To the Editor:
I have discovered that many scientists have a very rich spirituality, and one that in most cases does not conform with established religion. The reason is that, the more they study the universe, the more they see of its richness and complexity, and the rational response to that is respect for and even awe before what they see.
Many scientists have a well-developed spiritual understanding based on facts and reality. This understanding is often senior to that preached by mainline religions.
A serious student of biology will have very high regard for what he sees, whether it be the human body with its three trillion cells arranged in organ systems and staying alive for 100 years or the richness of an Amazonian rainforest. The reason is that such things possess greater complexity than anything that people yet know how to create, and understanding of this logically leads to respect for the processes that made such things possible.
Someone possessing in-depth knowledge of science would therefore have respect for and even awe of the universe; but that does not necessarily mean that he is going to agree with the concept of Biblical God. The reason is that Christianity holds a dismissive, even damning, attitude toward nature, seeing “flesh” (meaning the human body and the rest of physical natural world) as being a creation of the Satan or as being poisoned by sin. A serious student of biology would be angered by attitudes of this nature. The reason is that what’s being damned or impugned here is something possessing far greater complexity, richness and viability than anything that the person possessing such attitudes knows how to create. And he would likewise be angered by brainless economic practices such as destroying the extraordinarily rich environment that is Amazon to make ranches that become useless in two years, when there are many other ways to feed Latin America, or flooding the atmosphere and the oceans with CO2 from dirty coal and oil, when there are many other ways to provide energy that are a lot less destructive.
That does not mean that the scientist is going to have no spiritual feelings; indeed he may have very profound spiritual feelings – once again as a rational consequence of what he sees. He may be more likely to agree with a creed such as Deism, which was practiced by America’s founders Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, that sees divine truths as being found in nature and discovered through rational inquiry. He may believe in some providence or some higher intelligence, but he is not likely to agree with the Biblical beliefs that damn the natural world or the human body. The reason once again is that he will have respect for the natural world and the human body as a rational reaction to what he finds out about these things.
Science and spirituality do not have to be opposed to one another; indeed life-affirming spirituality is fully in conformance with scientific knowledge. The more one studies natural life the more he values it and respects it. The attitude of the romantic is a natural outgrowth of the obvious implications of scientific inquiry: A logical consummation of the respect for natural life that scientific study of life engenders. And if one believes in some higher power, it becomes power that is congruent with, and not held opposite to, life.
The person involved in real scientific inquiry is likewise going to be in disagreement with the people who deem themselves rational while they have contempt for natural processes. Such contempt is an obvious mark of inadequate cognition and inadequate knowledge. Until one can create something as complex as human body or Amazonian rainforest, one has no business having contempt for such things; and a person who has such contempt either possesses inadequate understanding of the preceding or does not possess adequate reasoning faculties to understand the logical implications thereof.
There are any number of scientists with very profound spiritual understanding, and it is spiritual understanding that is driven by fact and logic. It is driven by understanding just what it is that exists in nature and in the universe and by grasping the full complexity thereof. What the Native Americans referred to as the Great Mystery, science makes explicable, and in the process instills respect for it. The lack of such respect – whether it comes from Biblical attitudes or from attitudes that falsely claim themselves rational – is a mark that one does not know what one is talking about and has no real knowledge of what it is that he holds in disrespect.
Originally appeared here.