I was sitting out by the fire pit on my backyard patio with my wife the other day, warming my knees against the flickering flames and staring up at the starry sky above. We noted a couple bright spots above us and whipped out our smart phone night sky apps (because we’re ENORMOUS geeks like that) to find out those spots were Jupiter and Mars. The following night I pulled my son’s telescope out of the basement and zeroed in on the two planets. As I got the disk of Jupiter locked in, I kept bouncing back and forth between the magnified image and the bare-eye view. The sense of scale landed for the barest moment… that point in the sky, that sphere in the eyeglass… that’s a real planet right there. A neighbor. A particularly large and impressive-looking neighbor.
I had a moment.
It was a similar moment as when I first visited the Lincoln Memorial and gazed up at the huge sculpture of the Great Emancipator. I was temporarily staggered, as if I had touched a moment of Truth.
Which brings me to another conversation I had recently with my mother-in-law, in which we discussed religion and science. Lately I’ve been catching up on Cosmos, the Seth MacFarlane-produced homage to the original Carl Sagan television program. This generation is hosted by Sagan’s heir-apparent, Neil DeGrasse Tyson… a man who had already garnered my six-year-old’s respect from Nova Science Now. Cosmos is an outstanding show… I highly recommend it.
That said, there’s a group of people online… a highly vocal group… who have come out against Cosmos with all the venom they can muster. Why are these people so angry? Because the program spent fifteen solid minutes deconstructing the notion of Intelligent Design. And that, my friends, was a declaration of war.
At least in their mind.
Why are certain people of certain specific faith systems so threatened by Cosmos? Or for that matter, the assertion of any scientific theory outside of the narrative they have constructed around their interpretation of religion? Why are science and faith seemingly mutually exclusive?
They aren’t, first of all. Let me just get that out of the way. It is my assertion that this false dichotomy of science and faith is serving to unravel some of the structure of our society. Why must we be forced to choose between evolution and Genesis, accepting one while aggressively rebuking the other? Why are we required to believe in one strictly-defined interpretation of Biblical Creation? Why do the fringe element snap their own spines while bending over backwards to prove their faith, when that very concept is a contradiction of terms?
Because people are confusing Truth with Fact. I know that’s something of an arbitrary semantical conceit, but let’s roll with it for a second. Science is the net understanding of the pursuit of observable fact in an attempt to better understand the Universe around us. Truth, if you’ll adopt my conceit, is when we attempt to discern our place in the Universe. Fact occurs all around us, and exists (to borrow Mr. Tyson’s words) whether we believe in them or not. Truth, on the other hand, exists solely in the human mind, and has a completely distinct purpose and appearance from person-to-person.
Many choose to believe in a higher power towards making sense of our place in the Universe. The Universe is pretty big. That’s a fact. How we respond to how very small we are when we have the kind of “moment of scale” I mentioned above? That’s the pursuit of Truth. If it soothes a person to embrace God, and therefore feel as if the Universe has embraced them, I can’t object.
Likewise, if a person chooses to revel in the dizzying moment of scale, sitting by a fire pit, looking up at constellations which are at the same time utterly familiar, yet ancient. Being light which spent millions of years to reach one’s eyes for that micro-second of observation… realizing that everything we see above us is a three-dimensional snapshot of eons… and taking comfort in the Fact as Truth rather than feeling small because of it? I contend this is no different than Church.
It’s the human condition to resist insignificance. It’s written into our survival instincts. I’ve read recently that specific brain structures are different between atheists and theists… that we may not, in fact, have much choice in whether we believe in God or if we rely on an objective view of the Universe.
But do you know what we do have a choice in? Whether we fight over it. Whether we impose needless insignificance over one another based on a difference in the Truth we’ve adopted.
Now, I’ve been speaking from a position of atheism here, as evidenced by my capitalizing Universe the way one capitalizes God. I delight in Fact. I’ve also found a way to stitch together observable fact into an embracing Truth, and my sense of significance doesn’t suffer from a lack in the belief in a higher power. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I cease judging others because they deny observable fact, choosing to replace it with their Faith Narrative. I may not respect the Narrative, but I feel it’s my responsibility to make a place for the person if not that person’s Truth.
Because honestly most people don’t adhere to the false dichotomy. They have found a way to make room in their lives for faith without denying science. In the words of one person, “I just don’t worry about it.”
I’m choosing to devote myself more fully to the joy of that dizzying moment of scale; that sense of Wonder I had as a child when I discovered magnets and microscopes; that thick, intoxicating sense of discovery which draws out the hope and ideals from my chest and fills my mind with moments of magic, fear, elation, and satisfaction that pierces through the cynical brain of a modern adult.
That’s my Church.
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