I want to talk about science, magic, and religion.
Think about your group of friends and associates, your family. If you’re fortunate, you’re likely surrounded by diversity: different races, different jobs, different geographies, different beliefs. I am one such lucky person, and as Utopian as it may sound, one of my underlying wishes is that I can put everyone I know in a single ballroom one day and have them all get along without any conflict.
Utopian, you might have already concluded, is a word I use with great irony in this context.
The reality is that difference and conflict are omnipresent and entangled, and in some ways, that can be a good thing. Most people overlap: many scientists are religious, or hold some kind of magical belief. At the extremes, however, things literally start getting thrown around at each other. That’s what I want to talk about: the extremists of the camps.
As with all generalizations, no individual falls complete in one or the other, so this is as much about my way of seeing them as it is about the people themselves. Keep that in mind.
I guess my main preoccupation is with the science folks, because I am (mostly) one of them. I prefer to believe in measurable results that anyone can replicate, regardless of what they may or may not imagine to be real. I don’t believe in the existence of an individualized deity watching over us and doling out rewards and punishment. Like many of my self-declared agnostic and atheist friends, I was raised in religion. I come from a fairly strong Presbyterian family, and, being Trinidadian, was also exposed to elements of Islam and Hinduism.
As it showed up for me, I found Christianity was too limiting, full of hypocrisy in practice and in principle, and utterly incomplete. The others didn’t seem too appealing to me, either, so I left religion as a teenager to explore other paradigms. Though I never developed the type of persecution complex that other agnostics have, I have learned, with significant difficulty, that my choices don’t have to be everyone’s choices. Live and let live.
I believe that science, as a practice, gives us access to consensus results in ultimate reality unlike any other system. And I also believe that can science easily become a substitute religion among its advocates who grew up in oppressive religious environments as opposed to nurturing ones.
We internalize patterns as children. Whatever we’re immersed in over time, we adopt as part of our behaviour. Odds are, if you were raised by strongly religious parents in a faith that advocates proselytization, you were taught that non-believers were “evil” or “sinful”. You were taught that certain signs of progress in greater society outside your religious community – reproductive rights for women, gay marriage rights, even interracial relationships – were against the will of God. You may have been raised into certain practices – no meat on Fridays, no pork, fasting at various times, tithing – that showed up for you as oppressive.
However, as liberating as that is, you may have also internalized certain patterns of behaviour and judgement from that time that you now practice.
To be sure, much of the “scientism” that appears on the Internet is a reaction to the downright frightening fundamentalist revival embodied in such movements as the Tea Party, the consistent campaign here at home by the Harper government to muzzle scientific data on climate change, and the continued and scary extremism that we see in conflicts abroad.
And scientifically-minded people do have historical precedent for anxiety: when the Late Roman Empire fell, European civilization went from a literate, scientific, and educated culture to a deeply superstitious and uneducated patchwork within two generations. It’s very easy to lose everything that we have created, and the simplistic notions of afterlife reward in exchange for the present-day violence advocated by the extremists of organized religion is all too seductive for many people who are looking for meaning.
So science advocates fight back, by celebrating science itself and attacking non-believers. They do this because in that moment, they perceive a threat. However, in that moment, they are no longer being scientists: they are being foot soldiers for ideology. And many of them, especially the ones who once rebelled against the religious constraints of the previous generation, can’t see their own proselytization for what it is.
And that’s where they lose integrity with science. That’s not what science is about.
Science is a constructed system of practice designed to produce evidence based results through experimentation, repetition, and consensus. It is absent passion, absent celebration and condemnation. It simply is. Hypothesis, methodology, experimentation, results, confirmation or rejection, peer evaluation. Evidence doesn’t fit the theory, then you can choose a different method and keep testing, or develop a new theory. There is no inherent meaning in science. Meaning is subjective: science stands objectively.
To use science as a club against religious people or secular spiritual individuals who like motivational speakers and naturopathic practices is to miss the point of what science is about. Science is a made up concept just as much as”God: a system of thought created by humans to produce a result. That’s it. Science itself is not real. Only its results are “real”, and worth celebrating.
There is one interesting component to “scientism”, though: for some people, science can be considered a form of magical thinking in itself. Ask any person who claims to believe in science about the methods used by scientists, and odds are, they’ll have no idea how a result produced by science came about: they just take it on faith that the scientists did their jobs properly. After all, the result is there, right?
It’s an old philosophical question: do I really know Australia exists if I’ve never seen it with my own eyes? At some point, faith re-inserts itself into the equation – faith that the scientists are doing their work properly – which means that science appears to many people as a mysterious practice that somehow produces a result. Within a field of scientific study, anyone who isn’t in the practice is called a “lay person”. That word finds similar origins to the Church’s term “laity”, referring to all those outside the clergy. Something to chew on.
I said before I was “mostly” scientific. That’s because I also prefer “magic”. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Magic shows up for me in my belief in non-religious forces in the Universe that I’ve experienced in my reality, but that science is only now beginning to verify in ultimate reality. The difference between a pure scientist and a magician is that the scientist will wait until sufficient evidence builds to declare something “real”: the magician takes the leap of faith.
I like the example of nuclear fusion: the principles were only discovered in the past 150 years or so. We now know that the sun operates via nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. However, for all of those years before we understood the science behind it, does that mean the sun didn’t shine? Of course not. Similarly, there are forces now used everyday – electricity, magnetism – that were once considered mystical. And there are other forces that most scientists currently say do not exist – the Law of Attraction, a universal consciousness, manifestation – that I’ve experienced first-hand, and many others have as well.
A magician is someone who says “I’ve experienced this, I’ve seen this, and I know this is possible, even if no one else sees or experiences this. I won’t wait for outside authority to tell me it’s real or unreal. I’m going to work with it and see what happens”. A magician follows his own methodology, the difference between a shaman and a priest. My faith is that science will catch up to magic, at which point magic will simply become another science.
I’m not a pure magician. I run into my own skepticism and doubt, but I am open to exploration. And I know others who are religious believers in the moderate sense, true to their own faiths and principles, sharing, but not imposing on others. I know many magicians, too, who would consider themselves “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Buddhist”, “Hindu”, or devotees of other established faiths. Many of them are scientists themselves.
The beauty of the diversity of people that I know, and that you know, is that we can take what works for ourselves from each other, and leave the rest to go about their days in peace.
And now my brain is empty on this topic. Thank you, as always, for indulging. I hope this serves your day in some positive way.