2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Planetary Scientist; Cassini Imaging Team Leader; Director, CICLOPS, Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado
The Greatest Story Ever Told

The confrontation between science and formal religion will come to an end when the role played by science in the lives of all people is the same played by religion today.

And just what is that?

At the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest — to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one's part in the greater whole. It is this inchoate desire for connection to something greater and immortal, the need for elucidation of the meaning of the 'self', that motivates the religious to belief in a higher 'intelligence'. It is the allure of a bigger agency — outside the self but also involving, protecting, and celebrating the purpose of the self — that is the great attractor. Every culture has religion. It undoubtedly satisfies a manifest human need.

But the same spiritual fulfillment and connection can be found in the revelations of science. From energy to matter, from fundamental particles to DNA, from microbes to Homo sapiens, from the singularity of the Big Bang to the immensity of the universe .... ours is the greatest story ever told. We scientists have the drama, the plot, the icons, the spectacles, the 'miracles', the magnificence, and even the special effects. We inspire awe. We evoke wonder.

And we don't have one god, we have many of them. We find gods in the nucleus of every atom, in the structure of space/time, in the counter-intuitive mechanisms of electromagneticsm. What richness! What consummate beauty!

We even exalt the `self'. Our script requires a broadening of the usual definition, but we too offer hope for everlasting existence. The `self' that is the particular, networked set of connections of the matter comprising our mortal bodies will one day die, of course. But the `self' that is the sum of each separate individual condensate in us of energy-turned-matter is already ancient and will live forever. Each fundamental particle may one day return to energy, or from there revert back to matter. But in one form or another, it will not cease. In this sense, we and all around us are eternal, immortal, and profoundly connected. We don't have one soul; we have trillions upon trillions of them.

These are reasons enough for jubilation ... for riotous, unrestrained, exuberant merry-making.

So what are we missing?

Ceremony.

We lack ceremony. We lack ritual. We lack the initiation of baptism, the brotherhood of communal worship.

We have no loving ministers, guiding and teaching the flocks in the ways of the 'gods'. We have no fervent missionaries, no loyal apostles. And we lack the all-inclusive ecumenical embrace, the extended invitation to the unwashed masses. Alienation does not warm the heart; communion does.

But what if? What if we appropriated the craft, the artistry, the methods of formal religion to get the message across? Imagine 'Einstein's Witnesses' going door to door or TV evangelists passionately espousing the beauty of evolution.

Imagine a Church of Latter Day Scientists where believers could gather. Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way. Or others rejoicing in the nuclear force that makes possible the sunlight of our star and the starlight of distant suns. And can't you just hear the hymns sung to the antiquity of the universe, its abiding laws, and the heaven above that 'we' will all one day inhabit, together, commingled, spread out like a nebula against a diamond sky?

One day, the sites we hold most sacred just might be the astronomical observatories, the particle accelerators, the university research installations, and other laboratories where the high priests of science — the biologists, the physicists, the astronomers, the chemists — engage in the noble pursuit of uncovering the workings of nature herself. And today's museums, expositional halls, and planetaria may then become tomorrow's houses of worship, where these revealed truths, and the wonder of our interconnectedness with the cosmos, are glorified in song by the devout and the soulful.

"Hallelujah!", they will sing. "May the force be with you!"