Reprise: Experience and Awe in the Science v. Religion Debate

By Adam Frank | March 12, 2008 11:17 am

Adam FrankBefore touching on any new subjects in this ongoing discussion about transcending the traditional science v. religion debate, I thought it would be good to reprise some themes and keep the narrative quasi-linear. A month or so ago, I tried to lay the groundwork for getting past the usual categories in the way we publicly discuss science and religion (what I called the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky). The usual debates about creationism/evolution or quantum mechanics/New Age philosophy miss the point: Which direction do we turn now?

A number of alternatives are beginning to emerge as researchers struggle to find some balance. There is, for example, the religious naturalism of Ursula Goodenough and others in which the narratives of science, free of supernatural agents, are seen as an appropriate source of “religious feeling.” There is the reinvention of the sacred of Stuart Kauffman, in which nature’s fundamental non-reductionism allows for a creative universe. Other researchers are exploring other avenues.

Some of these I agree with, and some I do not. But taken as a whole, you can see creative people are thinking creatively and it’s leading in new directions. These perspectives may not all stay with us, but nonetheless their explication is a good thing.

My own direction has been to look to aspiration. Aspiration is what I call the Constant Fire. The aspiration to know what is true and what is real is, I believe, an ancient imperative in us. We stumbled into self-consciousness a hundred thousand or so years ago and slowly awakened to our interior responses to the external world. When an experience of the world took us beyond concerns about mere survival, when an experience made the world’s elemental presence, its Being, stand out on its own, then we encountered life’s “sacred” character. These experiences were hierophanies: gateways to that sense of the world’s innermost luminous nature. The aspiration to draw closer to the barely expressible content of those experiences is the source of the strenuous effort that can manifest as a scientific investigation, the creation of art, poetry, music, or perhaps an engagement in some form of “spiritual life.”

The aspiration, born of experience, to know and draw closer to the immediate and intimate cosmos is the root of it all. Make no mistake: Science and spiritual endeavor are not the same. They function differently, ask very different questions, and demand different kinds of attention. But in a common aspiration we can find them drawing into an active, parallel complementarity. That, I believe, is a different and better way of thinking about science and religion than endlessly throwing mud pies over evolution, creationism, and some group’s definition of deity.

Adam 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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (30)

Links to this Post

  1. piano for sale | December 16, 2009
  1. PeterS

    Adam you say “The aspiration to know what is true and what is real is, I believe, an ancient imperative in us”.
    That is for me a wholly new insight. I have always believed that curiosity was our innate driving force. That curiosity was what we evolved out of our forebear’s constant search for sustenance. Now you define Aspiration as something including but much larger than curiosity. And if I understand you right it is our ability to sense the numinous and perceive the hierophanies that breathes light into our curiosity, making it something much larger and that you define as Aspiration.

  2. Stephen R. Friberg

    Hi Adam. I’m a believer (Baha’i Faith) and a physicist (U of R, Quantum Optics) and agree with you. But, can I talk about language and cooperation?

    What you are saying is that science and religion share a common concern with “aspiration”. Isn’t that aspiration the same as what we call “spiritual aspiration?” And isn’t it true that all people have it, not just scientists and believers? And if that is true – most likely all people are configured the same in this regard – doesn’t it follow that the need for religion or transcendence or knowing what makes the universe tick are all variations on the same human characteristic?

    The question then is what suppresses or encourages this innate capacity. Science, astronomy included, certainly can do so. Science, however, is a typically a priestly activity confined to a funded few. Only religion, historically and now as well, has the reach, the broad appeal, the depth and breadth, and the capacity to reach everyone in this regard.

    Yes, religion often neglects its duty in that it provides narrowly dogmatic sets of beliefs that veil our aspirations. But, so does science. The horrors of social Darwinism, eugenics, and modern racial theories come readily to mind.

    So, my question is the following? Don’t science and religion need each other for clearing away what ever is blocking these aspirations?

    Your sincerely,
    Steve F.

  3. Patrick

    Simple questions:

    Can God exist without religion?

    Can religion exist without God?

    Why do we feel the need to connect the two?

    It’s as if God told us to follow man’s word blindly and deemed it sacred.

    Does anyone of that persuasion ask, “why is it necessary?”, given the complexities of heredity and instinct. It seems a written book of morals is unnecessary, when we could reasonably be encoded with morals.

    Skepticism and faith cannot coexist, which is precisely why science is rejected by creationists.

    It seems, given our present knowledge of physics, our creator could be very distant yet very close simultaneously, being nowhere to be seen, yet evidenced everywhere.

    Religious sheeple find it necessary to have a personal relationship with God, which seems pretty arrogant. The entire premise of religion now is self-fulfillment and contentment.

    Maybe, if more of the strong-minded Christians would advocate a philosophy of understanding and action, instead of guilt and undying patience, then the world could prosper inspite of “Satan.”

    But no, they are taught to tolerate the corruption because TWJWD. Maybe that can be the new marketable religious acronym.

    Believing the bible literally is akin to accepting the fantastic things Tolkein wrote to be fact, only Tolkein stood on seemingly a much broader knowledge base when he authored his classic works of fantasy than the authors of the bible, and, more importantly, the editors.

    But, no, you don’t see many rational individuals who accept Tolkein’s words as gospel. Instead we see them as entertaining works of fiction based very loosely on some actual historical events, much in the mold of our Holy Bible.

    Nothing bad can be taken from studying the teachings of Jesus, but to believe in absolution seems to be a pagan philosophy. To think you will be rewarded in the “afterlife” for being a scumbag who’s willing to admit it in prayer is sickening.

    Even worse is the concept of eternal damnation. So, just because an individual is unwilling to follow blindly the word of man, he is doomed to a life of torture. Great! So, if I follow contemporary Christian teachings, am I supposed to repond “how high” when ordered by a PR representative to jump?

    Man is too easily corrupted by greed for me to follow any teaching whole-heartedly, unless it can be proven. Yet, to this day, there is not one account, other than those mentioned in the bible, of any sort of “miracle” that can’t be explained by science.

    I believe the many being fed by the few is symbolic of our mass dumbening by ancient superstition and modern-day subconscious conditioning. We have been spoonfed by those in control for so long, we no longer can differentiate between reality and illusion unless labeled non-fiction or fiction.

    I hope someone can enlighten me by actually answering some of these questions without trying to relate them to something that has already been said.

    While I appreciate the talent of using famous euphamisms to convey a point, for some reason, it seems irrelevant. Maybe because, while prophetic as those sayings may be, they have already been fulfilled. So, what’s the point?

    Perhaps finding an initiative for change and implementing a plan that begins with baby-steps is a more applicable strategy than proving how much you have read.

    Maybe I rant, but I have attempted to convey a point while excluding textbook snarkiness.

  4. Patrick

    This is not directed at the author of this blog, but any insight would be appreciated. I just don’t understand the modern need for religion. Religion has been built to cater to the wants of the very few by oppressing the many.

    In order to be a happy person, according to religious theory, you should give up all worldly desires, including the desire for change. You should let evil run its course, which, if armageddon doesn’t come, will be until every man, woman, and child is a slave to an agenda.

    I believe to follow the lifestyle of Christ is very honorable, but to sit back and wait for his return instead of modeling your life after His is an excercise in futility.

    God should be exaulted, but who are we to tell someone how or why to do it?

  5. Patrick

    Should God be reached through teachings, or through learning?

    If we rely solely on teachings, how can we ever learn for ourselves?

    Herein lies the problem with religion. If God wanted us to all think the same, then why are we so different?

    I think the golden rule is a sufficient teaching for the human race.

    The point is to coexist and to be considerate of others’ time, health, and families.

    That seems like paradise to me.

  6. Thanks for your mention of religious naturalism (RN) and Ursula Goodenough, whose book The Sacred Depths of Nature is a must read. Other exponents of RN are UU minister Bill Murry, see his book Reason and Reverence, reviewed at and Chet Raymo, author of Skeptics and True Believers and When God is Gone Everything Is Holy. Lastly I’d bring to your readers’ attention Andre Comte-Sponville’s wonderful book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. None of these authors take shots at traditional religion; instead they reveal the spiritual possibilities inherent in science-friendly naturalism.


    Tom Clark
    Center for Naturalism

  7. Mike Gottschalk

    Adam, I earlier asked you, what distinguishes the experience of sacred from the experience of appreciation; living with the question myself, it occurs to me that one distinction of sacredness is the feeling of being tapped on the shoulder.

  8. The answer I think is the sense of awe which is more than simple appreication. This is what Rudolph Otto claimed to be the hallmark of a “religious experience”. It was, literally, “awe-full”

  9. Mike Gottschalk

    To Patrick: Patrick, you hit so many nails on the head. The frustrations that you air are ones that I’ve kept as companions for the last twenty years; they’ve been ‘tutors’ to me. Over the past twenty years, the line separating my thinking with theological ideas and my thinking with scientific ideas, has become a permeable living membrane. And living with both of the “warring sides”, I found that both sides, have ironically, been on the same team when it comes to marginalizing the very core of genius that is Human Being: in all of the animal kingdom, we are the ones capable of true subjectivity. And both sides marginalize it. The religious do it by conceiving subjectivity as sinful and the scientific do it by conceiving subjectivity as stupid. So which side is right?

    Or do I have other choices? Of course I do. I have the power of subjective being at my hands. Our failure to realize our subjective capacity as perhaps, the ultimate hierophany, is leaving us in dire straights.

    Due to our added subjective nature, we don’t just live in habitats, we build them. And also because of our subjective nature, we stand with one foot in the natural world and one foot in the conceptual world, led by a mind that is based on the natural world, but lives in the conceptual world. We are the ones who conceive reality than give birth to our habitats.

    Our conceptual -or inner- worlds contain as much architecture as our outer worlds; both of which, embody our designs.

    So we’ve built religion and we’ve built science. We justify the first by placing rationality in “god” while justifying the second by placing rationality in nature. Up ’til now, our buildings of both religion and science, indicate a view, that life is a problem to be solved, a race to be won, or the test to be passed, that you mentioned, rather than the Mystery to be experienced and grow in.

    If we regain a sense of power to be found in poetry, the Genesis story is ripe with aptness. The language used in the idea, ‘made in the image of god’ is very poignant; the language carries the idea that human being isn’t just an imagined artifact designed by god, but a replica of god. As replicas we have real power to create. So the question posed to us by Jesus is, what will we do with this replicated power of God? Use it the way a Roman Caesar embodies it and subsume the other, or use it in the way that Jesus embodies it, and sublime the other? This question challenges us today every bit as much as it did to Jesus’ original audience doesn’t it? One of my agreements with you Patrick, is that TWJWD is indeed the lamest of expressions. Especially in this context.

    Patrick, I recognize the genius in your frustrations. I want to, with my own subjective power, build something new to address those frustrations and I’d like your help. I’m designing a seminar that for now I’m calling the, “God’s not stupid and He Didn’t Make Us to Be Stupid Either, Tour”. Just one idea that I want to communicate in this seminar, is that waiting around for a heaven instead of developing it, is a remedial – even criminal expression of ‘being made in the image of god’. I think your input on this would be valuable. I hope you’ll contact me at

  10. I have just posted to my blog a piece that you might find of interest, as it discusses a convergence of images used to describe the proton scientifically and the Holy Trinity poetically. This is Dante’s Heavenly Vision and the Physics of the Proton.

  11. Steve F.

    Hi Patrick.

    You are clearly frustrated by religion, but are trying to “get” what makes it continue.

    For starters, the religion you don’t believe in is the religion I don’t believe in. I don’t think that anyone else believes in it either.

    How could anyone believe that “In order to be a happy person … you should give up all worldly desires, including the desire for change. You should let evil run its course, which, if Armageddon doesn’t come, will be until every man, woman, and child is a slave to an agenda.”

    Let me, gently I hope, chastise you for believing such nonsense. As a first step away from such a simplistic definition, lets start by inquiring into what people actually believe in and ask why. Interested?

    BTW, at some surface level, maybe because of social pressure, those things could be a part of a believer’s views. But it certainly is not core level.

    Maybe it would help to realize that all of our ideas of God – who, of course, is unknowable and inaccessible – come from our knowledge of people, their intelligence and creativity, etc.

    If you characterized, say, your best friend, at this level of caricaturization, I think you would soon be without a best friend. So why do you think that a person’s relationship with God, much more complex and multi-faceted – yes, awe is a small part of it – could be so simplistic and nonsensical?

    Steve F.

  12. Charles Schmidt

    The real question is whether God does or does not exist and either is a possibility. Would the universe and things in it be any different whichever was true? Could it be shown or proven? To say that upon death you will spend eternity in heaven, hell or any other place it seems to me would be more than anyone could stand, reincarnation is also a possibility or move to a different dimension or there could be something we have not thought or know of as a option. Or it could be when you are dead you are just dead, gone and that is it.

    It cannot be proven what happens upon death any more than if god does exist or not. To say that that would mean that we should do whatever we want to others would diminish what we are and take away the ability we have to make reasonable choices in our treatment of others and them with us. The human race has done and does things that should not be done and instead of asking can we do, we should ask should we do and consider what the results would or could be. If there is life after death or god should not reflect how we conduct ourselves and putting actions off on religion or the lack of one is to not accept responsibility for our actions.

    In war each side will claim that god by what ever name is on their side that is not reasonable unless the deity’s only motive is the death of people. Can a divinity be a reality or is it wishful thinking because death other wise would be final and that is the driving force for religion?

  13. I think, many of these question’s answers revolve on the fact that all any of us has is our own experience and our own thoughts about what to believe and we each get to decide. And despite the many efforts there have been to force some kind of conformity, we continue to do so. For a few million years, except for the last 6,000 years or so, we depended on intelligent cooperation to survive. Patrick says, “The point is to coexist and to be considerate of others’ time, health, and families.” Putting aside any ideas that this has any religious connotations, this seems to me a smart survival strategy for our species. That being the case, to let ones beliefs about the big questions beyond our ability to answer get in the way of that goal in any way seems foolish. So the question is how do we get broad agreement and commitment to doing that?

  14. Mike Gottschalk

    Howard, what do you see as road blocks to ‘broad agreement?

    Btw, when I cite Jesus, please don’t take this to mean that I’m espousing christianity. I don’t think the two automatically go together. The significance that I hope would be derived by any citation of him, would be to notice a pattern that he himself noticed- such as the pattern embodied in a Caesar mentioned above. And in looking at that pattern today, we could ask if it’s still relevant, and, how much weight should we give to the pattern’s age?

  15. Charles Schmidt

    Howard, in the past religion was the glue that held the group together making cooperation, sharing and giving the group cohesiveness and religion was the binding factor for them, as I see it. When a different group was encountered with a different religion and a conflict broke out between them the winner’s proved by winning that their deity was superior as is demonstrated in the bible.

    However, today we see far beyond our own valley and have knowledge of the world at large and what gave small band’s cohesiveness will no longer work now. We need to realize that religion is a personal thing since now it is no longer an insignificant horde but a multitude of people with different views of religion and life. So a new more encompassing paradigm must be brought forward to act as a unifier for the world. Can it be done or will wars and fighting continue as they have in the past, that I do not know. But the idea of my god is better than yours will need to end for it to happen.

  16. >Howard, what do you see as road blocks to ‘broad agreement?
    I would say the massive polarization of human kind from itself and from the natural world. Every division from the science/religion debate, between religions, between nation states, to political parties and ball teams. The automobile and the TV have been great dividers, isolating people. The liturgy of Christianity, or any religion, is a problem. I’m not saying it always was but it is in this time. The Bahia Faith is one example, if I may. Baha’ullah said many good things, one being that science and religion go hand in hand, that women are equal to men, and 7 other powerful precepts celebrated by Bahia that we all understand today make good sense, but he also said he didn’t want a religion formed in his name and yet it was the only way some could relate to him at the time. But I think names, especially those people are attached to, get in the way of our coming together to co-create the new world. Religions are based on stories but while there may be some relevance still found in some of them they come never-the-less with a lot of baggage that divides. So today I think we need to consider the source of our being not in a religious way but a perceptual way. It is time to start thinking about creating a new story. Each human is a cell in the human organism and the human organism is a cell in the body of Gaia. The human organism has expanded and I think is about to contract and unify and, “being in the image of God”, we get to co-create the new world. And I think we have a big change coming that will really make it a whole new ball game, climate change.

  17. Mike Gottschalk

    Charles and Howard.

    I’m addressing the both of you here, because you each point to a similar theme of unity and sameness.

    What I’m seeing in the ‘wars’ that each of you allude to, is a conceptual architecture which human kind designs around an idea of, unity arises from sameness, security arises from unity, otherness threatens unity; in other words, sameness is seen as the key to survival: sameness and otherness are antagonistic to one another.

    In evolutionary theory, one insight that I get, is that the whole arises from diverse elements cooperating in a unity which is based on otherness- not sameness. Just look within our bodies for example; we rely on our hearts remaining hearts and likewise for our lungs, even though they comprise a pulmenary system. The number, 2 is as vital as the number, 1. I think we have to find a means for a unity mature and complex enough to embody otherness.

    While religion certainly has been used as a vehicle to carry out our remedial forms of unity, I think we mis-diagnose the cause for the symptom. (Still, religion bears all kinds of criticism for letting itself be used so readily.)

  18. I was not speaking of unity as sameness or conformity, in fact that is antithetical to unity. I think we must realize there is much in the stories of our culture that needs to be left behind in order to create a new more healthy and better story, one that works for the human organism and Gaia. But we are a polarized species and we need to take a look at what polarizes us and consider which is more valuable, human unity or a particular point of polarization. Baha’ullah said each religious manifestation was intended to unite a segment of the world and that the time had come now for the world to unite. While he was saying that we would unite spiritually he was not saying start a religion in my name and do so. He was talking about a much deeper shift in consciousness leaving the old behind as we evolve to the next level on our spiral journey. So I think it is important to consider thinking of god not in terms of any particular liturgy but perceptually. Let the language to describe it emerge from the experience. Independent investigation of truth is another of those valuable precepts, I think. If you think you know then you don’t know, so we need to avoid the cultural programs that make us think we have found it. We will know when we’ve found it, it will be like sticking our finger into the light socket looking for electricity, we’ll know when we’ve found it. Adam aspiring to find that truth is a good thing to do. “The aspiration, born of experience, to know and draw closer to the immediate and intimate cosmos is the root of it all.” There we are united.

  19. Using the body parts as metaphors is good. (paraphrased from Sahtouris) “We could call the heart-lung system the “northern industrial organs”. You give them ownership of the bones in which you mine the raw material blood cells that arise in the marrow. Sweep them up here to the northern industrial organs. Purify the blood, add oxygen and then the heart distribution center announces “The body price for blood today is so much. Who will buy?” And you ship the blood to the organs that can afford it and not all can. This is the situation we have economically in the world today.” I think that applies also to all of what we call civilization, which has for 6000 years labored to destroy the idea that Gaia is a sacred being. We know that a living system can’t function that way, thus we are living in a dying system. So what does a healthy system look like? What are its critical components?

  20. Mike Gottschalk

    Howard, I wasn’t attributing this unity of sameness to you or Charles, but in reading your guys’ take on what is happening in society at large, I noticed a pattern in your descriptions, which gave rise to an insight. ‘Unity of others” is a phrase that popped out as I wrote which I had never written before. I don’t know what to make of it yet, but it piques my interest. I certainly like your use of the body metaphor. As to expecting a complete accounting of reality from any narrative of any age, I think such expecting is way too much, and when it happens, we should question such use. I’m not one for liturgy or dogma, but I am one for many means of insight and judge them for their abilities to give sight regardless of their age. Hope your weekend was good; we hit 50 in Mn. today!

  21. Patrick

    The point I was trying to reach was, what many of you hit on, the fact that all our knowledge of God, according to religious teachings, is contained in text wholey written and arranged by man, who has proven time and time again to be readily corrupted by greed and personal agenda.

    We need accountability now more than ever. After thousands of years of complacency, the collective conscious is finally moving towards an awareness of it’s potential.

    It’s peoples’ subjective look at spirituality, which could be part of our problem. We bicker over names, dates, places, and countless other semantic areas. Families are destroyed by stubborness and one’s attempt to play god, by passing judgement and punishing another when compassion and understanding would suffice. I could go on and on.

    Globablized religion must also be a major factor in secular globalization, which I must say, has done a great job of destroying the ecosystem. Which came first.

    People need an identity that speaks for them, and their place in the world. It seems irresponsible
    to summate the entire human experience into one tell-all religion.

    I don’t reject the idea of Godly worship. I just have disdain for those telling everyone how we should go about it.

  22. Steen

    Science is Right. Religion is also Right. Both are Right in their own spheres, and when combined, gives us a fuller and more inclusive/encompassing life and existence. The knowledge of Science and the guidance of Religion. The WHAT/HOW of Science and the WHY of Religion (sorry, I’m repeating myself from earlier), all the different what/how, and all the different why as well. 2+2=4, but so does 3+1. Merge them and you have an even broader foundation from which to take off and explore the next step in our society and cultural affiliations. Try to inist that only one is “Right,” and we collapse under squabble. Cooperation and progression always gets us further and expands the Pie vs conflict that leads to waste and a diminished world, smaller pie. Do we share a bigger pie, or do we win the shrunken pie?

  23. Good day, merely thought i would indicate to you something.. This is 2 times now i

  24. Hello, just thought i would indicate to you some thing.. This is 2 times these days i

Collapse bottom bar