Scientists’ Spiritualities As Alternative Models Of Religiosity

In my last post, I made clear that I am by no means an “accommodationist” who wants to let religious claims to hegemony over ethics, metaphysics, or epistemology go unchallenged as part of a deal whereby it agrees to either cooperate with or, minimally, not interfere with science education and science-based public policy.  In a post last summer, I had made clear that I do think there are possibilities for rationally justifying siding with religious moderates over religious fundamentalists in the dispute over who expresses “true religion”, but I do not consider that a matter of conceding that religious conceptions are immune from scientific criticism (as should be clear from my post two weeks ago arguing that evolution poses devastating disproof of the most cherished idea of God in Western religion).

So, with all those caveats about my overall stances on the broader issues over which accommodationists and Gnu Atheists frequently clash, in this post I want to praise the accommodationist Chris Mooney for his article in Playboy. In this article, he does not bother to advocate for the (false) notion that science beliefs and religious beliefs could never conflict or to unnecessarily throw outspoken, anti-religion atheists under the bus.  In short, he does not remove atheistic science from the table of options as part of accommodating the religious, and that’s a relief that makes what he says compatible with the truth.

His focus, instead, is on constructively making an eloquent, delicately balanced, and implicitly atheist-friendly argument that numerous scientists’ spiritual approach to their science offer living proof that there can be forms of “religiosity” through which people satisfy their rightful feelings of wonder, gratitude, and sense of the “numinous” without any need for recourse to traditional religious forms, dogmas, or practices.  Mooney’s express goal is to show religious people that scientists are no different than they are, that their scientific endeavors are not about a cold and bloodless objective engagement with the world that drains it of all its beauty, grandeur, and mystery, but rather that they are also passionately spiritual endeavors at the same time.  The argument attacks the ludicrous but popularly persistent dogma of a dichotomy between the rational and the spiritual, between the scientific and the engaged approaches to life.  This may seem obvious to the point of banal, but it’s worth stressing since this false dichotomy is a truism that serves as a road block between reason and many people’s hearts.

And in the process of showing how these scientists, usually in a rationalistic context, are spiritual “just like” religious people and, so, not to be feared as unspiritual monsters, Mooney effectively demonstrates just how well people can have rich spiritual, even “religious” lives, without any reference to institutional guidance, no dogmas, no unquestionable authorities, no deference to tradition for tradition’s sake, no faith-beliefs, no superstitions.  He effectively shows how one can be spiritual precisely in the activity of eschewing traditionalism, faith-beliefs, dogmas, and superstitions by actively embracing the real as it is and wondering at the workings of the world as it can be known, rather than as it can be claimed to be beyond the world we know.  In effect, in showing how people can be just as spiritual with no necessary reference to God as they (assumedly, on religious prejudices he avoids challenging) can be with reference to God, he effectively proves (without provocatively drawing the conclusion explicitly) that God and all the other cumbersome and obtrusive machinery of institutional religion and irrational beliefs are ultimately superfluous for rich spirituality.

This means, he effectively shows that atheistic spirituality and religiosity are possible without any need for the baggage of ungrounded belief.  And without the need for these things to meet our spiritual needs, the practical motivation to cling to the irrational can wither.  And by explicitly accounting for the seeming universality of “spiritual” experiences by appeal to evolution, he gives the grounds for a naturalistic conclusion that the spiritual experience is not proof of anything otherworldly with which we can truly commune but only a way we have evolved to feel for its evolutionary benefits.

Again, he does not explicitly detail these logical implications of what he is saying as his emphasis is showing the believer how to identify with the scientist on a spiritual level, but the implications are there and the role models he adduces give me hope insofar as I think that it is vital for atheism to reach out to people and help them meet spiritual longings in ways that are consistent with reason and freedom, rather than through the authoritarian, regressive, irrationalistic institutions and belief systems of most religions, including the major monotheisms.  And these atheistic role models go a further way in showing what a “true religion” might be said to look like for a rationalist secularist.

So, having at a little length here explained my view of the nature and value of Mooney’s piece, with no further adieu, here it is unabridged for your own consideration:

The Born-Again Scientist: Spirituality Comes to the Lab

Peter Doherty may seem like an odd choice for a speaker at the 2009 Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion, a giant interfaith conference held every five or so years. After all, the 1996 Nobel laureate in medicine isn’t religious per se. He attended a Methodist church growing up , but he now describes himself as an agnostic. Nor has Doherty’s career in immunology—capped by the discovery of how our immune system recognizes cells infested with viruses—left much time for sustained interactions with religious believers. Nevertheless, Doherty describes himself as “spiritual.”

In fact, Doherty is among a growing number of nonreligious researchers who view scientific inquiry itself as a spiritual quest—a trend that has the potential to dramatically upend the idea that science and religion must be in conflict. Rice University sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund recently surveyed nearly 1,700 scientists at top U.S. universities about their beliefs. Her most surprising finding was a prevalence of spirituality detached from traditional religion—20 percent of the scientists fit this category. These researchers would appear to be surfing the same “spirituality revolution” sweeping society more generally: In an April survey of 1,200 Americans ages 18 to 29—the so-called millennials—72 percent said they were “really more spiritual than religious.”

To be sure spirituality can be a slippery term. We usually define it on an individual level and outside any formal religious context. For instance, spiritual scientists tend to view the world differently than most Americans who embrace the label and who are often interested in angels, demons and mix-and-match religious eclecticism. When scientists feel spiritual it often has more to do with a glorious feeling that comes with contemplating the natural world or the universe—a feeling made all the more intense by scientists’ capacity to peer beneath the surface of things and achieve a deeper understanding, Spiritual physicists feel mystical, even spooked, that their equations can describe verifiable occurrences on the quantum scale; spiritual biologists, meanwhile, marvel at the intricate interconnectedness of nature.

Says Doherty, “Spiritual experience for a religious person can manifest as the infinite wonder of God. In a scientist it can manifest as the infinite wonder of the creation and the world around us—and how this has come about and how extraordinary it is.” But can scientists who say they are awestruck by nature and moved by their research really relate to more traditional religious spiritual experiences, a la those reported by saints? Aren’t “awe” and “wonder” nondescript notions that add emotional embroidery to the brute facts of the universe? Perhaps not. Feelings of awe, wonder and mystery recur in the context of human quests for deeper understanding or revelation. In his 1917 workThe Idea of the Holy German theologian Rudolf Otto singled out a sense of awe as a key characteristic of our encounters with what he termed the “numinous”—an overwhelming power or presence beyond ourselves. Science can unleash this feeling too. Just sit in a darkened room and look at nebula pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, as University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank describes doing in his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.

“Scientists are not the only ones who catch their collective breath before these pictures,” he writes. “The momentary hush and the gasp that follows are involuntary.” Today’s spiritual scientists even have a patron saint: Albert Einstein, who spoke of his “cosmic religious feeling” and his “feeling of awe at the scheme that is manifested in the material universe.” Einstein saw no reason to believe in a personal God or the supernatural. But he called himself a “deeply religious nonbeliever” because of the reverence he felt when contemplating the intricacy and mystery of the universe and trying to understand it. Knowledge, in the Einsteinian worldview, thus becomes the new sacred. It is the dearest thing we have.

You may argue that Charles Darwin was another spiritual leader of modern science. While he ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God, Darwin expressed great wonder at the diversity and interconnectedness of nature. Take this passage from The Voyage of the Beagle: “Among the sciences which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where death and decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” As Darwin biographer James Moore has put it, Darwin’s scientific creed was that “great things are caused by little things.”  Or as Darwin opined, “We are all netted together.” He finished The Origin of Species on a powerfully spiritual note: “There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

So you could say that today Einstein and Darwin serve as scientific and spiritual exemplars speaking to successive generations of researchers not only intellectually through their most famous theories but also emotionally through their writings. Therefore, rather than vanquishing religion, modern science might have helped to unleash the human spirit and free it from traditional religious constraints. The result? At least for some, the need for spiritual fulfillment can now be satisfied outside the context of supernatural creeds. And the sacred, which is the object of the spiritual quest, can now be found in nature and in a search for an understanding of it. Indeed, scientists now demonstrate that the spiritual experience itself likely emerges from our biology.

According to researchers who are studying the human brain during meditation and those contemplating our evolutionary origins, it looks as though spirituality may be hardwired into our bodies, physically proving that the spiritual experience is universal and shared. Science is also the core basis for helping to preserve the conditions in which such spiritual experiences can occur. The scientific spirituality of people such as Peter Doherty today engenders a new quest—to save the planet. (The title of his panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions: “Science and Spirituality: Building New Partnership to Heal the Earth.”) And on this count Doherty has impressive company. In his book The Creation, celebrated Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson makes a spiritual appeal to religious believers for help in preserving the diversity of species on Earth.

Similarly, other scientists have reached out to religious audiences to find allies in the fight against climate change and for environmental protections. There is, after all, a common interest between scientists and believers: Secular or otherwise, we cannot have spiritual experiences without an Earth to have them on. “Whether you believe all life reflects the operation of evolution or God’s good grace, our responsibility to future generations is to ensure that the creation is preserved in all its magnificence,” says Doherty. “That will happen only if those who live by science and/or by faith can work together in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.” Chris Mooney is author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America.

PZ Myers has a reply up to Mooney which gives some evidence of the futility of trying to persuade fundamentalist religious people to get on board with science–but that seems to miss the value of Mooney’s defense of a notion of an atheistic religiosity indifferent to religion.  Yes, Mooney will certainly fail to persuade any fundamentalists but he may stimulate some mushier moderates to acknowledge atheist spirituality more and even if he fails to influence any one, his account is a better picture of religion than anything the fundamentalists or moderates offer.  He offers a picture of atheistic role models who embrace their “spiritual” sides completely consonant with their rational sides.  What’s wrong with that?

And PZ argues that Darwin cannot in any way be taken to have common cause with “religion” on the basis of some astute criticisms Darwin has about the plausibility of a literal reading of the Bible, the morality of a doctrine of hell, and the idea of an intelligent designer given the fact of evolution.  While I agree with PZ that Mooney shouldn’t downplay or hide Darwin’s scathing critiques of what many people want to hold onto as their religious beliefs, I would say we should not equate all religion can be with those outdated, irrational, immoral beliefs, but equate it with that which is actually compatible with reality.  If people are going to be religious anyway, why let the irrationalists and fundamentalists’ definitions of religion define the word and not advocate for rationalist interpretations of what is and can be?

It’s a phenomenon that humans love ritual, feel (rationally justifiable) awe, gratitude, wonder, and reverence at our sense of dependency, at the feeling of the numinous, and at the thought of our deep interconnection.  Why not encourage people to associate religion as possibly experiencable through those experiences by themselves as Mooney implies, instead of conceding the fundamentalist’s claims that religion requires all the morally and intellectual bankrupt nonsense?  Why give them the word?  PZ does not want to give them the word “morality” though they claim exclusive rights to it, so why give them religion by defining it their way instead of in an atheistic way that would be utterly compatible with scientific and philosophical and moral truth?

Again, my full length defenses of these ideas of atheistic cooption of religion are in these two posts:  True Religion? and Towards Atheistic Religions (Or Away From Them, Depending On How You Define “Religions”).

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