30 Days, Day 6: Beliefs — Reason, Science, and Spirituality

There are a large body of people out there who seem to think of Religion™ and Science™ at eternal odds with each other. Some of them seem to believe equivalents of that in 2012 all of Science™ will fade and will be replaced by magic, other seem to think that everything in spirituality can be explained through scientific means and thus loses its meaning. There are gradations between these, but functionally there is a view that these two are at odds, and that you either fall into one camp or the other.

There are multiple problems with these perspectives for both groups, and basically that problem tends to boil down to a lack of understanding of what the other is trying to do or what it is, possibly along with a rejection that such could possibly be important.


First, for the anti-science group, I’ve noticed that they tend to approach science not understanding what it is or what it attempts to do. Science is about understanding the natural world and has given us a lot of useful tools and–let’s be frank–downright cool stuff. The more and deeper we understand it, the more we realize how little we actually understand.

To quote Lupa’s article on Science and Spirituality, which really captures the heart of the problem:

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what pure magic is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through boring science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

This is just it: Science is perceived as being several things:

  • Unified and Static
  • Dismissive
  • Boring

None of these three things is ultimately true, but it is easy to see how people come to these conclusions, especially when they see such spokespeople for Science™ as Richard Dawkins or the debunking organization that originally started as CSICOP. They think of it as something that they studied in school in a designated classroom, taught in the driest and most boring way: the rote memorization of facts.

Science is about the process by which the world around us works. Science is filled with new ideas and discoveries, and saying that something may ultimately be explainable through science does not lessen or demean it in any way.

The Dismissive piece has less to do with science as a whole and more to do with individual scientists or–even more often–those self-appointed internet crusaders who firmly belong in the next section. Even scientists are not, to quote Marcello Truzzi, the paragons of rationality, objectivity, openmindedness and humility that many of them might like others to believe, let alone the media or the other groups that will carelessly cite science for conclusions that are wholly unsupported or in areas where science in its current form can claim no domain.


The second group denies not just the potential reality of the spiritual world, but goes on to deny its importance. There are two basic problems with this approach.

The first is that it may flat-out be wrong. What if, as Edith Turner wrote in her article The Reality of Spirits:

Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.

What if it is there and just has not been discovered yet? What if scientists’ own arrogance has prevented them from seeing what is in front of their faces, or if when dealing with intelligent entities we currently lack good tests to fully comprehend what we are dealing with (people who study animal intelligence frequently seem to find themselves in agreement with this point, if the accounts of Jane Goodall and Irene Pepperberg are any indication).

By dismissing without evidence, the attitude is functionally unscientific, so here again the problem is not going to be with science but with its individual defenders and practitioners.

The second problem is that even if it isn’t real it may still be good for something. When I journey I interact with other spirits and realms, but if these realms can be proven to not be objectively real it won’t bother me in the slightest, since what I bring back tends to be so useful to me.

Spirituality and Religion tend to address separate questions than science can. Questions of the soul and what am I doing with my life are not questions where science can give us satisfying–or even interesting–answers without leaning heavily on a philosophy not derived from science. Functionally, many of the really important questions, such as questions of morality, gods, or the existence of things that–by definition–would not leave much of a mark in the physical realm. To quote Stephen J. Gould describing his position of Nonoverlapping Magisteria:

[F]or whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.

Just because an individual does not see the value in it, does not mean that it is not valuable to someone else for entirely legitimate reasons. What’s more, it is perfectly acceptable for two people with widely different experiences to believe widely different things based on those experiences.


Essentially: there are areas where both science and spirituality shouldn’t be lecturing the other.

The problem with this sort of divide is that it forces people to take sides and recognize that both sides might have something valuable to contribute. That they operate in largely different domains, and that where they overlap we tend to get good results by having them work together.

The real question that I ask–borrowed from a friend of mine–is do the beliefs help or hinder functioning. Not, are they demonstrably true, but strictly as a matter of how one functions relative to a baseline.

To quote Lupa again:

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

The only thing that I would add to that is that spirituality enhances my understanding of the scientific world as well. Not directly by telling me what to believe, but by inspiring me to search, to understand, and to learn.

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