Gimme Back My Words! Science, Religion and Vocabulary I

By Adam Frank | February 17, 2008 11:47 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

You can’t own words, and you can’t specify the changing patterns of their meaning. They are living things, organic and evolutionary. No place is this more eloquently illustrated then in the debate between science and religion.

In one of my earlier posts, there was a flurry of comments about my use of the word “sacred.” Lots of scientifically-minded folks took issue with the word because, for them, it conjures up the dangers of supernaturalism and the enemies of science and their religious intolerance. Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking about my book at the Harvard Book Store and this subject—the use of words like “sacred” and “spiritual”—came up in more than one question. Clearly, it is a central issue.

I thought a lot about terminology when I was writing my book. I was looking for words that had a history and a resonance lifting them above the particulars of any particular tradition, which spoke to the experience and aspiration that underlie both science and what I call “spiritual endeavor” (a term that will require a separate post I am sure). After considerable reading in the cannon of Religious Studies, “the sacred” was were I landed.

The wonderful thing about the word “sacred” is that it is not really tied to any of the world’s current traditions. It’s got old, old origins in the great society of ancient Rome. According to the Encyclopedia of Religions, the Latin origins of “sacred” relate to “sacrum”—”what belonged to the gods or what was in their power.” Its early usage related to Roman temples and their rites. In that context, the words sacrum and profanum have been frequently paired together.

The profanum was the space in front of the temple. It was the “outside” where you could sell your T-shirts and sunglasses and hot dogs. The sacrum was the inside, and it was a very different kind of place: “A spot referred to as sacer, was either walled off or otherwise set apart.” That definition makes for a compelling resonance.

The Sacred relates back to a specific location, a space and a time, set apart from the ordinary day-to-day happenings of life. The commerce, contest, and competition of the ordinary world occur outside in the profane. Inside, within the sacer, humans entered a realm of a different order. For the Romans, it was a realm of their divinities. For us it can be an experience that calls us out to see the world on its own terms. It is the moment when experience becomes luminous, lit up on its own.

“Humans entering a realm of a different order…”—I know that one quite well, and I am sure many of you do too. I’ve felt it when I walked through the entry way of a Neolithic monument in Ireland that was aligned with the winter solstice, I’ve felt it when I walked into the Cathedral of St. John on 113th street in New York, and I’ve felt it as the giant Radio Telescopes came into view during a drive across the desert.

“A space and a time of a different order”—in the discussion of where science and religion draw into a parallel, where they take us, and how they function on culture, that is what we should be talking about.

To be continued…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Comments (31)

  1. Charles Schmidt

    You or I can use words like Sacred that mean to us one thing be it a feeling or anything else but when read or heard by others they can and often will give it their own meaning or understanding. When you say “I’ve felt it as the giant Radio Telescopes came into view” or I could say that when I embrace my wife I feel that way and neither may have religious meaning but a feeling that is had. Others will read in to that what they want no matter what you or I say we meant even if we present our meaning of the word or statement the meaning they understand or want is the one that will be used. Thank you for your thought provoking posts.

  2. Hi Adam–

    I agree with Charles. It’s nice when a word has some interesting historical resonance, but if the cost of using that word is that people misunderstand what you are saying, I would vote to use a different vocabulary. The first definitions that come up for “sacred” are:

    1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated.
    2. entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
    3. pertaining to or connected with religion

    Are those the meanings you want to convey when using this word? “Spiritual” is even worse, of course.

  3. jdporter

    the “cannon” of Religious Studies? Funny.

  4. jdporter

    I find myself on Adam’s side on this question, though the connection of “sacred” with experience (as in his cited earlier post) isn’t what I think of. To me, “sacred” refers to any thing which is super-significant and inviolable. Things can certainly be sacred in the secular realm – the mother/child bond, say, or the US Constitution. Obviously, to many people, things in the religious realm are sacred, e.g. the Scriptures. In this sense, “sacred” is like “gospel”, whose meaning has been extended from a purely religious origin, presumably through metaphor.
    It’s worth looking at the etymology of “holy”, a word from Germanic roots which is now practically synonymous with “sacred”.

  5. Adam’s position on this comes very close to a classic Jewish idea about the word “sacred”, and also its synonym, as far as Hebrew usage is concerned, “holy”. The root in Hebrew connotes “distinction” and is therefore something that people do, not a divine presence. Unlike Christian ideas creating a value judged duality about sacredness – and of course its cursed opposite, in Judaism, the spectrum runs from sacred to normal, and indicates a cycle through which we go, as people, and in time.

    In order to find sacredness, we create it by setting it apart – as in creating a sacred day, the Sabbath, which is distinguished from the normal 6 days of the rest of the week. The same root is used in talking about marriage, which is a formal way of setting two people apart for each other.

  6. I am grateful to the friend who turned me onto this discussion, the science/religion debate has been of interest to me since age 14 when I was first confronted with it. Thank you for the posts, great fun.
    To me it seems science and religion are one, recognizing my extensive limits in understanding either. I think that science is outer surface reality, religion is inner space reality. (Any effort to organize “religion” seems political to me.) I think we all experience both and live generally where they meet. We should be able to explore each freely but I like the concept of sacred applied broadly to all species of life and mineral and treated with appropriate respect. It also requires a certain respect for other’s experience/beliefs. I accept that people want to call the universe, the seen and unseen of all that is, God, Allah, Jehovah or any number of names, even while knowing they may have a limited conception of the universe or “the great mystery” or of simply what we don’t know and can’t yet see, the vastness of the cosmos within and without, whatever one prefers. Thus I’ve been accused of believing in the “supernatural” (go figure) but I think of it more as the nature we don’t see or know yet. I have often tried to demystify “spirit” by going with what Native American John Trudell said his people believed, “whatever has being has spirit.” Not sure where that puts me as far as a category, sullen, silly or snarky, …? any help?

  7. Mike Gottschalk

    Adam, you keep topping yourself. Lovely.

    I would say that the respective users of the words, ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ can exhibit an equal dullness.

    The ‘supernaturalists’ are blind to the deep elegance of the life before our eyes; they negate such insurmountable beauty and elegance as they long for a higher order that exists in another time and another place. I watch this group traffic in magic.

    Naturalists are blind to the non-rational, preferring the term, irrational instead. A non-natural schema that we call Rationalism is imbued into nature by prejudice and injudicious application. How can one say that nature is rational when it can’t reason and there is no reason for it to exist. I watch this group traffic in mechanics.

    In reality, there isn’t any reason for anything to exist- not even god. How is existence in any way, more natural than non-existence? Labels of natural and supernatural are too quaint for the reality before us, and they act more as blinders like the ones used in keeping horses calm. We need a word like mystery.

    The world conceived by Ptolemy, Plato and Aristotle no longer exists; the cosmos is not comprised of three levels, the top of which holds perfection. The cosmos that we know today consists in the infinite and infinitesemal, dimensions and fields, information and cognition. I agree that the god conceived in the time of Ptolomy’s cosmos- as a being outside of being- doesn’t exist and never has.

    But is this to conclude that human being stands as the ultimate form of intelligence and consciousness?

    What’s interesting to me in this context, is that in this life from which we emerge, we have evolved to a point where we not only do we have an ability to measure nature, we also have an ability to commune in nature with a sophisticated level of intimacy. Adam, I think your writing communicates such intimacy and I would add to the words to be reconsidered, the word eros and its derivative, erotic.

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    An addendum to my above comment.

    I’m speaking to a larger context than Adam’s essay and his intrepid use of ‘sacred’ to depict his experience. To choose a word like sacred for the job, entails more than strolling along on a sunny day; in a science culture, such a word choice entails bracing into a stout head wind. I’m curious though, which does the science culture push against more, his experience or his word choice? Adam’s experience seems to be larger than a passion for his work.

    In my above comment, I wanted to broaden the context for our thinking and dialogue and demonstrate that words we commonly coin ourselves with could also use a re-minting. Sorry if it sounds a little protestant. I tried to give equal billing.

  9. Sean stops with the first 3 definitions of sacred, the 4th is “Entitled to reverence or respect; not to be profaned; inviolable.” I prefer that one. Spiritual he says is “worse.”

    I’m not sure why the big issue with these words. Spirit simply refers to the incorporeal or immaterial. Since science cannot really explain life or the existence of the universe I have no problem accepting that which animates it all as spirit, that mystery beyond our current understanding. What is all that space between the atoms? Is it material? When a person dies and is no longer animated then it is said the spirit is gone, sure its not rocket science but I don’t see the problem with it. I would not go to war about these terms and I don’t see why anyone who claims to be a scientist would either. What is the agnostic and atheist terms for the immaterial? ‘Here lies Joe, the immaterial has left his body.’ I think Adam is expressing that there is more to reality than meets the eye and that there is value in the inner experience as well as what can be proved externally.

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