Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter here.
Myths about the Hero Twins,
one of whom is shown holding a bow here,
are an important part of Navajo identity.
In certain circles, there is a violent allergic reaction whenever someone suggests that religion and science are compatible. A particular type of atheist is especially vulnerable to this immune disorder. For example, P.Z. Myers, the evolutionary biologist and pugnacious blogger, became famously symptomatic at a 2010 gathering of atheists. After one participant suggested that non-religious people could still be spiritual, Myers nearly retched:
Whenever we start talking about spirituality, I just want to puke.
I hope Myers didn’t have too much to eat before reading the headline from this week’s commentary in Nature: “Sometimes Science Must Give Way to Religion.” The column, by Arizona State University’s Daniel Sarewitz, suggests that rational explanation of the universe’s existence, as advanced recently by discovery of the Higgs boson, can’t match the feelings evoked by spectacular religious symbolism, such as that found in Cambodia’s ancient Hindu temples, which Sarewitz explored this summer. He writes:
The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.
Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.
But in the words of Time magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger, “our brains and bodies contain an awful lot of spiritual wiring.” Religion is the antidote our evolutionary history created. And even if you don’t buy that particular theory, you can’t simply dismiss the psychological and cultural importance of religion. For much of our history, religion has deeply influenced all aspects of life, from how we cope with death and random disaster to what moral codes we abide by. That science should (or could) eliminate all this with a rationalist cleansing of civilization, as a vocal group of orthodox atheists have suggested, is highly improbable.