Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"

Segment #3:  Consciousness

Part III: Science and Religion

          Spirituality and curiosity are strong and significant human drives. They are the drives which make us want to know what the whole means and how the parts work. They compel us to create both imaginary and concrete artifacts. In many ways, together they are what makes us human.

          We know that pretty early on, our species developed a spiritual component that has since evidenced itself in virtually every culture. In one way or another this spirituality has produced all of our religions and religious experiences. Most people find the answer to life's questions through a more or less close religious affiliation. At the same time, many others experience spirituality outside any particular religious affiliation.  Of the world's 6 billion inhabitants, almost 2 billion call themselves Christian, well over a billion Muslim, nearly a billion Hindu, half a billion are Buddhist, and millions more are affiliated with various other religious perspectives. Perhaps a billion are unaffiliated or "non-religious".  

          In early times, religion was the vehicle that conveyed the nature of reality to most people, often in mythical terms. Later, objective scientific thinking was discovered and eventually used to explain a material, clockwork, universe in mechanistic and mathematical terms.  In recent times, thankfully, these views no longer are seen as "either/or" perspectives.   Many now think that science and spirituality can -- and must -- be complementary.

          There is an important and analogous distinction between science and technology on the one hand, and spirituality and religion on the other. In our view:

Science and spirituality are the two different ways human beings have of knowing, of seeking answers to life's questions.

Technology and religion are what we do with the answers we find through science and spirituality respectively. We use these answers to make living and dying more comfortable, to gain physical and emotional support in a threatening world.

          We reflect that the three major Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) developed from the bottom of the population heap, seeking relief from misery in salvation through an external power. This is not so in the Eastern traditions which developed from the individuals at the top of the pile. The essential focus of such far eastern religions as Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism is on the social behavior of humans, how do we get along with each other. And Hinduism and Buddhism focus more on the psychology of being human--not how do you behave to your neighbor but rather what's going on inside you and how do you control it.

          Listen to religious scholar Huston Smith:

"What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strands blend in a strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus? We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine."

          There is no lack of evidence showing how, aside from many boons, technology and religion can also be used to produce horrifying results. Technology produces weapons of mass destruction that are created and peddled for the primary purpose of enriching a few purses. Religious fervor has lead (and still does) to the slaughtering of millions of innocent people as claims of absolute truth lead to blind obedience and a belief that the end justifies any means.

          Spirituality and science are hard work. Scientific discoveries often take years to uncover, and require the disproving of previous theories that must be finally, and sometimes painfully, discarded. Such was the case when Copernicus proved that the world was round and not the center of the universe.   Spiritual leaders spend years, often with great suffering, before finally achieving enlightenment. Such was the case for many Biblical and historical characters. This depth and commitment of effort run counter to American culture, with its demands for instant gratification. Relatively few are willing to devote the sustained and focused effort required to produce competent science or achieve genuine spirituality. Most want to have a better gizmo today, and chase spirituality as if it were a pill to make one feel better now.

          Theologian Karen Armstrong in a 2006 interview makes some cogent points about the times we live in. She suggests that we are now entering a period, similar in many ways to the pivotal "Axial Age" (800 - 200 BCE) which marked the beginning of humanity as we now know it. This was when the world's major religions came into being: monotheism in the middle east, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Taoism and Confucianism in China, and Greek rationalism in Europe. In her opinion the conditions then (a world filled with violence, a pervasive conviction that life had gone awry, and leaders looking into their hearts to find the sources of violence in the human psyche) are the same now. People are again being forced to reassess their religious conditions under today's circumstances, and search for new ways to be religious and to satisfy their spiritual longings.

          There is a huge difficulty in our society, and for that matter in any society that's dominated by a particular religion: it is not politically acceptable to question religious beliefs. We have only to watch elected leaders and the media dance around the issue to see this. The questioning of scientific findings and theories is common, accepted, and encouraged, but there is a strong cultural taboo against questioning religious beliefs and dogma. Such constraint severely hampers progress in adapting religions to meet changing human circumstances. Theologian and ordained minister Charles Kimball says that "Our collective failure to challenge presuppositions, think anew, and openly debate central religious concerns affecting society is a recipe for disaster."

          The central and enduring themes of all great religions too often get lost in the pitfalls that all religions are susceptible to.

Central Themes
Common Pitfalls
  • The ethic of reciprocity: "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you."
  • The centrality of love, and a call to service with empathy and compassion for all.
  • The need for humility, to recognize how little one knows.
  • The responsibility for thinking for oneself.
  • Claims of the absolute truth of one interpretation-and all others are wrong.
  • Blind obedience to self-styled leaders whose followers abdicate their personal responsibility.
  • Fear of imminent catastrophe, and that only "we" will be saved.
  • The end justifies the means and "they" are simply objects-so that evil behavior towards them can be justified.

          Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris in 2005 summed up the problem of our day as follows:

"For anyone with eyes to see, there can be no doubt that religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict. Religion persuades otherwise intelligent men and women to not think, or to think badly, about questions of civilizational important. And yet it remains taboo to criticize religious faith in our society, or to even observe that some religions are less compassionate and less tolerant than others. What is worst in us (outright delusion) has been elevated beyond the reach of criticism, while what is best (reason and intellectual honesty) must remain hidden, for fear of giving offense."         

          We live in a dangerous world. Religion and technology matter very much to most people. Often it's them against us - with the dividing lines drawn on the basis of religion far more than technology. It's been said that more wars have been fought, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than from any other single motivation. On a hopeful note, however, religious scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith commented in1959:

The traditional form of Western scholarship in the study of other [religious traditions] was that of an impersonal presentation of an "it." The first great innovation in recent times has been the personalization of the faiths observed, so that one finds a discussion of a "they." Presently the observer becomes personally involved, so that the situation is one of a "we" talking about a "they." The next step is a dialogue where "we" talk to "you." If there is listening and mutuality, this may become that "we" talk with "you." The culmination of the process will be when "we all" are talking with each other about "us."

          So how do we think about, and sense, our spirituality when the old dogma-laden words no longer ring true? How does one question another person's religious beliefs (however strange they may seem) without questioning their personhood? How can we test different religious beliefs for their efficacy in these difficult times? And should we?

Think About

    1. What are your current religious views? Have those changed over time - and if so why?
    2. How do you express your spirituality and how does that relate to your religious affiliation?   
    3. How good is your understanding of science and the scientific method?
    4. How often do you think about these kinds of matters?
    5. What could a way to validate the efficacy of particular religious beliefs or doctrines?
    6. What questions does this article raise in your mind?



Next: Preparation (Homework) for Segment #3 Group Meeting


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