In the ancient Near East, religion was the standard by which pretty much everything was understood. It was the unquestioned, unquestionable root of reality, and however fantastic its suppositions may have been, they were not metaphorical. The serpent spoke. Ladders descended from heaven. God walked in the garden. It’s hard for us to imagine what a worldview like that would be like. Easy to look down on. Hard to imagine.
Today, science has taken religion’s place as the lingua franca of reality. As change goes, this is revolutionary. It’s a downright Copernican revolution.
It’s reoriented everything, not the least of which is our relationship to religion, which has become, effectively, a hobby: something to humor as long as you have the luxury to pretend. Of course no one who believes would call it that. Yet society-wide, science has superseded faith as the measure of what’s real. “If the Bible says it, I believe it,” but if a study proves it, it is so.
For example. Prayer is important in many traditions. People are taught it has the power to heal. But if a parent tries to heal a child through prayer instead of medicine, and if that effort fails, they might reasonably be put in jail. If a medical provider fails, it’s a tragedy, but not a scandal. As a society, we hold that prayer is nice but medicine is real, and when the shit hits the fan, you have a societal obligation to make a real effort to save your child.
Science has revolutionized the way we interact with information, the way we take in knowledge and judge it, the way we make decisions about what to do. In many ways, these are changes for the better. But not in all ways. There are things religion can do that science can’t. But here’s the rub, now that science has unmade religion, can it still?
If religion isn’t real — if its claims aren’t actually true — what is it worth?
Having hatched, we cannot return. We know more of the material reasons behind things than we ever have before, and while this in no way diminishes the stirring of thunder or the force of love, it does compromise one’s ability to believe in the literal reality of a River Styx.
We live in a world now unlike that ancient egg. As good and lovely as it may have been, we have exited and cannot rebuild the fragments. I do not know where God exists in this new world. I would like to think that God was the egg shell as well as the sky.
On another note
It’s interesting that science hasn’t erased our religious needs. In fact, there are some who’ve invited it to step into religion’s shoes and answer those needs itself.
There is some overlap. Like a religion, science offers a set of myths: fundamental stories that explain the world, on which we rely to make sense of things. It’s also a source of comprehensive life guidance. When in doubt, we look to experts as the ancients looked to priests to tell us what to eat, how to heal ourselves, how to change our fortunes or manage our emotions.
I love science, but as religions go it’s not a very good one. Science has a limited scope of inquiry. It deals with questions like how does it work, what is it made of, when did it happen, why does it do that. But the whole scope of human inquiry is not contained in those questions. Empirical study can tell us much, but only so much. It can hold us accountable to facts in some invaluable ways, but it can’t and doesn’t even try to go beyond that.
Some would disagree: some would say that science covers all the bases, that it’s a vessel for spiritual impulses as well as empirical inquiry. I have a couple friends who call themselves practitioners of quantum mysticism. That’s a category mistake. When you conflate science and spirituality, you’re no longer practicing science.
Some would say that if science doesn’t explain a thing, then that thing doesn’t exist. That’s a mistake, too, throwing out whole dimensions of the human experience. I have no time for scientismists.
We humans have many mysterious faculties, many ways of knowing. We interact with many kinds of reality. In this landscape there must be a role for religion yet. What, then? We can’t ask science to stop verifying the facts; that’s what it’s here to do. Still, as long as we make science the ultimate standard of true and false, religion will be an ornament only.
I guess the answer would emerge somewhere in the effort to flesh out the non-empirical facets of life that science can’t touch, stand them side by side with it, and allow each discipline to speak its own language. There must be a new importance to be found in the old answers and images of religion, one that can be translated into even our enlightened world … not just for our amusement (“Oh yes, dear, unicorns exist — but only in stories”) but in some larger way that holds water alongside all the things that science has revealed to be true.
And not just in the Joseph Campbell sense, where one more specialist seeks to frame our religious feelings in a scientific context, reducing mythology to the psychological. In that case, we haven’t stepped outside of science-as-religion at all. I don’t want to redefine religion. I want to rediscover it.
The ancient cosmos was surrounded by water; so is the fetus in the womb. It appears the water has broken. The old rules make no more sense now. The wind is on our skin, and we can no longer get our oxygen from the umbilical cord. We’ve taken on a whole new means of interacting with air. Now that science has remade the questions, we have to develop new relationships with the answers.