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Science and Theology, Mystery and Wonder

Geckos abound here in Houston during the summer. It is a wonder to observe them leap and climb vertically on virtually any type of surface. Until recently this unique ability was one of the mysteries of nature. We did not have a very good idea of how they move about like Spiderman. A few weeks ago the science section of The New York Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihaou Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs, in turn, splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with the microscopic pores of any surface it encounters. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.

Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith.” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity—God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Some theologians even spend entire careers as specialists in this doctrine. They write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the “immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this actually means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something tangible which we can observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any empirical evidence whatsoever. You can’t observe the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There is nothing to go on. The whole doctrine is, of course, a sad fiction which continues to be a source of human conflict and even bloodshed.

Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make up stuff and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “Real Presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard people because they cannot fathom the learned theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.

After leaving Christianity behind in a public way a few months ago, the question I have heard most from religious friends goes something like this: “How could you give up the wonder and beauty of the gospel message and the Christian world view?” One former parishioner was perplexed that I could exchange the elevating vision of Christianity for the “cruel and brutal world of Darwinism.” The other day I was talking with an old friend in the ministry who said something similar. He complained that secularism is a “flattening out of reality,” as if life without the fairy tales and myths of religion is somehow less marvelous. (I am confused that people even think we have the option of choosing the reality we wish to inhabit.) Now that “the God of the gaps” has hardly any more gaps to hide in, perhaps an appeal to wonder and mystery has become the last line of defense for theology.

Of course I can only speak for myself, but I have found that life is actually better without theology. For starters the issue of theodicy goes away. The problem of how a just and loving God could permit so much suffering in the world is a true source of torment for many theists. When I was working as a minister, this was always the number one theological issue on people’s minds. Reconciling belief in an omnibenevolent god with life’s inevitable tragedies is a constant and, often, exhausting challenge for many theists. Thus the continuing popularity of books such as Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? The solution, however, is easy. Take the “theo” out of theodicy, and the dilemma disappears entirely.

Not having to contemplate heaven is another burden lifted. Now that I am no longer counting on eternal life, every moment of this life has become more precious. Time with friends is more cherished. Food is more flavorful. I’m buying better bourbon. And I am even amazed that our very experience of things like “amazement,” along with all our other emotions, is itself evolved neural activity that filled some survival need in our ancestral past.

Leaving the crazy metaphysics of religion behind does not make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could ever concoct. From the gecko’s foot to the Higgs boson, the thrilling and astonishing insights of science give new meaning to Hamlet’s words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet, Act 1, scene v) Indeed.

So how do we overcome the widespread notion that a world without gods is somehow less wondrous, less amazing and that science is “cold”? Perhaps we need to find new ways to celebrate the joy of reason, and we should not be bashful about embracing concepts like wonder, awe, mystery, and even love, which have traditionally been associated with religious experience. Christians have great hymns which insidiously stick around in one’s mind for years. Hymnody has been an effective means of brainwashing. Maybe we need some really good, catchy tunes that proclaim the insights of Darwin.

This time of year I see banners advertising “Vacation Bible School” in front of every church in the area. Could local free-thought groups sponsor “Vacation Science School” and other alternatives? I’m sure it’s being done somewhere, but we could certainly use much more of it. Are we in the free-thought movement willing to match the religious community in the money and effort it takes to reach and inspire young people?

Ultimately, I suspect that nothing less than a complete overhaul of our school curricula is in order. Clearly I am no expert in education, but I do have two grown children who recently emerged from the Texas public school system relatively unscathed. It seems to me that our schools still tend to teach Science as just one of several discrete and competing subjects, along with Math, English, Social Studies, Foreign Languages, Home Economic, etc. Our system of education generally does not instill the inclination or ability to view the world holistically through the lens of science. Too often science courses are merely hurdles on the way to graduation. I know that was true for me. As an English major I took only the required science prerequisites, and I regret it. Knowing a little something about evolutionary psychology would have altered my understanding of literature.

Science is not just one subject among many; it is a quest for an all-encompassing explanation for reality, which ultimately has implications even for the social sciences and the humanities. To paraphrase something I heard E.O. Wilson say in a lecture a few months ago: You can’t understand history without pre-history. You can’t understand pre-history without biology. (not the exact quote.)

I must admit, however, that there remains one religious doctrine I wish had some element of truth to it: the Eastern notion of re-incarnation. That way I could come back as a scientist.



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