What's wrong with science as religion

Piercing a Communion wafer with a nail and throwing it in the garbage, as one crusading biologist recently did, does science no favors.

Published July 31, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

PZ Myers is a true believer, a science crusader with the singled-minded enthusiasm of a televangelist. A biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and a columnist for Seed magazine, Myers has earned notoriety with his blog, Pharyngula, in which he reports on new developments in biology and indiscriminately excoriates those he views as hostile to science, a pantheon of straw men and women that includes theologians, journalists and churchgoers. He is Richard Dawkins without the fame or felicitous prose style.

Currently, Myers is under fire from his university and an army of righteous Catholics over his self-proclaimed "Great Desecration" caper. On July 24, he pierced a Communion wafer with a rusty nail ("I hope Jesus' tetanus shots are up to date," he quipped) and threw it in the trash with coffee grounds and a banana peel. The nail also cut through pages of the Quran and Dawkins' "The God Delusion." He featured a photo of the "desecration" on his blog, and wrote, "Nothing must be held sacred. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet."

Religion is dangerous, he wrote; it breeds hatred and idiocy. It is our job to advance humanity's knowledge "by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality." There is no wisdom in our dogmas, Myers warned, just "self-satisfied ignorance." We find truth only in science, looking at the world "with fresh eyes and a questioning mind."

As a fellow scientist (I have a Ph.D. in physics), I share Myers' enthusiasm for fresh eyes, questioning minds and the power of science. And I worry about dogmatism and the kind of zealotry that motivates the faithful to blow themselves up, shoot abortion doctors and persecute homosexuals. But I also worry about narrow exclusiveness that champions the scientific way of knowing to the exclusion of all else. I don't like to see science turned into a club to bash religious believers.

Also, Myers doesn't seem to like me.

When Salon interviewed me about my new book, "Saving Darwin," I suggested that science doesn't know everything, that there might be a reality beyond science, and that religion might be about God and not merely about the human quest for a nonexistent God. These remarks got me condemned to whatever hell Myers believes in.

Myers accused me of having "fantastic personal delusions" that could actually lead people astray. "I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter," Myers wrote, "and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth. That's harsh, I know ... but he is undermining the core of rationalism we ought to be building, and I find his beliefs pernicious."

Myers' confident condemnations put me in mind of that great American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who waxed eloquent in his famous 1741 speech, "Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God," about the miserable delusions that lead humans to reject the truth and spend eternity in hell. We still have preachers like Edwards today, of course; they can be found on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But now we also have a new type of preacher, the Rev. PZ Myers.

Impressive scientific progress has spawned these new preachers in the centuries since crowds sat spellbound under the judgmental voice of Edwards. Like their traditional counterpart, the new preachers speak with great confidence that their religion -- science -- contains all the truth we need to know and all the truth that can be known. They call us to worship at the altar of science, a summons of which I am skeptical, to say the least.

The best-known men of scientific cloth are Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, but Dawkins' Oxford colleague, chemist Peter Atkins, gets my vote for best preacher. Atkins' provocative sermon, aptly titled "The Creation," invites the reader on a journey back to the ultimate origins of everything. On this journey we learn that "there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple." Like the religious journeys Atkins invokes, it is a journey of faith, but not too much, since faith is like a tumor -- the smaller the better. "The only faith we need for the journey is the belief that everything can be understood and, ultimately, that there is nothing to explain," he writes.

After summarizing what we know about origins in elegant but breathtakingly speculative prose, Atkins borrows biblical language to address the deep question implied by his title: "In the beginning there was nothing. Absolute void, not merely empty space. There was no space; nor was there time, for this was before time. The universe was without form and void."

Eventually, as we journey with Atkins, stuff happens -- stars, planets, life, people, music, art, magazines. But how did it start? How did the universe go from being "without form and void" to this fascinating place we see today? "By chance" says Atkins, "there was a fluctuation."

Excuse me, Rev. Atkins, but could you please be just a bit more specific? Can you tell me what you mean by "absolute void"? Is that an empirical, testable concept? It sounds suspiciously like a metaphor for something in which you want to believe. As a matter of fact, the suggestion that nothing can naturally fluctuate into everything sounds a lot like a faith statement on a par with belief in God.

Stories like those told by Atkins in "The Creation" are passed off as science, as if our best physics, chemistry and biology lead naturally to these conclusions. The new creation stories are reworded to make it clear that these new scientific stories are replacements for their religious predecessors. Rather than "In the beginning was the word," where word, from the Greek logos, meaning "underlying rational structure," is identified with God, Atkins gives us, "In the beginning there was nothing."

Don't get me wrong. Atkins tells a great story. And telling stories is the way we communicate meaning, whether it's oracles making pronouncements or Carl Sagan explaining how the cosmos came to be. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are not; sometimes we can't tell. But our human tendency is to embed meaning in stories, and all great preachers have been great storytellers. Jesus spoke in parables, not theological discourses.

Our affinity for such stories, says evolutionary psychologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University, is helped along by hard-wired religious impulses, created by millenniums of evolution. Wilson says our minds have "mythopoeic requirements" -- a need for stories that provide meaning and purpose.

Wilson's personal story testifies to the mythopoeic power of both religious and scientific stories. Raised Southern Baptist, he gave his heart to Jesus as a boy, and worshiped the biblical God -- until his studies at the University of Alabama convinced him that his religious faith was incompatible with his emerging new scientific faith.

Like the so-called new atheists, with their out-of-the-confessional aversion to traditional religion, Wilson now argues that if we are serious about the salvation of our race, we had better turn to science. "The mythopoeic requirements of the mind," he says in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "On Human Nature," "must somehow be met by scientific materialism." In "Three Scientists and Their Gods," Wilson told Robert Wright that we must learn to "worship the evolutionary epic."

Wilson, along with Atkins, Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others, persuades us that science has, for thinking people, discredited religion. Nevertheless, they are quick to borrow from a religion they reject and take delight in using biblical metaphors. And as their science evolves to meet the "mythopoeic requirements" of their minds, it increasingly resembles religion.

During Wilson's teenage crisis of faith, he didn't just shrug his shoulders and bid his childhood Christian beliefs farewell, as he had done some years earlier with his belief in Santa Claus. Instead, he reconstituted his faith. He replaced the Genesis story with a modern scientific creation story; he replaced Christian ethical directives with ones derived from ecology; and he replaced the worship of God with the worship of the grand story of evolution. It was a new package, informed by better evidence and logic, and it appears to have worked well for him. But it does require faith that the study of nature can provide ethical directives, and not just descriptions of natural phenomena. Showing that species are going extinct faster now than in the past does not automatically obligate us to any particular behavior.

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, concludes "The First Three Minutes" with these cheery words: "The more the universe is comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." The universe that we optimistically call our "cosmic home" is nothing of the sort, says Weinberg. Our existence is a "more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents." The human story is a tale told by idiots suffering from delusions of both purpose and grandeur, and we are all actors in this grand farce.

Yet even as gravity pulls Weinberg into the black hole of bleakness, he suggests that there is, perhaps, a ray of hope -- a sliver of salvation -- in science, which "lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy." Weinberg, like poor Job in the Old Testament, finds the world troubling. But his response, like Job's, suggests that the dreariness of the world has not completely extinguished his mythopoeic impulse.

Science, it would appear, has the raw material for a new religion. Trust traditionally placed in God can be relocated to science, which is reliable and faithful, as well as ennobling. Life can be oriented in a reverential way around the celebration and protection of the great diversity wrought by the evolutionary epic, a diversity that has produced creatures capable of reflecting on this grand mystery.

The grand creation story at the heart of this new religion of science inspires reverence among those invested in its exploration. The world disclosed in this story rests on a foundation of reliable and remarkable natural laws. These laws -- gravity tethering our planet to the sun, fusion reactions producing sunlight, chemistry enabling our metabolism -- possess the capacity to bring forth matter, galaxies, stars, planets and even life, all within a framework of natural processes that we can understand. And as we decipher these processes, their marvelous character only enlarges. No matter how well we understand them, they still evoke awe and surprise. The modern scientific creation story is so much more than a mere alternative to the traditional biblical myth of Adam and Eve; it is a genuinely religious myth with an astonishing depth and a proffered competence to meet the needs of the religious seeker -- the needs that draw millions of Americans to their houses of worship every Sunday morning.

The other pieces of the new religion also fall naturally into place. Our existence is a gigantic miracle, billions of years in the making, and way more interesting than any magical conversion of water into wine. The atoms in our bodies were forged in the furnaces of ancient stars that exploded, seeding our galaxy with rich chemistry. Our planet and its life-sustaining sun formed from this recycled stellar debris. "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon."

The scientific creation story, unlike the parochial accounts in our religious texts, belongs to all of humanity; it is the story of the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Christians, the Confucians, the readers of PZ Myers' blog. We share this story with otters, giraffes, hummingbirds and the stars overhead. Atheist theologian Loyal Rue sees in the universality of the scientific story hope that a fragmented and suspicious humanity might find common ground on which to build a global village of trust and cooperation. "We are, at the moment, in many different places, with many histories and hopes," he writes in "Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution." "But we are now called together to one place, to a shared history and to a common vision of enduring promise. If there are saints enough among us, we shall survive."

So there it is -- a brand-new religion, courtesy of modern science. We have a creation myth, ethical directives and a meaningful place for humankind within the grand scheme of things. These are the ingredients that "constructive theologians" like Gordon Kaufman of Harvard Divinity School tell us are common to all religions. As a bonus, we have science to guide us into truth and assure us that we can find solutions to our problems. And we have inquisitors like Myers to ferret out heretics and martyr them on his Web site when they appear.

But is this going to work? Can a religion be built on nature and science, rather than God and sacred texts? And, if it could, would it be better than the old-fashioned religions it is replacing? If our present religions, like milk in our refrigerators, have all expired, we need a replacement to meet our mythopoeic needs. Can science do this for everyone, and not just the residents of ivory towers?

For starters, getting people to worship the new scientific creation story will be no easy task. A few dynamic speakers, like Brian Greene and, until recently, Stephen Hawking, can fill auditoriums with gee-whiz scientific stories of hidden dimensions and many universes. But most people prefer to watch sports and, perhaps not surprisingly, even more attend conventional religious services. Darwinism and big-bang cosmology have never been near and dear to human hearts, especially those filled with old-time religion. Sure, there are true believers who find these scientific ideas awesome in the most literal sense of that word. I am happy to place myself in this group. I can be moved to tears by the transcendent beauty of a math equation.

For science to become a true object of worship, it must elbow aside the reassuring and seductively simple belief that "God loves you." This deeply personal faith statement would have to be replaced with one that says something like: "The cosmos worked really long and hard to create you and you should be really appreciative."

But let's assume for the moment that this is possible -- that science can be canonized, moralized, transcendentalized and politicized into a replacement religion, with followers, codes of conduct, celebrated texts and sacred blogs, houses of worship, "saints" of some sort and inquisitors of another sort. And let's suppose that it's possible for this new religion to move out of the ivory towers of academia, where it lives now, to take its place alongside the other "world" religions, attracting hundreds of millions of adherents drawn from the main streets of the world and all walks of life. What would this new religion be like once it became institutionalized? After all, if religion fills a genuine human need, something has to fill the hole created by its passing -- something that appeals to billions of people.

Could we be sure, for example, that this new scientific religion would not give rise to the extremism and aberrant behavior that plague conventional religions? Would concern for the diversity of life, for example, inspire vegetarians to blow up slaughterhouses, and run the local butcher through his or her own meat grinder? Would reverence for the cosmos reinvigorate astrology? Would appreciation for natural selection bring eugenics back out of the closet? In other words, if science dismantles the traditional religious content that people use to satisfy their impulses -- many of which are quite passionate -- will we really be better off?

There is also no compelling way to get ethical directives from science. To be sure, religion has a version of the same problem, but that simply points up the challenges they both face, not the superiority of science over religion. Even Stephen Jay Gould, the peacemaking agnostic, suggested that religion should make the ethical calls.

On a practical level -- and I write as someone who works in the trenches at an evangelical college -- I am worried that attempts to treat science as if it is a religion will only drive the big, abrasive wedge currently between science and religion even further into the chasm of misunderstanding. What we should hope, instead, is that science can become a more congenial guest in the house -- church, temple, mosque -- of religion and not be so determined to proselytize or even evict all of the current occupants. There is much in religion that need not trouble the scientist and much that the scientist can value. Scientists must learn to live with that.

In order for many of us to truly feel at home in the universe so grandly described by science, that science needs to coexist as peacefully as possible with the creation stories of our religious traditions. I share with Myers, Dawkins and Weinberg the conviction that we are the product of cosmic and biological evolution, that Einstein and Darwin got it right. But I want to believe that, through the eyes of my faith, this is how God created the world and that God cares about that world. Does this belief, shared by so many of our species, make me dangerous?

I am incredibly impressed with the achievements of science. But I don't think science is omniscient and I am not convinced that science will ever know everything. I am not convinced that science is even capable of knowing everything. That we can know as much as we do seems rather miraculous, in fact. Is it so dangerous to believe that there is a bit more to the world than meets the scientific eye, that behind the blackboard filled with equations there is a rational, creative and even caring mind breathing fire into those equations?

By Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson is the author of "Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution." He is Director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, and Professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene College.

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