When historians will look back at the 21st century, they’ll refer to it as the century in which religion died and the scientific revolution was completed. I am saying this not despite the battles of ignorance fought by the religious right and fundamentalists’ seeds of violence, but because of them. They fight, with words or with weapons, because they are afraid. And while these fights draw much attention, the number of non-believers is quietly and inevitably raising.
What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of science. And I, I am afraid we have ourselves to blame for that. All we scientists ever do, it seems to me, is to explain how science differs from religion, ignoring the commonalities with science and the benefits that religion brings. Yes, that’s the scientists ignoring the facts.
Scientists aim to develop consistent explanations for the world. They observe and try to understand. Then they try to use what they have learned. They want coherent stories, want to fit the pieces together. They wonder and they seek, they doubt and they improvise. Scientists try and fail, and try again and gradually weave consistent stories to be shared with everybody.
In contrast, many religious stories are not only internally inconsistent, they are also inconsistent with observation and experience. In the best case, they are simply superfluous. Praying does not cure tetanus. The Earth wasn’t created 10,000 years ago. There’s no god sitting on a cloud throwing lightening down on blasphemous bloggers.
Yes, science clashes with religion. We’ve said it often enough.
The human brain excels at finding patterns, solving problems, and developing accurate theories. It abhors inconsistencies so much it will fake facts to remove them. Consciously accepting inconsistency necessitates a constant effort. Religions require the believer to accept these inconsistencies and not to ask. That takes time and energy. Believers must constantly belie themselves. Science doesn’t require you to accept inconsistencies. In fact, it encourages you not to accept them, and thereby frees up all that creative power, the patterns seeking, the story weaving. This clearly speaks for the scientific way. So why are people afraid of science?
They are afraid that science will replace hope with statistical odds, the aurora with equations, and love with oxytocin. They are afraid that science will take the wonder out of life and not give anything back. They are afraid they will have to give up their belief in an immortal soul, in miracle cures, in final answers, and get nothing in return. And we, we’re failing them because we don’t tell them what it is that they get in return.
Almost all scientists I know are atheists. They’re not atheists because they have been rendered unable to believe in God and are now suffering from a meaningless existence. They’re atheists because they don’t need religion. God, as Laplace put it, is an unnecessary hypothesis. And above all, god is a waste of time.
Far from taking the wonder out of human existence, science adds to it. We’re part of nature and science is the only way of understanding our place and our role.
If you’re in love and you read up on what is known on the chemical pathways and neurological activity, far from degrading you to a bundle of synapses, it embeds your love into the course of evolution and the complexity of human culture. If you look at the night sky and know that beyond the Milky Way there are billions of other galaxies, full with solar systems much like our own, your knowledge adds to the wonder. If you are pregnant and you subscribe to one of the dozens of calendars that tells you when your baby’s heart starts beating, how its nervous system develops, and when it is able to hear, then imagine that just 50 years ago you wouldn’t even have gotten an ultrasound image. Now you can have it in 3D. You’re growing a child, in an amazingly intricate and yet virtuously orchestrated process. You’re part of the circle of life. And without science you wouldn’t know much about that circle. You’re part of nature. Enjoy. And don’t forget to take the folic acid.
Religions offer people a community to belong to and a place to go. They offer shared traditions and spiritual guidance. Science doesn’t. Not because we don’t have a community or have nothing to offer. We’re just not letting people know what science has to give, making them believe science will only take away from them. We’re excluding others by not sharing our wonder.
Since the advent of the internet, we’ve gone a long way to making science more human. Scientists speak by themselves and of themselves. But few if any touch ground considered that of religion.
Yalom notes four existential fears: Fear of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. We all have these fears. They drive many people to religion because it’s the most obvious answer. And while science addresses these fears, scientists shy away from these topics. There are great speakers among the scientists, but most of them preach to the choir of an already scientifically-minded audience. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of the few who isn’t afraid crossing this line. He inspires those on both sides. And look how many listen. Carl Sagan did too. I have some more fingers on my hand, tell me who to count.
Most scientists feel awkward if the word “spirituality” is as much as mentioned, and the last thing they want to do is preach. I myself am guilty of course of never writing about living the atheists’ life. I didn’t study physics to be a preacher, and neither did any of my colleagues. So here’s the problem. A communication problem. Who’ll preach the wonders of science to those who most need to hear about them?
Some days ago I buzzed in Jehova’s witnesses thinking it’s DHL. Then I tried to wave them away saying we’re atheists. “Oooh!” said one of the men and raised his arms, pretending to be shocked, “How did this happen?” I asked him what he meant, and he said “Well, one doesn’t get born this way.” He’s wrong of course. We’re all born as atheists. We’re also born being social and in need of each other to talk through our problems. And as long as science doesn’t offer the community that religions provide so effortlessly, as long as scientists stand aloft of spiritual guidance, people will be afraid that their taxes pay scientists to remove the wonder from the world rather than adding to it.