The Sacred

Over at Reality Base, Melissa has invited Adam Frank to contribute a series of guest posts related to his new book: The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. Adam is an astrophysicist at Rochester, a smart guy, and a great science writer; he interviewed me for this story in Discover, and it was the most conscientious bit of science journalism I’ve been involved with.

There is a copy of Adam’s book lying around here somewhere, but I can’t find it right now; I’ve looked through it, but admittedly haven’t read it closely. You can get some feeling for where he’s coming from by checking out his blog devoted to the book. Roughly: “Sure, simple-minded creationism and a naively interventionist deity is crazy. But there is something valuable in notions of the sacred and spiritual endeavor that captures something important about being human, and it’s a mistake to simply dismiss it all under the same umbrella.” There is a family resemblance to the argument made (in very different words) by Stuart Kauffman in his recent book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Kauffman points out an indisputably true fact: there is such a large number of possible configurations of the genetic material in a complex organism that we will never come anywhere close to exploring every possible arrangement. Therefore (he leaps), we have to look beyond simple determinism to understand our world. There is (he bravely continues) a radical contingency in the way life actually plays itself out, and it makes sense to grapple with this contingency by turning to concepts such as “the sacred.”

Let’s get the agreement out of the way first. There is certainly no question that the techniques of fundamental physics are not sufficient for dealing with getting us through our everyday lives. Even if we are hard-core determinists, and think that every particle and quantum field does nothing but march to the tune of the universal Schrödinger equation, that fact isn’t very helpful when it comes to fixing the economy or listening to music. We deal with complicated human experiences, and a different set of concepts and vocabulary is required, even if it’s nothing but the laws of physics underlying it all. And it would indeed be nice if atheist/materialist thinkers spent more time putting forward a positive agenda of living human life, in addition to their undoubtedly successful programs of understanding the natural world and highlighting the inadequacy of traditional religious belief.

So I’m very happy to have creative and intelligent people like Frank and Kauffman address these hard issues from the perspective of someone who takes the laws of nature seriously. However, I continue to be baffled about why they would ever think it was a good idea to invoke words like “spiritual” or “sacred” as part of that endeavor.

The problem is, words have meanings. When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them” — something supernatural. Now, you may not want them to make that association; that might not be a connotation you wish to invite. (Or maybe it is, in which case I’ve completely misunderstood.) And you are free, as was Humpty Dumpty, to insist that words mean whatever you say they mean. But it’s a very good strategy for guaranteeing that people will misunderstand you.

The puzzles of human life, and our mutual sense of wonder, and a feeling of awe when confronted with the cosmos, are all perfectly respectable topics for discussion. And there exists perfectly respectable vocabularies for discussing them, that don’t come laden with unfortunate supernatural overtones: literature, anthropology, psychology, the arts, and so on. There is a huge disadvantage to throwing around words like “sacred” and “spiritual,” in that you will very frequently be understood (misunderstood, one hopes) to be talking about the supernatural. So if you really want to rehabilitate those words in the eyes of a cheerful naturalist such as myself, your task is clear: give very specific examples and contexts in which we gain some sort of understanding by using that vocabulary that we would not gain by sticking to words without those unfortunate connotations. I’m happy to admit that such a context might be possible, but I haven’t seen anything close to a persuasive argument, so I’ll remain extremely skeptical until one comes along.

And then, one can’t leave this territory without bringing up Richard Dawkins for some good bashing. Here is where Adam has a go. “Dawkins only addresses a naive and simplistic view of religion,” etc. We’ve talked before about how “sophisticated” approaches to religion are not any better, and how Dawkins has served an extremely valuable rhetorical purpose. But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You. Richard Dawkins was not addressing this kind of touchy-feely non-interventionist religion, for the excellent reason that it doesn’t match up with what the overwhelming majority of religious believers actually believe.

Dawkins was, rather, addressing the kind of religion professed by Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA). Rep. Broun is shown here, accompanied by two ministers, anointing a doorway in the U.S. Capitol building with oil. It was the doorway that Barack Obama would walk through on the way to his inauguration, and these well-meaning gentlemen understood that a carefully placed dab of oil might make God look more charitably on the new President.

This is what Richard Dawkins was arguing against. This is a member of the U.S. Congress, who in fact is a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, who believes that some sort of esoteric rite is going to curry favor with an omnipotent being. Dawkins is worried about them, not about people who are occasionally impressed with the grandeur of the cosmos. If the oil-anointers were a tiny minority of religious believers rather than the vast majority, I suspect Dawkins would spend his time worrying about other things.

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54 Responses to The Sacred

  1. Pingback: Stuff to Rot Your Brain…and stuff to make it grow « blueollie

  2. Empedocles says:

    oh brother, here we go again. When my pipes are leaking, I call a plumber. I won’t ask him/her: “what is the meaning of life?”. Nor will I ask a physicist/cosmologist that question. Plumbing won’t give the answer, and neither will physics. Not ever. But pardon me for still asking myself that question. And since neither plumbing nor physics will give me the answer, excuse me for turning somewhere else. If believing in “something” that may give meaning to this all makes me happy, do you mind? I love physics, but it realy isn’t the be all and end all.

  3. Pieter Kok says:

    Another thing to keep in mind is that these books would sell significantly fewer copies if they didn’t use the words “sacred” and “spiritual” prominently.

  4. Tony Agee says:

    Thanks, Sean.
    That was very well said, especially your defense of Dawkins.
    I agree that people have needs that are not met by science, but I would not agree that those needs are well met by any form of religion that we currently have.

  5. Laura says:

    If people could just have there beliefs without making a show like the dab of oil on a wall then there never would be silly arguments that neither side will ever win intil someone can provide real proof one way or the other.

  6. Michael says:

    Empedocles,

    The issue isn’t where the “meaning of life” is the appropriate question. It’s a fine question and my view is that plumbers (more than a lot of folks) may actually have something worthwhile to say about the answer. Rather, the real issue is what sort of tools one uses to try and answer the question. Darts thrown at a wall covered with random words? Even you would say no to this I think? So, where does one draw the line? And that’s where science comes in. It has proven to be a much more useful tool for unraveling the nature of reality that has religion — which has does rather poorly over the years, don’t you think?

  7. adam frank says:

    Thank you Sean for the kind initial words and thoughtful blog post. You bring up a lot of great points which I will digest and respond to via a posting on my own site.

    For now I wanted to address the issue of words like sacred. I spent a lot of time thinking about what terms to use in the book because in this domain words come packed with such explosive baggage. After spending 6 months in our very fine Religion and Classics department here at the University of Rochester I came away enamored of Mircea Eliade the doyen of the University of Chicago’s Religious Studies program. The term sacred is great because its roots come from the Roman referring to the inside of a temple (as opposed to the profane outer regions). So the sacred is a concept not particularly owned by anyone’s current religion. Its old and in Eliade’s view it referred to the way the extraordinaryness of the world can “erupt” into our everyday awareness.

    Scholars of religion as a human phenomena (NOT theology!) have long identified that kind experience as the essence of what we call religious. I think this kind of thing happens in science to both scientists and non scientists all the time though we fail to indentify it as such. Recognizing that is part of the change I am shooting for.

  8. Neil B says:

    Some major fallacies and downers in this screed, however well-intentioned. First, the wrongness of this:
    When you start talking about “spirituality,” people are going to take you to mean something that goes beyond the laws of nature, in the sense of being incompatible with them, not just “hard to understand in terms of them”
    Nope, the more sophisticated approach (I use that without apology, pls. anyone don’t blather humble populist drivel against elites) is to ask why the laws are the way the are, are they that way for a purpose, if anything/any”One” is responsible for that way to be etc. That’s a heck of a ways off from crude interfering issues (not that it is self-evident or probable that our universe can’t be interfered in by something, if not “God” then other realms, “other universes” etc. There is also the issue of experience as spirituality, and more I’m sure. No, it isn’t like being Humpty Dumpty. Words have layers of meaning, contexts; just look at the numbered distinctions in a dictionary entry.

    Second, this is one of the worst ways to think about/angle on issues themselves:
    But there is a deeper point, which is consistently missed by the gentle-minded/accommodationist/agnostic/liberal-religious/sophisticated-theology segment of the debate: It’s Not About You.
    Ugh. First, the fact that most people are either conventional believers or outright doubters is not the point (argument ad populum fallacy.) Yes, it matters to social policy etc., but minorities (and within a category) often have the best ideas. Why not engage the best the “other side” has to offer, instead of focusing on their most pathetic rabble (which I suspect is more to have an easily beatable straw man whipping boy than any earnest concern for practicality of application.)

    Third, I’ll defend the claim that more “sophisticated” approaches to religion are better (and more relevant for people’s edification, not to be confused with relevant to political brawling), well yes. One way to look at it: It just doesn’t make sense to think that it’s OK to wonder about the deep meaning of laws in the universe and be impressed with that, but not go up a step further (yet not all the way to a “being” like traditional God) and get the notion it’s likely to have a purpose or point geared to having inhabitants because of anthropic fine tuning, etc. Really, if you can look for “expressions” of things like symmetry and “beauty” in the universe (without a “someone” to make it so) why not inherent, “purposefulness” too? Some thinkers have noted, the latter can be a foundational element without a specific “personality” to make it so.

    Finally, I and others in the “spiritual centrist” category get tired of putting it all up as this false two-ways system of science v. religion and whether they can be compatible. It reminds me of how libertarians are sick of the liberal/conservative face off as if they didn’t exist. But ultimate questions are also dealt with by philosophy, which does what it can with issues not directly open to empirical study. (The argument that something has to be empirically knowable to be worth believing or meaningful etc. is itself philosophy, there’s no getting away from big P. It is philosophical reasoning which frames what our epistemic givens are, how “shared” etc, to get science off the ground.) Legitimate philosophy by definition is not derived from cultural traditions (other than necessary entanglement with “intellectual history” but that is unavoidable …) or claimed revelations. It works on whatever good knowledge there is and various reasoning processes to try and find answers.

    Hence philosophy has to be compatible with science – meaning no contradiction – but it deals with questions that may not be part of science (and of course, the question of whether there are such issues and what to do about them if anything.) Questions like, is the universe necessary or contingent, is there a necessary being and what is it, is it all that exists, is (drum roll ….) modal realism a cogent answer to the question of why one or some possible worlds exist and not others; etc., are not “religion” even though they deal with the same issues that religions do.

    PS: For background context, I am Unitarian Universalist and an independent “seeker” who isn’t buying anyone’s simple-minded, hand-me-down religion or disreligion.

  9. Neil B says:

    PS: byargument ad populum fallacy I meant to include the false idea that only the popular ideas were relevant, not just the fallacy that such ideas had to be true.

  10. Thor says:

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    You’re right. When you feel all dry and empty and asking ‘So What?’ doesn’t seem to get you anywhere when you wonder about the purpose of it all, spirituality has a way of soothing your wounds in a way science currently cannot, but some philosophical arguments can – philosophy can help transition one from religion to science. Once your wounds are soothed, there’s science to help you run the world again. Everyone views this differently, but there’s no reason to force things down the throats of most sciencey-agnostics. Good little essay.

  11. Paul says:

    Why is it that many scientists feel no compunction about “explaining” (or, in Sean’s case, dismissing) religion, but they scoff in disgust at believers who “explain” science? What’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander, no? Why not just agree that Science and religion are mutually exclusive, and neither has anything to say about the other? There are many devoutly religious scientists, and many fervently atheistic ones; there are priests who are astronomers, and there are atheists who have no interest in or understanding of Newton’s Laws.

    I think there’s a touch of arrogance often on the part of scientists, especially physicists. The drive to understand nature’s laws, ironically, leads some of them to assume the very attributes of the Deities they claim are figments of our imagination. For someone who claims to be utterly atheistic, Sean spends an AWFUL lot of time talking about the subject of God (or god, if you must). The physicist doth protest too much, it seems to me.

    As for definitions of “sacred” or “spiritual” that don’t involve dogmatic religions or Newton’s Laws, well, have a child and look into its eyes and you’ll have at least one.

  12. I suspect that President Obama himself has no problem with the “oil anointing” ceremony, so are his religious beliefs the subject of Dawkin’s ire too? Or are Obama’s supporters just giving him a pass because they think his religiosity is a bit fake? Admittedly, I can understand why scientists feel they have a friend in the White House now, but still I don’t think it particularly fair that the degree of ridicule of religiosity is dependent on which political party a politician belongs to.

  13. Blake Stacey says:

    Kauffman points out an indisputably true fact: there is such a large number of possible configurations of the genetic material in a complex organism that we will never come anywhere close to exploring every possible arrangement. Therefore (he leaps), we have to look beyond simple determinism to understand our world. There is (he bravely continues) a radical contingency in the way life actually plays itself out, and it makes sense to grapple with this contingency by turning to concepts such as “the sacred.”

    Since when was “exploring every possible arrangement” the only way to obtain a materialistic, reductionistic (insert your favourite philosopher-swear-word here) understanding of a phenomenon?

  14. Ryan says:

    In regard to language and discussing religion and science a lot of the buzzwords like “spiritual” and “sacred” are loaded with meaning. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use new words to use as long as the definitions are clearly defined in a work, no?

    I don’t see the oil-anointers as the vast majority, only the very vocal minority.

    I would call the oil-anointing, snake taming, tongue-speaking crowd a superstitious bunch that substitutes obscure, clandestine ritual for an actual relationship with God, but I would not call them the majority.

    The majority (of Christians anyway) from my experience are content to be nominal Christians only (i.e., go to church). They are not concerned with loving their neighbor, tending to the poor or trying to ease the pain of a hurting world. They are content to silently (or not so silently, most of the time) judge from a distance without getting their hands dirty. This is the majority that I see. While they may be apathetic I do not believe them to be dangerous as the superstitious bunch I outlined at the beginning.

    What is your experience with Christians? Overly concerned with oil anointing and ritual? Hypocritical and judgmental? Genuine and loving? Some sort of hybrid?

  15. Blake Stacey says:

    Why not just agree that Science and religion are mutually exclusive, and neither has anything to say about the other?

    Because that statement is not true for any definition of “religion” which is socially or politically meaningful.

    I think there’s a touch of arrogance often on the part of scientists, especially physicists. The drive to understand nature’s laws, ironically, leads some of them to assume the very attributes of the Deities they claim are figments of our imagination.

    The aforementioned Deities are credited with creating universes. Physicists try to understand. Different game.

    For someone who claims to be utterly atheistic, Sean spends an AWFUL lot of time talking about the subject of God (or god, if you must). The physicist doth protest too much, it seems to me.

    Perhaps because the presence of religious beliefs within human minds has profound and often deleterious effects, even when the truth value of those beliefs is negligible?

  16. chemicalscum says:

    I would like to say I was thinking about radical contingency in fact I have been thinking about it for about twenty years since I was a grad student and I was reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness at the same time I was studying QM. About that time I experienced a “mystical” or “spiritual” experience of feeling at one with the universe while taking the Maid of the Mist tour at Niagara Falls.

    Like Sartre did until the end of his life, I remain an atheist. However the sense of awe at the radical freedom in the possibilities of the universe, which for me always leads to some form of modal realism, still is in a sense sacred or spiritual.

    Religion is best analysed from an evolutionary point of view. This is a surprising weakness of Dawkins since he fails to do that in his valuable critique of religion. It has to be seen arising at the interface of evolutionary psychology and social evolution mediated by mimetics. The problem here is that evolutionary psychologists like Pinker fail to (or refuses to) grasp the primacy and radical freedom associated with social evolution. While Dawkins the founder of mimetics doesn’t grasp how it mediates between biological evolution and social evolution. I think Blackmore is better here on mimetics. I haven’t yet read Dennett’s recent book on religion (I am just about to start it) and it may yield some valuable ideas in this area.

    However if we take an evolutionary view of religion it is not necessarily all bad as it can have a positive influence on the survival of societies. On the other hand as circumstances change during social evolution, religions can work counter to the survival and development of the societies they are embedded in due to the historical baggage they carry. This requires that under these circumstances that they are resisted. Therefore they is room for a positive role to be played by rational religious organizations like Neil B’s Unitarian Universalist Church, which, if I remember correctly, at its last survey of how its members identified themselves, only about 10% identified themselves as Christian and the largest single grouping identified themselves as Secular Humanists.

  17. Jeff says:

    If someone wants to daub some oil on a doorway, why should you care? Does that affect you? Does that affect Dawkins? I don’t see a problem with letting people engage in ritualistic behavior (like your morning cup of coffee), as long as that ritualistic behavior doesn’t encroach on others’ personal rights. I’m an atheist, but I recognize and tolerate the fact that many people (myself included) engage in rituals that might be silly but are harmless to others. As acts of ritual/sanctity, there’s a big difference between daubing oil on a doorway vs. cutting off an infidel’s head. I don’t think Dawkins and his ilk get that difference.

  18. Alberto says:

    What can I say? Thanks, as always, Sean.

  19. Brian Mingus says:

    That is an extremely scary video.

    I find a little bit of comfort in the knowledge that Obama’s dad was an atheist. It makes me sad to know that it is very unlikely that I will see an atheist POTUS during my lifetime, though. People aren’t changing as fast as technology.

  20. chemicalscum says:

    Jeff says:

    “If someone wants to daub some oil on a doorway, why should you care? Does that affect you? Does that affect Dawkins? I don’t see a problem with letting people engage in ritualistic behavior (like your morning cup of coffee), as long as that ritualistic behavior doesn’t encroach on others’ personal rights.”

    I agree, but the problem is when religious dogma is used to politically push for the encroachment of “other’s personal rights” such as in the case of the Reagan/Bush abortion “Gag Rule”. This of course was pushed by an unholy coalition of the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Protestant fundamentalists of the religious right. Thankfully this rule, which has had a disastrous effect on reducing women’s choice and reproductive rights globally, has been removed as one of President Obama’s first actions as president.

    However there may be some overlap between the oil anointers and those that would oppress women’s rights and our freedoms in general. On the other hand where there isn’t any connection, I have no objection to oil anointing, Wiccan blessings or any other harmless ritual.

  21. Doug says:

    Neil writes:
    “Why not engage the best the “other side” has to offer, instead of focusing on their most pathetic rabble”

    The pathetic rabble includes quite a few members of congress, as Sean specifically pointed out. I really see no reason to care about what some one believes in the privacy of their home or a cozy chair in a theology department, but the beliefs that get brought into the Capitol are a different story altogether.

  22. Neil B says:

    “I really see no reason to care about what some one believes in the privacy of their home or a cozy chair in a theology department,…” is out to lunch as far as the issue of intellectual relevance goes. Of course it matters what a bunch of people with influence do as far as public affairs go. But to a thinker who cares about the subject itself, and its questions, then the imperative is to care above all what the best other thinkers mull over in their cozy chairs or perhaps in foxholes as well. Really, folks, don’t get different issues and purposes all mixed up.

    As for the door annointers, it is ironic that they presumably make fun of Obama being revered like a “messiah” but treat him like one themselves in the most direct way.

  23. Ali says:

    I never tire of reading Sean’s stupidity on this subject (no, wait, I do tire of it–and quickly). His scientific posts are interesting, but these bore me to tears. I always want to ask him: Hey Sean, maybe you “haven’t seen anything close to a persuasive argument” because you “admittedly haven’t read it closely”…? Do you think the two might be related? Has that maybe possibly occurred to you even once? Or that there are more than two kinds of religious people, the strong-minded idiots and the weak-minded warm-fuzzy actually-just-confused-naturalists? Sigh. Words do have meaning. Funny how you persist in refusing to allow others to define what those meanings are, and instead continue to impose your own definitions. Did you write the dictionary? Did you write the thousands of years of theological and philosophical texts that influence how these words are used (have you even read any of them)? What makes you think that, based on a few silly but unfortunately prominent politicians, you have the right to declare what “most” religious believers think or do? If you are somehow empowered to make this call by some transcendent authority or revelation, then I stand corrected. For the time being, I wish you would allow yourself to be educated to even a modest degree in something other than your own opinions.

  24. Ray Saunders says:

    In response to some stimuli – internal, external or a combination – i have certain experiences which are reflected/perceived by my mind (whatever a mind is). What labels are applied to these experiences by me, you, the Pope, Freud or Joe the Plumber don’t really matter. What matters is how I react to such experiences ♠(assuming I have free will – a questionable issue at best). Do I derive any benefit, expand my happiness, gain any practical advantage from these experiences?
    Using or banning words like ‘Spiritual’ or ‘Religion’ is just wordplay, the metadata of reality.
    I would not be surprised to find two people arguing about whether sirloin steak is real or an illusion – without having bothered to eat one.

  25. eddie says:

    Neil, as someone who appears to enjoy pointing out o0thers’ percieved fallacies, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this; Your “Legitimate philosophy” is as clear an example of a no true scotsman I’ve heard in a while.

    Your other arguments about how sophisticated youy r questions are have little relevance if you have no reliable way of finding answers. You seem to accept that philosophy is a bit like science, but you can pull explanations out your ass (argumentum ad rectum) with no need to be consistent with observation or anything else.

    As Dawkins did already point out, if there was such a thing as a god, or even a non-theological ‘purpose’, the question would be; what did that evolve from?