I’ve never seen God. I didn’t witness the Big Bang. The only dinosaurs I’ve seen in the flesh are clothed in wings and feathers, and the only guardian angels I’ve met HALO jump out of planes and wear their wings on their red berets.
I’m not alone in my lack of experience. Nevertheless, without any firsthand knowledge, millions of people around the world speak confidently about both scientific and religious reality.
Human confidence in what we think we know for certain – whether it is in the reliable mechanics of the universe or the benevolent machinations of the divine – almost always involves hope in things unseen. Cosmology, evolutionary biology, theology, and metaphysics are fields about events and processes we can’t, didn’t, or won’t live to see directly. We rely on “high priests”, whether we term them scientists, researchers, pastors, or prophets, to bring knowledge down to us – either from the heights of Sinai or from the stars themselves.
We can’t help but have the voices of these experts in our heads. Their words and pronouncements ring with the authority of learning, experience, tradition, and reason. Still, when we’re deeply honest with ourselves, it’s clear that both science and religion leave us with as many questions as answers. This is especially true when we deal with epistemology: thinking about how we know what we know and why we think we know it.
Epistemological debates are rich and complex. However, when we’re not playing armchair philosopher, for the most part we believe in what we see and the principles and propositions that can make coherent sense out of our common everyday experiences, whether they be religious or scientific. Harvard anthropologist Stanley Tambiah notes that though many philosophers, logicians, and scientists themselves discuss the epistemological problems of the scientific method and scientific claims, science is nevertheless viewed as marching towards a “practical certainty.”
We believe in science because it “works.” It gives the world around us a sense of predictability and order. The theologian John Calvin and his intellectual descendants talk about religion in much the same way. The Belgic Confession, a Calvinist creed, for instance, discusses Christian belief in this way:
And we believe without a doubt all things [in the books of canonical scripture]—not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God. For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.
Now, invisible processes in science and in religion aren’t quite the same. Metaphysical propositions are impossible to see directly whereas many scientific phenomena are directly observable. Still, such propositions in both fields sometimes make use of inference and the deduction of facts from the observation of separate phenomena. Thus both, in a way, require a measure of faith. For example, we can read in a textbook that a cell begets out of its own substance another cell identical in nature, yet individually distinct. We read in a sacred text: unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur. Neque confundentes personas, neque substantiam separantes.
Now it’s easy to see where a belief in the Christian God requires faith. A Trinitarian God requires faith in the reliability of transmitted scripture, the trustworthiness of the witnesses and writers of scripture. The scripture is taken to be demonstrated in the ways that God has moved, influenced, or otherwise inspired an individual’s life. But cellular mitosis equally requires faith in the theories of optics (as it is seen through a microscope), the integrity of the scientists recording and reporting data, and the notion that causality itself exists and thus that the consistent and repeatable viewing of this phenomenon actually can and does lead to a reliable explanation of it.
Without both faith and demonstration, we wouldn’t believe in either God or Mitosis. But I don’t think we necessarily believe in biological facts, even when we see them happening. We believe in them because scientific advances have consistent effects on our everyday lives. Even something as innocuous as the relief we feel after taking an aspirin for a headache or the refreshment we get from drinking a Gatorade after working out confirms for us that science works. This kind of science doesn’t “prove” the Big Bang or evolutionary biology. But it demonstrates that there is something to the process of science that makes it so that even the most scripturally devout and miracle-affirming person has common ground with the scientist. We affirm science every time we relieve our headaches or replenish our electrolytes.
Does this work in the reverse, though? Is there something similar to our experience with aspirin that would make religious inroads to the scientifically minded skeptic? This question is a bit more difficult to see because religion isn’t as unified a phenomenon or process as science. It’s older and more culturally conditioned. But I argue there are ways that the scientific skeptic can find common ground with religion.
The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher pointed out that when you look at religion as a phenomenon beyond specific systems of faith (e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Islam), its essence is intuition and feeling. Specifically, it’s the intuition that there are things beyond oneself upon which one depends, and the feeling of awe and reverence that such intuition engenders. Schleiermacher sums this up in one word: piety. But this piety doesn’t come from the experience of miracles, signs, revelation, trustworthy authority, or even some faith induced depth of personal certainty. Schleiermacher instead relies on commonly accessible human experience to confirm the existence of the religious phenomenon: we all experience awe. Even the avowed atheist Richard Dawkins admits that:
There are many intellectual atheists who…label as ‘religion’ the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein.
The pantheistic reverence of which Dawkins speaks is essentially Schleiermacher’s piety.
But pietistic awe is not induced only by the majesty of a natural rock formation or the vastness of the stars. This experience is something as close, as real, and as small as the first time my son’s tiny finger curled around mine, and my world was filled with a love vaster and more infinitely encompassing than millions upon millions of multiverses.
Science can’t explain awe. It certainly can’t explain love. It can reduce it to instinct or biological processes or evolutionary survival. It can even record our brain chemistry and brain waves. But it can’t truly capture the essence of love. And yet love is a fact. Even if we’ve not experienced it ourselves, we know enough and have a common enough concept of what love is to know when we don’t have it. Ann Druyan said of when she and fellow scientist Carl Sagan figured out they had fallen in love: “it’s a ‘Eureka! moment.’”
Love is the Eureka! moment of religion as well. It’s experiences like love and awe whose fullness science cannot capture, but that scientists can and do experience, that are the essence of religion. You may never see an angel or even believe in God, but religion viewed in this way is a common human experience. Schleiermacher writes:
Religion helped me when I began to examine the ancestral faith and to purify my heart of the rubble of primitive times. It remained with me when God and immortality disappeared before my doubting eyes. It guided me into the active life. It taught me, with my virtues and defects, to keep myself holy in my undivided existence, and only through it have I learned friendship and love.
So when prophecies cease, when the tongues of angels can be heard no more, when all religious and scientific knowledge passes away – love and universally human experiences like it bind the zealot and skeptic, the scientist and the true believer in ways that no other knowledge can. They remind us that, no matter how far apart they are intellectually, spiritually or spatially, that when the saint and the skeptic turn to each other, the ground between them is common.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series, “How Science Influences Religious Language.”)
Tambiah, Stanley J. Magic, Science, Religion, and the scope of Rationality. Melbourne: Cambridge, 1995. 146.
 Belgic Confession. Article 5. Emphasis mine.
 From the Athanasian Creed: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity. Neither conflating [God’s distinct] persons, nor dividing their essence.”
 Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner, 2008. 35.
 Schleiermacher, F.D.E. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Edited by Richard Crouter. New York: Cambridge, 2012. 8.