Playing on the Seashore

A few days ago, I blogged a demographic survey of TED Conference attendees. There’s a buffet of 65 categories — you’re given a choice of 10. Very few selected any kind of religious affiliation (e.g., Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.9%, Buddhist 1.6%, etc.). You’ll need to create a TED account to access profiles. You can create your own TED profile here.

While few conclusions can be drawn from this, it brings up some interesting questions. We know that over 80% of the world’s adult population considers themselves religious or spiritual in some manner. This percentage holds true for the U.S.A., as well, with roughly 76% calling themselves Christian and another 10 million or so divided between Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc..

TED’s presenters tend to exhibit a high concentration of academic rigor. Bill Gates once commented, “I wasn’t prepared for this conference to be so profound. The combined IQ of the attendees is incredible”. Based on the TED demographic data, one might be tempted to conclude that increasing academic focus correlates with decreasing interest in religion or spirituality.

A while back, I looked into the correlation of academics on spiritual orientation. I was surprised to find a number of studies available, the most rigorous of which is UCLA’s Spirituality and the Professorate: A National Study of Faculty Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors.

The UCLA study surveyed over 40,000 faculty members at 421 colleges and universities, seeking to characterize the role of religion and spirituality in their personal lives. The results? Commensurate with world and national averages, 81% of professors considered themselves a “spiritual person” and 70% describe themselves as “religious.”

The 40,000+ academics were then asked if their spiritual life has a place in the academy. A significant percentage said yes, though weighting varied by discipline with roughly 50% of hard scientists and 60% in humanities answering in the affirmative.

In another study, 2,000 medical doctors were surveyed about their spiritual life. Nearly 80% of MD’s were found to maintain an active spirituality and 90% said they attend religious services at least occasionally.

In yet another recent study, professors at elite doctoral-granting schools were seen to be more skeptical of spirituality than professors at other schools. But even among the most elite academies, over 60% affirmed a personal faith or active spirituality (belief in God, a higher power, etc..).

The Ecklund Study released May 2010, claims that “the ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliche, perhaps useful as a satire on group-think, but hardly representative of reality.”

While a person gifted with greater reasoning capacity may exhibit finer nuance in their understanding of spirituality, a growing body of recent studies show that elevated intellect and advanced academic training has little influence on a persons religious/spiritual inclinations. Spiritual belief and practice, as abstraction, remains generally constant throughout the intellectual spectrum.

(As an aside, the Harvard study also noted that an overwhelming majority [95%] of university faculty did not consider Intelligent Design a serious alternative to Darwinian evolution. Despite a small vocal group of ID proponents, most today acknowledge the profound evidence (genomics, etc.) to support some manner of evolution. I personally see great beauty, design, and a kind of “natural intelligence” in biological evolution. Our universe remains no less a mystery and miracle in its ability to evolve. A far more interesting conversation is focusing on the origin of life itself — the seemingly spontaneous appearance of RNA and proteins roughly three billion years ago. A significant community of evolutionary scientists remains unmoved by the hypothesis of spontaneous appearance [via lightning, etc] of RNA.)

One paper noted that in surveys of leading academies (such as the National Academy of Science) there is a significant decrease in public acknowledgment of spiritual or religious association. As the Harvard and UCLA studies infer, such data is likely biased by peer pressures of the academy and other elite in-groupings. I’ll call it the TED Effect. Clearly, many top academics are taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position for fear of career reprisal.

Recent books from authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have led many to conclude that virtually all scientists are anti-spiritual, yet major academic surveys show just the opposite to be true:  a prominent majority of academics embrace some manner of spirituality.

Physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in recently on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations”.

Gleiser admits that science cannot offer humanly essential qualities such as hope, peace, charity, and compassion. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality — either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.”

This blog exists, in part, because of my desire to see greater consilience between science/technology and spirituality. Numerous science / spirit resources can be found in the sidebar. I’ll conclude this long post with an excerpt from quantum physicist Freeman Dyson’s 2002 NYT book review. I share many of Dyson’s wonderful thoughts on the interplay of spirit and science and I encourage you to read the entire review.

I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension.

When I listen to Polkinghorne describing the afterlife, I think of God answering Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God’s answer to Job is all the theology I need. As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore.

Little has changed since Newton said this:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

The potentialities of life and intelligence in the universe go far beyond anything that we have imagined. Religion and science should both begin by recognizing the vastness of the ocean of truth and the pettiness of our search for smoother pebbles. Or, as the Sufi poet Rumi would remind us, “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”


6 thoughts on “Playing on the Seashore

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  2. You raise some interesting observations and questions. Very thought-provoking. Freeman Dyson, not so much.

    I freely confess that I enjoyed Polkinghorne’s book a great deal. To date, I have read a couple of essays by Dyson but not any of his books. With that limited exposure in mind, and while I affirm he is certainly entitled to his opinion, the thing I find annoying and puzzling in his writing here as in the other few short pieces I’ve read is that, like Peacocke and so many others, Dyson summarily dismisses the Scriptures as impossibly unreliable. It is interesting, but dismaying, that at the basis of his polemic there lies the a priori assumption that the Bible couldn’t possibly mean what it actually says. And his implicit presumption that any reasonable, thinking man would agree is a bit insulting.

    And yet, the wisdom and insight he hopes to wring out of his tidbit excerpts from contemporary science-fiction literature are supposed to be some shiny, new revelatory paradigm.

    I find his tone in this review grating and ungracious, as well. I remain unimpressed, but I will seek out more of his writing.

  3. Hi Barry

    I quoted Dyson not so much because he “lines up” with my thinking, but because he reminds us that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. Religion tends to create a box around a small set of propositions, and then expend a lot of energy protecting that box. We ignore the marvels and mysteries in the ocean of creation, preferring instead to sit around admiring our little collections of seashells. Dyson reminds us that the spiritual life is a life defined by awe, wonder, ceaseless curiosity, and childlike abandon.

    I don’t read Dyson dismissing the ancient texts as necessarily “unreliable.” Rather, he cautions us against using them as a science book, or more importantly, as objects of worship. Belief is only valuable if it results in greater personal action (compassion, benevolence, etc.). John Wimber used to say, “don’t confuse the menu with the meal.”

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