Science, Religion and Truth
Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
February 25, 2018
Reaching out from our own existence,
we explore the universe –
seeking to understand our world.
Astounded by wonder,
our hearts thrill to the exploration
of a distant galaxy,
a chemical reaction,
or a single human cell.
May we never cease
to grow in knowledge,
and as we seek new truths,
may we also seek the wisdom
to use knowledge wisely,
in service to humanity
and to all of life.
As our understandings deepen,
may we be ever more open
to new truths
and new possibilities
for the good.
May the knowledge we gain
lead us to greater compassion,
and deeper connections
with the life of spirit.
When I was very young, I used to climb on Albert Einstein’s lap. I admit it sounds strange, given that Einstein died a full seventeen years before I was born, but it’s true, nonetheless. My father worked for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, and if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know that on the grounds of the beautiful three story headquarters on Constitution Avenue, just off the National Mall, there is a massive bronze statue of the scientist. It would be easy to be intimidated by such an object, but the sculptor did something rather brilliant. Instead of standing importantly in some sort of Eureka moment, Einstein sits on the granite that surrounds the statue, slouching a bit, a sheaf of papers in his hand, wearing a rumpled sweater, sandals, and pants that look like he might have slept in them.
At the age of 7 I didn’t really know very much about what Einstein had done, but he seemed kindly and gentle, and approachable in spite of being twenty feet tall and weighing four tons. I knew this was an important scientist, and science fascinated me, but I also picked up something else from playing on the lap of such a humble, yet monumental figure. You see, in Washington, DC, there are statues and memorials everywhere. The Washington Monument towers over the city at over 500 feet, Presidents and Generals ride horseback on daises or sit or stand in awesome dignity, surrounded by Greek columns. They all look momentous, captured in the very act of changing the world. The Einstein memorial isn’t like that at all. What you see is an ordinary person, brilliant, no doubt, but working hard, learning, studying, experimenting. You have the sense that whatever this man did took a very long time and is still not finished.
I think, in a way, this was my first introduction to science and religion. Here was a hero, elevated in the minds of many to almost demigod status, yet he was also a rumpled figure, sometimes right, but sometimes wrong, genius to be sure, but one among many engaged in a long and painstaking search for truth. In science, I learned, there is real, objective truth to be found, but that truth does not come fully formed. It is teased out through long years of dedicated effort.
Few things are more important in Unitarian Universalism than truth. We speak of it all the time; we covenant to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. At the same time, we are very pluralistic. We seek wisdom in other religious, even if we do not accept everything that they teach. We respect the differences. Here, among ourselves, we celebrate the fact that we don’t all think about God the same way, and we don’t all have the same ideas about what happens when we die, and we don’t all share the same spiritual practices. We honor many different insights, and come up with marvelous metaphors to help us understand the differences. There is one mountain, we might say, and many paths to the top. Forester Church talked of a Cathedral of the World, in which the light of truth shines upon each of us in a different way.
It would be easy, in such a milieu, to let go of anything that fetters our thinking or our beliefs in any way. In the words of a favorite hymn, we are the “faith of the free,” “old bondage notwithstanding.” That is an incredibly important part of our heritage; it keeps us vital, growing in spirit, deepening. It is part of what enables us to stay meaningful as years and centuries pass – we remain open to new revelations of the mind and spirit.
However, if that were all that defined our truth seeking, then some of the criticisms commonly lobbed at Unitarian Universalism might carry a little more weight. If our seeking were completely unfettered, truth would become whatever we decided truth should be. We would each believe what we want to believe. We could never say that one belief is more true than another.
I’ll admit that there is something a little appealing, maybe even seductive about an approach like that, but it’s better as a short-term thought experiment than a way to live our lives. Unfettered freedom is not, and never has been what Unitarian Universalism teaches. Yes, we seek truth freely, but we also seek truth responsibly. This is our covenant – to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
When we talk about the sources of our living tradition, we include not only “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder,” but also “the guidance of reason and the results of science.” That tells us something about how we search. It assures us that ultimate truth cannot be self-contained in some ancient text – our experiences and observations of the world we inhabit today are every bit as valid as those of the exemplars of our past. It teaches us that a responsible search for truth is one that engages our minds as well as our hearts, that embraces reason and takes science seriously.
I believe that a good part of our strength as a religious movement lies in that wonderful combination of open mindedness and the embrace of science. So many who come to our congregations do so because they are looking for a place to be in religious community where they don’t have to check their brains at the door, where they aren’t told that the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that Evolution is false, or that the latest national tragedy is God’s punishment to someone for something. Because we have always allowed the possibility that our beliefs may change as human knowledge grows, we have been able to remain vibrant and vital and contemporary. Seeking truth responsibly means keeping our minds open enough so that we can change them, even if we don’t want to, when the consensus of science becomes clear.
Having said that, I acknowledge that sometimes it can be a challenge figuring out exactly what the consensus of science is, if there even is one. We hear so many statements claiming to be scientifically based, seemingly pointed in all directions, seemingly conflicting, that it would be easy to conclude that science has never really determined anything, and any so called fact is open to interpretation.
Now here’s the thing about science and truth and the human mind. We use such a small part of our mental capacity – only around 10% – and it would be so much easier for us if we could evolve to the point where we used even 50% of our innate cerebral capacity. Instead, we are anchored, weighed down by our lizard brains – the primitive part of our minds, reacting to stimuli on a deep visceral, emotional level, and unable to process reason as we would like.
Here’s the thing about science and truth and the human mind – everything I said in the last three sentences was, as my wife the neuroscientist likes to say, total bunk. We do not have a “lizard brain;” there is no primitive part of our minds; all the structures in our brains evolved together and function together. We use 100% of our brains at different times. And science is not really open to interpretation, at least not in the way so many seem to assume.
But each of those “facts” I just told you is something I have heard time and time again held up as absolute truth, the basis for entire workshops, even whole theologies. They aren’t true. It’s not that these things mean something different to different people. They’re simply wrong. Part of the reality of science, as hard as it is for those of us who are pluralistically inclined to accept, is that some things are true and some things are false.
I asked some of my scientist friends to list some well known scientific “facts” that aren’t true. They came up with a doozy of a list –
- “Moss always grows on the North side of the tree.”
- “Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly.”
- “Earth’s gravity is greatest at its center.”
- “Rockets work because they push against the earth.
- “Genetically Modified Organisms cause cancer” – not true, although they are often developed to withstand more chemical herbicides which do cause cancer. Science is complicated, sometimes.
- “Different parts of our tongues taste different kinds of flavors.” (My son learned that last one in school a few years back but it turns out not to be true.)
And of course, the old Flanders and Swann favorite: They said, “Despite all you may have heard, the rain in Spain stays almost invariably in the hills.” I looked this one up; they’re right.
We may not understand everything completely, and there is almost always more that we can know about anything, but we do know some things, and if we respect reason and science and the direct experience of controlled experimentation, than we need to respect the knowledge that we have.
The problem is that this knowledge gets so badly muddled in the public conversation that it can be difficult to figure out who or what we can trust. There are public school boards throughout the country trying to ban the teaching of evolution, or at the very least insisting on “teaching both sides of the debate.” The problem with this is that there isn’t a scientific debate. Evolution just is. This happens over and over again, whether the topic is climate change or the safety of vaccines – scientific consensus may be clear, but because the issue has not been decided in the popular culture, media report both sides as if they had equal validity. And now pseudoscience is guiding national policy.
Part of the problem, I think, is that not many of us fully understand the scientific process. A single study makes huge headlines, but truth does come from a single study. Even the best conducted experiment could yield results that are simply wrong. Coincidences happen, and sometimes you get results that are just plain wacky. It’s not considered scientifically true until an experiment has been conducted multiple times in controlled settings with the results reproduced consistently.
Unfortunately, multiple studies all saying the same thing don’t grab headlines. “Startling new revelations” do, and once we become convinced of one of those revelations, we find it very hard to change our minds. Instead of looking at the evidence and using it to come to a conclusion, we start with the conclusion and look for evidence to support it. There’s no shame in that; everyone does it. Psychologists call it “confirmation bias;” and we see it almost every day.
Of course, some people take it to extremes. In December, the President of the United States, highlighting the extreme cold at the time, commented that “perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old global warming.” Do you remember a few years back, when a Senator threw a snowball on the Senate Floor, demonstrating, he said, that global warming couldn’t be real, because the East Coast of the United States was going through a long, cold and snowy Winter? It reminded me of an old Daily Show report, in which a correspondent called in to say that Global Warming couldn’t be true, because, he said, “I’m cold.” Another correspondent in Australia broke in to say that Global Warming must be true, because “I’m hot.” They began with a conclusion and accepted only the evidence that supported it.
This, by the way, is why “direct experience,” while useful, does have its limits. One of the reasons so many parents found it easy to believe that vaccines caused autism is that they noticed autistic characteristics emerging in their children at about the same age they began receiving vaccinations. Without any other explanation, it seemed a natural conclusion that one caused the other. The science didn’t support that, but it’s hard to change human minds, once we’ve decided something is true.
I have a relative who used to believe that at least some vaccines were harmful to children. It took having a child with a major birth defect, and immersing herself in the world of hospitals and pediatricians and medical science, for her to realize that the doctors and scientists really did know what they were talking about. There are many reasons I am proud of her, but one of the greatest is that when confronted with the evidence, she was able to realize that she had been wrong, change her mind, and own up to the mistake. That took courage and maturity.
This is what Unitarian Universalism teaches us to do, as hard as it can be. We take the guidance of reason and the results of science seriously enough to keep our minds open so that we can change them, when the evidence tells us we must. Yes, scientific knowledge will change and grow over the years, and we will change and grow with it. Revelation is not sealed, and here lies the beauty of science, religion and truth. When we pay attention to science, doing our best to understand its processes and methods, keeping our minds open to its truths, our lives really do become fuller and more rich and more beautiful. We live better, and often healthier. We act more responsibly in the world.
Science betters our lives even when we do not wish to hear what it has to teach us. Accepting the reality and severity of global climate change may be uncomfortable and inconvenient, but if we take that knowledge, and the responsibility it imparts to us to do whatever is in our power to make things better, then we find new purpose in life. We embark on a new spiritual path. We become connected with earth, the biosphere, all living beings. Our daily choices matter more. The life that calls us may be uncomfortable, but what a gift of spirit!
Simply knowing more about the cosmos opens our hearts to wonder and awe. Maria Mitchell, the 19th century Unitarian astronomer, reminded her students not to “look at the stars as bright spots only.” She said, “Try to take in the vastness of the universe.” I couldn’t agree more.
Understanding evolution and natural selection tells us something about the unfolding process of life. I have known theologians who called evolution God. We may or may not agree, but just ask yourself, in your own search for meaning – how can the truth of science inform what you believe is most holy?
I wonder what would happen if we stopped looking at science and religion as opposites and started asking how one could deepen the other. If the quest for knowledge is a search for truth, isn’t scientific exploration, by the very definition of Unitarian Universalism, a religious act? Likewise, how could anyone delve into the wonders of science without a sense of awe? How can we help but grow in spirit as we grow in knowledge?
I think back to those childhood Summer afternoons at the National Academy of Sciences, climbing Einstein’s lap. Engraved in stone on the steps next to him are his words: “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.” And next to these words, his words of simple affirmation: “Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion.”
There are worlds of discovery still to be uncovered. There is a universe of truth awaiting our exploration. What could be more exciting?
Ours is a hunger of the mind,
asking knowledge of all around us,
and the more we gain,
the more is our desire;
the more we see,
the more we are capable of seeing.
– Maria Mitchell, adapted
©2018 by Dan Schatz