The Good in Nature and Humanity: Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural Worldby Stephen R. Kellert (Editor), Timothy Farnham (Editor)
<p>Scientists, theologians, and the spiritually inclined, as well as all those concerned with humanity's increasingly widespread environmental impact, are beginning to recognize that our ongoing abuse of the earth diminishes our moral as well as our material condition. Many people are coming to believe that strengthening the bonds among spirituality, science, and the natural world offers an important key to addressing the pervasive environmental problems we face.<p>The Good in Nature and Humanity brings together 20 leading thinkers and writers - including Ursula Goodenough, Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, Carl Safina, David Petersen, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez - to examine the divide between faith and reason, and to seek a means for developing an environmental ethic that will help us confront two of our most imperiling crises: global environmental destruction and an impoverished spirituality. The book explores the ways in which science, spirit, and religion can guide the experience and understanding of our ongoing relationship with the natural world and examines how the integration of science and spirituality can equip us to make wiser choices in using and managing the natural environment. The book also provides compelling stories that offer a narrative understanding of the relations among science, spirit, and nature.<p>Grounded in the premise that neither science nor religion can by itself resolve the prevailing malaise of environmental and moral decline, contributors seek viable approaches to averting environmental catastrophe and, more positively, to achieving a more harmonious relationship with the natural world. By bridging the gap between the rational and the religious through the concern of each for understanding the human relation to creation, The Good in Nature and Humanity offers an important means for pursuing the quest for a more secure and meaningful world.
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The Good in Nature and Humanity
Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World
By Stephen R. Kellert, Timothy J. Farnham
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2002 Island Press
All rights reserved.
Building the Bridge: Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World
TIMOTHY J. FARNHAM AND STEPHEN R. KELLERT
There is a perception in modern society, as reflected in many of the chapters that follow, that a significant divide exists between science and religion. These two modes of inquiry—the empirical and the faith-based—represent ways we search for answers to questions both practical and timeless. Yet in Western culture the two are often envisioned as occupying different realms of thinking and practice. The goal of this collection is to find connections, through humanity's relation to the natural world, that help bridge the chasm separating the scientific from the spiritual and religious.
But as often occurs when two entities have grown apart, there exist fundamental language and communication problems that obstruct a possible reconciliation. The words themselves impede what could be fruitful exchanges between science and religion concerning the human ethical relationship with nature and creation. As William H. Meadows comments in his introduction to part II of this book, "we are still in search of the right language, the comfortable language." George W. Fisher similarly declares in chapter 8 that a significant language problem exists when we converse outside the familiar confines of a faith or a discipline. David Petersen, in his essay on hunting and spirituality (chapter 13), further notes the need for a "lexicon" that allows discussions of spirituality and nature to move freely between secular and religious worldviews. In short, we need a common vocabulary, a language that allows thoughtful people to cross over safely and share ideas about science, religion, spirituality, and the natural world.
Definitions, of course, are the basis of any language, especially one seeking to bring together separated constituents. While the words science and religion obviously have complex, multilayered meanings, we can propose relatively simple characterizations that partially reveal how contemporary culture often understands each term. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary observes that the modern notion of science has become "restricted to those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the material universe and their laws," whereas in past centuries the term science often enjoyed a broader usage indicative of the search for knowledge in a wide variety of fields. In contemporary times, the practice of science typically involves specialized instruments that measure quantities and qualities in the context of experiments or carefully controlled studies specifically designed to test hypotheses. This activity derives from and results in theories that seek to explain the workings of the natural world through physical causation alone. Investigators who use the scientific method generally ask questions that can be answered only by experimental or controlled testing procedures, and the answers must meet certain levels or standards of proof. Science implies the use of reason and the pursuit of empirical "facts" to increase our understanding of how the universe functions.
By contrast, again quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, religion represents the "recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power" and the beliefs, traditions, and ceremonies that formally represent this understanding and recognition. Often, this "unseen power" is considered responsible for the origin of life and may even be regarded as continuing to exercise a measure of control over present and future human activities and other aspects of creation. Whatever the specific details, religion and spirituality require some degree of belief in, reverence for, and worship of a higher power. Moreover, because this power typically is believed to possess qualities existing beyond the known material world (hence the term metaphysical), religious and spiritual thought incorporates a significant element of mystery and questions whose answers cannot be demonstrated or proven by scientific and empirical examination alone. In apparent opposition to science and reason, spirituality and religion depend on faith, the human recognition of and deference to the unknowable, and the related realization that answers to some of life's most profound questions can exist beyond complete human understanding.
Using these broad definitions as a foundation, we recognize that the pursuits of both science and religion can have their extremes, and perhaps here is where the divide between the two becomes most evident. For example, as Ursula Goodenough notes in chapter 2, something exists deep within humans that resists scientific explanation because of "a fear of reductionism." This fear involves the view that science entails an impulse toward continuous analysis, a dissection (and, by implication, destruction) of the whole in search of the mechanism. Science is seen as neglecting the larger emergent and holistic qualities of nature that humans intuitively experience without the aid of a microscope. These reductive practices represent what biologist Edward O. Wilson calls "scientism" or "science run rampant." In an effort to describe the fear that science often elicits, Wilson quotes scientist and social critic C. P. Snow, who expresses well the frequent protest of science's analytic ways:
Science reduces and oversimplifies
Condenses and abstracts, drives toward generality
Presumes to break the insoluble
Forgets the spirit
Imprisons the spark of artistic genius
In addition to having concerns about reductionism, many people regard science's close connection with modern technology as representing a dangerous liaison. As Jeremy Benstein notes in chapter 9, this relationship frequently implicates science in an increasing mechanization and dehumanization of society, resulting in a weakening of the physical, cultural, and spiritual ties between people and the natural world. Some further believe our technological prowess encourages an exaggerated obsession with and focus on the material and physical. As Goodenough observes, many fear that science and its offspring technology directly conflict with religious and spiritual values, forcing us to "encounter our context in [only] material form." Moreover, Goodenough continues, "to lose our spirituality, we fear, is to lose our humanness, our soulfulness, our capacity for transcendent experience. We fear we will become automatons." Such an end would seem to befit a society excessively focused on the mechanical and physical properties of the world.
Religion and spirituality can easily be perceived as the victims of this struggle with modernity and a hegemonic scientific perspective of creation. The importance of faith may seem diminished by a constant onslaught of scientific discoveries purporting to reveal and enable us to "know" the inner workings of the universe. But religion and spirituality cannot be so readily cast as innocents, given that they are often complicit in helping build the divide with science. Critics of religion, for example, note its seeming inflexibility and doctrinaire qualities, and many observe that spiritual thought has often lost its relevance for many, if not most, citizens in modern society. Moreover, faith is frequently depicted as a crutch; reliance on it is seen as a surrender to ignorance that is crippling precisely because faith requires no physical proof nor can ever be proven wrong. A familiar example of religious immobility in the Christian tradition is literal adherence to the story of creation. As Margaret A. Farley notes in chapter 7, even though the facts of this story are "contradicted by the findings of modern science," some believers refuse to accept or even consider the theory of evolution. The battle between evolutionists and creationists is well documented, and some scientists evoke images of fundamentalists who insist the earth was created in six days to illustrate how traditional religious thought contradicts accepted science. Certainly, many believe a doctrine of creation is not incompatible with an evolutionary perspective, but those who choose to interpret religious texts most literally often find their beliefs in conflict with science and modernity.
Thus, one of the strongest critiques of religion and spirituality is that of "blind faith." While many fear the scientific tendency toward overanalysis, the corresponding fear of religion involves a lack of analysis. In a society in which individuality, inquiry, and independence are prized, traditions demanding submissiveness and the suppression of doubt tend to be rigorously criticized. Religion in the extreme often seems to leave little room for discovery and innovation. In many ways, Goodenough's description of people's worry of becoming automatons under the domination of science can also be applied to religion. The fear of spiritual and religious zealotry is based in part on a perception that it causes adherents to lose their desire and ability to explore and discover.
These are unpleasant characterizations, and they should not be exaggerated. But it is important to recognize that both science and religion have aspects that people fear and resist. Both possess the potential to deny or suppress essential facets of our humanity and our relation to nature and creation. For this reason, we must look for ways in which science and religion can prevent such extremes from dominating, as well as ways they can share common goals and language that offer guidance, particularly regarding our effects on the natural world. As Calvin B. DeWitt suggests in chapter 3, science and religion can and should be necessary complements in our modern worldview. Both seek understanding of, and answers to questions about, the world that humans experience.
Both pursue the "truth," and this pursuit lies at the crux of the connection between science, religion, spirituality, and nature. Both share, in this search for truth and knowledge, the same ultimate objective of revealing the underlying causes in the patterns of the universe and determining our place in these patterns.
René Dubos, in his book The GodWithin, offered eloquent words to express these potential connections between religion and science:
Religion and science ... constitute deep-rooted and ancient efforts to find richer experience and deeper meaning than are found in the ordinary biological and social satisfactions.... Both the myths of religion and the laws of science ... are not so much descriptions of facts as symbolic expressions of cosmic truths. These truths may always remain beyond human understanding, but at every stage of human development glimpses of them have enriched man in experience and comprehension.
Scientists may take exception to the notion of their discoveries being "symbolic expressions" analogous to the "myths of religion." But Dubos, a molecular biologist, two-time Nobel laureate, and seminal environmental thinker and conservationist, offered a perspective that elevates science above the limited role of providing only facts while reminding us that religious and spiritual myths can contain as much truth as can accepted scientific discoveries. To Dubos, facts as mere "descriptions" are marginally important, but as "symbolic expressions of cosmic truths" they retain the magic that scientists experience when they seek to decipher the mysteries of the natural world. Facts as the gateway to more profound revelations can be an accurate description of the motivation of many scientists. Similarly, myths as symbolic expressions allow us "glimpses" of truths, enriching our understanding of the world beyond everyday experience. Science and religion can thus become unified through their ultimate goal.
Yet finding a common language and engendering trust between science and religion, especially regarding matters of the human relationship with the natural world, have proven difficult. Many scientists and conservationists avoid discussing their interests and endeavors in religious or spiritual terms. For example, David Takacs, in his book The Idea of Biodiversity, asked various conservation biologists a wide range of questions, including whether or not they found spiritual or religious value in their work and their efforts to preserve biodiversity. Most of the biologists expressed difficulty with the word religious, and some flatly declared their distaste for the ritualistic and restrictive beliefs they associated with an organized faith. The term spiritual elicited a wider range of responses, although many of the scientists seemed stymied by the word, claiming that the lack of a clear definition for such a "fuzzy" adjective, as one called it, made it difficult to express useful observations about the spiritual value in their work. Some further relied on scientific terms to explain spiritual feelings as biological or psychological adaptations humans acquired during our evolutionary development. Others, faced with questions they regarded as falling outside their professional training, simply declined to consider possibilities beyond the scientific frame of reference.
One scientist remarked when asked whether he found religious or spiritual value in his work:
Not at all, no. Zero. I'm just a traveler in time, that's it.... As a scientist, you can't be an atheist and you can't be a believer because you can't test the hypothesis. So your only recourse is to be an agnostic. There is no other possibility if you're a real scientist.
But interestingly, when asked what had motivated him to become an entomologist, this scientist related having experienced the following feelings when observing the beetles he studied:
You see it and it's just, God, it's just beautiful, absolutely beautiful. How did it come about? The process behind it must be even more beautiful, more intricate, more complex, more sophisticated, whatever. And it's a challenge to the human mind to figure that out.
Aside from the irony of invoking God to express what he saw when looking at a tiny life-form, this scientist unknowingly described the shared goal of science and religion as Dubos had earlier identified: Both of them search for origins; both seek an understanding of the mysterious processes through which life develops.
Science and religion can each reveal the curiosity, humility, and reverence humans experience when confronting expressions of creation far more complex than any single entity or being. Perhaps, as the entomologist asserted, no apparent way exists to test for God or some fundamental force in the universe, but it seems that the "process" of creation he described inspires an awe similar to the religious emotion felt by those worshiping in ways other than by studying insects. This shared sense of wonder emphasizes the similarities in science and religion rather than the differences between them.
The celebration of creation is perhaps the strongest link between the scientific and religious worldviews. The study of the earth and the complex relationships that link life together offers a common ground for both scientific and spiritual revelation. Dubos, again, provided wise words on the subject, suggesting that the broad field of ecology offers the prospect of a future relationship between science and religion:
We may ... be moving to a higher level of religion. Science is at present evolving from the description of concrete objects and events to the study of relationships as observed in complex systems. We may be about to recapture an experience of harmony, an intimation of the divine, from our scientific knowledge of the processes through which the earth became prepared for human life, and of the mechanisms through which man relates to the universe as a whole. A truly ecological view of the world has religious overtones.
Ecology holds the promise of revealing the connections between living things and their environment. Rather than abandoning the effort to learn about the mechanics of the world, ecology emphasizes how these mechanisms serve to link humans and other life-forms to the surrounding world. This perspective can lead to an "experience of harmony" or, more strongly, "an intimation of the divine," which Dubos saw as a pathway to a "higher level of religion."
The ecology Dubos envisioned is not simply an effort to understand how nature works, a search for mere descriptions. A truly ecological view perceives complex systems of intertwining relationships that allow us to hear what Dubos termed "religious overtones." These overtones serve as a clarion call for humans to discover how to act in relation to the natural world. Ecological interdependence implies a moral obligation to consider how our activities affect the earth. Here we discern the potential convergence of scientific, religious, and spiritual thought, a means for considering ethical duties to nature that invoke the perspectives of both science and religion. Decisions about our role in conserving other living beings in an interdependent ecological system require us to combine scientific knowledge with our sacred beliefs. Science can lead to an understanding of our influence on other life and on the natural environment, but in becoming cognizant of this knowledge, we face choices that have spiritual consequences.
The successful completion of a bridge between science and religion will depend on the respect and reverence for the natural world cultivated on both sides of the spiritual and scientific divide. Ethics serves as the keystone, and if the bridge is carefully built, we can anticipate a free and fruitful flow in the exchange of scientific and spiritual views. This collection of essays will, it is hoped, offer a strong base from which to start constructing this enduring edifice.
Excerpted from The Good in Nature and Humanity by Stephen R. Kellert, Timothy J. Farnham. Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Stephen R. Kellert is the Tweedy Ordway Professor of Social Ecology at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, author of Kinship to Mastery (Island Press, 1997) and The Value of Life (Island Press, 1996), and coeditor, with Edward O. Wilson, of The Biophilia Hypothesis (Island Press, 1993).
Timothy J. Farnham is a doctoral candidate at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
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