—however you define it. Is this consciousness confined to just this one speck of dust in all the vast cosmos?
To echo the Skeptical Inquirer sticker on my guitar case: I doubt it.
In the course of her remarks at the Beyond Belief conference, Dr. Porco noted that Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has conditions conducive to the development of life—water, warmth, etc. An article on her presentation commented that
‘If it is ultimately found that life has developed twice in this solar system alone, we can assume it has occurred a staggering number of times in the cosmos as a whole – and such a finding would prove, in Porco’s understated words, “very difficult for religious doctrine.”’
The comment made me smile, at first, because as a Bahá’í and a science fiction writer, it seems a peculiar assertion. I frequently write about first contact and I fully expect that someday we will come into contact with another race of “human” beings—that is beings who, however different they may appear, will have rational souls and intellects capable of reason and abstract and creative thought. Back in the ‘70’s when the moon missions were still news, I wasn’t sure what to believe about life “out there” until I read the Bahá’í scriptures on the subject. Bahá’u’lláh—taking on both “young earth” proponents and those who believe this planet the only ark of life in the Universe wrote:
“The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergencies that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute.” — Gleanings p. 163
How cool is that? I thought. I loved science and science fiction. Between Bahá’u’lláh’s injunction to seek knowledge, His elevation of scientific discovery to the level of worship and this tidbit of information, writing science fiction instead of merely daydreaming about it seemed a no-brainer.
I said that the comment made me smile at first. On further thought, I got less smiley. Misconceptions and miscommunication can have humorous results. They can also cause two people or groups of people to think of each other as adversaries or even enemies when they do not need to be either. To be sure, there are some religious people who turn a blind eye to the cosmos and to science. There are atheists who do the same thing. I was stunned to discover that there were atheists who do not accept evolution as the mechanism by which we got here. And atheists who do not believe in the findings of environmental science. And atheists who hold racist attitudes despite what the human genome project has revealed about human interrelatedness.
Finding awe and wonder in the cosmos is not a secular condition. Indeed, my faith encourages me to revere science and the scientific process and to highly value scientific discovery.
All of which reminds me of another bit of scripture: “O God, increase my astonishment at Thee.”
Next time: Religion encourages shallow thinking.