Without Further Ado...
The Crowd as a Player (ihobo)

Science and the Sacred

Path-of-spirit-still Why should it be that science, the domain of observable and testable knowledge, seems to be in conflict with the sacred, the domain of veneration and reverence?

The short answer is that there is no objective conflict here: the domain of the testable, and the concept of the sacred, need not intersect at all, let alone conflict, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested in his idea of non-overlapping magisteria. But this obscures the evidence of our experience which shows that there are indeed battlegrounds over which ideological wars are being fought, especially in the context of the teaching of evolutionary theories versus traditional creation stories.

I want to argue that this conflict can be understood as a difference of opinion as to what should be considered sacred, and thus should be resolved as a question of freedom of belief.

Now many atheists (and indeed, many agnostics) baulk at the idea that they have a concept of the sacred, since this term has become viewed as the exclusive domain of religion, and people whose beliefs lie somewhere in the non-religious spectrum do not have a religious identity to draw against. But put aside the implication that “sacred” sometimes implies a deity or divine aspect, and consider that one of the meanings of this term is “secured against violation or infringement by reverence or a sense of right”, as in a “sacred oath”.

Is it not the case that many scientists lean towards believing that truth is sacred, in the sense I have outlined here? A matter for respect, something that should not be violated or infringed? If this is not the case, why is it so offensive to certain people within the scientific community that there are cultures who base their view of the world upon (say) predicating the text of the Bible as truth? (Ignoring for the purpose of this discussion the criticisms of both Charles Taylor and myself that this is a form of idolatry, and thus essentially incompatible with Christianity). Surely the cause of this indignation is something like the idea that scientific truth is sacred, and that basing truth on something other than observation is an offence of some kind.

Nietzsche saw clearly this quasi-religious quality that can creep into the scientific endeavour, noting that it was “a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests”, and connecting this back to Plato's belief “that God is the truth, that truth is divine”. In his view, the expulsion of God from the sciences (“the death of God” in Nietzsche's memorable term) did not mean the termination of a sense of the sacred attached to the notion of truth. Thus, whatever violates the currently popular conclusions rendered by scientists risks becoming a sacrilege, an affront, something offensive that must be opposed.

Part of the fear that some narrow-minded Christians have concerning atheism comes from a difficulty in understanding that living without a concept of the divine in the form of a deity does not necessarily entail an abandonment of the sacred. A great many non-theists (of whom Einstein has been prominent example) hold to a naturalistic pantheism in which “the Earth is sacred, and the universe divine”. Interpreted in theistic terms, this means that God is immanent in nature – but this need not exclude a transcendent God. To think ill of someone for preferring an immanent concept of the sacred is as profoundly bigoted as to think less of someone for having faith in transcendence.

It is a profoundly personal matter what each of us considers sacred, and it is inappropriate for the State or the scientific community to interfere in this freedom. The human rights agreed to at the end of World War II encoded this freedom of belief, which begins in its modern conception with the right of parents to choose how their children will be educated. But the foundation of this liberty of conscience goes back far earlier – to the Maurya Empire of ancient India in the 3rd century BC and the Charter of Medina drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 622 AD. We think of human rights as secular, but as Taylor has demonstrated, they emerged through the process of the reform of Christianity, shaped by influences from other religious traditions. That their staunchest defenders in the modern world are quite often non-religious demonstrates another sense in which there are things considered sacred, with or without an explicit sense of the divine.

The apparent clash between science and the sacred seems quite different when we think of it in terms of disputes over what should be considered sacred, for it is comparatively clear in our modern world that each individual must decide this for themselves. The Intelligent Design furore becomes a dispute between competing claims of sacrosanctity, one based on observationally-derived beliefs, the other upon tradition. Either will become a problem when demanding that its formulation of the sacred must necessarily overrule all other conceptions.

The opening image is Walking the Path of Spirit Again, another fractal artwork by Vitor, whose blog can be found here. Vitor kindly gave me permission to use his art here on Only a Game.

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Welcome back!

It is a profoundly personal matter what each of us considers sacred, and it is inappropriate for the State or the scientific community to interfere in this freedom.

I agree with you, but believe this should be extended further - at present, this is asymmetric, which tends to get my back up as you know :-).

Where *is* it appropriate to interfere? For example, is it appropriate for an organised religion to interfere in this freedom? May parents interfere in their offspring's considerations?

Thanks for featuring my art again! You always manage to pick my favorite pieces.


You frame this opposition of beliefs in quite interesting terms. Isn't it almost a defining quality of the atheist belief system to deny that it is a belief?

Vitor: It's always a pleasure to use one of your pieces; I'm glad to have a resource I can turn to for these things from time to time!

"Isn't it almost a defining quality of the atheist belief system to deny that it is a belief?"

Well I think that's a tricky thing to claim - what does one include under "atheist" here? Theravada Buddhists are strictly "atheist" but they don't deny they have beliefs.

But perhaps you are talking about the "New Atheists", those atheists who bizarrely spend no time studying the history of non-belief and then behave as if they have discovered something new? I have no idea whether all the "New Atheists" deny atheism is a belief, although I don't doubt there are many who view themselves as rejecting beliefs, not having them.

I think the wider issue here is that many scientists don't view themselves as having beliefs in connection with science. There are many more people in this boat, I suspect, than in the "New Atheist" boat.

I'd be interested in the viewpoint of the atheists here at the Game on this matter.

Peter: glad to be back! As ever, you lead off with the tricky questions:

"Where *is* it appropriate to interfere? For example, is it appropriate for an organised religion to interfere in this freedom? May parents interfere in their offspring's considerations?"

I believe (in common with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that parents have the right to raise their children how they like, provided nothing abusive is involved (with "abusive" being something that would always have to be judged by local cultural norms - this is the standard legal approach to these matters). So until adulthood, a parent can "interfere" in the freedom of the child.

Adulthood again has to be judged by cultural grounds - so for instance a Jewish boy becomes an adult at 13 and a girl at 12, with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. Secular children have to wait until the law renders them adult. :p

So am I suggesting that a Jewish child must undergo these ceremonies before they can depart Judaism? I suppose I am - if they refuse to take the ceremony they can always wait until the law confirms their adulthood. :)

It's worth noting in passing here that I am taking seriously the suggestion that the voting age be lowered, and adulthood be confirmed at a younger age, say 16. (David Kelly touched upon this in Boston Legal at one point). Ivan Illich speaks very ill of the "infantalisation" of the youth that has come relatively recently to our societies. It's an interesting topic, but perhaps too tangential to dig into here.

As for your other question: "is it appropriate for an organised religion to interfere in this freedom?" How would this happen? Without a tangible example, I find it hard to bring anything useful to bear on this point.

Best wishes!

As for your other question: "is it appropriate for an organised religion to interfere in this freedom?" How would this happen?

It's probably a more common case, and is akin to any other situation where one organisation is attempting to change the beliefs of another. At one (very mild) end of the scale you have leaflets and bus advertising trying to change our beliefs (whether that "There's probably no god" or that we're eternally damned unless we believe). Somewhere in the middle we have the pairs of well-dressed believers knocking on the door on Sunday morning applying peer pressure to our beliefs. At the unpleasant end we have the cults that indulge in the more overt mind-alteration tactics, and (possibly more insidiously) the religions that lobby states for legislation, or even where the organised religion and the state cannot be distinguished.

So, to pull out a few bullet points:

1) Is it appropriate to advertise any religion (or, more generally, any belief system)?

2) Is it appropriate to apply peer pressure to an adult with the intention of changing their beliefs?

3) Is it appropriate to brainwash* an adult into different beliefs?

4) Is it appropriate for a state to be in existence that is associated with *any* belief system? Examples to consider: UK, France, USA, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, pre-invasion Afghanistan.**

* I accept this is a remarkably non-specific term as presently used.

** The use of three overtly Muslim states should not be taken to mean that I'm condemning Islam in any way; merely that these presently provide some interesting examples.

Interesting points, Peter. I'm having issues with your use of the word "appropriate". What do you mean? Appropriate to whom? I'm assuming you mean something like "conforming to the generally accepted laws of human rights"

Obviously as you go further from 1 through 4, it becomes "less appropriate". However, I think the only one that could really be considered "inappropriate" is number 4 -- religious states. The states themselves are violating human rights.
But, the fact is, these states exist, and there is not much we can do to change that ... Even if we could somehow go in and separate religion from state, would *that* be a violation of human rights?

I think numbers 1 through 3, though, are "appropriate", in the sense that, if in free countries, you legislated that people could not do these things, that in itself may be a violation of human rights.

It's just up to the individual to be responsible enough not to be swayed by "questionably appropriate" influences.

I'm using "appropriate" simply because Chris used it in his article.

Peter: That's great, blame me for deploying the term "appropriate". :D I believe you'll find I only used the term *inappropriate*, and that in connection with the State and the scientific community, and as Scott surmises I meant "violating previous human rights agreements". That was my standard.

Thanks for the bullet points, this really clarifies the discussion! Here are my thoughts.

"1) Is it appropriate to advertise any religion (or, more generally, any belief system)?"

Absolutely! What is advertising but free expression with the intent of affecting people's beliefs - particular, their belief about what they should spend their money on. :)

"2) Is it appropriate to apply peer pressure to an adult with the intention of changing their beliefs?"

What is advertising if not peer pressure (especially celebrity endorsement)?

Personally, I have no issue with door-to-door salesmen peddling religion but I take great task with door-to-door salesmen trying to pressure me into returning to British Gas as my energy provider. These leeches hit me 3-4 times each year - religious salespeople of all denominations hit me about 1-2 a year. And often I have good discussions with the religious salespeople.

I now tell anyone from British Gas that I feel harassed by them and there is no way I would ever consider returning to their company.

"3) Is it appropriate to brainwash* an adult into different beliefs?"

Okay, here I run up against what is meant by brainwashing, but let's take this lightly unless we run into a major argument. News services, particularly in the US, enter into a substantial programme of brainwashing. We have to allow that under free expression, but I might suggest it's far more destructive and detrimental on a far grander scale than cult brainwashing.

You can't protect other people from this kind of influence. I think we have to allow this unless a specific rights violation is implied.

"4) Is it appropriate for a state to be in existence that is associated with *any* belief system? Examples to consider: UK, France, USA, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, pre-invasion Afghanistan."

Here I must make a point: the notion of a State *is* a belief system, so the idea that a State could exist without association with a belief system is entirely bankrupt. "The State" is a belief which ties a geographic, ethnic or cultural "tribe" into an internationally recognised political entity. How would you remove Marxism/Communism from China, or Capitalism from the United States, and under what grounds could this even be attempted? It's my view that it's philosophical nonsense to suggest that States must be independent of belief systems.

Scott adds: "However, I think the only one that could really be considered "inappropriate" is number 4 -- religious states. The states themselves are violating human rights."

I must make two points here: firstly, having a religious State violates no rights agreement I know of. The UK is officially a religious State, although you wouldn't know it to talk to its citizens! :p

Secondly, Islamic states are *not* violating human rights agreements, even though things happen in some of these places which do transgress the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is because the Islamic states *never* agreed to these Human Rights agreements - they are not bound to them, and it is morally suspect for us to expect them to adhere to agreements they have not acceded to. If we want to enforce human rights agreements in Islamic states, we first have to convince them to sign up for them.

Plus, after the atrocious human rights abuses of the United States in recent years - which helped draw up the charter in the first place - it's hypocritical for North Atlantic countries to turn to the Islamic states and expect them to toe a line which the front-line political leader of the human rights movement has utterly abandoned.

Half the problem here is that the "Universal" Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up by a mostly Christian crowd. Lebanon was the only nation with Islam as a majority religion involved in the drafting, and its representative Charles Malik, and he was a Greek Orthodox Christian. It's no surprise, after the pasting that Islamic nations took in World War II, and their effectual side-lining in the drawing up of the rights declarations, that Muslim states don't respect these agreements.

Quite frankly, why should they?

I am horrified by many of the things that take place in the some (but by no means all) of the Islamic States, but the entire global political community has colluded in excluding these States from the world stage and I'm not at all surprised that as a result their legal systems feel a few centuries behind the times.

My wife and I are members of Amnesty International, and I support various movements in Islamic States to push for human rights (including a movement of women in Iran pushing for their rights) but we make a serious blunder when we expect nations to uphold agreements they weren't involved in drafting and never agreed to.

Serious diplomacy is required to address these issues - but while the United States executive office is practically required to suck up to Saudi Arabia it is very difficult for this problem to be addressed: some of the worst "abuses" (relative to our standards, at least) are in Saudi Arabia, but as a major oil producing ally, the US just won't take a stand. Realpolitik always wins out.

So there you have it - my view is that the Islamic States have every reason to exist, and we have no reason to expect them not to have a State religion. If we want them to uphold human rights agreements, we must first commit to negotiating with them for such agreements - and that may have to begin with Saudi Arabia.

Wow, what a really satisfying rant. Thank you both for provoking it! :)

Hear, hear, Chris!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)