The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting

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The Sky Is Falling

World leaders are meeting for the next week or so in Paris to discuss ways in which the major countries around the globe can reduce carbon emissions in hopes of warding off catastrophic effects from global warming.  How serious this problem is has become a topic of “heated” debate in this country, just like almost everything else, from Starbucks holiday coffee cups to Syrian refugees coming to America.  A handful of scientists (about 3% worldwide) are not convinced that the current climate changes we are experiencing are caused by human activity, which is all the evidence needed to call the whole idea a scam by a growing minority of people in this country who completely distrust any message coming from the federal government or the research of individuals, institutions, agencies, and organizations funded by federal tax dollars.  They are convinced that restrictions imposed by governments due to climate change will result in onerous taxes, economic ruin, burdensome regulations, dictatorial bureaucrats, and higher energy costs.

It would appear that the denial of climate change issues has moved into the realm of conspiracy theory.  Some of my friends argue that scientists are lying and falsifying data to appeal to liberal policy makers who pay them and who seek even further control over our lives and property.  They point to the changes in terminology — moving away from phrases like global warming and toward phrases like climate change — as an indication that the science is not solid and that climatologists are not to be trusted.   Here’s a flash.  What we are seeing around the planet IS global warming, but we have folks who can’t understand that global warming is NOT a term to describe weather.  There is a difference between climate and weather, so the vocabulary was modified in an attempt to increase understanding about the problem, which obviously failed.

Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to speak too much about climate change from a scientific standpoint, so I have to trust the consensus of opinion of the majority of climatologists around the world, just like I feel compelled to trust the vast majority of doctors who believe immunization is more helpful than harmful. I could list many other examples. I can remember a time when conservatives thought that recycling was a trick on dumb liberals, that is, until they discovered there is plenty of money to be made in the recycling business. Then it became desirable. I suspect we will eventually see this same pattern evolve with the reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable energy sources, and other similar initiatives.  I believe in being skeptical, but skepticism on the level of global scientific opinion of such a large majority seems unreasonable.

The Undeniable Evidence for Evolution

When I am asked if I “believe” in evolution, as I have been many times in my life, I am somewhat at a loss with how to respond.  To believe in evolution implies that there is some level of faith required to accept that life on earth changes in order to adapt to the environment and to increase the chances of surviving and reproducing.  The evidence for such adaptation is so abundant that, to my way of thinking, denying it would require an extraordinary suspension of observation and reasoning.

Of course, I am keenly aware that when I am asked this question, the real query is “Do you believe that human beings evolved from lower life forms?” or the less- intelligent and poorly-informed version, “Do you believe we came from monkeys?”  The answer to the former would be an unequivocal YES, and the answer to the latter would be an equally emphatic NO.  Anyone who has taken an elementary course in biology knows the difference between those two premises, so I won’t bother with the distinctions.

I suspect the people who have the most difficult time accepting evolution as a scientific theory that explains so much about life on this planet are those who cling to religious beliefs that somehow run contrary to the evidence.  This conflict is especially true for people of faith who maintain a literal interpretation of ancient, sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran.  Evangelicals in America are so bound to their worldview of creationism by the hand of God that they will not allow themselves to be swayed by rationalism or overwhelming evidence.  I have even met scientists, teaching in universities, who cannot fully embrace human evolution as a fact because of their religious convictions.  The pressure to conform to supernatural explanations of natural phenomenon must be enormous.

Is it fear that prompts such denial?  Pride?  Does science pose such a threat to faith that adherents impose barriers to the most obvious truths rather than accept and embrace them?  I am absolutely baffled by people who can choose to believe the supernatural over the natural.

You Can’t Run Away from a Bad Diet

For years my wife has been telling me that, while she knows we need to exercise for our health and well-being, exercise won’t help her shed the pounds she wants to lose (she doesn’t have that much to shed truly).  I have always resisted her on this point, thinking that burning off calories with vigorous exercise has to eventually result in weight loss.  While that still may be true with a sensible diet, the fact remains that exercise without cutting back portions and watching the amount of calories and fat we take in will not result in any serious weight loss.  Such are the findings of a team of British cardiologists in a recent study, which they explain in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  In essence, they are claiming that even though regular exercise reduces the risk of developing a number of health issues such as heart disease, dementia, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t promote weight loss.

Once again, my wife is smarter than I.  This information that she knew and that I was slightly skeptical about is even more troubling for her than it is for me because she also knows that, as we both age, her metabolism as a woman slows down at a much faster rate than mine does as a man.  This means that I can take in more calories than she, and with everything else being equal, my weight remains stable.  No, it certainly isn’t fair and is another example of how women get the shaft from nature.  I’m not so concerned about how my wife’s body looks (well, yes it does matter, but it isn’t my main concern), but I do want her to be healthy and well as we march toward retirement in the next ten years.  I am convinced that avoiding obesity is essential in achieving that goal, for both of us.  Beyond that extreme though, I hope we can both eat well, exercise regularly, and maintain our fitness as we age so we can enjoy that retirement by traveling around and exploring, relatively free of pain and with as much physical flexibility and stability as possible.

Peering Out to Infinity

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, today the New York Times (nytimes.com) posted some favorite photographs of astronomers and others involved in the Hubble project over the years — photos taken by the telescope.  According to Hubblesite.org, this magnificent device represents “one of NASA’s most successful and long-lasting science missions. It has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many of the great mysteries of astronomy. Its gaze has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy.”

(A cluster of 3,000 stars known as Westerlund 2 in the constellation Carina. )

Upon seeing some of these images and trying to grasp the scale in size, distance from the Earth, and time associated with them, it is certainly understandable why so many people still turn to supernatural or religious explanations for the vastness and wonder of the universe.  How can the mind comprehend it?  It is equally understandable why atheists such as Richard Dawkins make such proclamations as the following: “The world and the universe is (sic) an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear.”

I try to get to the coast as often as I can, primarily because I like the way it puts my life in perspective for me.  I feel so small when I look out at the ocean and am soothed by the sound of endless waves pounding the shore.  To paraphrase a Beatles tune, all my troubles seem so far away.  Looking at these Hubble images and contemplating how small I am on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy that shares the universe with one hundred billion other galaxies — perhaps many more — magnifies this experience but makes me deeply appreciate my life, my consciousness, and all that I perceive.  How very fortunate am I.

How Can You Not Love Ferns?

Of all the plants I see on my excursions through the forest, I think some of the most beautiful to me are among the most primitive — ferns.  With origins going back anywhere from 300 to 400 million years, ferns have been around as long as reptiles and were spreading across the planet at least 100 million years before mammals arrived.  By contrast, the primates only showed up about 60 million years ago, and the species we know as modern human beings have only been here for about 250,000 years.

Fern bed near gravesiteToday, there are literally thousands of species of ferns growing in various habitats all around the world.  They flourish mainly in places where flowering plants can’t grow because it is too wet or too shady.  In other words, they have evolved to take advantage of habitats that the more dominant seed-bearing plants can’t handle.  Instead of becoming extinct, they adapted. There seems to be a philosophical message there.

I think my attraction to ferns comes from the delicate fronds that are characteristic of so many of the species.  In America, they are often found in shady, moist places that are cooler then the surrounding area, and their lush, green color implies fertility and vitality.  The way they pulsate with the slightest breeze has such a calming effect on me.  Apparently, my interest in ferns is shared by quite a few folks in this country, illustrated by the existence of an organization devoted to studying the plants.  You can find out so much more information about ferns at the website of the American Fern Society.