Bad Science Makes Bad Religion

West Kennet Long Barrow

Lupa at No Unsacred Place has a very good essay titled “The Dangers of Talking Plants” where she rants (softly) against the bad science we see from many New Agers and more than a few Pagans. I encourage you to go read the whole thing, but I’ll repeat her closing paragraph.

we can continue to have plant spirits and totems, and gods of the harvest and field. There’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s not use half-arsed studies about “talking plants” to try to prove that the spirits of nature paganism are more real than any other. Better to have no proof and only have our spirituality be true in our hearts, than to root our proof on a crumbling cliffside, only to have the tree fall over in the end.

Lupa generally takes a more naturalistic approach to gods and spirits and magic than I do, but on this we’re in complete agreement. Science has a clearly defined method and protocols to insure that method is followed rigidly. Intuition and leaps of faith may point scientists in helpful directions, but until those directions are explored and verified by the scientific method they cannot be called “science.”

We are free to look at the results of science with wonder and awe – how can you do otherwise if you have a soul? We are free to interpret the results of science in myth and metaphor. Einstein said “God does not play dice.” Stephen Hawking responded “not only does God play dice, sometimes he throws them where they can’t be seen.” Hawking’s rebuttal is the most useful metaphor I’ve come across in trying to figure out how magic works. But it’s a metaphor, not a scientific law or even a theory. The probabilistic nature of subatomic physics is no more proof of the efficacy of magic than are the anecdotes of the times my spells have worked. There is no documented, repeatable, falsifiable, experimental evidence for the existence of the gods or the validity of magic. And I don’t expect there ever will be any.

When we do this we are doing exactly the same thing fundamentalists do when they insist the Bible is inerrant, the Earth is only 6000 years old or that there is scientific evidence of intelligent design. The root of their proof has crumbled on a cliffside and they are forced to deny established facts to pretend otherwise.

Claiming scientific backing or proof for spiritual ideas where none exists isn’t just bad science, it’s also bad religion.

Why do we even bother with this? Why is it important that our beliefs are validated by science? Few accept the authority of the Bible or the Church or of governments – we want to see proof. We want studies and data and the incontrovertible evidence that exists more in TV crime dramas than in real laboratories. Science has become the arbiter of truth in our materialistic society and we want science to bless our religion.

At the root of this desire is the idea that the only truth worth having is the kind of truth science can validate, that the only knowledge is literal, material knowledge. This is why fundamentalists insist the Bible is literally true – if it’s not literally true then they think it’s worthless. They ignore the value of mythical and mystical truth.

When we look for science to affirm our conversations with nature spirits we devalue mystical experiences. When we look for science to affirm our communion with goddesses and gods we devalue mythical experiences. When we look for science to affirm after-death communication we devalue spiritual experiences.

And that, I suspect, is the core reason behind the desire for the validation of science and the discounting of non-ordinary reality: we fear what lies beyond death. Few Pagans worry about going to hell. Instead, we worry that the atheists may be right and beyond death lies nothing. We trust only science to assure us that our consciousness lives on after our bodies die.

Science can’t do that.

I believe that after death I will enjoy a time of rest, reunion, and reflection before plunging into the Cauldron of Rebirth and returning to this world to continue the Great Work of my soul. Science can’t prove that. It can’t disprove it either. I believe it based on the long tradition of similar beliefs in many cultures. I believe it based on the myths of my ancestors. I believe it based on my own mystical experiences.

But I freely admit I might be wrong.

I’m certain of a few things. After death I am certain my body will decay and return to Mother Earth, where the elements that currently make up my bones and muscles and organs will be recycled into other living things. I am certain I will not be forgotten by those whose lives I have touched – that which is remembered lives. I am certain my actions have influenced processes that will continue indefinitely – the world will feel my impact long after everyone who ever heard of me is gone. And I am reasonably certain the very words you are reading now will be preserved indefinitely in the internet, giving me immortality of a sort. Even if the atheists are right and after I die my consciousness simply ceases to exist, the essence of who and what I am will live on.

And so will you.

Mythical and mystical truth is just as real and just as important as literal truth. It can tell us things science can’t. Use the right methods for the right subjects: bad science makes bad religion.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04477224825216198490 Sarah

    Well said, sir! I completely agree. Over-reaching for validation has caused many a person, organization, and at least one religious system to look absolutely ridiculous. Worse, though, is the self-delusion inherent to that way of thought. ("I'm/we're right, and the rest of the world…and Science is wrong!") I'm more than happy to keep my science and my spirituality separate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11660020818713159502 Conor W.

    Excellent post. More people need to read this

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04599647579270477756 Lupa

    Many thanks for adding to the conversation on this! I am in agreement, and I appreciate it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18397283594429773853 Nick Farrell

    While I agree with you when you talk about science and religion, it is one of the arguments that the neoplatonics (who were mostly magicians) used against the gnostics. They felt that gnostics should approach what they believed rationally and should be able to explain it philosophically. While I agree that religion or magic cannot be explained using quantum mechanics, disabling rational thought when it comes to religion or magic leads to all sorts of horrors which people are required to believe or have faith in. There is a middle way here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    Nick, I totally agree. We must have rational thought in religion. But we need more than materialistic, literal thought, and we must not pretend that science can validate things it cannot.

    For me, that middle way is to be totally open during rituals and workings, but back to my engineer-self when reviewing and evaluating them.

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  • Gordon Cooper

    What is considered good science can make for bad religion as well. The Eugenics movement and its USA their poster-child (literally) film “The Black Swan” demonstrated this in the first two or three decades of the 20th century, and its consequences are still being felt today. This film was shown in churchas across America, and was endorsed by leading medical authorities.

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