Jim Price on scientism, fundamentalism, and alchemy

In response to my post titled When Science and Religious Beliefs Conflict, my friend Jim Price proposed a way of reconciling opposites.

Fundamentalisms and alchemy

Jim Price

I feel I have something important to say about scientism. Of course, scientific authority needs to be questioned. Religious authority needs to be questioned. De-mythologize, label the imprints of the human condition, and then elevate the conversation.

I agree there is a thing we might label as scientism. There is bias in every human endeavor. But if it is really true that 40% of Americans believe that the earth is only 6,000 years old (and I find that hard to believe), then this nation is in a bit of trouble. An unsophisticated public is easily manipulated by various authorities. Blind faith leads to Fundamentalisms.

Fundamentalisms are probably the biggest problem in the world today, be they religious, scientific, left, right, or center. Pointing fingers may be traditional. But what is needed is some good old-fashioned alchemy. This science/religion split is another opportunity to distill from the tension of opposites.

Here’s a good example.  The Dalai Lama is keenly interested in science. Without intending it, he nearly made a convert out of stout atheist Carl Sagan. Friends of Sagan recount how deeply moved Sagan was by His Holiness. Because of the Dalai Lama’s openness, a wave of scientists have opened up to the possibility of Mind (not just brain).

Once, the Dalai Lama told Sagan, “If science proves something wrong, then we should change our belief.” Sagan replied, “What if science proved reincarnation was false?” The Dalai Lama said, “Then we should give up the belief.” Then he compassionately added with a smile, “But I think that would be a very difficult thing for science to prove.” Sagan laughed. He had to agree. Sagan ended up speaking and writing with great respect for Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and Hindu cosmology (It surprised me to later learn he was atheist).

Our faith, our practice, our experience of the Divine, should hold a deeper resonance than dogmas stating the age of the Earth. This is a case when we should yield to scientific evidence. The whole of our belief need not falter just because the sun does not revolve around the earth. Spirituality is based on the experience of deeper truths, and when we feel secure about that, a few scientists talking about the almighty gene is not threatening.

Yes, it’s true, when I was listening to Richard Dawkins (evolutionary scientist and evangelical atheist) speaking on the radio, I wanted to give him a metaphoric dope slap. I’m not as deeply compassionate as the Dalai Lama. But I think it should be obvious: scientist-atheist is an oxymoron.  I should be able to convert any scientist who claims to be an atheist. There are two caveats.

The first is that I’m not saying what I would convert them to. At least, if they are good scientists, to their becoming agnostic.But the second caveat is that I would not try to convert them if I felt their atheism was propping them up in opposition to the authority of the god of their parents. It’s a shame that people are so black and white in their thinking and beliefs: God the father or nothing at all. Strict scientific evolution or creationism. We need to elevate the conversation!

It seems obvious to me that you can’t create a physical universe without both physical mechanisms and a Prime Mover to set things in motion and animate/energize the material with Spirit; the Divine Presence! I know how essential Divine Presence is from experience. We should be learning what we can about both aspects of Creation, science and Spirit.

In fifth grade I had a science teacher who taught that evolution and religion can co-exist quite comfortably. Evolution/natural selection and God. Science and religion. To me this seems only natural. But when the situation becomes polarized, it takes alchemy to blend opposites.

The alchemist’s first step is to gather and understand the elements s/he plans to blend, in this case, science and religion.  It’s not necessary to become expert.  A willingness to explore with an open mind is the only prerequisite.  In the case of science, it means to develop some sophistication as to the bias of science, as well as to the wonders.  Science is filled with bias and political agendas.  Follow the money and you’ll discover some of the bias, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  There is much wonder in exploring the physical aspects of the Creation.

The best scientists are seekers of Mystery. Combining the element of religion requires one to understand the buoyant aspect of faith, and the value and knowledge spiritual practice brings to the practitioner.  What is less obvious is how that view can bring light to every human endeavor, including science.

But one dark side of religion appears when it becomes stuck in yesterday’s science.  Take a lesson from Aristotle, who believed it was far better to reason out reality than to make observation (Aristotle did not believe in what we today call science).  Because he wanted the cosmos to be “perfect,” like God, he believed that meteors and comets originated within the Earth’s atmosphere.  The heavens needed to be unmoving. It’s easy to look a little silly in retrospect when one’s faith depends on external rather than internal events.  Joseph Campbell wrote an entire book (Myths to Live By) explaining the need for religions to keep their mythology updated with the science of the day in order to maintain vitality.

The results of a blended science with religion can be seen in some of our greatest scientists, such as Newton and Einstein. (Truth be known, Newton was more a spiritualist than scientist.) Good science can benefit religion by helping to maintain circumstances that are stable and sustaining enough to allow the free practice of religion (through public health, environmental knowledge, and applied problem solving). Spirituality should infuse practitioners, both in and out of science, with a compassionate application of their works.

Perhaps the best reason to practice the blending of opposites is personal integration.  Change always starts at home. When enough people practice the blending of opposites, what emerges will no longer be in conflict.

One thought on “Jim Price on scientism, fundamentalism, and alchemy

  1. Contrary to the commonly held misunderstanding, atheism can be compatible with spirituality. Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, are compatible with atheism.

    It seems to me that common to all these isms, and I’d include spiritism here, is that they’re all conceptualisms. All conceptualisms place their faith in ideas, beliefs, or knowledge. And that is the root of the problem. The mind is a funhouse filled with mirrors, and we easily get lost there. What I feel is true spirituality is the practice of compassionate presence, which is compatible with any belief system, including atheism/materialism.


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