On my last post, I discussed the value of religion and spirituality in our modern world, when science takes on the role of explaining physical phenomena. Not only does religion serve as an explanation of the spiritual world, but it also holds cultural and community-based value while simultaneously providing peace of mind and emotional support for followers. Despite all of this, I am an agnostic. When religion holds so much value in our everyday lives, why do I choose not to believe in a god?
In order to understand what I, as a scientist, believe in, we need to look into how science reflects core aspects of religion.
Our Faith in Science
We’ve established that science isn’t the antithesis to religion, but it still seems to contradict religion by relying on evidence. However, even this way of looking at science is not entirely accurate.
Even science requires belief in the unknown. Consider Lamarckism, a now disproven theory of evolution made by Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck. Lamarckism postulated that evolution was based on organisms passing on physical changes that occured during the organisms’ lifetimes to their offspring.
In the 1880s, a scientist named August Weismann tested Lamarck’s theory by cutting tails off of mice and then breeding them. The offspring of these tail-less mice were born with tails. This essentially disproved Lamarck’s theory that physical changes were passed to offspring.
However, Lamarck’s theory being disproven did not diminish scientists’ belief that some rule must exist that governs how organisms evolve. This rule was later discovered to be natural selection.
Why is it that scientists wouldn’t give up when faced with Weismann’s observations? What made them instead try to restructure existing laws to make these observations make logical sense?
Science requires a belief in a natural order of laws. Scientists must believe that the world works logically and methodically, that there are patterns and rules the physical world must follow to exist. Surprisingly, this isn’t even a belief that can be proven. And yet it is this core belief — one many of us take for granted — that allows science to continue to grow and change our perceptions of the world.
Science also allows us to create communities held together by scientific belief. Not only does the world as a whole believe in science’s accuracy, but the scientific community enjoys reading and reviewing the discoveries of fellow scientists. Labs are microcosms of devotees of a particular scientific niche, interdisciplinary work ties together scientists of different backgrounds and specialties to pursue a common goal, and many scientists work at the university level in research and in professorship. Similar to how places of worship are hubs of theological learning for clergy-in-training, universities are a hub of learning for future scientists and researchers.
Moreover, the scientific community is a community of genuine love and passion. The pursuit of science research is unique in the way the pursuit of the arts is unique — one can only do it successfully if they have a true love for the subject. There is so much money and time that goes into studying science, that when you look at it pragmatically, for the average scientist science doesn’t give as much monetary return for all the effort put into it. For pure research, you are paid based on the grants you submit, which are, at their core, love letters to a particular scientific research question meant to persuade investors into funding your work. As such, while science may be a career, the time and effort and love a scientist puts into their work defines science as a pursuit of passion, a lifestyle, moreso than many other careers may be.
An Alternative Spirituality
Spirituality, by definition, is a very personal experience. Many religious people experience spirituality outside of the physical realm — as a way to connect to God — often as a deeply emotional and sometimes hallucinatory experience. These instances can feel like a confirmation that something bigger and immensely powerful is out there, that they are part of a greater plan.
And yet, far too many do not believe that a spiritual experience of natural science can even exist. To me, the very experience of science — love and awe of our natural world — can in and of itself be spiritual.
Perhaps I am unique in my experiences, but science fills my heart in a way little else does. Even just leaning against a car window and staring up at the night sky, blanketed in stars, is enough to make my whole body fill with warmth and joy. I realize just how vast the universe is, how small I am, and my desperate hunger to know everything about it grows. I am suddenly amazed by the beauty and elegance of nature, the realization that our world is so incredibly complex and yet, at the same time, so simple. The only thought running through my head is it’s so beautiful, I love it. These experiences inspire me to the extent that for as long as I am alive, I know I will dedicate my life to satiate that curiosity.
Just as religion believes in a higher power that created the universe, I believe that science created the universe. Just as religion relies on mythology to explain the world and bring communities closer in shared culture, so too does science chase discovery to better understand the natural laws that shape the universe and publish research to share and revel in knowledge. Just as religious spiritual experiences connect people closer to their chosen God, my spiritual experiences allow me to connect with the natural world.
The two may not be quite the same, but science is also not religion’s natural foil. Rather, both contain the building blocks necessary for a love and appreciation of life, community, and faith in the world around them.