For a while, I thought that our modern culture's relationship to science best resembled the Catholic Church during the middle ages. Priests delivering sermons in Latin, indulgences, poor families of believers praying one of their sons would be bright enough for the clergy... Then I discovered the Druze.
"But when I asked him about the Druze faith, he gave me an unexpected reply. 'I know nothing about the Druze', the pre-eminent leader of the Druze declared with a violent wave of his arm. From his piles of books he selected a couple by Tariq Ali and gave them to me as gifts. He invited me to visit him at his palace in the mountains. And then he said goodbye. Either the most powerful Druze man in Lebanon, an intellectual in his own right, had been excluded from the teachings of his own religion, or else he knew better than to pass them on to an outsider. I had every intention of taking up his invitation to spend time among the Druze communities, but first I would have to find someone more willing to talk to me.
Luckily, a Druze man name Rabieh, who knew the ambassador and was keen to help us understand his community, had agreed to help. The only trouble was, he told us, that he did not know very much about it himself. He was not alone. Druze laypeople live essentially as they choose, provided they help defend and maintain the community and marry within it. But they are not allowed to know what the religion teaches. This is why they are known as juhhal (literally, 'the ignorant ones'). Despite his power and wealth, Jumblatt was one of the juhhal. Only the initiates - who are also known as sheikhs or uqqal, and who dedicate themselves to lives of contemplation and poverty -- know the religion's teachings in full. That was why, Rabieh explained, he had arranged for us to visit the House of the Sect, the administrative headquarters of the Druze religion in Lebanon."
From Gerard Russell's "Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms" 142-143
The book isn't fiction, but I'd forgive you if you thought it was. Such is the influence of secret religions. And If that doesn't remind you at all of our current culture's relationship to science, consider the study where 49% of Americans believed that Tomatoes which were not genetically modified did not HAVE GENES.
So I ask you -- the solstice circles, Sunday Assembly, those ceremonies you've seen, will they change the lives, the hearts, the minds of our juhhal? Do they give hope to the hopeless? Clarity to the confused? Do they give home and meaning to those who sense it has been stripped from them? It seems to me they are at best public spaces for the awkward mating rituals of our priestly class.
I read your post-atheism series. You're right, ritual is the hard part. Unfortunately, I suspect space launches don't happen nearly often enough to lay a beat for dancing. Your outline is also notable for what it is missing. Where are the demands on the adherent? Where is the daily prayer, weekly worship, discipleship, bible study? Where are the fasts, the sacrifice, the renunciation of the self, the desire to change and the belief that through faith in something higher -- and the support of the community, it is possible. You have some sacred things, but where are the aspirations for what one should become. I suspect from your other writing that you know these are features of religion, not bugs.
Look at religious membership today, you'll see that the center is hollowing out. People are leaving mainline churches, either completely -- for secular society and/or liberal personal spirituality, or for the more intense, conservative, strict branches of organized faith. Why? And if we find something lacking in the side we've found ourselves on, what can we learn from those who took the other path?
Before we go down that road, a note on terms:
"Science", capitalized, has a somewhat impersonal meaning in our broader culture. For most people, it is a noun, it represents a historical body of knowledge. It is in the past. Their relationship to it, if at all, is that they receive it. They study it. They acquire it. Memorize it. It is what we know now. The result of the historical effort of professional Elites -- great men and women to whom we are in debt. It is powerful, but distant.
We could use that term. We could fight to redefine the word. Or we could see that this version of "Science", is just a specific footprint of something more general, more powerful. It is the memory of something that was once overwhelmingly experienced by someone in the present. Something that, if we open ourselves to it, is as transformative as it is ubiquitous. Discovery.
Personally, I think Orthodoxy is on the rise, at least in part because it makes demands on people to become more than themselves, for a cause more significant than their life. And it gives them a force. Sometimes (if you trust Jaynes and Tanya Luhrmann) the force is a full fledged agent, at the very least it is a meme. Regardless, it is a source of strength to draw on to do what they believe would be impossible on their own. There is a reason so many Christian "Witness" stories deal with personal transformation, like overcoming drug addiction or alcoholism, and there is a reason those stories are true. There is also a reason those communities form such strong bonds -- they are DIFFERENT. Membership requires you to be DIFFERENT. Membership gives you the path and power to become DIFFERENT. And to one feeling disillusioned with modernity, DIFFERENT is better.
Before I got into tech, I studied Anthropology, and during college I spent a year practicing participant observation within an Evangelical Church plant. I went in mostly with academic curiosity and a sort of competitive open-mindedness. But I can tell you that throughout that year I had some experiences whose equal I've only found with loved ones and heavy doses of psychedelics. I saw some real transformations, I felt transformed myself. About 9 months in I found myself desperately wanting to believe. For about 6 weeks, I told myself I did.
After all, if history and culture are an outgrowth of geography and biology, if memetic evolution is just a continuation (at higher speeds) of biological evolution, if all of that are outgrowths of chemistry and physics -- isn't it fair to say that the LOGOS, the pattern, the knowledge, the order, that was responsible for the births and deaths of stars was the same one that caused me to encounter the Christian meme at that exact moment in my life? It sounded plausible.
The problem for me was the first commandment.
Exodus 20:3 reads "Thou Shalt have no other Gods before me." Matthew 22:38 goes “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’".
You probably know a number of people who left the faith they were raised in because they stopped believing in God. You probably know some who left because they object to the institution of organized religion. I'm not an atheist. Like Thomas Jefferson I believe that "If there is a god, surely he would prefer honest questioning to blindfolded fear." The reason I'm not a part of any religious tradition today is because that call from the unknown to seek is the only thing I've ever heard that sounded like the voice of God. In every community of faith I've encountered so far, I have found myself faced with a choice between giving my whole self to that call and calling myself one of them. In those moments, giving anything less than everything to the search for understanding has only ever felt like idolatry.
The question I'm interested then is there not just how to celebrate the achievements of falsification or build community for the sake of belonging. It's how could we aspire to make Discovery -- not easy discovery, but the deep earth shaking, difficult, ego shattering discovery, a sacred and regular rhythm of our daily life. There is a Buddhist aspiration to "See the World as it is, not as you wish it to be.". My question is, how could we build communities where we are responsible to each other, to ourselves, and to something greater, to try to perceive the world more fully in every way.
To give you a hint of where I see this going, I'll turn to Matthew Crawford
"The word “education” comes from a Latin root that means “to lead out.” To be educated is to be led out of oneself, perhaps. Consider the experience of learning a foreign language, beautifully described by Iris Murdoch:
If I am learning, for instance, Russian, I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. ....
To learn Russian is to acquire new powers of expression, and probably of thinking too. One acquires the ability to act in settings that would otherwise be mystifying. Our fixation on autonomy clouds our understanding of such development because the skills one exercises in any impressive human performance are built up through submission— to “authoritative structures,” to use Murdoch’s phrase. Such structures provide those ecologies of attention in which minds may become powerful, and achieve genuine independence." ...
Consider another example: the process of becoming a musician. This necessarily involves learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this isn’t the main thing— there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. For example, halving the length of a string under a given tension raises its pitch by an octave. These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. The education of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely that it arises only within concrete limits. As the example of learning Russian illustrates, these limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. "
from "The World Beyond your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction"
So then, to study and perform music is to submit to the math, behind the physics, behind the instrument, behind the sound waves that stir up that feeling in your chest. Poetic idea at least. Reminds me of Pythagoras, and Qawwali. I wonder what happens if you pull that string further... Heres one place it might might lead.
There is a saying in Islam -- in explanation of the pillar of prayer -- if you wash yourself five times a day, you can not help but be clean. I often asked myself what the equivalent would be if I were as serious about my spiritual path as millions if not billions of muslims are about theirs. One night, a few years ago, I was walking alone in the desert just outside the ruins of the city of Petra, and felt I heard an answer to this this question. Study math.
At the time the only training I had in math was the stats class that had been required of Anthro majors, and whatever I'd needed in High School. Math had always been presented to me as a means to an end, and the ends I sought seemed not to require much of it at all. But what popped into my head when thinking about salat at that moment was the quote from Galileo
Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.
Now, I should confess right that I haven't made a ritual study of pure math a daily part of my routine. When I encounter something new and difficult, I would love to say that I now am always celebrating the complexities of the universe and excited at my opportunity to grow. This also is not true. But the experience did give a certain aesthetic edge to things which might have been a source of fear before, and it gave me reason to avoid things that seemed harmless in the past. The spirituality of science didn't get me over a drug addiction. It did cause me to quit drinking and take up functional programming. It is the reason time I spend on things like 3 Blue 1 Brown feels like a break and not a chore. It did cause me to take a very new perspective on teaching and learning and cultivating an ability to perceive the universe.
I should also be clear that I'm not to privilege the memorization of facts or formulas or the study of one discipline here. Math happens to be one area where many people are held back by fear or the warped approach our current society takes to the pursuit of knowledge. Art, Music, even honest social interactions are others. As Georgia O'Keefe says
“Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small it takes time—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
What I'm talking about is WHY we learn anything, and the skill and experience we can cultivate of truer and truer perception. What I'm talking about is how we arrange our time and our attention when our priority is understanding the world.
Before we get into it though, I want to go back to something more fundamental.
A friend of mine recently summarized Alain d'Button's "Religion for Atheists" as this --- "it's like someone read the New Testament and decided what they really wanted was to become a Pharisee." If you aren't well versed in the bible, the Pharisees are the ones Jesus calls "White washed Tombs." What we have today of scientific spirituality seems to be drawing inspiration more from crumbling structures of tradition than the living faiths undergoing renewal. From the outside I think it is easy to forget that reefs are mostly dead coral.
Structure is important, but on its own it is impotent. The relationships within a tribe are the sinew of the super-organism, but the love the strongest tribes are built on on comes not from looking into each others eyes, but forward in the same direction. Religions are marvelous scaffolds of attention, but to have lasting strength, everything within them must all act to feed a pattern that participants choose to accept and embed and nurture and grow within their skull. An agent that will guide them in times of trouble, and give significance to all action. In the mental circuitry of every religious person there is a function which transforms experience into meaning. Applying this function is a mental and emotional skill, and all the ritual and social structures of religion are just exercises to develop that ability. This patten, this function, this skill is what I think most call faith.
Maybe you find that term unsettling. After all, isn't the one thing we lovers of science have in common our lack of faith? I don't think so. Because I don't think faith is just some magic incantation or label to apply to ones social identity. Knowing the path is not walking the path, and the practice of faith is about installing a pattern so deeply in our consciousness, in so many different ways and so many aspects of ourselves that it permeates every aspect of our existence.
You say you're worried it takes energy and a pre-existing community to start something up. I think there are some things that you and I and many others believe, but find ourselves forgetting when life distracts us. I think there are some grooves that are worth greasing further, the grooves which will allow us to see clearer and look deeper. Our community exists, even if it isn't self aware. To become self aware though we have to be clear what we stand for, to demand more of ourselves and each other, and to give more of ourselves than makes sense from an individualistic calculus. The identity that comes with this is small, not because it is weak, but because it is dense.
So then, to get personal, here is my faith: Truth is sufficient. It is all that ever was, or ever will be sufficient.
Truth is without end. If it could fit in a single life or a single mind it would not be the infinite thing I seek. But the search is what gives my life meaning, and it is the thing I will gladly give my life for.
Or, as Feynman put it, "I have to understand the world, you see."
Anyway, to answer your last question, I don't keep a blog, but I also think of writing as a tool for thinking, so when I sense an email turning into an essay I try to trust that impulse. Thanks for drawing this one out of me.
If it isn't already clear, you've definitely convinced me that you're "more-than-passively" interested in this topic. I think the difference between "more than passively interested", and actually doing something about it rests on one question though, and it's a question I haven't seen answered in any of your writings.
Why do you want a scientific spirituality in the first place? What does it matter if we have a dance or not? What, if anything, are you hoping to be led out of yourself into? What are the stakes? What are you willing to risk?
You mentioned a lack of disciple in summarize books after reading them. I have to admit, a lot of my feelings of urgency in this whole subject relate to my own lack of discipline. Or, I should say, an awareness that there is only so much willpower I can bring to task on any given day, and a desire to put that willpower to its most effective use.
To draw on an image I saw on twitter - if the universe is a great river flowing down a mountain towards ever greater entropy, than there is hardly much use turning and trying to paddle upstream. Eventually you can only exhaust yourself and collapse helplessly into an inexhaustable current. Instead I think the goal is to sit up, realize we are in a raft, look down river, and find the eddies we can direct ourselves towards where the current will carry us up, naturally -- or at least hold us still while we search for the Salmon of Knowledge. It still takes some effort to reach them, but the effort is not in resisting the universe, but in perceiving it, and relating oneself to it in such a way as to naturally resist the heat death.
To that extent, one thing religious communities do very well is that to creates a community of practice for the redirection of attention.
So, Where does your attention go these days?
What questions are pressing to you now?