Despite attempts in my youth to pretend otherwise, science (particularly the mathy branches of science) has always called to me from the deepest parts of my soul. I grew up watching Square 1 TV (of particular importance were Fridays, when the MathNet agents finally solved the week’s mystery), Bill Nye the Science Guy, 3-2-1 Contact, and Nova, among others. I loved reading science books and magazines in my spare time, and I would often ask my mom to write me math tests to take at home because I didn’t get to do enough at school.
Yeah. I was that kid. (I still kind of am that kid).
At the same time I was gobbling up all this great 80s science programming, I was also required to attend an evangelical church (to be fair, it was a fairly mild one, full of people more inclined to play tennis at their country club than roll around in the aisles speaking in tongues). I disliked it for many reasons (pertaining more to childhood politics than great philosophical debates), but one big issue I had was that I was not allowed to explore the topics of religion scientifically. In fact, I was often treated as some kind of rebel, an agent of mayhem for asking so damn many questions.
As previously mentioned, I was a nerdy shut in who purposefully created extra homework for myself. Rebellion was a terrifying word to me. I was a good kid (like way, way too good) who just wanted to understand the world – not a rebel trying to shake things up. I just didn’t understand some of the things I was told, and my way of learning is to ask loads of questions and test the answers against what I know. I was just being nerdy little me. Still, many Sundays ended with me in tears, frustrated that the answers (when I got any) either evaded my actual question or didn’t make logical sense when parked next to what I knew of the world.
When I turned eighteen and could no longer be legally forced to go to church, I stopped going. Quite expectedly to me, 99.999% of the people I knew from church disappeared from my life (and I equally from theirs), and I developed a hair-triggered response mechanism to religious dogma, particularly as it relates to science. As far as I could see it, there was no place for religion in science and, from what I had plainly experienced, no place for science in religion. You’re one or the other and that’s that.
Fast forward to this week. I am currently reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and, for the first time in thirty years, I have found a small window of tolerance opening up in my philosophy, creating the space where these two often opposing sides might actually be allowed to overlap in a harmonious fashion.
Bryson’s book is anything but a spiritual awakening. It is a factual romp through the history of scientific discovery, focused in particular on how we know the things we know (sure the world is round, but how did we figure that out). It’s a marvelous account of human ingenuity and stick-to-it-ness with regard to understanding the natural world.
In reading his accounts of physics (both astro and atomic), chemistry, biology, geology, genealogy, archaeology, and more, I am blown away by how staggeringly complicated our world is. Studied individually, each of these are endlessly fascinating subjects. Put them side by side and my god do we live in an incredible world. Our universe is so spectacularly, breathtakingly complex, beautiful, mysterious and puzzling that it makes the mind spin in wonder. The more we learn about it, the more we see we have yet to learn. The more we understand, the more we realise we don’t. In whatever time humanity has left on this earth, we will never be able to comprehend it all, to know fully how it all fits together or to have a perfect picture of our past, our present or our future.
Science is constantly unravelling mysteries only to stumble upon more. In a video I watched recently of scientists studying sharks, one (paraphrased) statement stood out to me: the best project is to go out with one question and come back with many.
I may not believe that god created the world, but if you do, what a beautiful way to appreciate the gift that was made for you. To take the intelligence bestowed upon you and use it to dive into the finest details of this creation, to constantly see more and more wonder, more and more mystery, more and more complexity….to me that feels like a beautiful conversation between creator and creation: God creates the universe in all its detailed glory, making it endlessly explorable, then creates humanity, a race of people with boundless curiosity and the level of intelligence required to continuously learn more about said universe and appreciate the incredible complexity of what they uncover. What a beautiful way to enhance your spiritual experience.
A scientific approach to the world doesn’t necessarily run counter to a spiritual one. The pursuit of knowledge itself is neither secular nor religious – when science is used to promote either of these two camps, it is done so by people pushing an angle. Science is by definition neutral. It has to be; that’s what makes it work. It’s simply a systematic approach to understanding the world around us and documenting the knowledge we gain. How you interpret that knowledge is up to you. Whether you choose to believe all this mystery is the result of physical and chemical reactions we don’t fully understand yet or the work of an intelligent god who made it just for us is entirely your call. The one thing I hope both sides can agree on is that this universe of ours is pretty freaking amazing and the more we learn about it the more incredible it becomes.