Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When God is gone

In rejecting a recent essay of mine, the editor of a journal responded in part: "The position of the magazine has always been that faith and science can be reconciled, and we have devoted a lot of space and resources over the years to highlighting the work of any number of scientists and theologians who believe this. I suppose that remains where we are most comfortable."

This is a common view of religious people with a liberal bent, and I respect it: the so-called NOMA of Steve Gould, non-overlapping magisteria. But I think it rather misses the point. Of course supernaturalist faith and science can be reconciled. What cannot be reconciled is traditional faith and Ockham's razor. The supernaturalist dogmas of every religion can be dispensed with without jeopardizing one iota of our empirical knowledge of the world. From the Ockhamist point of view, supernaturalism is not irreconcilable, it is simply superfluous.

If someone wants to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven, or that Mohammed made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, or that the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on a hillside in New York and revealed the hiding place of golden plates, there is nothing science can do to dispute it. At this remove, the evidence is inconclusive. In that sense, yes, faith and science can be reconciled. On the other hand, there is zero non-anecdotal evidence that these beliefs are required to explain anything we reliably know about the world.

It has been a theme of this website, and of many of the readers who gather here, that religion can only be enhanced by a close shave with Ockham's razor. Pare away the supernaturalist accretions and the universe stands revealed as a thing of astonishing majesty and mystery, worthy of attention, celebration, thanksgiving and praise, What a thing it would be if the world's great religious traditions were not (often violently) divided by supernaturalist dogmas -- almost invariably embraced by accident of birth -- and focused instead on their rich cultural traditions of humility in the face of mystery. The human quest for meaning is universal. We live in a single cosmos, shared by all, gloriously revealed by science but sufficiently complex to remain forever beyond human grasp. Let us gather on the shore between knowledge and mystery and celebrate together, in a variety of voices, the common revelation.

Not so long ago I was invited to dinner at the home of a group of Catholic professed women. As was their custom, dinner was preceded by a prayer service that drew upon the humble expressions of a wide variety of religious traditions, from Buddhist to Christian to Native American. Not a hint of supernaturalism or triumphalism, only a celebration of what is most gracious in the here and now. It was a an exhilarating experience.