Heaven and Hell. God and the Devil. For many folks these polar opposites are what religion is all about. And for many folks in science who consider themselves atheists, this is what makes religion so impossible to bear. How can the nature of the world be seen in such simplistic terms? How can such beliefs co-exist with the technologies on which we've built our everyday lives?
I have written a lot about science and religion and, for some time, I've been looking for different ways to frame the discussion. In spite of that search, I am still left wondering at the ways religious fundamentalists of all stripes can ignore the beauty and subtleties of their own traditions, hammering them down into cartoon narratives of a demon-haunted world.
Imagine trying to explain to someone, fundamentalist or not, that their cellphone worked because of magic fairies living inside that tiny box in their pocket. They would, of course, look at you like you were crazy.
Everyone knows that cell-phones work because of radio waves. Sure it's complicated and, in general, few of us really get it. But we all know that cellphones work because the natural world is built in simultaneously subtle and complicated ways.
What is remarkable about the fundamentalist perspective, however, is an unwillingness to see spiritual life in the same light. Instead of seeing subtlety and complication that require a lifetime of intense dedicated effort — a genuine personal investigation of the world — to understand, everything is reduced to magic-marker outlines with unwavering, absolute answers.
This attitude persists right alongside the daily use of high-tech devices that unconsciously acknowledge a world of staggering subtlety and complexity. This world stands in stark contrast to the fundamentalist's spiritual world, a domain so sparse, so simple, that it's been bled of all color, shading and texture.
While writing on science and religion, however, I have met lots of really amazing folks who are quite serious about their spiritual lives. They have come from a diversity of faith backgrounds: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Some of these people were highly educated, some where not. What struck an atheist like me about these folks was their dedication to the investigation.
What mattered most to the people I'm thinking of was not doctrine or dogma. It was their exploration of their own experience. They were searching through their lived experience of their spiritual traditions for an understanding of what was sacred in their lives. I found that dedication refreshing and exciting. They understood that there were no easy answers in life.
Acknowledging that truth, in both science and religion, could be one way to raise the discussion to a plane where we might all learn something.
You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.