September 4, 2011
A Scientist's Appreciation of ReligionBy James Lewis
Now that Bill Keller, America's Grand Inquisitor, has declared open season on the religious faith of Republicans (but never Democrats), it is high time for a non-believing scientist to express my love and admiration for the great religious traditions.
Religion is by far the greatest vehicle of civilization. It is how civilized morals and values have been taught from one generation to the next for the last 6,000 years of recorded history, and probably for 100,000 years before that. The reason is that humans are not homo sapiens, the wise hominid; we are homo fidelis, the believer.
Some of greatest gifts in life first appeared in religious garb. If you want proof, consider UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. UNESCO is not a religious bureaucracy. Among its nearly 1,000 World Heritage Sites there are natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. But when it comes to human-made sites, the great majority are religious monuments, temples, cathedrals, cave paintings, and many holy places. If UNESCO says so, even the New York Times has to believe it.
Strangely enough, there is not a single World Heritage Site dedicated to Karl Marx. The fearsome tombs of Lenin, Mao, and Marx all seem to be missing from the list. I wonder why.
Religion and the natural sciences have their quarrels. Pontius Pilate in the Gospels is a typical Roman skeptic of his time; for Rome, religious worship was a means to an end. But just to cover their bets the skeptical Romans sacrificed to many divinities, including Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and the family shrine at home, with its lares and penates. When Socrates was ordered to drink hemlock for offending against the gods of Athens, his last request was to sacrifice a cock to the god Asclepius, the god of medicine.
Unlike Bill Keller, Pontius Pilate was an equal-opportunity crucifier. He didn't care what you believed. When the Romans crushed the Jewish Revolt of 70 CE, seven hundred crucifixions were to be seen on the hills of Jerusalem, as told by the historian Josephus. No racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination got in the way of Roman warfare.
Today's crusading atheism is a fanatical cult that desperately needs to make converts, to silence its own inner qualms. Intolerance is progressive, see?
Science and religion are two great branches of the same sturdy oak. At the beginnings of Western thought, Plato and Aristotle taught that God performs geometry to create the universe. William Blake's extraordinary work The Ancient of Days expresses the identical idea more than two millennia later, with the divine figure measuring out the universe with a geometrical compass. That's what "civilization" means. William Blake knew his Plato and Aristotle as well as his Bible (KJV).
Science, mathematics, and religious beliefs grew over twenty-five centuries in close harmony with each other, so that in the lives of individuals, the difference between them is often impossible to find. Many mathematicians are intuitive mystics. Albert Einstein was one.
When, at the end of the 19th century, the mathematician Georg Cantor discovered infinite number series, he labeled them by the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph. Different types of infinities (yes!) received different Aleph subscripts. Cantor must have known that the letter Aleph has a long history as a mark of infinity of the Divine in Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah. The formal mathematical definition of "infinity" is "that which is greater than any given number k," an idea that is rendered in Hebrew as "Ein Sof" (without ending). It is of course a synonym for divinity.
Since mystical traditions readily cross group boundaries, the Kabbalists must have talked to Christian mystics who talked to neo-Platonist atheists who talked to Persian Sufis who talked to itinerant Buddhists and traveling Taoists. Over the centuries, human civilizations have very porous boundaries, if any. Anthropologist Donald E. Brown has compiled a long list of Human Universals, the things that are shared among all known cultures. Belief in the supernatural turns out to be one of those cultural universals. Religion is in our genes.
A century after Georg Cantor invented numerical infinities, the Argentinean novelist Jorge Luis Borges wrote his most famous short story, "The Aleph," about a mystical spot in the dark basement of the Buenos Aires home of an Argentinean poet. Borges as the narrator is desperately in love with the poet's daughter Beatriz, just as the poet Dante was in love with Beatrice. When the narrator (Borges) lies down in one particular spot on the floor of the dark basement, he can experience everything that can ever be experienced, echoed back and forth an infinite number of times. Such panpsychic experiences are reported by mystics throughout human history.
Science and religion meet again, this time in the mind of an Argentinean Nobel Prize-winning novelist. A long and profound civilization like ours has echoes of its echoes sounding ever onward, Borges' Beatriz echoing Dante's Beatrice, the Aleph of George Cantor recalling the Aleph of Jewish mystical thought, which finds its own never-quite-fading echoes in the alpha and omega of Plato, writing in the fifth century BCE. All we have to do is listen for the echoes.
And yes, Western mysticism connects to Asian philosophy, because we know that in the 5th century BCE, Alexander the Great led his armies to India, bringing Aristotle along for company and philosophical instruction. Somewhere in Northern India, Alexander encountered naked yogis, and as a well-educated Greek, the emperor sat down with his mentor Aristotle and the "sky-clad" yogis to discuss philosophy.
The idea of a permanent chasm between science and religion is a myth of the 20th century, peddled mainly by the left. It comes and goes in human history.
Isaac Newton thought his science was small potatoes next to his commentary on the Book of Job. Job wrestles with the problem of evil, and Newton may have believed that human evil was more important than the solar system. (Maybe it is.)
As for the social sciences, it was the professor of moral theology in Edinburgh, Adam Smith, who first elaborated on free-market economics. Adam Smith opposed untrammeled free markets without the moral underpinnings derived from the religious traditions.
There have been great fights between religious and scientific authorities. But if you want to see scientists fight nasty (sort of like girls' wrestling), just look at the discovery of DNA. We are a quarrelsome species. (Sorry, liberals, but it's true).
Religion and science stem from the same human urge to find meaning in life. Both have a way of humbling pride and arrogance. The biggest example of a flagrantly false and destructive fraud-o-science today is Marxism; no religion can boast of killing 100 million people in only a hundred years. It takes mass-cult atheism to do that. (The Nazis would have matched that number, but Hitler ruled Germany for only thirteen years.)
Religion is a human universal. It is as pervasive as sex, and can be as joyous. You can hear it in gospel choirs, in Mozart's aria "Exultate, Jubilate," in liturgies, and in the Psalms, whence Mozart derived those lyrics.
All high civilizations owe fathomless debts to the religious traditions.
As I mentioned, I'm not a believer myself, but I don't need to turn my questions into a witch hunt. I enjoy and admire many things about religion, and I don't like head-chopping fanaticism, religious or not. Some wonderful writers and thinkers are atheists. So what? Civilized people live civilized lives.
Liberals used to call this unusual concept "tolerance," and they took it a as special liberal virtue. Real liberals would be appalled by persecutory ideologues like Bill Keller.
But where have all the liberals gone? If any open-minded and tolerant folks survive at the NYT they must be keeping their heads well down. The left is now hag-ridden by "progressive tolerance and compassion."
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