Artist Builds Temple of Science
Added: Mon, 29 Sep 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Lucas Perkins for the link.
Artist Builds Temple of Science
By Brandon Keim
At a time when the gulf between religion and science is growing ever greater, an artist has erected a temple for scientific worship.
Jonathon Keats, designer of the petri dish God, built The Atheon to get people thinking about what a scientific religion (or religious science?) would look and feel like.
Keats' conception of that idea took shape as a two-story building complete with stained-glass windows patterned after cosmic microwave background radiation and a liturgy based on the sounds of the Big Bang. The Atheon opened Sept. 27 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California.
But, could science replace religion?
The question has intrigued both rationalists frustrated at the persistence of what they see as superstitious dogma, and religious believers — as well as all-purpose skeptics — unwilling to promote science, with its mixed and messy history, to a position of absolute authority.
Keats doesn't claim to take sides, but says he just wants to give people a chance to think. In December, he'll host a public discussion at the Atheon, with people invited to bring their own models. "It's important that this Atheon not be seen as the only model. It's one possibility. The best thing would be for people to engage these questions, and consider what form religion could take as science."
Wired Science talked with Keats earlier this month.
Wired.com: How did the Atheon begin?
Jonathon Keats: I heard about the Beyond Belief conference in 2006. Richard Dawkins was there, and Steven Weinberg, and Neil Degrasse Tyson. They were trying to figure out what science might do to provide an alternative to religion. There wasn't a consensus, but there was momentum towards the idea that science could do everything religion could, that it could be everything religion had been.
What would the form be, I wondered, of a church to science? What would happen within that church, in the most literal terms? And what would the fallout be if religion became scientific, and science a surrogate for religion?
Wired.com: Do you actually take the worship of the science seriously, or is it a parody?
Keats: I hope not. If it's interpreted as one, I will have failed. It's not a parody any more than a thought experiment is a parody.
Wired.com: Are you promoting science as a religion?
Keats: No. I'm just the cheapest labor available to myself, so I end up enacting this. I need to do it earnestly, to make the Atheon work as well as possible — but I'm just as interested in the question of what religion becomes as science, and vice versa. I certainly don't have answers, but I do have questions.
Wired.com: What about your own beliefs? Are they expressed in the Atheon?
Keats: I'm deeply sympathetic to both sides of a schism that doesn't need to be. I hope it doesn't widen to such a degree that we become, in intellectual terms, two different species.
I don't practice religion in any organized way, and wouldn't call myself spiritual in the sense of owning a yoga mat. On the other hand, I understand and appreciate the way in which religion can experience mystery, and can be a source of strength. In those broad terms, I have deep respect and sympathy for religion.
As far as science is concerned, I'm probably closer to that culture in terms of upbringing. I think that the pursuit of questions in an organized and rigorous way is the great legacy of science. But certainty and arrogance, the way technology is sometimes mistaken for science, is dangerous. In the case of technology, we end up with the worst hubris. In the case of science, we end up with a sense that there are answers; that they are absolute; that we'll get there, and that it's idiotic to think anything could be open-ended.
Science has two cultures within it. One is interested in questions, and the other in answers. I'm much more attracted to science for its questioning quality, and this overlaps with a respect for mystery in religion. Within religion, an inner strength comes out of this sense of pervasive mystery. It's similar, in a sense, to a scientist looking at questions with proximate answers in order to find greater questions, with more elusive answers. It may be that within those tendencies of science and religion, some common ground can be found.
Wired.com: People don't just find mystery in religion — they find a moral framework, or an easing to grief. What can science do there?
Keats: Maybe the first thing science can do is recognize that, parse it, and be scientific in terms of asking good questions. Why do we believe the things we do morally, or that guide us and give us comfort?
Wired.com: Religion also plays a social role — in my own neighborhood, for example, churches are a meeting place and social safety net. Could a religion of science meet that need?
Keats: There has always been, within religions, different levels of advancement, from pretty windows to the philosophy of St. Augustine or St. Anselm. Perhaps there is, within a religion of science, the possibility of multiple levels of engagement, and it's simply a matter of it being there long enough for community to aggregate.
Wired.com: Can science replace religion without falling into the trap of, say, Nazi science or social Darwinism?
Keats: That's a crucial question to ask. The other is, what becomes of science? Let's imagine it's successful at providing spiritual fulfillment, that looking at cosmic microwave background radiation gives us a mythology of the universe — and we're getting this satisfaction from science, this sense of being and peace, that could arguably be the foundation for morality. When burdened with all of that, can science still operate in a way that's scientific?
Wired.com: Can it?
Keats: In continuing to grasp and question? I don't think so. When scientists try to foist science on the religious as a ready-made substitute, they often don't bother to think of what their science would become.
A really literal, simple example: If people take deep religious significance in cosmic microwave background radiation as mapped by a particular satellite, the potential is to stop science at that level. Or if it's found that dark energy is the same as dark matter, you end up with a crusade of people who don't want their dark energy taken from them.
But it's a matter of finding that middle ground — negotiating the ways science can give people a spiritual experience without sacrificing its openness.
Wired.com: So the answer is to never consider science absolute.
Keats: I think that's essential. Kuhn's ideas of paradigm shifts aren't overlooked by scientists, who've read all that, but for the public it's not so much in play. For people who are not practicing scientists, science is a place where certainties are promised and delivered — even if five years later another contradictory certainty is presented.
Image: Jonathon Keats. The Atheon's cosmic background radiation-patterned stained glass windows.
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