Religion. Freddie Flintoff. Creation Science. Presence.
Religion. Where to start?
To the alarm of modernists, religion seems to be experiencing a bit of a surge in popularity. All the usual scientific and sociological explanations get trotted out to explain this, usually something about dark times driving people back to the irrationality of faith etc.
I'm not sure we're looking at this the right way. There's an assumption, actively encouraged by those on both sides (if we loosely group the protagonists into science and religion camps), that science and religion are both trying to do the same thing. They're both trying to describe and adjudicate upon reality. Still the old Galileo scenography.
For me this is a tale of two straw men. And I don't come down on either 'side' because they both actually agree on just about everything, and hardly at all with me. I think the science camp are as misguided about science as they are about religion, and vice versa. Everyone seems to be clamouring for the right to occupy the sacred position of defining what reality is and how it came about, missing the point that reality isn't and never was a THING. That it's always being created and changing, at each and every moment (and even moments are being created - time itself isn't a framework things sit inside).
It's a crude but common tale about modern science that it set off on the path to truth after the Galileo trial, when it finally managed to wrestle the right to define reality from the Church. But why was the Church defining reality in this way in the first place? How did it come to think of itself as like some historical version of the CSIRO or Royal Society? (It's actually not clear that it did think that, if you read the history of the trial, but that's another issue.)
At the same time how did science come to adopt this rampaging mysticism that saw reality as something 'out there', which scientists have almost priestly, privileged access to? The Greeks would have found that laughable, but it's completely embedded as common sense in our world today.
It's the same issue, in both camps. Everybody fighting to be able to define how reality works, without either stopping to wonder why reality isn't just, well, reality. Why this scenario of reality being somehow veiled? This has been the mechanism of the sacred, in the worst and most violent sense of that word, forever. As soon as you grant any group, no matter who they are, the right to define reality and truth, you have insiders and outsiders and sacrificial lambs and virgins.
What is the specific vocation of religion and science? What is it they actually do, or should do?
Religion used to talk a lot more about presence. The whole resurrection story in Christianity has for so long been channelled through the other-worldly framework of truth or God being 'out there' somewhere that it's now read as some sort of miraculous scientific event, with both camps arguing the toss over whether Jesus actually did arise from the dead, and whether heaven actually is a place, and whether Jesus himself was an actual historical person etc. Of course there are also the more modernist Church thinkers who reject this vulgar sci-fi version of religion, but they tend to try to save everything by surrendering the entire field of reality to science, upon which they lay a thin gruel of values and ethics. Why can't both religion and science deal with reality, but in different ways? Why can't each have their own 100% real, specific vocations?
But there are those who have never understood religion or the resurrection story in the sci-fi or modernist way at all, but rather have seen the message here to be about an endlessly renewed presence - the continuous reinvention of the 'good news'. For these people, religion has always been the process of taking some good thing and finding ways to sustain and re-create it, from moment-to-moment. That need not be anything that is identifiably 'religious' at all - for example the continual playing and re-interpretation of great works of music is completely religious, in this schema.
Similarly science can be seen not as a privileged bridge to objectivity and truth, but rather as an activity of weaving together humans and non humans in long chains of 'reference'. Meaning that a scientist for example who studies rocks is not giving us access to some hidden essence of rocks, but rather is weaving together, via their instruments, a whole set of new associations between people and rocks, with the properties of each modified in the process of these new interactions. A rock is not a thing, just as reality is not a thing - it will respond differently depending on what you do with it, and these properties aren't pre-existing (how could they be? at what point in its history has a rock known that somebody was about to dissolve it with acid, or scan it with a laser?)
Just as happens with Freddie Flintoff, the English cricket fan's new Great Hope (after Ian 'Beefy' Botham), it's not difficult to see in history how easily practical genius is transformed or transmuted into sacred mythology. The practical achievements of great scientists and religious figures (and sports people, artists...) are so easily turned into the achievements of other-worldly beings, which people at the time sort of understand is a bit of a marketing exercise, but after not many years that awareness of the spin can fall away. Look at the ways we understand people like Mozart, and how the more divorced you are from the practical details of his life the more the cry of genius takes on that whiff of the sacred. Yes he was a genius, but that was an entirely practical thing, it was many thousands of hours of practice and work, for starters. And it wasn't just that, but the extra bit that made him stand out was not from another world.
The creation scientists' desperate bid to ape what they see as science is also a bit of an own-goal for scientists themselves, which they don't tend to see. Yes creationists seem to be the most out of touch with the idea of religion as a continuously renewed presence, of all religious folk. But what spurs them on is the equally evangelical zealotry of the scientists who see themselves as warriors of Truth, the sole definers of Reality. They're fighting on the same field, using all the same categories. Creation science is a complete misunderstanding of what science is about, but so is billion-dollar atom smashers and lots of animal experimentation, carrying that old 'religious' assumption of dominion over all creatures.
And basically anything that makes science into some sort of sacred arbiter of how things are. Things already are, nobody needs to step in for them and tell them what they are. Why can't science continue to invent ways to tease out new hybrids of people and things, and religion then continuously create new ways to reinvent a glorious presence of these same people and things? Scientific cosmologies and cosmogonies are already trying to do this, but in a far too Trekkie sort of way. Religions have always been the masters of this, they have done it so beautifully. So much of the beautiful art for example in our tradition stems from religious institutions, and the artists painting these weren't trying to create maps or hypotheses, they were trying to find beautiful ways to endlessly make us present again to the beauty and goodness of existence.