Saturday, 17 November 2012

Science v Religion v Aliens v Smurfs

There is a simple joy to be had in a malopropism.

I read a review on the new Android Twitter App. Somebody had said it updates "aromatically"- instead of "automatically", I suppose. I chuckled at the thought of all those benzene rings swirling around in the Twittersphere. But then I stopped. Because I realised that I had thought like the chemist I once studied to be, not as the gentle, fluffy, religious leader I am supposed to be.

On hearing that my Twitter Timeline is updating "aromatically" I should really have thought of the incense-like effect of all those God-loving tweets. As someone praises God, or upholds another human being, you can imagine those tweets ascending unto heaven. While those bringing people down, getting prissy over issues or naming innocent celebs as being guilty of hideous crimes probably smell like goose-droppings and descend to the other place.

But, as I say, my first reaction surprised me. Do I really think as a scientist first and a religious person second? And if so, is that wrong?

So I was thinking about the way Science thinks, and the way people publically report it and respond to it. Science moves, for the most part, slowly and quietly and carefully. Most discoveries are small, and progress is incremental - a slightly improved vaccine here, an unsuspected weakness in the flu virus there, a quantum quirk over there. Oh - and over there. Oh - and over there, as well. Even particle physics is the progression of small victories (and disproving of wrong theories).

But it is reported differently. The weakness in the flu virus is reported as "Vaccine to kill all flu". Or a scientist is reported as heading towards curing death itself.

But, do you know, the difference between actual and reported science is not so far from the difference between actual and reported religious experience? The average human being with better evolutionary prospects is of course genetically wired to religious belief, so let's ignore our less-adapted friends and focus on those of us who out-breed them.

Most people of faith have one or two, or even no, major religious experiences in their lifetime. I'm not talking about coming out of church feeling uplifted (or even downcast) - I'm talking the real earth-shattering ones - conversion, falling in love with God, baptism in the Holy Spirit, long dark tea-times of the soul. Most of us actually move along, most of the time, in a series of incremental moves - a sense of a Presence here; a strange feeling of comfort there; the strong sense that we should really stop stealing Porsches there. And when we feel these small experiences or challenges, the traditions teach us, we should measure them, check them, if you will - normalise them. What does the scripture say? What does the community say? What does the tradition - which is, after all, the community in four dimensions - say? That's how saints grow and sanctification progresses. That's how we move forward, but stay on the path.

It's when the believer ignores those checks and balances - the religious form of scientific testing - that the dangerous starts. The Beaker faith embraces many traditions, of course, which is why we may have many experiences we don't make much progress - apart from that odd one where Ragwortz became convinced she was being called to spiritual evolution into a Smurf. A terrible time we had. She went round the Community stealing all the apples, so she could an accurate picture of how tall she was.

But more seriously, it's when what looks like Science or looks like religion proceed to ignore all these checks - that's when trouble starts. A false myth of religion is when a god or gods are constantly expected to intervene in this world, in a massive way. A false myth of science is of giant leaps forward that revolutionise human experience every ten minutes, resulting in us all wearing tin-foil trousers while death is cured and war is abolished by simply building a better killing-machine than all the other scientists, who've only managed to cure death.

So in the great-jump-forward model of either, you get suicide cults, Piltdown Man, experiments on prisoners, genocide or wild claims that are eventually proven untrue. A spectacular combination of both is probably the Heaven's Gate people, who committed suicide so as to join an alien intelligence on a comet and leave behind the polluted world before it was recycled.

We don't all end up there when we abandon the simple things like verification of experience or theory. But a lot of disappointment - and a lot of Press excitement - could be avoided if we followed those simple rules. If you've a hypothesis, test it. If you've a hunch, try and prove it wrong. If you've a small jump forward, don't proclaim a revolution. If you've a new and exciting take on the scripture, you're probably wrong. Or, as the Elder put it, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God."


  1. thank you - mine's a gin and tonic

  2. Thanks for blending my background in research with my interest in how religion has evolved over time. I am agnostic when it comes to belief but growing up in a devout Mormon family means that I spend a lot of time thinking about the role of religion in society.


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