Disclaimer: This article deals with ambiguous sociological concepts. Many religious terms are used loosely, often in a different context from traditional beliefs in both the atheist community and in the religious community. Context is provided where needed. The word “religion” generally refers to supernatural religions.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein, The Merging of Spirit and Science
In the above quote by Einstein, the condition of the “mysterious” that he refers to is neither a state of ignorance of reality, nor one of rational understanding (both of which together form the limits of the factual knowledge gradient). He seems to be alluding to an emotional purpose that transcends both these states.
Knowledge and Emotion:
Before I present the thesis of this article, I want to assert that human emotional purpose is on a different dimension to the one containing knowledge itself, both dimensions being facets of the human experience. Factual knowledge and emotion are separate and yet interdependant aspects of human beings.
Despite evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s infamous assertion about the separation between religion and science, the two magesteria really do overlap. The bubbling battle between religion and science for socio-political domination, is evidence for the existence of this mutually inclusive contentious territory between the two. The defense of science comes in the form of a philosophical line between itself and religion, drawn by those who study “the demarcation problem“. Those of us who follow the progress of scientific understanding are aware that this demarcation line has been pushed far into religion’s traditional territory over the decades. This is indeed because of the resilience of the scientific method in explaining reality.
Both religion and science are in a race to control the factual knowledge dimension, and science is making solid progress there.
However, the emotional dimension is not being addressed in the debate between the two. While religion has always exerted its control over the emotional dimension, science has been passive in this regard. Thus, while science may be winning on the knowledge front, society is still ruled by the primitive emotions of conditioned thought that religion breeds.
Science has, for the most part, ignored that “mysterious” emotional quality that Einstein referred to, while religion has influenced the emotional dimension since cultures invented mystical explanations. Even the phrase “mystical explanation” is a religious construct to marry the emotional (mystical) dimension with a knowledge claim (explanation) manufactured by religion.(Note: Here “mystical” is used in a general sense to refer to the emotional sense of wonder).
My argument is that in the light of the new and superior system of knowledge called science, “mystical explanations” need not be false religious ones, but can be true scientific ones. They can be a way of looking into the window of objective reality that science opens to us, with the subjective eyes that open the internal window into our sense of emotional well-being.
As an example, consider Carl Sagan here:
Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. –Carl Sagan
Sagan’s soulful (there’s another one of those words) agony at the insignificance of humanity in the vastness of the universe is as powerful an emotion as his ecstatic joy at being allowed by science this glimpse into a reality that is orders of magnitude more magnificent than anything written or imagined by the world’s great “prophets”.
You may notice that there is a semantic game being played here by adopting the words “mysticism” and “soul” to portray an emotional view of a scientific concept. I will soon explain why I believe that learning how to play this game of semantics is key to the survival of our values and ideas, but first let us question our assumptions about the need for a scientific sentimentalism.
Can Science Afford to Leave the Emotional Dimension to Religion?
The emotional purpose is that which gives us our humanity. It is what gives us our morality and our culture. So let us look at this emotional dimension a little closer.
Here are three areas where emotion is key to human culture:
- Human Interaction: This is by far the area of human emotional behavior that is the most contested between religion and reason. It consists of morality and social tradition. The rules of social organization that religion imposed on young cultures thousands of years ago have become archaic and obscure as civilizations learned and grew up into reason. But the myth that morals are derived from a divine source is still very persuasive in our culture. Science must influence the emotions controlling human social interactions by promoting knowledge and moral education in social contexts. We must push for alternatives to the religious morality being taught in Churches, Temples and Mosques. We must prepare for a future of ethical and compassionate young rationalists to carry the torch of human endeavor into the next social paradigm.
- Art, literature and music: No atheist will deny that religion has had a huge influence on the arts. From Michaelangelo’s paintings to the ancient sculptures devoted to Hindu gods and goddesses, from the architecture of the Islamic enlightenment to Bach’s ethereal compositions, from the great epics of Milton and Valmiki to the eight classical dance-forms in India, religion is pervasive in our culture. Art that is inspired by religion adds beauty to our cultural sphere. But this beauty will not diminish when we relegate those religious beliefs to the pages of mythology. Roman and Egyptian art still stand for powerful symbols of human capacity for beauty, although the supernatural beliefs that inspired the art are not in favor any more. Thus the value of Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Buddhist art will still contain emotional value long after those belief systems are mythologized and considered as the quaint fables believed by an ancient people. I am not incapable of appreciating great art inspired by religion, but there is no reason why we cannot create art from the grander inspirations of nature. Even today, Indian art is mostly religious, especially in the commercial art market. This must change.
- Pursuit of happiness: Without a subjective and emotional perspective, life cannot be. It is obvious that our most basic actions are controlled by emotion and not by reason. Furthermore, naturalistic philosophy implies that objective logic has limitations in this regard and that pursuing subjective wants such as happiness is left to the emotional aspects of our personalities. Our desires and dreams are subject to emotion. But we MUST remember to apply the emotional perspective only to non-naturalistic areas of our lives, and always use reason and science when dealing with factual claims. This is a complicated area and I will try to address it in future posts.
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein, 1954
To answer the question posed by the sub-heading, no, I don’t think science can afford to leave the emotional dimension to religion.
The Semantics: New-age Mysticism Vs Scientific Mysticism:
We all draw lines to mark our understanding of ideas. For example, many of us like to think of the line between science and religion as a clear boundary. One set of beliefs is evidence-based and the other is faith-based. (Some folk would disagree, saying that there could be evidence-based religions, but I’m only concerned with supernatural religions here.)
I’d like to direct your attention to a few other such boundaries, some not so clearly defined.
Consider the idea of “mysticism” that I alluded to above. Let’s say that mysticism usually refers to emotional concepts, but occasionally makes factual claims about reality. Now, it is quite clear that those factual claims contained in any mystical statement can be analyzed for scientific validity. This draws a line through the idea of “mysticism”. There can be mystical claims that are true (scientifically) and those that are not. If the emotional perspective is indeed as indispensable to humans as I propose above, then it is imperative that scientific mysticism replace religious mysticism in all aspects of culture.
The problem is complicated by the popularity of parasitic ideas such as new-age mysticism. Let me explain.
New-age beliefs run the entire gamut, from factual claims to supernatural claims. The one thing they have in common is a supernaturalistic appeal to concepts that were discovered/popularized through the successes of science. Very often scientific ideas are stolen from their contexts and built into supernatural ideas, claiming the latter as scientific fact. For example, there is quantum mysticism, magnetic therapy, electronic ghost hunting, space-traveling aliens, homeopathy, phrenology and so on- all ideas that borrow their credibility from the legitimacy of scientific language. This is a semantic game. Religions have been very successful at appealing to popular memes in society, usurping them in order to gain a presence. This is very similar to the way in which mainstream religions such as Christianity take on some distinguishing characteristics of the local traditional beliefs when they spread to new areas. There are plenty of examples of this, notably in South America and Africa. In a similar fashion, new-age mysticism adopts the power of scientific language into its deceptive arsenal.
In general scientists don’t want to talk about mysticism because of the fear of being misunderstood as promoting new-age concepts. I think that they are right to fear the new-age movement, because the new-age folk are very well tuned into the mind-set of the masses. In the liberal community new-age beliefs have become the dominant religious force, just as fundamentalist beliefs dominate the religious right. However, I believe that scientists must not ignore mysticism altogether simply because they feel that the price of being accused of new-age mysticism is too high. Instead, science educators must attempt to clarify the misunderstandings, clearly drawing the line between new-age mysticism and scientific mysticism in order to protect society from the former.
There is a war of linguistic annexation going on. Religion wants the words that science has because these ideas in their scientific contexts have proved themselves time and again and have a newly found legitimacy in political thought. Science, however, has become reticent to borrow terminology from religion. I am arguing that science must turn around and annex mystical language, allowing scientific mysticism to claim a prominent role in humanity’s emotional understanding of our natural world.
The early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is known for his thoughts on language and on the meaning of words used in understanding complex concepts. When the meaning of these words are ambiguous, they must be well-defined before we form our understanding of the concepts they describe. This is particularly important in today’s information age where we have neither the time nor the patience to sort through the exponentially increasing quantities of descriptive data available.
There is a feeling in the popular culture that as large qualtities of information becomes more accessible to everyone, through the global spread of ideas and cultures, people will be better-off in general. This is not supported by the evidence. To the contrary, it appears more and more likely that information overload can actually have the opposite effect. The clinical psychologist Steve Beller writes,
I’m defining information overload as a state of having more information available than one can readily assimilate, that is, people have difficulty absorbing the information into their base of knowledge. This hinders decision-making and judgment by causing stress and cognitive impediments such as confusion, uncertainty and distraction.
Beller is specifically talking about the quantity of information vs the quality of knowledge paradox in the health-care field, when he describes “a viscous cycle of information input –> information overload –> information rejection–> inhibited knowledge growth.” It can be argued that this state of perpetual information overload occurs across the board in the age of the internet. Couple this over-abundance of information with a) shorter attention spans, b) less awareness of philosophical concepts because of more focus on skill-training in schools rather than on critical thought and c) the booming pop-culture with its fascination for fleeting & transitional pleasures, and it is clear that developing a culture of scientifically aware individuals is becoming increasingly challenging. This is what I call Wittgenstein’s Nightmare.
The popular rationalist strategy in combating Wittgenstein’s Nightmare is to promote scientific temper, thereby providing the masses with the means of thinking for themselves and evaluating the truth-value of specific claims. It is definitely the most effective strategy, especially for those masses in rural areas who are fooled by simple tricks because they are unaware of science altogether. The brilliant rationalists who write at Nirmukta- Narendra Nayak, Meera Nanda and Prabir Ghosh- are all very accomplished proponents of this effective way of spreading reason. Their work towards this end is priceless. This strategy of spreading awareness of the scientific way of thinking is also a common theme in popular skeptical programs like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. However, this strategy can only be a partial solution. I am committing rationalist heresy, in a manner of speaking, when I say that not all people are interested in learning the scientific method, and some are even incapable of meaningfully internalizing scientific ways of looking at reality! The vast majority of human beings are more interested in appealing to our emotional judgments when it comes to many of the practical issues that are increasingly better understood through science. Also, the scientific method can itself become a victim of Wittgenstein’s Nightmare, causing people to deny science’s naturalistic supremacy because they are confused by false information and propaganda against science.
For these folk, religion provides simpler and more emotionally satisfying answers. Popular culture is now the most influential way to generate consensus on the meaning of terms. This popular culture is driven by the social desires that propel the mass media. Therefore, the solution to Wittgenstein’s Nightmare is to embrace popular emotional aspects of culture, but using scientific reality as the inspiration for the emotion.
I believe that as information grows and the nightmare intensifies, only an emotional rescue of the interests of science will continue the propagation of the scientific way of thought in society. Without developing a scientific mysticism, scientific rationalism will be increasingly hard to preach, while religious mysticism will continue to rise above the muddled chasm of contradictory beliefs regarding reality.
Religion and Naturalism:
The Religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It will transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and spiritual, it will based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. – Albert Einstein
There is no shortage of debate on this subject of reconciling science, emotion and culture in our society. The most poignant of these debates is in the philosophical arena. The philosophy behind science is naturalism. In its most general form, naturalism is the understanding that all observed phenomena have natural causes. The religious view, on the contrary, posits supernatural causes.
A few philosophical approaches are trying to bring religion and naturalism together. Prominent among these is religious naturalism, a concept that came out of religious thinkers in America in the mid 19th century. Despite its monastical beginnings, the term is used today not by the religious but by a few brilliant scientific minds. There are different approaches to this idea. There are those trying to save religion by naturalizing it, and those trying to save scientific culture by mysticizing it. I am against the former and vehemently for the latter. As in all cultural endeavors, the boundaries are less clear in practice. Let me demonstrate three different sides to this issue.
Religious Naturalism: If one revels in the beauty and wonder of the natural world that science opens to us, if one marvels at the unknown and quivers at the prospect of finding out what’s out there waiting just beyond reach, if one can find meaning, purpose and a spiritual reason to love life in the scientific reality that we know and understand, then that is religious naturalism.
Carl Sagan can be described as a fervent “religious” naturalist. But he never distorted scientific naturalism in order to incorporate factually unsupported ideas into his emotional worldview.
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love. – Carl Sagan
This is a classic example of religious naturalism. The above mystical statement can be translated factually as: We are small. The universe is vast. Love is a fulfilling emotion that we can experience in relation to a natural universe.
Naturalizing Religion: Taking religion and infusing it with science is attempting to naturalize religion. According to Michael Dowd who wrote the book “Thank God for Evolution“, “Evolution can deepen one’s faith”. In essence, Dowd is preaching the gospel of cognitive dissonance, by incorporating fables into a scientific worldview. This is a corruption of science.
(Update: Michael Dowd has responded to the above criticism in the comments section (highlighted). I may have been harsh in saying that his position in his book is a corruption of science. Also, the quote I presented that refers to “faith” does not show the context in Mr. Dowd uses the word. He has written to me explaining that his use of the word is in a strict naturalistic sense to imply “trust”. His strategy is aimed at religious believers, and although I believe that truly turning the lens of scientific scrutiny onto one’s religious beliefs must lead one to reject the essence of religion itself, I must agree that his approach is primed for the religious mind. Please check out our exchange below.)
The Middle Ground: Ursula Goodenough is one of the leaders in the new revival of the religious naturalism movement. She is a true naturalist as far as her personal beliefs are concerned, not subscribing to any supernatural beliefs. Her book “The Sacred Depths of Nature” beautifully weaves a mystical narrative of the natural world, borrowing heavily from religious language and popular ideas to fill the emotional gaps. Her metaphors are breathtaking.
Patterns of gene expression are to organisms as melodies and harmonies are to sonatas. It’s all about which sets of proteins appear in a cell at the same time (the chords) and which sets come before or after other sets (the themes) and at what rate they appear (the tempos) and how they modulate one another (the developments and transitions). – Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature.
There is, however, another side to her philosophy. Although her book has spawned a new generation of religious naturalists, Goodenough favors sometimes bending the rules of naturalism for the purpose of unifying science and culture. She has no qualms about distorting the naturalistic agenda of science by including those who have supernatural beliefs into the fold of religious naturalists. I should mention, however, that the few times that I have heard her support this position it was in the context of attempting to bring people of different extremes together to accept science.
I think that Goodenough may subscribe to the “practical reality” that David Sloan Wilson preaches. I must disagree with their strategy for three reasons. (1) The first is that this is a deceptive strategy, neither honest to itself nor to its opposition. Science is concerned with objective truth. We cannot condone perpetuating falsehoods while integrating naturalistic reality with emotion. We must ask ourselves if such a misguided society would really be worth striving for, even if we accept the assumption that science will become more mainstream if we allowed religious explanations for naturalistic processes like evolution to go uncriticized. (2) My second opposition is to the assumption that such a deceptive strategy that compromises the integrity of the scientific understanding of reality would really be effective in making science more popular/mainstream. I am yet to see any evidence for this popular claim by those appealing for this deception. (3) Finally, I also have a semantic disagreement with some of these religious naturalists. I feel that they are taking the word game to the other extreme, where naturalism loses its significance because the terms being co-opted into scientific mysticism are too loaded. Words like “Spiritual”, “Love”, “Mystical”, “Beauty” are all fine because they are easily understood as metaphysical metaphors for specific emotional states. However, terms like “Religion” and “God” are going over the line, in my view, because they strongly suggest supernatural forces in action. It would be hard to infuse those words into a scientific culture without compromising science itself.
It is possible that in a few decades humanity would be willing to accept a purely naturalistic “God” and “Religion”. If this happens, let’s remind ourselves that our goal is to remove the influence of supernaturalism as an explanatory concept, not to stubbornly target the words “religion” and “God” even after they have become purely neutral and emotional ideas. If the supernatural connotations of these words can be removed over time (in the not-so-distant future), then the words can become benign and even useful for scientific mysticism of a more honest type than the one that Ursula Goodenough endorses.
To summarize the arguments, science must enter the emotional dimension and influence society, but
must not itself become corrupted by religion and supernatural beliefs. This can only happen if the distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism is preserved in the cultural sphere, as it is in the scientific. New-age mysticism and some false forms of religious naturalism attempt to distort science and incorporate supernatural or false factual claims, but that must only strengthen our resolve in working towards incorporating science in popular culture.
For most science-minded folks, scientific mysticism is already part of their lives even if they don’t see it that way. Millions of people congregate every day to celebrate their love for a rational and science-based understanding of reality. Libraries, museums, planetariums, conventions, art-houses, college dorms and online forums come alive daily with wide-eyed science-lovers expressing their passion for the scientific worldview. In many ways we have already begun to cross over into the mainstream.
The road ahead is long and religion will make it hard for science to influence the emotional dimension. Given the success of science in the knowledge dimension, the emotional dimension is the only avenue that religion has left open to monopolize, and we can be sure that religion will not give up its emotional hold over society without a fight. However, we MUST fight back knowing that society will truly be free only when the human condition is informed by science and guided by compassion.
Life on this planet persists in knitting its minerals
into animal and vegetable variations, behaving
at all times like the central point of the cosmos,
and because it is water it seeks the paths of least resistance
and pauses sometimes to admire itself,
because it is earth it may subside in camouflage
or darkness or cease to move for its own good reasons,
because it is air it might seem like nothing
yet be the invisible sustenance of oceans or forests or a shade of blue,
and because it is fire it leaps and is uncertain
and leaves smelly waste and goes everywhere it can uninvited.
It presses its lips where boiling sulfur cracks the ocean floor,
swims in acid cavities below the roots of mountains,
burrows and flits and infects and strangles and hatches,
constructs mats, reefs, trunks, tunnels, stained-glass windows
and ad campaigns for raspberry-scented chinchilla dust.
Mammalian bipeds especially intrude where they are unfit to go,
chewing coca leaves to walk on ridges where oxygen falls away,
training beasts to carry weight in the desert and drinking their blood,
beating sea water back with little hands.
On the southern ice cap, one turns his frozen socks inside out
and shakes his blackened toes into his lap.
In the country he comes from, earth is parched,
air warped with the heat he longs for.
Thirsty flies glue themselves to plants that begin to digest them;
modest orchids bloom underground. In his country
glinting saucers are filling with penicillin
while soldiers don uniforms. There is singing.
A shimmer over cannon mouths. Fire consumes. Mud consumes.
Many stars since they were born
have been sending their light to shine upon us,
but some are rushing away as fast as they can.