Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Better Living Through Pantheism
or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Both Science and Religion

'That Thou Art' - Upanishads

On Monday 13 August 2008 Channel 4 broadcast the final part of a documentary series entitled The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by Richard Dawkins, the series set out to explain Darwin's ideas about evolution and their significance in intellectual history, and to critically examine the religious arguments against Darwinism. It was the latter effort to which this particular edition of the programme was directed.

The programme showcased a number of ludicrous religious objections to Darwin's theories, ranging from the demand for evidence of 'missing links' in the evolutionary chain and 'Intelligent Design' to crude, red-faced Scripture quoting. None of these arguments are worthy of further discussion - I think any rational person sees quite clearly that they have absolutely no substance in the light of evidence. However, the one intriguing argument that Dawkins encountered came from what he called a ‘pious fudge'.

What Dawkins meant by this was the efforts of theologians, both scholars and laymen, to reconcile the idea of God with modern science. The man he debated this line of argument with was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who made a number of interesting comments throughout their exchange.

Williams remarked that he thought of God as 'the force which permeates creation', a statement more commonly uttered by mystics the world over than by the main representative of one of the most rigidly monotheistic religions on earth. His conception of God was clearly something transcendent, and he attempted to steer the conversation away from the idea of God as a being separate from the rest of the universe. Unfortunately Williams came across as somewhat muddle-headed in his thinking as he professed belief in the literal truth of Biblical events such as the Virgin Birth. While this in itself is a point I see little value in debating, the fact remains that it is a talisman for orthodox religious thinkers the world over and only served to make Williams appear reactionary and intellectually dishonest.

Later in the programme Dawkins met with the American philosopher Dan Dennett to discuss the oft-imagined lack of personal consolation provided by scientific evidence versus the cosy comfort offered by religion. During their exchange both men remarked that they took great delight in 'being part of all creation' and made many comments about the joys of scientific discovery - the pleasure in leaning about and better understanding this universe in which we all exist. It was as if both men were expressing reverence for the universe itself.

It is here that I think Williams’ apparently quasi-mystical view of God, as presented in the programme, and the sort of profound respect for the universe expressed by Dawkins and Dennett overlap. You see, what I imagine Williams meant by 'God' is not some bearded chap perched in the clouds, but rather something far more ethereal.

The literature of the world's religions is full of pronouncements from saints, mystics, poets and philosophers about the nature of God, reality, and the universe, and the most striking thing about all of these writings is their collective message of unity. The mystic's conception of God does not view He/She/It as a being separate from the universe, but rather the underlying reality of the universe itself. If God is infinite and the universe is infinite, the two must be one and the same. Where the mystic and the physicist both readily agree, contrary to popular opinion, is in their understanding that the universe is governed by cosmic laws and invisible forces; where they differ is in nomenclature. The mystic talks abstractly and poetically about the various underlying layers of reality, while the physicist aims at a clinical and consensually agreed vocabulary, specifically concocted to deal with such huge, abstract concepts.

This mystical conception of God was seized upon and reconciled with the emerging discoveries of science in the 17th century by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza erected a fearsome philosophical system in one slim book, the posthumously-published Ethics. In this book Spinoza attempted to demonstrate that the universe itself was God and that everything in it is a 'mode' of God. What this means, basically, is that God is everything and everything which exists is a 'part' of God. This is what the Sufis mean in their analogy of the constantly changing state of the universe being described as Allah perpetually reinventing Himself. Likewise it is what the Hindus mean by their all-encompassing notion of Brahman, and is the key to interpreting the quote which precedes this essay. By being parts of the material universe, we are all modes of God.

It is this sentiment which inspired Einstein to write poetry inspired by Spinoza's vision of the universe. And it is ingenious because, in reconciling science and religion in such a way, it is a view which satisfies those who seek consolation in the transcendent as well as a means of removing any theological obstacles from science. After all, if the universe and God are one and the same, isn't science just a means of understanding the workings of God? Maybe even the mind of God? Isn't this a sentiment which could be appreciated by both the atheist and believer alike?

This isn't a defence of religious belief but an attempt to expose the fallacies in fundamentalism and suggest that the clergy and the folk in lab coats needn’t be quite as mistrustful towards one another. The Sufis are said to have respected all religions because they are all systems for arriving at the same truth: and that truth about the nature of God is what Spinoza deduced in his Ethics. If God is understood in this way, and I cannot see any other way of interpreting the idea of God, science and religion become an endeavour directed at the same ends: an understanding of the universe and the laws of nature. Yet, this is not something cold and dispassionate. Dawkins himself positively radiates awe and glee when discussing the views of space from observatories or the elegance of evolution in a manner similar to religious believers when talking about their love of God. With God firmly rooted in reality, these two similarly passionate viewpoints merge into one…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a good Dawkins article on this subject.

Basically it says the problem is that this type of 'Einsteinian religion' is not what the vast majority of religious people subscribe to.