Saturday, August 23, 2014

Some thoughts on God and Religion from a Physicist


I came across this article today in Scientific American (“Quantum Gravity Expert Says 'Philosophical Superficiality' Has Harmed Physics” By John Horgan; August 21, 2014).   It is an interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University and the Intitut Universitaire de France.  First here are some excerpts:

Horgan: Do you believe in God?
Rovelli: No.  But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what “to believe in God” means. The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me.  I do not understand them.  I suppose this means that I “do not believe in God”. If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.
If the question is whether I believe that “God” is a powerful something in the people, which causes a lot of disasters but also a lot of good, then of course I believe it.   In fact, I am extremely curious about religion. I think that we should study what is religion much more than what is done. There is a sort of taboo in this, a sort of respect towards people who “believe in God”, which makes it difficult to understand better.
I think that viewing the “belief in God” just as a bunch of silly superstitions is wrong. The “belief in God” is one form of human religious attitude, and human religious attitude is something very general and universal about our functioning. Something which is important for man, and we have not yet understood.
Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?
Rovelli: Of course yes: you can be great in solving Maxwell’s equations and pray to God in the evening.  But there is an unavoidable clash between science and certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity and Islam, those that pretend to be repositories of “absolute Truths.”  The problem is not that scientists think they know everything. It is the opposite: scientists know that there are things we simply do not know, and naturally question those who pretend to know.   Many religious people are disturbed by this, and have difficulty in coping with it.  The religious person says, “I know that God has created light saying, ‘Fiat Lux.’”  The scientist does not believe the story. The religious people feel threatened.  And here the clash develops.  But not all religions are like that. Many forms of Buddhism, for instance, have no difficulty with the continual critical attitude of science. Monotheistic religions, and in particular Islam and Christianity, are sometimes less intelligent.
I have an idea about the source of the conflict: there is beautiful research by anthropologists in Australia which shows that religious beliefs are often considered a-temporal but in reality change continuously and adapt to new conditions, new knowledge and so on.  This was discovered by comparing religious beliefs held by native Australians studied by anthropologists in the thirties and, much later, in the seventies.  So, in a natural situation, religious beliefs adapt to the change in man’s culture and knowledge.  The problem with Islam and Christianity is that many centuries ago somebody had the idea of writing down beliefs. So now some religious people are stuck with the culture and knowledge of centuries ago. They are fish trapped in a pond of old water.


This is a riveting dialogue, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.

I consider myself a pantheist, which this is sort of a recent change for me.  For years, I had considered myself a theist, but the whole personal god idea was tripping me up.  Pantheism, god in all things or is all things (in other words, not a separate being), feels more right for me.  As I read this article, however, it occurs to me we might be better off thinking about the effect of religion and the apparent human need for religion or spirituality or community—in other words, what religion is—rather than what religion does, that is, like the specific rituals, creeds, dogmas.  I, like Rovelli, am very curious about religion (which work since I am a minister) and, for that matter, all religions.   I think there are innumerable ways to achieve a religious/spiritual experience—that feeling of ineffable peace, the connection to something more, enlightenment/new awareness, etc.— and no religion has the only ‘right’ way to get there.  I also believe that many religions offer viable ways to have that experience.  Religious community offers us have the opportunity to share and be reminded of the power of this kind of experience. 
As for Rovelli’s insights about God, (which are worthy of a second post, let’s see if I can get around to it) I am of two minds.  I do feel it is somewhat condescending to say that some people's beliefs are silly.  As a Unitarian Universalist, I take very seriously our Fourth Principle (a free and responsible search for truth and meaning).  I respect and try to understand another person's beliefs and faith.  I find a lot of energy in the idea that God is “one form of religions attitude, and human religious attitude is something very general and universal about our functioning.” Why do humans have this attitude and how does it function in our lives?  I do think that having some spiritual/religious beliefs/faith/connection to something larger is useful—if for no other reasons than to help one feel less alone, to feel less stressed, to have some tools to manage the issues that we all face as humans, to ground oneself in attitudes/behaviors that are more ethical/moral, including compassion and charity, and to affirm that change is possible in our world, in a word, hope.  So it is not a new concept to me that being spiritual (more individually oriented) or religious (more communally oriented) is general and universal.  

Religions have served a very important purpose in our lives and in our world (not to say they haven’t had their problems for they are, after all, composed of humans and we are, to a person, flawed).  I think people will continue to seek ways to ground themselves in the purposes that religions have served, even if they don’t go to church.   Diminishing feelings of isolation, reducing stress, and coping mechanisms, at least for me, are related to some need inside me.  I need faith in something larger than my own desires, hope that humanity and my life have some aspirations and meaning, and love for other creatures and creation, and I need ways to affirm these three regularly. Thus religion is vital for me.  You may want to consider how you affirm faith, hope, and love in your life.  I encourage you not to “see in the mirror dimly.”  Look in your heart, and use your mind, to learn more about what has meaning for you.

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