Regular readers of this website know that for a long time Chris Mooney has argued for the compatibility of science and faith, based largely on the observation that some scientists are religious. He now seems to have realized that this method for rapprochement hasn’t worked very well. The divide seems as wide as ever. But Mooney has done his homework as a Templeton Fellow, and has a new Big Idea. In a new editorial in USA Today, “Spirituality can bridge science-religion divide,” he takes a different tack.
His idea rests on spirituality. He notes that “spirituality is something everyone can have—even atheists.” And because we’re all brothers and sister in spirituality, presto!: we can heal the science/religion gap. More about that in a second, but first I want to highlight how often Mooney uses military language when describing the religion-science debate (my emphases):
We hear a lot these days about the “conflict” between science and religion — the atheists and the fundamentalists, it seems, are constantly blasting one another. But what’s rarely noted is that even as science-religion warriors clash by night, in the morning they’ll see the battlefield has shifted beneath them.
The old science-religion story goes like this: The so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, uncompromisingly blast faith, even as religiously driven “intelligent design” proponents repeatedly undermine science. And while most of us don’t fit into either of these camps, the extremes also target those in the middle. The New Atheists aim considerable fire toward moderate religious believers who are also top scientists, such as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins. Meanwhile, people like Collins get regular flack from the “intelligent design” crowd as well.
In this schematic, the battle lines may appear drawn, the conflict inescapable. But once spirituality enters the picture, there seems to be common ground after all.
I’m not sure what this language is about. I myself have used terms like this, but never so profusely! Is this a way of “framing” the discussion, paving the way for Mooney to be the Jimmy Carter of accommodationism?
But never mind. Mooney goes on to say that many scientists have spiritual experiences, or derive spiritual satisfaction, from their science. He quotes Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins as either experiencing or approving of secular spirituality.
We can all find our own sacred things — and we can all have our own life-altering spiritual experiences. These are not necessarily tied to any creed, doctrine, or belief; they grip us on an emotional level, rather than a cognitive or rational one. That feeling of awe and wonder, that sense of a deep unity with the universe or cosmos — such intuitions might lead to a traditional religious outlook on the world, or they might not. . .
Spirituality in the sense described above does not run afoul of any of Dawkins’ atheistic values or arguments. It does not require science and faith to be logically compatible, for instance. Nor does it require that we believe in anything we cannot prove. Spirituality simply doesn’t operate on that level. It’s about emotions and experiences, not premises or postulates. . .
A focus on spirituality, then, might be the route to finally healing one of the most divisive rifts in Western society — over the relationship between science and religion. We’ll still have our evolution battles, to be sure; and the Catholic Church won’t soon give up on its wrongheaded resistance to contraception. The problems won’t immediately vanish. But each time they emerge, more and more of us will scratch our heads, wondering why.
This all sounds well and good, but in the end it’s just soothing words that don’t offer any solution to the problem.
“Spirituality” covers a variety of notions, which I think Mooney recognizes. (“Religion,” of course, also has diverse meanings, but since at least 70% of Americans believe in a personal God who interacts with the world, let’s take it as that.) A scientist can be spiritual in many ways. She can do science as a way to glorify or understand God, as the British natural philosophers did. She can feel a oneness with the universe as a result of doing science, something that Carl Sagan touted. (I myself haven’t experienced that from science, though I did from various pharmaceuticals in my youth.) She can feel wonder and amazement at how intricate nature is and how we’ve been able to understand so much of it. She can marvel at the intricate products devised by such a simple process as natural selection. She can be elated at finding something that nobody in the history of the world has ever known before. And she can simply get pleasure and satisfaction from her job.
Scientists are not automatons. Just like other people, we have emotions and feelings, and sometimes these are connected with our work. If you want to call that “spirituality,” so be it. But I don’t see how recognizing that both scientists and religious people feel emotions about their work or faith can heal the breach between them. That breach is irreparable: it comes from the very different and irreconcilable methods that science and faith use to find truth—combined with the fact that science hasn’t buttressed the “truths” of faith nor has faith produced truths convergent with those of science. Science is at war with faith because it shows that religious “truths” are bunk, and the faithful realize this.
Telling the faithful that scientists are “spiritual” won’t achieve an iota of reconciliation. Evidence: as Mooney notes at The Intersection, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist theological seminary, doesn’t agree.
The real question posed by Mooney’s USA Today column is whether Christians possess the discernment to recognize this postmodern mode of spirituality for what it is — unbelief wearing the language of a bland faith.
Chris Mooney might be on to something here. The American public just might be confused enough to fall for this spirituality ploy. Will Christians do the same?
Mohler may be a Baptist, but he’s not a moron. He knows that Mooney’s “spirituality” is just science dressed in faith’s clothing, and is still a threat. Mohler isn’t buying it, and neither will other religious people who oppose science.
My online dictionary defines “spirituality” as follows:
1) of, or relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things: I am responsible for his spiritual welfare
- (of a person): not concerned with material values or pursuits
2) of or relating to religion or religious belief: Iran’s spiritual leader.
People like Mooney, Krista Tippett, and all the other spirituality mongers are counting on people conflating definition 1 with definition 2. That’s the “reconciliation” they’re hoping for. And it’s one that the Templeton Foundation is spending millions of dollars to promote. But it won’t work. We “spiritual” atheist-scientists are having none of religion, and religious people are smart enough to see that spirituality is not a form of religion.