science & religion

photo by Hassan Ali for Reuters

photo by Hassan Ali for Reuters

The Saudis have erected the world’s largest clock tower at Mecca, and have suggested that it replace Greenwich as the starting place for global time. Aren’t clock towers a bit, uh, medieval, or at best, early industrial? And were the decision-makers  fully conscious of what it means to put a clock tower, the ultimate symbol of modernity, right in the middle of their most sacred place?

An article in the NY Times — Evolution of the God Gene, by Nicholas Wade — lays out nicely and concisely the evidence that we’re hard-wired for religion. On a personal level, I read it and thought, “No wonder I can’t stop trying.” What I still say we really need is a workable modern mythology, science-based, revering natural life-giving processes, and acknowledging the power of focused human intent and the possibility that the universe is loving and intelligent — sort of like the God’s Gardeners cult in The Year of The Flood, by Margaret Atwood.

Hmmmmm. OK, for the first 3/4 of the book, I happily suspended disbelief and enjoyed the well-paced narrative. But there was a particular plot twist where my suspended disbelief reasserted itself, and it seemed to me that the plot unraveled into the various strands of what the book is trying to be: 1) a hard-to-put-down thriller; 2) a slickly packaged exortation to believe in the possibility of changing the world by changing consciousness. Although I was rolling my eyes at the petered-out remnants of plot by the end of the book, I also went to the Institute of Noetic Science website and found some interesting material on meditation, mind-body practices, and scientific research on whether various religious practices such as prayer and healing work — the kind of nonfiction I’ve been reading anyway. So The Lost Symbol was a mixed bag. Brown is an expert at catching the wave of zeitgeist. If he keeps writing novels he might want to aim for smaller waves that lend themselves to tidier plots.

December 21, 2012, is like Y2K in that no one knows what exactly if anything to expect. Why expect anything? Based on my reading – not extensive first-hand research, but a sense of what various experts are saying – our earth, the sun, and the center of the galaxy will align on that day. People imbue that fact alone with varying degrees of significance. What’s more, the ancient Mayans, who had one of the most sophisticated calendar systems the world has ever known, anticipated 2012. It’s the end of the “Mayan long count,” when several separate cycles come together, which only happens every 5,000 years or so. Now, assuming everyone’s math is correct, I think we should at the very least take the day to honor the accuracy of preinstrumental astronomy, and to be appropriately humbled, and perhaps even to be curious about how they did it.

Naturally, a big cosmic event, complete with ancient wisdom, is a wonderful projection-catcher, a celestial Rorschach test. We don’t have any idea what will really happen, but what people say will happen tells us something about them. And we seem to be in dialog between religion, spirituality, and science, needing metaphors and stories to live by that accommodate a scientific worldview, and the full spectrum of human possibility and responsibility.

The Mystery of 2012: Predictions, Prophecies and Possibilities, published by Sounds True, is a collection of essays about what we might expect, written by a highly credentialed group of new age and spiritual prognosticators. A few are true believers or have studied Mayan calendrics in detail. Most seize the opportunity to expound on their ideas about how humans could function better, individually and collectively. Many of the essays incorporate various scientific findings or snippets of data, but use these as a departure point, rather than the backbone of a rigorous analysis.

I found myself several times really hoping that the authors are right – that somehow on the winter solstice in 2012, humanity will be elevated. We’ll rub our collective third eye as it blinks open on the darkest day of the year, and will begin to see hope and possibility where we may previously have seen despair. We will love our brothers and possibly even tolerate our coworkers. The noosphere will come into its own and a field of enlightened human consciousness will envelop the globe in healing energy. Sounds good. I’ll show up, stay sober and think happy thoughts.

I just reread Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, one of my all-time favorite books. You talk about your primal earth mother, matriarch, offspring-protector, healer, midwife, and southern woman – that’s her! Mama Day, the title character, is a direct descendant of the Mother of all Days, as Naylor puts it. 

I’d been thinking of rereading it for quite a while, years perhaps, with that idea just bobbing around in the back of my thoughts. Even though I find it easier to talk about books than real life, I rarely read them more than once. What pushed me to pick up a copy was an article in the New York Times (10-21-08), “Under Maryland Street, Ties to African Past.” Archaeologists in Annapolis unearthed a “bundle,” as in a wrapped up collection of objects that a practitioner of West African religion left at the edge of a street, circa 1700. The archaeologists found it notable that it was distinctly African rather than African-American. They also said it was left out in the open, rather than hidden, and made two very interesting observations:

Dr. Leone said the bundle’s visibility suggested “an unexpected level of public toleration” of African religion in colonial Annapolis. Most of the artifacts indicating that the practices were conducted in secrecy came from 50 years later. According to articles in a newspaper of the period, white people in Annapolis engaged openly in magic and witchcraft, of the English variety.

“So both European and African spirit practices may have been more acceptable then,” Dr. Leone concluded. “That changed after 1750 with the growing influence of the Enlightenment.”

What did my Scots-Irish great-grandmothers know? Did they swap secrets with their African counterparts before the Enlightenment clamped down on unsanctioned use of the supernatural? Mama Day and her community are African-American, but she in her strengths has a lot in common with the southern women I’m descended from.

In Mama Day, Naylor conjures up an archetype of pure female power – fertile, riding the wind and waves, wresting freedom from owner / husband / patriarch, and departing in a fireball back over the ocean.

Early cartographers conveniently missed the island home of Mama Day and family, somewhere off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving it outside the flow of time and history. Naylor makes many references to time moving slowly or not at all on Willow Springs. At one point a character overcomes infertility by, in part, slowing down. She gets less busy and gets more done.

The family traces its origins to time outside history. An asterisk on the sixth child on the family tree at the beginning of the book leads to the note, “‘God rested on the seventh day and so would she.’ Hence, the family’s last name.” The title character is descended from the seventh son – off the edge of the chart, where footnote shades into myth – of an entire brood somehow conceived and borne in a thousand days, which start around the time that the ancestress killed the husband / owner / patriarch. Details are lost to legend because that ancestress “don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words.”

Naylor also uses the Days’ island paradise home to evoke that one story about the couple in the garden with the snake. Just as the novel parallels The Tempest, only with a strong female lead, it also invites a reconsideration of humanity’s relationship to the Garden of Eden. Snakes twine up Mama Day’s cane. At one point a character suggests, “Let’s play Adam and Eve.” Despite being a great guy, that character doesn’t make it out alive, due to a failure of belief. He is Enlightenment all the way, which is his undoing.

Mama Day restores some of the magic that’s been lost to the world. I always knew I wanted to be the magical type of mom, but somehow I thought it would be automatic. Along with Motherhood 1.0 came a few new widgets – being able to detect a fever, waking up just as they needed feeding – but there’s a whole lot that I think was supposed to be handed down via oral tradition, that got squelched out by the Enlightenment. 


Science and religion need each other, or maybe it’s that the future of life as we know it will depend on science and religion learning to love one another. My observations from a reasonable amount of experience with both world views are that:

1) They really don’t have to be contradictory. They just need to be respectful.

2) Science alone doesn’t offer enough hope or ritual to support coordinated social change. Not everyone seems to need religion, but some of us do. (Substitution of organized sports for religion is a whole separate discussion.)

3) Religion needs much better program evaluation. What are the effects of a given belief system? Does it really deliver on its promised benefits of membership? Is it sustainable? How does it treat women, men, children, and disadvantaged groups? What would the world be like if everyone practiced it? So far I believe one of the most widely tested and validated beliefs for generating a good quality of life that you should treat other people the way you want to be treated. 

Peace on Earth. That’s the goal. Or at least, it should be.