One of the things that has been intriguing me is how there is a broad-based transition away from Christianity to a wider sense of the spiritual and sacred – which includes secular thought as well. This move is more than just disappointment with Christianity. It is informed by social, political, and scientific developments as well.
We are in the habit of seeing things in terms of contested domains – science v religion – as well as distinct fields of thought – religion, psychology, physics, politics and so on. In fact, the contestation is artificial, and the distinctions are contextual.
Back in 1997 Stephen Jay Gould attempted to rethink the science v religion context by asserting that they were, in fact, non-overlapping magisterial. Gould was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.
This is what Wikipedia says about the idea: …each represent different areas of inquiry, fact vs. values, so there is a difference between the “nets” over which they have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority”, and the two domains do not overlap.
This is a common, and mistaken, view of both fields. What Gould may have more usefully done would have been to observe that in each magisterium there is dogma, habit, politics and ambition. Science has a better reputation because it does have an evolutionary impulse – knowledge grows and changes.
In fact, far from non-overlapping, they sit perfectly well together. What is missed by Gould is that the materialism, beloved of many scientists is a ‘metaphysical assumption’ – a guess. In essence a belief based on a faith that the guess is right.
I want to be fair to Gould. He had good intent here, but his knowledge of religion is typical of scientists – superficial. He probably meant that even religious scientists, of whom there have always been many – in the majority by far to begin with – can seem to keep their faith and their science separate. But, in fact, this is a superficial interpretation. They can certainly keep separate the things that are irrelevant to either. But there’s a vital area that always overlaps – how questions are framed, asked, and how data is interpreted. This is the theme of this essay.
What is the Question?
Early on, what we call Science was called Natural Philosophy. Science, as we now understand it, has been shaped by the Industrial Revolution in the service of ‘resources’, and the stuff we turned them into. Utility, not curiosity, ruled.
Before that, Natural Philosophers gazed upon the ‘handiwork of God’, and imagined they’d find evidence of God’s existence. That didn’t happen, and, with the advent of the lens, it still didn’t happen. As a result, some concluded that the absence of evidence was a demonstration of absence. Nature was still profoundly fascinating, and whether God existed or not became unimportant to the question about the nature of a subject of inquiry.
But whether the subject of inquiry is a thing, or a being, is another matter. The objectification of nature as a resource to be exploited by humans. This is from 1:28 Genesis:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’
But this has been translated from Hebrew and here is an interesting passage from iscast.org:
The key words are the Hebrew redeth and kabash which can mean ‘subjugate’ and ‘subdue,’ but only if taken by themselves. The words have a range of meanings, just as ‘vessel’ in English can have more than one meaning, i.e.: cup or ship. Thus, redeth can vary in meaning from ‘tread underfoot’, ‘subjugate’, ‘to rule’ or ‘to rule, guard and serve,’ and kabash can vary from ‘beat into submission’, ‘subdue’ through ‘to tame’ or ‘control carefully’. Taken out of context any meaning can be assigned and used as a pretext to prove whatever one likes.
So, the fault is not religion per se, but some religious who, through ignorance or intent, fashioned a warrant to plunder and despoil. And science, largely disdainful of religion, was obedient to those who saw the chance to plunder and profit as coming from God. The absence of any moral responsibility was divinely ordained.
Would the questions asked by science have been different in a different religious culture? How do we guard and control, rather than how do we exploit?
Is Religion a Science, Is Science a Religion?
My Oxford dictionary app says that religion is the “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” The same app says that science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
Let’s play with these definitions and switch them around, with some minor changes.
- Science is belief in and [inquiry into] a superhuman controlling power.”
- Religion is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study
of the structure andbehaviour of the physical andnatural [and supernatural] world[s] through observation and experiment.”
Some readers may baulk at this effort if they are accustomed to thinking of religion in terms of theology and dogma – as informed by their knowledge of Christianity. Here the history of Islam may be a better guide.
We must also escape the PR allure of science that paints it as a relentlessly rational affair. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) Thomas Khun observed that sometimes changes in thinking comes about only when adherents die. In short, science is not free from entrenched dogma, and neither is it free from a secular version of metaphysics.
Galileo (1564 to 1642) is science’s pin up boy for religious persecution. True he annoyed the Catholic church, but he was put under house arrest, essentially for being a mouthy git. On the other hand, Giordano Bruno (1548 to 1600) was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, cosmological theorist, and Hermetic occultist was burned alive as an “obstinate heretic”. Bruno is no martyr for science because of his hermetic beliefs, even though it could have been his cosmological beliefs that were the problem.
Science is a bit like this. Newton (1643 to 1727) was not only “widely recognised that’s one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time and among the most influential scientists” (Wikipedia) but his list of skills has only comparatively recently been shown completely – “mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, theologian.”(Wikipedia). 40 years ago, you would not have found “alchemist, theologian” listed in any account of his life produced, or approved, by the scientific community. The fact that Newton was spiritual/religious was a source of embarrassment.
Newton evidently didn’t let his spiritual perspective interfere with his science. In fact: The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme for of his scientific career.(Britannica.com)
With both Bruno and Newton, Hermetic philosophy seems to be the sticking point for materialistic science, despite the fact that it didn’t seem to impair (and may even have enhanced) the intellectual attainments of either Natural Philosopher.
Essentially religion and science perform the same role – making sense of what is, and helping humans live as well as they can. Our view of religion has been distorted by the personalised and interventionist god of the Abrahamic tradition. Scientists might rightly observe that there is no empirical evidence such a god exists. Individual experience of ‘supernatural’ events is not dependent on belief or faith. In other traditions the divine is seen as capricious, and even dangerous.
Belief in gods has not impeded prodigious feats of intellectual attainment, as is seen with the Egyptians, Sumerians, Aztecs, and Indians, just to name a few. The ancient Egyptians, considered by some to be the most religious of people, left us the Great Pyramid, which still astonishes us as a feat of engineering and construction.
Essentially, aside from the Catholic church’s assault on free thinking scientific and Hermetic thinkers, there is really no fundamental disjuncture between science and religion. Inquiry into the ways of gods probably gave us the science we have now.
If we can see science and religion as the yin and yang of human consciousness – constantly overlapping and intersecting – we can progress to the next step.
Where to From Here?
We are seeing signs. Quantum science has generated serious intellectual conversations about whether consciousness is the foundation of reality. I recently listened to Great Courses audiobook Exploring Metaphysics. It was essentially metaphysics for materialists, and it was a very interesting survey of the fact that metaphysics is now a thing for materialists – and not just woo nonsense for the gullible.
We are moving toward a reconciliation of science and religion. To be fair, we are a probably a century away from celebrating any renewal of vows. But given it has taken a century for quantum physics to be accepted as actual science, that’s not unreasonable. We have a lot of reimaging of religion to do – and that’s barely under way.
Dean Radin’s 2018 book, Real Magic: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science and the Guide to the Secret Power of the Universe is a decent effort making progress. Radin is a serious scientific psi researcher who decided to finally explore the traditions that support and validates psi in the ‘real world’. He had to shift his position, as a consequence.
Progress will be slow because this is an evolution of collective consciousness. There will be out-there pioneers and entrenched stick-in-the-mud traditionalists whose death maybe the only way their influence is diminished. Neither science nor religion are pure fields of thought. Each has its culture and traditions, as well as its power structures and interests. Each has its conceits, myths, and bullshit.
But we will get there because this is an evolutionary imperative
On a personal level I am living through an exciting period of transition. Such periods have come and gone in recent centuries – at least there have been eruptions that have stood out against the background and steady change that has been going on for the past 2000 years or so – maybe longer.
My period relates to an increased publication of esoteric books in the 1970s – opening up access to hard-to-get material. This led into a steady expansion of the Internet from the early 2000s and to the explosion of social media. On the one hand it is a riot of content of widely varied quality. On the other it feeds a profound hunger for deeper insight.
The New Age movement, which is what filled my sails, has touched deep and shallow urges. It is routinely ridiculed for its seemingly facile ‘therapy culture’ practised by flagrantly inept devotees. But a rising tide lifts the shabby dinghies and dugout canoes as well as the super yachts.
The way ahead is chaotic. There’s a cacophony of hope, and the more people respond, the more varied will be the responses catering to the that hope – and sometimes exploiting it. If we focus on own response to our needs, and not attend excessively to how others are meeting theirs, we will come to understand that this not a competition, but a collaboration. We all in this evolutionary in transitional phase together.