In his article, Jon Phillips responds to an opinion piece by Stephen T. Asma in the New York Times, which posits that, "our minds are motivated primarily by ancient emotional systems, like fear, rage, lust, love and grief. These forces are adaptive and help us survive if they are managed properly..." and fundamentally, religion helps manage them.
I heartily agree with his thesis that scientific facts cannot feed the more ancient parts of our souls. The parts where the seat of emotion resides. This part of the human mind is central to the survival of the individual, families, communities, and at this point in human development, nations and probably the world. The problem, however, is that in a world where humans are overpopulating and increasingly damaging essential habitat that we and many other animals and plants rely on to survive (we are now in the "Anthropocene" -- directly influencing the entire biosphere of the Earth), learning about OBJECTIVE truths, accepting them and taking action on them is becoming critical to survival -- just as critical as overcoming psychological grief, trauma, finding love and purpose. The question is not what is more important, the cognitive or the emotive, but how to get them to properly coordinate to produce the outcomes we desperately need.
In the ancient world in which humans evolved into a specific subspecies of bipedal hominids (there were several others that died out), our emotive mental processes were most critical to survival. We created religions as social mechanisms to enhance cooperation in our clans and tribes. Today, the shadows of this long process of psychological evolution is plainly displayed in our modern religions and the more ancient mythologies they were based upon. Modern systems of law and regulation are evolutionary extensions of more ancient religious codes.
Faith is an essential thing to effectively function -- even for an atheist. The notion that any particular person is purely scientific in their thinking is nonsense. We have to accept the validity of most of the "facts" we learn based on the authoritative context of those facts. The only difference between this approach and the reading of religious scripture is the definition of what constitutes "authority" regarding objective truth.
In science, we look for theories based on application of the scientific method -- independent repeated observations that lead to hypotheses that are challenged continuously by further observations, but survive to be accepted as theories (which can also be overthrown by a verified challenge at any time). Since we cannot all perform the observations and make the discoveries ourselves, we accept the position of the authorities that we study. In narrow topical areas, those of us who are scientists, may directly contribute to this process, but most of our knowledge is accepted by faith in other authorities. We have FAITH in findings of the scientific community, knowing that if a sufficient challenge takes down a theory it will be replaced with something else -- a temporal kind of faith based on a process of continuous discovery and evaluation of observed evidence
In religion, faith is not based on faith in the scientific community's findings and its rigorous challenges, it's based on faith in the teachings and writings of religious authorities and our emotional reasoning about that information within our community of "significant others." If it stopped there, it would be a SUBJECTIVE truth -- somewhat of an oxymoron. As a result, typically, these teachings and writings claim the authority of some deity as the source of higher "inspirational" or "revelatory" authority and this deity is all knowing and trustworthy. This is the metaphorical equivalent of a child saying to another child, "that's the truth" and having another child ask "how do you know it's true?" And then receiving the answer, "because my mom says so." If the children are young enough, that may be enough authority to accept the position on faith. Our parents are our first god and goddess -- that's part of the psychology of childhood development. We are fortunately endowed with the ability to believe in authority and to have related faith. We are also endowed with the ability to eventually question and to doubt authority and to lose our faith in a particular limited authority
Now the question is how to get science and religion to work together to resolve our most pressing needs as societies and individuals? Science, as most people think of it, seems to be purely in the realm of intellect and of the material world. I wager that even many of my scientific peers experience it this way. Religion seems to many scientists, to be an ancient set of mythologies that have little reason to continue to exist. A bag full of magical thinking.
My personal journey through a deep grief to acceptance and resolution of loss, was not supported by my religious beliefs in the end. In fact, that experience plus many others, deconstructed the religious beliefs I was raised with -- those beliefs (hypotheses) were challenged by observations and they were replaced. I increasingly find resonance between the "faith" I have in science and in my remaining and instinctual magical thinking. You can't strip hundreds of thousands of years of psychological evolution out of the human animal -- it changes gradually, though faster than other physiological systems. But you can examine it carefully and reconstruct your interpretation of the magical to become increasingly consistent with the facts of the world as you know them.
I've found that my magical thinking, when broken down and isolated from religious interpretations (sometimes taboos), can be more accurately interpreted in the frame of science than in the frame of religion. I've found that my magical thinking is more fundamental and basic than religion and can be refit with a new "interface" -- an interpretive overlay in the place of a classical religion. Magical thinking can be imbued with new meaning and made even more useful as a result. At least that is my experience.
So is there a future "faith" that can be constructed that marries our natural inclinations toward the emotive with our cognitive abilities making use of the scientific method? Can we allow our notion of an ultimate authority, and how to convey that authority to enhance faith, to become increasingly objective and real and to leave behind the circular logic of the authority of deity as found in most classical religions? To cease from being satisfied with: "because I told you so."
Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.