Alan Lightman is an excellent writer — I’ve enjoyed his fiction, like Einstein’s Dreams and his nonfiction, like Great Ideas in Physics. I’m afraid my interest has waned a bit with his recent offerings, though, because although beautifully written, they’ve become increasingly soft-focused and fuzzy and gentle, too absorbed in trying to be very delicately lyrical and thereby losing a lot of their edge. Lightman is openly atheist himself, but he’s wafting wispily into faitheism. If you haven’t read him, here’s a short sample: he has a new piece in Salon titled Does God exist?, and it’s a fine example of the faitheist oeuvre, simultaneously insisting that science and religion need to be reconciled and rebuking that philistine, Dawkins.
I knew I was in trouble straight from the opening, in which Lightman talks about the salon of scientists and artists he participates in at MIT, in which they “drink merlot and munch on goat cheese and crackers” and chat conversationally about intellectual subjects. I’ve been there (well, not at MIT)—these sorts of academic soirees are common fare at universities all around the world, including even us bumpkins in flyover country. They’re pleasant and interesting, but let’s face it: they are rather rarefied events held in sheltered environments, and they aren’t even close to sharing much in common with thought outside the ivory tower. Especially when the subject is religion. And according to Lightman, his group talks about religion all the time.
Well, sort of. They talk about the etiolated religion of humanist academics, where people will say they’re religious, and even profess to be members of very specific sects with creeds and miracles and magic men, but they are very cautious to divorce their science from their mythology.
Devoutly religious scientists, such as Collins, Hutchinson and Gingerich, reconcile their belief in science with their belief in an interventionist God by adopting a worldview in which the autonomous laws of physics, biology and chemistry govern the behavior of the physical universe most of the time and therefore warrant our serious study. However, on occasion, God intervenes and acts outside of these laws. The exceptional divine actions cannot be analyzed by the methods of science.
This is not a strong foundation on which to build an argument that science and religion are reconcilable. Actually, it seems to support the opposite: I’d use that very same description to argue that those religious beliefs are explicitly unscientific. They are admitting that their magic miracles are inaccessible to science, that they cannot confirm them with science, and that therefore they are not acting as scientists when they claim belief in them. Case closed, we’re done.
But that will not stop Lightman, who insists on waffling softly on, and we get to see quotes from believing scientists trying to justify their delusions. For instance, Elaine Howard Ecklund, the sociologist who over-interprets data to make it conform to her religious beliefs, says this:
I’ve not had a problem reconciling science and faith since I became a believer at age 27 … if you limit yourself to the kinds of questions that science can ask, you’re leaving out some other things that I think are also pretty important, like why are we here and what’s the meaning of life and is there a God? Those are not scientific questions.
Those are scientific questions! If you’re going to postulate an interventionist creator god, then that generates hypotheses that you can evaluate — it’s only unscientific if you’re claiming that this god is invisible, undetectable, and has never ever left a single trace of his activity — which makes it a singularly useless and irrelevant entity. I also think that if you have a mechanistic explanation for the origin of humans (and we do) or of life itself (which is more tentative, but still…) then the “why” question is pretty damned silly — it’s only relevant if you accept the premise of intent, which is begging the whole question.
And then Owen Gingerich weighs in:
I believe that our physical universe is somehow wrapped within a broader and deeper spiritual universe, in which miracles can occur. We would not be able to plan ahead or make decisions without a world that is largely law-like. The scientific picture of the world is an important one. But it does not apply to all events. Even in science we take a lot for granted. It’s a matter of what you want to trust. Faith is about hope rather than proof.
And that’s all bullshit.
He “believes” in a “spiritual” universe wrapped around ours? How? Why? How does he know this? Calling it “hope” as in, “I sure do hope I get a pony!” is a cop-out.
So this is the best Lightman can do: noise and fluff and unevidenced assertions and wishful thinking. He’s simply endorsing a vacuous version of religion that is practiced by a few intellectuals, and ignoring religion as it is actually practiced.
Now here I could easily trot out a thousand examples of atrocities and horrors committed in the name of god, all guaranteed to make the participants in his little salon back away and shake their heads and insist that no, no, that’s not their religion…which is my point entirely. Religion is a fantasy, but their version is a spun-sugar fantasy of a fantasy, even more distantly removed from reality.
So let me show you a subtler example. This is something my wife and I spotted on the drive home today: it’s a grove of crosses erected on a low hill near Sauk Center, titled “Cemetery of the Holy Innocents”, where “each cross represents 40 babies whose lives are ended by abortion each day in the US”. It’s a religious hallucination, that somehow fetuses are equivalent to babies (like the ones pictured on the billboard), and that ending abortion will motivate a god to bless our country.
This is bad reasoning. It doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against abortion, this is religion poisoning people’s minds and driving them to stupidity and extremism: this is the thinking that leads people to scream and wave posters of bloody fetuses at women trying to get into women’s health clinics, that leads them to murder abortion doctors, that impels them to vote against their own economic interests in the name of “saving babies”.
This is religion as it is practiced in the real world, outside of the merlot-sipping world of academe. The New Atheism is not a reaction against that attenuated faith of the professor who goes to church on Sundays (although we do think that is goofy and nonsensical), but against the religion that gets women mistreated and gays strung up on barbed wire and schools filled with creationist lies and pushes incompetents like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann and George W. Bush to the pinnacle of the electoral struggle every four years. It’s the religion that says we need to defend a myth of a sacred holy kingdom of Israel rather than a secular nation of human beings; that worships an apocalyptic end to all things; that fills children with a fear of hell. It’s religion, the goddamned LIE, not religion the frilly poem some intellectual likes to ponder over brie and crackers.
But Lightman ignores the real conflict to complain about those New Atheists.
In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith, and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it, have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind. Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking? Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.
And what about truth? Did Allah build the Alhambra, did Jesus paint the Sistine Chapel? Does Richard Dawkins, or any atheist, deny the existence of poetry or music or paintings or sculpture or dance? Faith, as portrayed here, is the lie that says human accomplishment, our love of beauty, the awesomeness of the universe, are somehow to be credited to phantasms and illusions — that they can’t be appreciated as the work of people or our understanding of reality, but that their profundity is to be found in our ignorance.
I so despise that attitude. It enables a greedy, rapacious religiosity that devours everything the human mind produces and claims religion as the source; it takes the hand and eye of Michaelangelo, the skill of his art and the labor of hard-earned practice, and grants all its profit to god…a god who was not there, did nothing, deserves nothing, and does not even bother to exist to enjoy the art.
Lightman the atheist even surrenders his personal experience to the defense of religion — he enrolls his world to serve in the legions of the church.
Then, one August afternoon, the two baby ospreys of that season took flight for the first time as I stood on the circular deck of my house watching the nest. All summer long, they had watched me on that deck as I watched them. To them, it must have looked like I was in my nest just as they were in theirs. On this particular afternoon, their maiden flight, they did a loop of my house and then headed straight at me with tremendous speed. My immediate impulse was to run for cover, since they could have ripped me apart with their powerful talons. But something held me to my ground. When they were within 20 feet of me, they suddenly veered upward and away. But before that dazzling and frightening vertical climb, for about half a second we made eye contact. Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant. It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land. After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears. To this day, I cannot explain what happened in that half-second. But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.
How nice. How poetic.
But notice: every event was natural. The ospreys, the flight, the look — the perceptions were a product of his mind. The wonder he felt was real, as was the flight of the ospreys, and he felt a moment of real awe…and nowhere was a god made manifest, no miracle was invoked, no magic required. Why make it numinous and spiritual when reality provided all the power? Why throw the beauty of this moment into god’s imaginary corner when it belongs to physics and chemistry and biology and psychology?
Why betray the truth with delusions?
I don’t think Dawkins has too narrow a view of religion at all, but Lightman has too wide a view: he glibly sacrifices reality, even a lovely reality, on the altar of faith. I would not surrender one glorious moment of life to the pretense of religion, and I honestly do not understand why any scientist would.