Order in Nature and Another of the Social Benefits of Religion

Order in Nature and Another of the Social Benefits of Religion September 26, 2019


Lorenz equation
An equation in modern physics
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.


So runs the famous opening line of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella Die Verwandlung (English, The Metamorphosis):


One morning, as Gregor Samsa awoke from restless dreams, he discovered that he had been transformed in his bed into a monstrous verminous bug.


I read Kafka’s story — the first time that I have ever read it in the original German — on the way home from Finland yesterday.


The story continues from that very striking first sentence.  Gregor’s transformed state is treated as an unfortunate development that clouds his family’s financial prospect and frightens off their housekeeper and his boss, but not as the astonishingly freakish and unprecedented occurrence that it would be in the world of quotidian reality as we all know it.


Which brings up an intriguing question:  Granted that Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis is . . . well, Kafkaesque, why do we live in a world where we know that such things can’t happen?  Why is the universe law-like?  Why is it rational and predictable?


This is related to the question raised by the Hungarian-American Nobel laureate physicist Eugen Wigner (1902-1995) in his important 1960 paper “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”:


“The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.”




Here’s an important article, kindly brought to my attention by Steve Smoot, that I highly recommend:


“Does a Religious Upbringing Promote Generosity or Not? An erroneous paper on religion and generosity is finally retracted.”


It turns out that a relatively recent study that was widely heralded in the media and that was greeted with rapturous joy by more than a few vocal atheists was simply, for want of a stronger word, wrong.


Such articles as this don’t prove theism true, of course, but they certainly show it to be entirely healthy and arguably very beneficial to society.


Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., is the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, faculty affiliate of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford, University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard University in mathematics, philosophy, theology, finance and applied economics, and biostatistics.



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