Review of Skeptics and True Believers (2005)

Thomas Clark

 

 Review: Chet Raymo. 1998. Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. New York: Walker and Company. 288 pp.

This article was originally published at naturalism.org in 1998, home page of the Center for Naturalism. This version contains minor editorial changes.

Science and religion have long been in collision, driven by the seemingly relentless march of empiricism into realms that were once strictly theological territory. The origins of the universe, the nature of the self, the source of ethics: all these are fair game for science, often at the expense of traditional faiths. It is fashionable (and politically correct) to portray this ongoing battle as a mutual accommodation, but in reality, religion is doing most of the accommodating, as the gaps in understanding that nourish God grow ever smaller. For believers conversant with science, the conception of divinity has shifted from the personal to the abstract, and for nonbelievers, any notion of the spiritual is likely to seem suspect. For many seeking religious consolation, the advance of science, or more broadly, naturalism, has forced a retreat to the easy fix of New Age nostrums: angels, aliens, and astrology. But science writer Chet Raymo shows that there is a better way.

Those interested in how to integrate, not separate, science and spirituality will profit by Raymo's inspiring book, Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Although each of us will find our own balance between skepticism and religious experience, Raymo makes a convincing case that they need not be incompatible. Wonder need not be extinguished by understanding and doubt; indeed, as we better appreciate both the vastness of the cosmos as given to us by astronomy (Raymo's favorite theme), and our ignorance, perhaps ineradicable, of its origins and destiny, wonder can't help but grow. It may even culminate, as it does for Raymo, in frankly religious awe for the "god of the galaxies"--although here's where some will part company with him, since "god," even lower case, may be too burdened with theistic connotations to figure in a thoroughly modern spirituality--that is, one without spirits. But this is a minor quibble, since obviously no vision of the ultimate will please everyone.

Raymo explores the reasons why so many of us cling to antique cosmologies or fall prey to pseudoscientific scams, concluding that much of our desire for transcendence is rooted in the fear of death. But, he says, we would be well advised to grow up, relinquish the quest for immortality, and find spiritual solace in what Catholic priest and historian Thomas Berry calls the New Story of science. This is not so paradoxical as we might imagine: our identification can shift from the personal "I" to the vast ground of being from whence we spring, revealed in telescopes and particle accelerators. Using his personal story of a lost Catholic faith transmuted into a reverential naturalism, Raymo makes it plausible that many, if not all thinking adults, can participate in what surely counts as a maturing of the spiritual impulse.

For those already in the naturalistic camp, Raymo's case for science, as opposed to wishful thinking, won't be revelatory, but his sharp dissection of New Age fads and resurgent fundamentalism is nevertheless instructive. He dispatches, compassionately but effectively, astrology, intercessory prayer, angels, creationists, the academic left's bungled critique of science, and even former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel's New Age sympathies. Particularly telling (and amusing) is his run-in with John Mack, (the now late) Harvard-credentialed apologist for alien abduction theories, which ends with a college campus vigil for aliens that never show up. Score one for the skeptics.

Raymo even takes issue with some rather reputable scientists, remonstrating Stephen Hawking for supposing that his astrophysics might reveal "the mind of God" and Stephen Weinberg for the reductionistic hubris of imagining that we will ever have a "final theory." This is all to the good, since it would not do, in our quest for an authentic modern spirituality, to replace one false god with another. Science helps give rise to wonder, but it is not itself to be worshipped.

Raymo's tone throughout is serious, but never pompous, pedantic, or condescending to the "true believer" clinging to traditional certitudes. He wishes only to point the way out of the manifest contradiction between our increasingly scientific and empirical grasp of material reality, and our uncritical acceptance of feel-good solutions to the problem of meaning. The way out is not to dismiss objective understanding of nature in favor of myths that are in flat contradiction to our knowledge, but to see that the awe-inspiring facts given by science (and the mysteries it will always leave open) are invitations to spiritual experience. Raymo shows us the way with a sure, skillful touch, that will likely move all but the most confirmed religionist or most crusty atheist.

How, for instance, can we reconcile the growing evidence for mind-brain identity with our traditional self-image as souls, or mental agents, inhabiting bodies? Something's got to give, and Raymo's bracing prescription is to jettison the immaterial "I," along with its promise of immortality, in favor of a strictly materialist theory of the self. But what, one might well ask, is inspiring in the view, as MIT's Marvin Minsky puts it, that we are simply "meat machines"? Raymo answers adroitly:

To admit that the mind is electrochemical does not diminish our concept of self; rather, it suggests that the cosmos was charged with the possibility of becoming conscious from the first moment of creation. The newly emerging concept of self is materialistic and mechanistic; it is also capacious enough to embrace not only the future but also the past, and expansive enough to entangle the self with the rest of creation (pp. 194-95).

It is this entanglement that Raymo succeeds in making vivid and spiritually compelling, not only through his account of the successes of science, but in apposite quotes from poets such as Mary Oliver and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from writers as diverse as Martin Buber, Teilhard de Chardin, and Nikos Kazantzakis. Raymo's impressive cultural range, developed in his years of writing a weekly science column for the Boston Globe, should satisfy both the intellectual and the aesthete, without leaving mere mortals in the dust.

Cynics may find his naturalistic epiphanies (at least one or two in every chapter) off-putting, since the language becomes nothing short of rapturous. But given Raymo's objective--to concretize the spiritual possibilities of science and skepticism--this risk had to be taken. Few, perhaps, will find themselves moved in precisely the ways Raymo is moved by the grand spectacle of creation without a creator, and some will ridicule his response as just more, if more sophisticated, wishful thinking in the face of the uncaring abyss. But even though Raymo himself is pessimistic about the chances that a naturalistic spirituality will take hold, his personal revelations testify that even professional skeptics can find meaning and wonder in the world. This bodes well for the rest of us, should we find ourselves on the route Raymo has scouted.


Copyright ©2005 Thomas Clark and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.

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