There is a popular idea that science and spirituality are two equally valid, but independently-operating, domains of knowledge.
Spirituality deals with the questions that science cannot begin to answer and vice versa.
Does our universe have a spiritual dimension? If it does, science has not been able to measure it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there; it just means we don’t have objective evidence for it at this point. Surely, there are a great many realities yet undiscovered by science.
Spirituality seeks to answer unsolvable mysteries. It deals with our personal relationship with existence. It also addresses certain philosophical and moral questions where science doesn’t have much input.
There are also questions science can answer that spirituality cannot. All the prayer in the world isn’t going to give you an understanding of electricity, thermodynamics, or optics. It’s only because these scientific principles were discovered that you have the technology in your hands to read this article right now.
It might seem reasonable to expect, then, that these are two sides of the same coin; the natural and the supernatural work together to create the sum of the reality we live in. Both are important, and neither one can take priority over the other. A progressive religious person might be likely to think this way.
However, this seems to be a false equivalence. Just because two modes of understanding operate independently doesn’t mean they are equally useful for determining what is objectively real.
Instead, science is an actively-growing method of collecting and refining knowledge about the universe around us, while spirituality is increasingly confined to the realm of storytelling and subjective experience.
Up until the last few thousand years, almost all of our questions had supernatural answers. What makes thunderstorms happen? How are babies formed? Why does fermentation preserve food? We didn’t have the necessary tools to study these things, and they certainly seemed miraculous from our vantage point at the time, so we made up stories about deities and spirits as our best attempt at an explanation.
The more we’ve come to understand about how the world works, through biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and the like, the less we’ve needed to turn to supernatural explanations. Indeed, spiritual explanations have turned out to be far less reliable and useful than the scientific explanations that replaced them. This has been a unidirectional process.
These days, almost nobody believes there is a god throwing a tantrum above every thunderstorm. We have airplanes now. We’ve been to the tops of thunderclouds. No deities have ever been spotted there. Instead, we have the theory of electromagnetism which explains lightning (and a whole lot of other phenomena) very well. We’ve been able to extrapolate upon theories like this to produce results that demonstrably work in the real world.
And so the realm of spirituality shrinks.
Even if science continues to dramatically outperform spirituality in explaining and predicting reality, it may never be possible to fully disprove the idea of a spiritual realm.
The idea of spirit is so indefinite that no matter how far we explore with science, it can always wiggle down into deeper crevices. You can’t grab hold of it for long enough to say whether it’s there or not.
And you know what? I think that’s OK. There’s no need to eradicate the idea of spirit. A lot of people seem to need it in one way or another.
Spirituality is the invisible and untouchable; the magical essence, the transcendent feeling. We learn about spirit with our intuition, from the miraculous moments we can’t seem to explain any other way, and from the stories passed on by those who reported such experiences in the past.
As a metaphor for reality, and as a tool for learning and understanding one’s self, there are beneficial ways spiritual beliefs can be used. Sometimes, they can co-operate with a rational scientific worldview.
Spirituality is also the building block of world religions. It is what all supernatural belief systems have in common. And this is where it can become dangerous.
When spiritual building blocks are arranged in a particular way, and enough people arrange their blocks according to the same design, a pattern takes hold and is passed down to future generations. This is a religion: the development of specific beliefs about the personalities and the mechanics of various deities, special rules and traditions to follow, and other dogmas one must accept in order to be a follower of a religion.
While it may be impossible to disprove the abstract concept of spirituality, religions are much easier to examine objectively because of the rigidity of their structures — especially fundamentalist varieties that claim exclusive access to The Truth. Religions have roots in human history and are often traceable to known individuals. They contain specific stories about how the earth was created and how humans came to be. They make claims as to the nature of god(s) and how they interact with humans in the world today.
This allows us to draw up testable hypotheses that can be proved or disproved. If a religion’s claims are 100% true, we will see that they always play out as expected. On the other hand, if we analyze the world around us and find that the claims do not bear out in reality, it becomes apparent that the claims are false.
One claim made by fundamentalist Christianity is that the Bible is the perfect word of God, which only contains literal truth.
We can test this hypothesis by looking at some of the Bible’s claims and seeing if they align with the real world.
A literal interpretation of the Bible tells us the world was created in six days, that it happened a few thousand years ago, and that humans were created separately from and above all the animals as the jewel of creation. It tells us God drowned almost everybody in a global flood. It tells us two million Hebrews once fled Egypt and lived in a desert for 40 years while eating bread that God miraculously sprinkled down on them from the sky. It tells us that Jesus walked on water, rose from the dead, and that God’s human sacrifice to himself made sense as an atonement for our sinful nature. It tells us that we should not worry about our well-being because God cares for the sparrows of the fields.
Cosmology clearly indicates that the universe is billions of years old, not thousands, and that our sun is one of 200 billion in our galaxy, among a hundred billion galaxies — which makes it highly doubtful that humans are the highlight of creation. Biology clearly indicates that all lifeforms evolved from unicellular organisms and that homo sapiens are not separate from the animal kingdom. Geology demonstrates that a global flood certainly didn’t happen a few thousand years ago. Nutrition and common sense tell us that two million people never survived in a desert for 40 years eating magic sky bread. Anatomy and physiology tell us humans can’t walk on water or survive death, and Jesus’s sacrifice makes no sense from a theological or historical perspective. Wildlife surveys demonstrate that God does not actually care about the sparrows of the field, and humanitarian organizations would laugh at the idea that God protects innocent children — as many thousands die every day.
Unless a person is determined to believe in the Bible as literal truth, and shapes their entire worldview around that idea, the Biblical-inerrancy hypothesis falls apart for most people after any cursory examination of objective facts.
Does any of this prove that God doesn’t exist? Not necessarily. Maybe Yahweh is still in space somewhere or in another dimension with his angels. Those kinds of ideas are impossible to solidly prove or disprove.
However, we can use these kinds of analyses to deconstruct the belief systems we’ve been subjected to, and to develop more nuanced perspectives about how the world works and what we are willing to accept as truth.
As humans, one thing we can (mostly) agree upon is that we all live on the same planet. This planet is a real object that has mass and orbits a star. It is one star of many, in one galaxy of many. We are here, on planet Earth, right now. That’s our shared reality.
Think about the way you navigate through your day. Assuming you’re not blind, you have vision thanks to the immense number of photons that constantly bounce off of objects and through the pupils of your eyes. Assuming you’re not deaf, what you hear is actually fast variations in air pressure that propagate through the atmosphere like waves. You taste and smell things because your body has receptors that can differentiate between chemical compounds. You sense the world around you, and the space inside your body, with the nervous system’s electrochemical chain reactions.
You drive on the correct side of the road, and you trust that others around you will do the same, because there are reliable sensory processes in place for determining which side of the center line you’re on.
All of the information that informs our daily reality is based on something in the physical world. If someone is in the street arguing with people that nobody else can see, we assume they have a mental illness. I would be very nervous to ride in a car with someone who closes their eyes and relies on spiritual intuition to guide them, unless maybe it’s literally Luke Skywalker.
In the same way that we rely on our observations of these physical stimuli to guide us in our daily lives, we can use them to inform our beliefs about religion and everything else.
There are many progressive Christians who hold on to the spiritual essence of Jesus and the Bible while also accepting the evidence that the Biblical creation story is mythology. It is possible to have a deep, meaningful personal faith while also recognizing that other religious paths are equally useful for the people who follow them, and that other people don’t feel a need for religion at all.
The magic of spirituality adds texture and meaning to the lives of many. When spirituality takes the form of fundamentalist religion, though, the tail often starts to wag the dog. Suddenly, because you have a certain strict belief that dominates your life, you might think that the reality of society ought to conform to your beliefs. You might think that because your holy book says that God knits you in the womb, abortions should be illegal for everyone; or because the Bible makes some comments about homosexuality, same-sex marriage should be outlawed. You might even think that innocent people in another country ought to be attacked because their worldview conflicts with yours.
We all live on one world, and our worldviews have a real effect on how we live our lives and how we treat each other. If a worldview based on a falsehood leads people to destructive behavior, everyone suffers. That is why it is important to have a shared grounding in objective reality.
Fundamentalist religions offer no hope for uniting the world (short of global domination). Scientists don’t all agree about everything, but at least they prioritize observable evidence and have a common sense of what kind of data is required in order to change their minds. If more people were willing to shape their worldviews around objective reality instead of the reverse, we’d have a much better chance of getting along peacefully.
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