Monday, August 15, 2005

Science, Spirituality, Religion and All That


The problem with talking about religion and science is that there is no
problem. We're Unitarian Universalists. We're pro-religion, and we're
pro-science. That's been true for generations. Nothing's changed since
1947 when A. Powell Davies wrote, "To those who are accustomed to the
liberal viewpoint in religion, it may seem surprising that anyone should
wish to discuss the rather elementary question as to whether science
and religion can get together. In liberal churches, it has been taken for
granted for almost a generation that nothing substantial has ever kept
them apart."

But the topic persists, even today. "Creation science." "Intelligent
design." Sometimes it seems as though science and religion really do need
to duke it out. Take the subject of smallpox, now eliminated from the
planet. In the 1960's, science believed it could vaccinate against
smallpox; indeed, it knew that it could eradicate smallpox. But religion
believed in the local smallpox gods. In India it was the goddess
Shitala; in Africa it was the god Shapona. Smallpox vaccinations would elicit
the wrath of the smallpox gods, causing unbridled outbreaks; indeed,
religion knew this to be true. And there you have the problem -- a
direct conflict between science and religion.

Historically, who loses in the conflict between traditional religion
and science? Religion loses. Hardly anyone believes in the Greek gods
anymore, or the Roman pantheon. Increasingly, across the globe populations
abandon rain dances, exorcisms in the face of mental illness,
sacrifices of animals to insure the harvest. Religion loses-slowly, surely.

Yet whenever science wins, Unitarian Universalism somehow wins as well.
We are, in a word, an oddball religion-not the only one, but still
unusual-a religion prone to the search for a truth that includes scientific
truth, and not at all inclined toward adherence to a doctrine frozen in
time. When science scores a point, so do we.

Science discovers new fossils of primitive humans? We think that's
amazing. Possible organisms on Mars? Cool. Let's do more research.
Evolution embraces the impact of random cataclysmic events. Wow!

You say you want to feel uplifted and science is too dull and
rationalistic? Not at all. As the Oxford professor Richard Dawkins says, "Uplift
is where science really comes into its own...this feeling of
spine-shivering, breath-catching awe...this flooding of the chest with ecstatic
wonder.... [It's] beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics....
The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through
a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to
render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise."

Carl Sagan goes even further and claims, as so many of us might, that
science is "a profound source of spirituality." "When we recognize our
place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when
we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring
feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely

The marriage of science and religion. No problem for us. We're in awe,
we're respectful of the evidence, we're in touch with our ability to
reason. It all works fine, but it only works fine until your baby dies,
until you want to find a sense of meaning in your life, until you feel
anxious or confused, until you feel so good about life that you just
want to explode. When you want to have a wedding, what help is science?
When you want to celebrate the season or feel at home in the universe,
who needs empirical observation? When you want your children to learn to
do the right thing, who cares what's verifiable? When you need a hug,
or a metaphorical swift kick, or a little advice or reassurance; when
you wonder what's valuable, really, and if your priorities are where you
want them; when you want help living in a world that offers up some
pretty tough days; or you want somebody to hear about the incredible
feeling you had when you made it to the mountaintop; when you're looki!
ng for any of that, you're not going to turn to your high school
chemistry book or the PBS science show on how lasers really work. You've got
a religion to come to that's more than scientific; you've got a
religion that's going to be there for you.

Religion has a big assignment. Comfort. Compassion. Fun. Nurturing the
life of the spirit. Quiet. Inspiration. Motivation. Support for the
children. Friendship.

And along with all of that, science and reason are wonderful things. No
question about it. Add them to the wonderful mix of religion. Add them
to the friendly faces you need, and the poetry, and the music. Bring
your reason along with your love and your hope and your humility. Bring
it along with your questions about right and wrong and how to live your
life. Bring it on in with your sense of humor and your wonderment at
the connections you feel. Bring it on in. Bring that reason in with your
children and your altar decorations and your shyness and your hungers
and your happiness. Bring it all on in.

Science and religion? No problem.

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