ESSAY

Week 4

Reconciling Science and Religion


by Samuel A. Trumbore, minister, First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, New York

Resolving the rift between science and religion is deeply personal for me. I was raised by a father who is a high priest of science—a retired professor of physical chemistry for the University of Delaware. I loved science as a child and looked up to my father as an exemplar of the scientific method for discovering truth. Repeatable experimentation was the enlightened path to knowledge for me. Those fossilized, sooth-saying charlatans in the irrational religious world were self-deluded crackpots. Christians, in particular, were caught in an archaic system of thought that became obsolete hundreds of years ago.

I continue today with the same appreciation and passion for the expansion of understanding through systematic and repeatable methods that are the crown of the scientific method. But along the way I had an unasked for, unexpected, and life-changing experience playing a game of chess.

There is no luck or chance in chess; it is a game of logic and rational pure intelligence. In a game against a stronger player, I had a revelatory experience of playing almost effortlessly, as if I were guided to see the right next move. Spiritually intuitive chess, if you will. I experienced a state of consciousness that felt completely new to me, one that expanded my perception of reality and began a religious journey that has led to this moment today.

I call this journey ‘religious’ because previously whenever I read the Bible or other religious texts I found nothing inspirational in them. They were dead historical texts that chronicled a semi-barbaric past that scientific thinking had overcome and was in the process of putting behind us. I had no interest in gurus and swamis who deluded themselves with magical thinking lost in their imaginations. I believed that science outlined exactly what was real and the rest could be discarded.

After my religious chess experience, however, when I picked up these texts anew I began to find meaning in them. Gradually, I began to see that hidden in the archaic language and ideas was a message that had some kind of synergy, resonance, familiarity, emotional connection, and attraction that had eluded me before. The rational, systematic, and experiential approach of Buddhist insight meditation further opened up an even greater experiential understanding of what these religious teachers were talking about.

I’ve since had a number of objectively ordinary but subjectively transformative moments at meditation retreats. Using my scientific mind frame, I’m constantly trying to figure out what is happening and steadily on-guard for superstitious and magical thinking. The language that best fits these episodes comes from mythopoetic and religious literature. And some don’t translate well into language at all.

I’ve written some pretty enthusiastic letters to my father after these retreats trying to share what I was experiencing that pointed me in a spiritual direction. My father would respond as empathetically as he could by talking about the chemistry of the brain and endorphins. For him, the world can be completely explained by chemical reactions. There is nothing more, nothing less.

Where science and religion collide is around the existence of God and an entity called Spirit. Religion begins with a revelation of God and Spirit and creates the universe. Science begins with observable matter and builds up from there. My father is right that the methods of science have proved far more reliable for understanding the external world than that of religion, much to the consternation of Popes and bishops.

I measure a tablespoon of baking soda and a cup of vinegar. I mix them and observe the result. I drop a lead ball and measure the time it takes for it to fall a measured distance. I compare my results with others who have done similar experiments. The patterns and discoveries come from applying my mind to the data. Experiment and observe, then confirm.

Religion has worked the other direction. It has started with a direct interior revelation to a prophet who then demonstrates its reality in his or her life, which inspires communal confirmation. The prophet and/or theirdisciples then leave instructions on how to reproduce that divine revelation.

Unfortunately, over time, religion often becomes reduced to following instructions alone. Say this prayer, do this yoga position, chant this mantra because this is what God wants you to do to be good. Science, too, can be reduced to an investigation of physical phenomena, closing off all interest in investigating Spirit. One method works well in the invisible world of meaning and the other one in the measurable world of facts.

But no scientist can deny the interior experience of reality for long. Consciousness is, of course, necessary in order for the scientist to observe and record the surface of things. But our interior reality is much greater than the physiological processes that support it. Sense data do not contain the message. Two people looking at the same painting and listening to the same music can have vastly different experiences even though the sensory input is exactly the same. Similarly, measuring the brain waves of meditators will not reveal the significance of their subjective inner experience. One can completely characterize and understand how a computer functions without discovering the meaning in its program. They operate on different levels of integration, just as a blood cell cannot smell a flower and smile.

Most religious traditions demand that you begin with a faith in God or Spirit. But I suggest this is not necessary—one only need begin with interest and curiosity. Through the method of direct personal experience, guided by the confirmation of a community of practitioners, one can find out what the words God and Spirit are pointing at but cannot adequately convey. Spirit is an interior, subjective, truth that cannot be objectified but can be encountered.

Where religion and science can meet once again and find common ground is the center of the scientific method—direct, repeatable experience. Just as the laws of the movement of objects can be directly witnessed and repeated by anyone sufficiently trained in the scientific method, so too are methods taught by spiritual leaders that also lead to direct, repeatable experiences that can be verified by a community of practitioners. Enlightenment can be approached with the same precision as a scientific experiment.

Not only can they share a methodology, science and religion can be mutually reinforcing because they both study the same thing—what is real. Scientific techniques to measure how a meditator’s brain works may reveal better methods of spiritual realization. Technologists are working on better and better biofeedback machines to do just that. Prayer and devotion may help a scientist break through a difficult problem and make a leap in understanding. The science of the mind and heart can be joined together.

Philosopher Ken Wilber believes that this integration is possible because at the core of everything is Spirit. There is nothing but Spirit taking the form of matter, body and mind. The duality of matter and energy is transcended in Spirit. We are already what we seek. Our challenge is to wake up to this truth.