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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

14 MAY, 2015

Charlotte Brontë on Faith and Atheism


A specimen from the fossil record of Truth and Reason.

“People wish to be settled,” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1841 essay on character and the key to personal growth, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Exactly a decade later, Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816–March 31, 1855) — a mind at least as brilliant as Emerson’s and a spirit at least as expansive — tussled with this vital and vitalizing interplay of hope and unsettlement as she faced one of the most momentous frontiers of the human experience.

In an 1851 letter to her friend James Taylor, found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s altogether indispensable 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (public library), 35-year-old Brontë urges Taylor to read a book that had just unsettled her worldview in a most profound way — Letters on the Nature and Development of Man, a collection of correspondence between English social theorist Harriet Martineau and American missionary George Henry Atkinson.

After enthusing about the book’s impact, Brontë writes to Taylor:

Of the impression this book has made on me, I will not now say much. It is the first exposition of avowed atheism and materialism I have ever read; the first unequivocal declaration of disbelief in the existence of a God or a future life I have ever seen. In judging of such exposition and declaration, one would wish entirely to put aside the sort of instinctive horror they awaken, and to consider them in an impartial spirit and collected mood. This I find difficult to do. The strangest thing is, that we are called on to rejoice over this hopeless blank — to receive this bitter bereavement as great gain — to welcome this unutterable desolation as a state of pleasant freedom. Who could do this if he would? Who would do this if he could?

Brontë was perhaps more sensitive than most to the anguish of this “hopeless blank” — nine years earlier, she had experienced one of its sharpest and most personal permutations in the heartbreak of unrequited love, the ultimate devastation of hope for communion met with blankness. (One wonders where Taylor stood on this most intimate continuum of hope and hopelessness — he had proposed marriage to Brontë three times, to no avail. Indeed, the beloved author received a fair share of marriage proposals, which she declined with great psychological mastery.)

And so, with sturdy self-awareness and crystalline coolness, Brontë goes on to articulate the reason so many people believe — choose to believe — in the truth of “God” even when it clashes with the facts of reason and reality:

Sincerely, for my own part, do I wish to know and find the Truth; but if this be Truth, well may she guard herself with mysteries, and cover herself with a veil. If this be Truth, man or woman who beholds her can but curse the day he or she was born.

English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, long before the concept of vacuum existed in cosmology. Artwork from 'Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.'

Click image for more.

But Brontë, a woman of intense intellect, decides not to dwell on the unsettling notion of this “hopeless blank” and instead approaches the issue like a scientist — by seeking out alternative hypotheses and subjecting her theories to an objective peer review:

I wish to hear what some other person thinks, — someone whose feelings are unapt to bias his judgment. Read the book, then, in an unprejudiced spirit, and candidly say what you think of it. I mean, of course, if you have time — not otherwise.

Taylor did find the time to read the book and seems to have vehemently dismissed its premise, for Brontë wrote to him in another letter five weeks later:

I do most entirely agree with you in what you say about [the] book. I deeply regret its publication for the lady’s sake; it gives a death-blow to her future usefulness. Who can trust the word, or rely on the judgment, of an avowed atheist?

Brontë’s response, of course, is to a rather crude conception of atheism equating the absence of belief with the very sense of “unutterable desolation” she so feared. But if, as Richard Dawkins reasoned in coining the word “meme,” our ideas evolve much like our genetic material does, then Brontë’s primitive interpretation of faith and materialism is a necessary step in the evolution of our more nuanced contemporary ideas. Having come of age in a deeply religious era as the daughter of a clergyman, she belongs to that pivotal species of ideological amphibians who first emerged from the oceans of religion to step tentatively onto the solid land of reason and secular thought — even if by merely questioning dogmas that had been accepted for eons and being unsettled by alternative views of reality.

It is in no small part thanks to such unsettled ponderings, however primitive, that a century and a half later we can afford to speak of spirituality without religion and watch our scientists turn to Dante for answers and heed Carl Sagan as he whispers posthumously: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”

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11 MAY, 2015

Richard Feynman on Science vs. Religion and Why Uncertainty Is Central to Morality


“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless treatise on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has astutely observed, science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone,” some of humanity’s greatest scientific minds have contemplated the relationship between these two modes of inquiry — Galileo in his legendary letter to the Duchess of Tuscany; Ada Lovelace in her meditation on the interconnectedness of everything; Einstein in his answer to little girl’s question about whether scientists pray; Jane Goodall in her poetic take on science and spirit; Sam Harris in his elegant case for spirituality without religion; and physicist Margaret Wertheim in turning to Dante for an answer.

Among the tireless investigators of this duality is legendary physicist and science-storyteller Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), who explores this very inquiry in the final essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same spectacular compendium that gave us the Great Explainer on good, evil, and the Zen of science, the universal responsibility of scientists, and the meaning of life.

Feynman writes:

I do not believe that science can disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

Yes, it is consistent. Despite the fact that I said that more than half of the scientists don’t believe in God, many scientists do believe in both science and God, in a perfectly consistent way. But this consistency, although possible, is not easy to attain, and I would like to try to discuss two things: Why it is not easy to attain, and whether it is worth attempting to attain it.

Clarifying that by “God” he means the personal deity typical of Western religions, “to whom you pray and who has something to do with creating the universe and guiding you in morals,” Feynman considers the key difficulties in reconciling the scientific worldview with the religious one. Building on his assertion that the universal responsibility of the scientist is to remain immersed in “ignorance and doubt and uncertainty,” he points out that the centrality of uncertainty in science is incompatible with the unconditional faith required by religion:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

Piece from Richard Feynman's little-known sketches, edited by his daughter. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Wendell Berry on the wisdom of ignorance, Feynman adds:

It is necessary, I believe, to accept this idea, not only for science, but also for other things; it is of great value to acknowledge ignorance. It is a fact that when we make decisions in our life, we don’t necessarily know that we are making them correctly; we only think that we are doing the best we can — and that is what we should do.

Befriending uncertainty, Feynman argues, becomes a habit of mind that automates thought to a point of no longer being able to retreat from doubt’s inquiry. The question then changes from the binary “Is there God?” to the degrees-of-certainty ponderation “How sure is it that there is a God?” He writes:

This very subtle change is a great stroke and represents a parting of the ways between science and religion. I do not believe a real scientist can ever believe in the same way again. Although there are scientists who believe in God, I do not believe that they think of God in the same way as religious people do… I do not believe that a scientist can ever obtain that view — that really religious understanding, that real knowledge that there is a God — that absolute certainty which religious people have.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

A believing scientist, then, is one from whom the degree of certainty outweighs but doesn’t displace the degree of doubt — in the scientist, unlike in the religious person, doubt remains a parallel presence with any element of faith. Feynman illustrates this sliding scale of uncertainty by putting our human existence in cosmic perspective:

The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle whirling around the sun, among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies… Man is a latecomer in a vast evolving drama; can the rest be but a scaffolding for his creation?

Yet again, there are the atoms of which all appears to be constructed, following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it; the stars are made of the same stuff, and the animals are made of the same stuff, but in such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive — like man himself.

With an eye to the immutable mystery at the heart of all knowledge — something Feynman memorably explored in his now-iconic ode to a flower — he adds:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means without man — as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. It usually ends in laughter, delight in the futility of trying to understand. These scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged simply as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems to be inadequate.

But even if one comes to doubt the factuality of divinity itself, Feynman argues that religious myths remain a valuable moral compass, the basic ethical tenets of which can be applied to life independently of the religious dogma:

In the end, it is possible to doubt the divinity of Christ, and yet to believe firmly that it is a good thing to do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. It is possible to have both these views at the same time; and I would say that I hope you will find that my atheistic scientific colleagues often carry themselves well in society.

Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful:

The communist views are the antithesis of the scientific, in the sense that in communism the answers are given to all the questions — political questions as well as moral ones — without discussion and without doubt. The scientific viewpoint is the exact opposite of this; that is, all questions must be doubted and discussed; we must argue everything out — observe things, check them, and so change them. The democratic government is much closer to this idea, because there is discussion and a chance of modification. One doesn’t launch the ship in a definite direction. It is true that if you have a tyranny of ideas, so that you know exactly what has to be true, you act very decisively, and it looks good — for a while. But soon the ship is heading in the wrong direction, and no one can modify the direction anymore. So the uncertainties of life in a democracy are, I think, much more consistent with science.

He revisits the ethical aspect of religion — its commitment to guiding us toward a more moral life — and its interplay with our human fallibility:

We know that, even with moral values granted, human beings are very weak; they must be reminded of the moral values in order that they may be able to follow their consciences. It is not simply a matter of having a right conscience; it is also a question of maintaining strength to do what you know is right. And it is necessary that religion give strength and comfort and the inspiration to follow these moral views. This is the inspirational aspect of religion. It gives inspiration not only for moral conduct — it gives inspiration for the arts and for all kinds of great thoughts and actions as well.

Noting that all three aspects of religion — metaphysical divinity, morality, and inspiration — are interconnected and that “to attack one feature of the system is to attack the whole structure,” Feynman zeroes in on the inescapable conflict between the empirical findings of science and the metaphysical myths of faith:

The result … is a retreat of the religious metaphysical view, but nevertheless, there is no collapse of the religion. And further, there seems to be no appreciable or fundamental change in the moral view.

After all, the earth moves around the sun — isn’t it best to turn the other cheek? Does it make any difference whether the earth is standing still or moving around the sun?


In my opinion, it is not possible for religion to find a set of metaphysical ideas which will be guaranteed not to get into conflicts with an ever-advancing and always-changing science which is going into an unknown. We don’t know how to answer the questions; it is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong. The difficulty arises because science and religion are both trying to answer questions in the same realm here.

On the other hand, I don’t believe that a real conflict with science will arise in the ethical aspect, because I believe that moral questions are outside of the scientific realm.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

And so we get to the most enduring challenge — the fact that, in Tippett’s words, “how we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at.” Arguing that science isn’t aimed at the foundations of morality, Feynman writes:

The typical human problem, and one whose answer religion aims to supply, is always of the following form: Should I do this? Should we do this? Should the government do this? To answer this question we can resolve it into two parts: First — If I do this, what will happen? — and second — Do I want that to happen? What would come of it of value — of good?

Now a question of the form: If I do this, what will happen? is strictly scientific. As a matter of fact, science can be defined as a method for, and a body of information obtained by, trying to answer only questions which can be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen? The technique of it, fundamentally, is: Try it and see. Then you put together a large amount of information from such experiences. All scientists will agree that a question — any question, philosophical or other — which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment … is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science.

I claim that whether you want something to happen or not — what value there is in the result, and how you judge the value of the result (which is the other end of the question: Should I do this?), must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens — in a moral way. So, for this theoretical reason I think that there is a complete consistency between the moral view — or the ethical aspect of religion — and scientific information.

But therein lies the central friction — because of the interconnectedness of all three parts of religion, doubt about the metaphysical aspect invariably chips away at the authority of the moral and inspirational aspects, which are fueled by the believer’s emotional investment in the divine component. Feynman writes:

Emotional ties to the moral code … begin to be severely weakened when doubt, even a small amount of doubt, is expressed as to the existence of God; so when the belief in God becomes uncertain, this particular method of obtaining inspiration fails.

He concludes, appropriately, like a scientist rather than a dogmatist — by framing the right questions rather than asserting the right answers:

I don’t know the answer to this central problem — the problem of maintaining the real value of religion, as a source of strength and of courage to most [people], while, at the same time, not requiring an absolute faith in the metaphysical aspects.

Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure–the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.

These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid? Is this not the central problem of our time?

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a trove of the Great Explainer’s wisdom on everything from education to integrity to the value of science as a way of life. Complement it with Feynman on why everything is connected to everything else, how his father taught him about the most important thing, and his little-known drawings, then revisit Alan Lightman — a Great Explainer for our day — on science and the divinity of the unknowable.

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06 MAY, 2015

Dante and the Eternal Quest for Nonreligious Divinity: Physicist Margaret Wertheim on Science and God


“I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Centuries after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the relationship between science and religion, and decades after Carl Sagan did the same in his exquisite Varieties of Scientific Experience, physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim offers perhaps the most elegant and emboldening reconciliation of these two frequently contrasted approaches to the human longing for truth and meaning.

Wertheim is the creator of the PBS documentary Faith and Reason, author of deeply thoughtful books like Pythagoras’s Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, and cofounder of The Institute for Figuring — “an organization dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering.” In her intellectually invigorating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Wertheim recounts how she moved away from the Catholic faith of her childhood and toward science, while maintaining a nonreligious sense of spiritual curiosity. In discussing her beliefs, she offers one of the most luminous conceptions of what secular spirituality stands to offer in the modern world, especially for those of us who hold dear the values of science, and how a deeper sense of resonance with the universe can elevate and ennoble human life:

I don’t know that I believe in the existence of God in the Catholic sense. But my favorite book is the Divine Comedy. And at the end of the Divine Comedy, Dante pierces the skin of the universe and comes face-to-face with the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

I believe that there is a love that moves the sun and the other stars. I believe in Dante’s vision.

And so, in some sense, perhaps I could be said to believe in God. And I think part of the problem with the concept of, “Are you an atheist or not?” is that our conception of what divinity means has become so trivialized and banal that I think it’s almost impossible to answer the question without dogma. And … I’m very, very saddened by the fact that militant atheism has become so to the fore of our society — I think it’s destructive and unhelpful, and I don’t think it does science any service.


One way I think we can understand the God question in relation to science is this: that prior to the coming into being of modern science, [in] the Christian conception of God, God had two functions — God was the creator of the universe, but he was first and foremost the redeemer of mankind. And with the coming into being of modern science, God’s position as redeemer got shoved into the background, and all of the questions and the public discussion became about God the creator. And that was why Darwinism was so critical — because [Darwin] appeared to challenge the idea of God as the creator of man. And we, I think, [in] the modern West focus so much on the debate about the creative function of God that, outside of theological circles, we don’t seem to be able to discuss, as it were, the concept of redemption… And I think we need to be able to discuss that… We need to start thinking about that.

Complement with Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Einstein on whether scientists pray, Flannery O’Connor on dogma and the difference between religion and faith, and Douglas Rushkoff on science, God, and why consciousness exists.

If you aren’t yet subscribing to On Being — a vitalizing source of moral encouragement and some of the most important cultural programming of our time — gladden yourself and subscribe. Tippett’s full conversation with Wertheim is but one of countless reasons to do so:

Cosmic illustration of Wertheim based on photograph by Noé Montes

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25 FEBRUARY, 2015

What Comes After Religion: The Search for Meaning in Secular Life


“We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses…”

In their series of animated essays, The School of Life have contemplated what great books do for the soul, how to merge money and meaning, and what philosophy is for. Now comes a wonderful animation that builds on School of Life founder Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (public library) to explore what comes after religion and how we can begin to address the deeper existential yearnings which led us to create religion in the first place — a meditation that calls to mind Sam Harris’s recent guide to spirituality without religion and the broader question of how we fill our lives with meaning.

Transcribed highlights below.

Fewer and fewer people believe nowadays. It’s possible that in a generation, there simply won’t be religion across Europe and large sections of North America, Australia, and Asia. That’s not necessarily a problem — but it’s worth thinking about why people made up religion in the first place.


We may no longer believe, but the needs and longings that made us make up these stories go on: We’re lonely, and violent; we long for beauty, wisdom, and purpose; we want to live for something more than just ourselves.

Society tells us to direct our hopes in two areas: romantic love and professional success. And it distracts us with news, movies, and consumption. It’s not enough, as we know — especially at three in the morning. We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses — universal things, which need tending, like delicate flowers, and rituals that bring us together.

The choice isn’t between religion and the secular world, as it is now — the challenge is to learn from religions so we can fill the secular world with replacements for the things we long ago made up religion to provide. The challenge begins here.

For more on this slippery but vital question, see Alan Lightman on finding transcendent moments in the secular world and Mary Oliver on a life well lived.

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