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Science’s Salvation Story

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.
There is even, understandably, some territorial behavior emerging, as when De Waal wonders how religions could think they have unique insights into the human condition because “They’re just too new.”  When religion loses any special claim to behaviors like empathy, compassion, altruism, trusting and fair play, it has lost much of the foundation that has already been eroded by the passage of time.  But ethologists, new neuroscientists and scientists in new fields like evolutionary psychology are sketching a view of human nature as part of the broader behaviors found in many other kinds of animals.  There is a revolution brewing here. And whether it’s likely or not, students preparing for the ministry need to begin learning enough about cosmology, ethology, neurosciences and evolutionary psychology to have some idea about the world in which we live – quite different from and infinitely larger than – the world people thought they lived in when the world’s best-known religious teachings originated.  19th Century author Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in 1841 that theology needed to grow into its legitimate heir: anthropology, the study of humans.  Ethology takes the search one step beyond Feuerbach, showing that human behavior, motive, ethics and morality can be best understood by seeing our behaviors on a continuum with many other species: as Darwin would later say. So, yes: our sciences are weaving an intellectual understanding about human nature, human behavior, including empathy and compassion that have already become at least as important in aspiring preachers’ tool kits as the Bible and religious writings. Scientists – as well as religious believers – are right to say that the education of ministers is willfully ignorant without them.  Some very basic religious assumptions, teachings and preachings must change for, as William Russell Lowell had already observed 165 years ago, “New occasions teach new duties.  Time makes ancient good uncouth” — not merely wrong, but insulting and uncouth. The kind of salvation/wholeness a scientific perspective can offer is an intellectual salvation by understanding. All this said, however, there is also an important list of things our sciences can’t offer to us: ways in which mere intellectual correctness falls naively, painfully short of cradling our enduring yearnings. The list would include music, dance, rituals, a community of mostly like-minded people trying to take their lives more seriously and needing a community where that vulnerable quest can be done with some safety.  Other serious shortcomings of mere knowledge include our love of rituals to magnify the significant moments of our lives: baptisms, wedding ceremonies, memorial services, inspiring sermons calling us to become More, to envision ourselves serving something both true and compassionate — though the role of truth may be seriously over-rated here. And what about potluck dinners, community parties and social functions – or a place, a building where we can gather within a mood of reverent seriousness – and, hopefully, compassion? Dishonest or willfully uninformed religion is, if not a sin, at least a moral outrage and an insult to people’s intelligence and seriousness.  But without the warmth of genuine human interaction with each other and our wider world, mere knowledge can become “corpse-cold” – as Ralph Waldo Emerson once described 19th century Unitarians. With regular church attendance at only 18% and continuing to decline, we’re not only “Bowling Alone” as Robert Putnam put it.  We’re increasingly being alone and growing alone.  E-mails and Tweets can’t take the place of hugs, kisses, or just touching each other.  Since we are, as ethologists are showing us, a profoundly social species, we can’t grow to our full humanity, can’t become whole, can’t find real this-worldly salvation – either through sterile truth or out-of-date religious stories and hollow rituals. So we live in a transitional time, when neither outdated religious orthodoxy nor empirically constrained sciences can help the majority of our people grow into their full — and most fulfilling — humanity. Hence the anguish.

Davidson Loehr is author of the book America, Fascism, and God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher

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