Writing in Salon, Karl Giberson reflects on the new atheists and their elevation of science to the status of, well, religion:
The grand creation story at the heart of this new religion of science inspires reverence among those invested in its exploration. The world disclosed in this story rests on a foundation of reliable and remarkable natural laws. These laws -- gravity tethering our planet to the sun, fusion reactions producing sunlight, chemistry enabling our metabolism -- possess the capacity to bring forth matter, galaxies, stars, planets and even life, all within a framework of natural processes that we can understand. And as we decipher these processes, their marvelous character only enlarges. No matter how well we understand them, they still evoke awe and surprise. The modern scientific creation story is so much more than a mere alternative to the traditional biblical myth of Adam and Eve; it is a genuinely religious myth with an astonishing depth.....
The other pieces of the new religion also fall naturally into place. Our existence is a gigantic miracle, billions of years in the making, and way more interesting than any magical conversion of water into wine. The atoms in our bodies were forged in the furnaces of ancient stars that exploded, seeding our galaxy with rich chemistry. Our planet and its life-sustaining sun formed from this recycled stellar debris. "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon."
The scientific creation story, unlike the parochial accounts in our religious texts, belongs to all of humanity; it is the story of the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Christians, the Confucians, the readers of PZ Myers' blog. We share this story with otters, giraffes, hummingbirds and the stars overhead. Atheist theologian Loyal Rue sees in the universality of the scientific story hope that a fragmented and suspicious humanity might find common ground on which to build a global village of trust and cooperation. "We are, at the moment, in many different places, with many histories and hopes," he writes in "Everybody's Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution." "But we are now called together to one place, to a shared history and to a common vision of enduring promise. If there are saints enough among us, we shall survive."
Wow, sounds like a religion, doesn't it? The religion of the rationalist? But be careful, Giberson warns....
Could we be sure, for example, that this new scientific religion would not give rise to the extremism and aberrant behavior that plague conventional religions? Would concern for the diversity of life, for example, inspire vegetarians to blow up slaughterhouses, and run the local butcher through his or her own meat grinder? Would reverence for the cosmos reinvigorate astrology? Would appreciation for natural selection bring eugenics back out of the closet? In other words, if science dismantles the traditional religious content that people use to satisfy their impulses -- many of which are quite passionate -- will we really be better off?
I suppose if humans were truly capable of reasoned and rational behavior, the answer would be "no", but that's clearly not the case. Our tribal instincts to divide into "us" and "them" occurs regardless. And if you want passion, go to a science meeting where two investigators have divergent viewpoints on the structure of some molecule or other--veritable fireworks between them, and slash-and-burn savagery under the protection of anonymous peer review.
Giberson further reflects,
I am worried that attempts to treat science as if it is a religion will only drive the big, abrasive wedge currently between science and religion even further into the chasm of misunderstanding. What we should hope, instead, is that science can become a more congenial guest in the house -- church, temple, mosque -- of religion and not be so determined to proselytize or even evict all of the current occupants. There is much in religion that need not trouble the scientist and much that the scientist can value. Scientists must learn to live with that.
I would add, so must the religious learn to live with the scientist. The mystery must be on both sides.
In order for many of us to truly feel at home in the universe so grandly described by science, that science needs to coexist as peacefully as possible with the creation stories of our religious traditions. I share with Myers, Dawkins and Weinberg the conviction that we are the product of cosmic and biological evolution, that Einstein and Darwin got it right. But I want to believe that, through the eyes of my faith, this is how God created the world and that God cares about that world. Does this belief, shared by so many of our species, make me dangerous?
Once again, I come up with the idea of ambiguity: no bright lines, but shades of gray receding into foggy uncertainty. I think that humans WANT something they don't understand and can strive towards. A man's reach should exceed his grasp, wrote Robert Browning, or what's a heaven for?
I am happy to admit that I don't think we will ever understand everything. I like endless possibilities. I don't feel the need to fulfill them with God; your mileage may vary. But truly, can't we all get along?