Years ago, the relation between science and religion was a hot topic of discussion. It now seems to have reached that state of exhaustion that overcomes all discussions of ultimately unanswerable questions.
One of the persistent stumbling blocks in such discussions is the disproportion between the universality of modern science and the plurality of religions. Because of this disproportion, the discussion is often about the relation of one religious tradition, such as the Judeo-Christian tradition, to science, rather than religion or spirituality in general.
For these discussions to be more balanced, it would help to present a more universal idea of religion. Unfortunately, there is not much that all religions have in common. And religious devotees have never been particularly interested in emphasizing their commonalities with other religions. More commonly they emphasize the specialness of their own belief.
Since naturalistic spirituality by its very nature seeks to integrate aspects of the scientific worldview with aspects of spiritual practice and experience, the question of the relation of science and religion remains of interest. Here, I would like to propose a few things that most, if not all religions, seem to share, and the possible implications for naturalistic spirituality.
One element common to many religions is an origin story or myth. This story tells how people came to be here on this earth; it gives expression to that which is our ultimate source. This ultimate source goes by a variety of names in different traditions — God, Goddess, Great Spirit, Tao, Atman, Nature, and many others. In each case it attempts to express what we all share in common. To put it metaphorically, these traditions say we are all children of the same cosmological womb and we are destined to return to the same cosmological tomb. Stories of the source tell us that our life takes place in a greater context than our individual selves. We might say that the notion of an ultimate source directs us to think about the ultimate context of our life.
Some religious thinkers use the term arche to refer to our ultimate source and the term telos to refer to our ultimate purpose and destiny. In recent years there has been an effort to make the naturalistic story of beginnings, sometimes called “Big History,” into a kind of religious arche. There is much to be said for this effort, but while Big History has a grandeur and sublimity to match any of the religious myths, the nature of the story told by Big History is simply different from that of religious myth.
Though Big History is unquestionably a more accurate account of our ultimate origins, unlike the religious myths, it does not connect with a telos. Indeed, scientific methodology has been at war with the concept of a telos or purpose from its beginning. Telos was at the base of the Aristotelian science that modern science had to deconstruct in order to set our understanding of the world on a new course. Consequently, while Big History gives incredible detail about our origins, it cannot point us to any aim or purpose in life, and thus cannot give us much direction in how to spend our time between the womb and tomb. For some, “Big History” makes individual life seem terribly small and meaningless. Physicist Steven Weinberg articulated this view when he wrote, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Big History, I think, avoids this problem of pointlessness when we add two items that are often not included. One, that we are fully a part of the universe; to comprehend the universe is to comprehend something about ourselves. Two, that at the base of everything we know about the universe, there is yet a great mystery of how a universe such as this could come into existence in the first place. And thus we remain in the dark as to whether behind this mystery, this cloud of unknowing, is the hidden point of it all. I will elaborate on this more below.
Another element common to many religions is “communion.” By communion, I mean any kind of experiential integration of the individual being into a larger whole. The communion experience might be ephemeral or enduring; it might come as part of formal ritual or arise spontaneously. The aboriginal return to the “dream time”; the sacrament of communion in Christian Churches; the experience of Samadhi, Satori, or Nirvana of the Eastern Religions; the beatific vision of the Western mystic – are all in the gamut of the experience of communion.
This experience of oneness provides a direct revelation of our connection to something greater than our individual self, with its individual desires and satisfactions. In the traditions, this “something greater than our individual self” is the ultimate source or ultimate context discussed above.
If Big History fails to connect us with an ultimate purpose, it succeeds in telling us a great deal about the larger context of our life. Ecology in particular speaks of our connection with the great cycles of energy and matter that make life possible. It tells us that the very warmth and energy of our body is the warmth and energy of the sun carried through food chains, and the water of our blood comes from a hydraulic cycle that connects us to oceans and clouds.
Expanding our context, the existence of water is dependent on a galactic ecology of massive stars wherein the various elements heavier than hydrogen are forged, and of supernovae that explode these elements throughout the galaxy. We are made of that star dust. It is our flesh and blood.
Moving back even closer to the ultimate source, we learn that the galaxies have their source in something termed the Big Bang. The matter/energy from which the various elements were forged mysteriously appeared from this. And at the furthest edge of cosmology, there is now speculation that the Big Bang and the universe that emerges from it has its origin in an even greater context — sometimes called the Multiverse. But so far theories of the Multiverse are often closer to metaphysics than physics, and I think if we are honest we might just call that which precedes the Big Bang, the Great Mystery. For the ultimate explanation of our ultimate source lies still, as mentioned earlier, behind a cloud of unknowing in both science and religion.
So the idea that we arise from and exist within a greater whole, a greater context, is as much a scientific idea as a religious one. In demonstrating our commonality with the rest of Nature, Big History provides a spiritual idea as surely as the myths of any religious tradition. But to actually feel this commonality powerfully and directly, requires something more than ideas, it requires something like communion as we find this idea in the spiritual traditions.
Through the experience of communion, the naturalistic origin story called Big History can, perhaps, be given something of the telos that it lacks. This is not a telos that can be clearly articulated in words, but one that is felt. To experience communion with Nature is to feel a deep sense of connectedness and meaningfulness in existence. It allows us to appreciate the story of Big History from the inside out.
One might complain that a felt sense of meaningfulness, being only an emotion, is an illusion. But I would like to suggest one reason why it may represent a more essential truth than the ideas of science. Scientific method divides the world into subject and object, an observer and that which is observed. This division is necessary for science, but it is artificial. In fact, the observing scientist is fully a part of the world and can never be separate from it. Since by definition the Universe (or Multiverse) is all that is, nothing can stand outside of it. It can only be observed from within.
Perhaps the kind of pointlessness that Steven Weinberg refers to is actually just a product of a scientific method that abstracts us from unity with Nature. Throughout the ages and across the globe, people have spoken of the experience of ultimate oneness. In one form or another the idea expressed is that in this experience the inner and outer, the subject and object, the observer and the observed are one and the same.
The separation of subject from object is an idea created by the mind, the world itself contains no such division. The observer is fully a part of that which it observes. Thus the experience of connectedness and meaningfulness that one gains from the experience of communion cannot be explained away by a science or reason that in its very method introduces an idea of disconnectedness.
The cosmology of Big History and the experience of communion with Nature are Spiritual Naturalism’s equivalent of the myths and sense of communion present in the various religions. Together, these two come close to wedding science and religion. Perhaps it even brings them to the altar.
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