Using the words “Science” and “Salvation” in the same breath needs some preparation so people in both camps don’t hyperventilate. “Science” means “knowledge.” It can’t guarantee that the knowledge is good, or that it will still be considered true in a year. “Salvation” can mean “to save,” or to make healthy and whole (with its connection to the word “salve”). Using the word in scientific circles or communities of religious liberals, “salvation” usually means to help people come to their full humanity here and now rather than elsewhere and later. Some say that, defined this way, we should slough off the religious jargon, and just speak in plain ordinary language: we’re hoping to help ourselves and our society become more integrated and whole around universally admired behaviors like fair play, truthtelling and compassion. For now, being able to use both jargon and plain talk will open the dialogue to a very wide spectrum of people and beliefs. The kind of wholeness “Science” can offer is intellectual integrity, in which we don’t have to check our brains at the door. It’s a kind of salvation/wholeness through understanding – overwhelmingly intellectual. When we capitalize Science and say things like, “Science says…” or “Science tells us …” we are anthropomorphizing the word, making it a stand-in for a capitalized “God.” In the real world, we don’t have “Science.” We have sciences and scientists, who often disagree about how to connect what they see as facts. Some scientists believe they do have a salvation story that can offer us greater intellectual integrity here and now, and some people find that to be adequate – though I’d side with Christopher Hitchens in saying that science is “necessary but not sufficient.” Some scientists want to offer us the intellectual integrity of thinking about our beliefs with the same rigor scientists use in their “scientific method.” This puts the salvation/wholeness they offer in the same key as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” It is a powerful kind of wholeness that is impossible when what we know and what we believe contradict each other. More than being simply defenders of facts, modern cosmologists, for example, are offering persuasive arguments that we live in Deep Time and infinite space that were inconceivable when the world’s religious scriptures were written — and that make the worldview of most traditional religions incoherent today. Deep Time means putting the evolution of humans, and the four billion year story of life on earth against the background of around 13.8 billion years since the universe began in, they assume, a Big Bang. Infinite space means just that: for all practical purposes, the distances between the far reaches of the universe are infinite. The light from all the stars we see has been traveling for thousands, millions or billions of years before reaching us on Earth. We couldn’t reach the stars whose light has come the furthest to reach us – stars that may not even exist any more – in a hundred million lifetimes, traveling at the speed of light. It is impossible even to imagine a distance of seven or eight billion light years. Cosmology has been popular since Carl Sagan’s television program Cosmos, thirty years ago. But the most revolutionary science today isn’t cosmology, but ethology: the study of comparative animal behavior. Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz was the founder of ethology, and argued that comparative animal behavior offered a much stronger proof of evolution than comparing bits of fossilized skeletons. Today, ethologists are producing more detailed observations of animal behavior every year – often filmed, many on YouTube — and it’s clear that we share many of those behaviors with dozens, hundreds or thousands of other species. Primatologist Frans De Waal, the most articulate and prolific of the current ethologists, has compared the way we do politics with the way chimpanzees do – and found a near-perfect match. His 1982 book Chimpanzee Politics is still in print, and in 1994 Newt Gingrich assigned it to all who were just coming into Congress. The message seemed clear: if you’re going to play politics at this level, you need to understand how it works. Ethologists are claiming political, ethical and moral behaviors for their field of study that once belonged to religion and philosophy. Just a few of De Waal’s book titles show some of the scope of behaviors we share with hundreds or thousands of other species:
- Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
- Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals
- Peacemaking among Primates
- Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
- Our Inner Ape: Why We Are Who We Are
- The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.
Davidson Loehr is author of the book America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher