The Spirituality of Science

Is science a religion? No... but maybe it should be.

There's a spirituality to science — something sacred in it — that sparkles if you catch it in the right light and from just the right angle.

Once you've seen that sparkle sustained (for longer than a few, fleeting glimpses), you realize there's something quintessentially religious about science. It's a globe- and history-spanning enterprise, connecting millions if not billions of minds, which has given us actual answers to the questions that have plagued our species for millennia: questions about who we are, where we came from, and where we're going.

But we're introduced to science in the wrong light — quite literally. The classroom is one of the least spiritual settings imaginable, inhospitable to the religious impulse. Modern primary education is inspired by the factory system, and its influence is apparent. As Einstein laments, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." Under sterile fluorescent lighting and the nit-picking gaze of an underpaid teacher, it's all but impossible to cultivate that intoxicating mixture of curiosity, awe, and wonder that's essential to scientific spirituality.

So today let's pick up where formal education leaves off. Let's explore what science looks like when we approach it as a religion — to see if we can sustain that sacred sparkle a bit longer, and maybe even (all together, by way of practice) make it shine a bit brighter.

In other words, can we have a proper, full-blooded religion without the philosophical baggage? Are there any secular, scientific myths worth dancing to?

If I'm right, the elements of this "scientific religion" are already brewing in our culture. Our contribution today, if anything, will be to stitch some of these elements together, to synthesize them into a coherent package that looks as much like a religion as possible.

I've done a lot of reading about religion this past year, and if there's any big takeaway, it's this: all the elements of a religion should be interconnected and mutually supportive. Its beliefs should harmonize with its values; its myths should reinforce both its beliefs and its values; and its rituals should tie everything together.

Now this exercise is full of hubris, of course, so I'd just like to remind you that this is one man's attempt at pulling together all of these disparate strands. I have no basis for this other than my own sensibilities. I'm sure others who undertook this exercise would find quite different ways of synthesizing a scientific religion — and I would love to see those different approaches. Consider this essay, then, just my own humble stab at it.

0. Motif

To put us in the right mood, I'd like to offer a motif for this new religion: growing, up. Symbolically this takes the form of a tree — the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, ever branching, striving for the sun. Science is about the rise of humanity rather than its fall from grace. We aren't stumbling into darkness and decay, but grasping skyward, reaching for the light.

1. Beliefs

As I argued last week, religion is not primarily a worldview, a system of beliefs — but science is. Beliefs, or theories, are the sine qua non of science, so they will naturally assume a more privileged position in a scientific religion than they would in a traditional religion.

So: let us hereby import the entire body of scientific knowledge into our new religion.

(That was easy.)

But among the beliefs and theories of science, some are more religious than others. Physics, for example, is religious in a way economics is not.

What determines the religious content of a belief is how much it tells us about "the ultimate conditions of our existence." This is Robert Bellah's fine phrase, and he's not just smuggling a veiled reference to the Prime Mover. If the word "ultimate" has been sullied, we can use the term boundary conditions instead.

So what, then, are the boundary conditions of our existence? They are the answers to questions like:

  • What kind of creatures are we, most fundamentally? What are the boundaries of life, consciousness, human nature, and personal identity?
  • If we are a "social animal," then what are the boundary conditions of society? What is "civilization"?
  • Where did we come from? How are we born? How did life itself come to exist?
  • What is death? What happens when we die?
  • Where did the universe come from? What are its ultimate laws?

And so on.

Thus, within the body of scientific knowledge, there is an even more privileged position — an inner sanctum, if you will — reserved for the disciplines that address these kinds of religious questions. These disciplines include physics and cosmology, biology and the study of evolution, cognitive science and the study of consciousness, and the emerging field of Big History. And though they aren't science per se, we should also add mathematics (as it tells us about some truly fundamental structures of the world we inhabit) and philosophy (since it attempts to answer all of these questions, albeit unempirically).

2. Myths

Students of religion are quick to point out that myths aren't (necessarily) false. They're just stories we use to make sense of the world and our place within it. If a myth is functioning properly, it won't feel like a made-up fable — more like a narrative account of reality.

But myths are about more than reality; they're also about morality. As Loyal Rue puts it:

In the narrative core of a [religious] tradition, ultimate facts and ultimate values [emphasis mine] are interwoven in a seamless series of connected events.

Myths, therefore, are at their best (their most useful) when they tell stories that (1) reinforce our beliefs, (2) reinforce our values, and (3) paint a picture of a shared past, shared present, or shared future. Myths tell us what's True and what's Good, and do it in a way that unites us all in the process.

Let's look at some of these myths now. This isn't a comprehensive or canonical list; consider it just a sample of what's out there.

Shared past:

  • The We Are Stardust myth — a story about the origin of the universe, the origin of our solar system, and the birth of our little, unassuming terraqueous planet.
  • The Evolution of Mankind myth — a story about the origins of life, our primate (and protozoan) ancestors, and our shared history on the African savannah. Emphasis here on our interrelatedness — not only to each other, but also to the chimps and apes, and to the flowers, the forests, and the fauna living inside our guts.
  • The Rise of Civilization myth — a story of finding increasingly sophisticated ways to organize ourselves into bigger, more coordinated, and hopefully more peaceful collectives. From "nature red in tooth and claw" to democracy and rule of law.

(Note that I'm not actually telling the stories here. I'm merely alluding to stories you should already be familiar with, because they already exist in our culture — and are being told by storytellers far more gifted than I.)

Shared present:

  • The myth of Scientific Progress -- about the origins of science, its great heroes and great achievements, and the value it adds to our daily lives. Special emphasis here on medical progress in the form of vaccines, sterilization, and controlled studies.
  • The Rise of Technology myth — or Homo Habilis Surfs the Web. This is a natural extension of the myth of scientific progress, for what better testament to our understanding of the world than our ability to manipulate it in ever more sophisticated ways.
  • The One Planet myth — or We're All in This Together. A set of cautionary tales about environmentalism, climate change, the threat of nuclear war, etc. Emphasis on the fragility of life and our increasing capacity to destroy it.

Shared future:

  • The Space Colonization myth — or Reaching, Back, For the Stars. These are the stories about a possible future in which we have finally left our home planet.
  • The myths of Apocalypse and Dystopia -- cautionary tales about civilizational collapse, pandemics, asteroid collisions, 1984, The Matrix, etc.

Religions often tell stories that emphasize how it will all turn out OK in the end — God has a plan for us; just hang in there; we are the chosen ones; etc. But if science and history have taught us anything, it's that life and civilization are precarious and contingent, and our shared future highly uncertain. We're lucky even to be here, and everything we value could be gone in the blink of an eye. So while we should celebrate what we have, we should also remain vigilant.

3. Sense of the sacred

For Durkheim, a sense of the sacred is the core of religion. He defines sacred things as those related to the interests of the group. And because of their importance, they should be "set apart and forbidden" — protected from the profane interests of daily life.

So what should a scientific religion hold as sacred?

First, science itself is sacred, along with all its virtues: free thought, free inquiry, skepticism, empiricism, and fallibility. These are things we must set apart and protect from the encroachments of authority, politics, commerce, industry, and ego.

The tree of knowledge is sacred, and its seminal books and papers are our sacred texts. Studying them is an act of devotion; contributing to them, a high honor. Even the most humble act of correcting a typo on Wikipedia is a sacred duty — like sweeping dust from the steps of a temple.

Universities (and all places of higher learning) are sacred. These are our monasteries, where grad students seclude themselves, like monks, to commune with science and devote their energies to its upkeep and forward progress.

Scientific instruments are sacred, especially the big ones that require global collaboration. The Hubble space telescope, land-based observatories, the Large Hadron Collider: these are our oracles. They may require special intermediaries who speak their arcane language, but they nevertheless give real and valuable insight into the nature of the cosmos.

The archaeological record -- in the form of fossils, artifacts, ruins, and texts — is sacred. However thin the record might be, it's the best connection we have to our distant past. An archaeologist understands this on a visceral level. She handles an old clay pot with religious reverence, like a rabbi removing the Torah from its ark. She spends hours brushing dirt from a fossil, hunched over with the same care and dedication shown by medieval monks, copying texts until their hands turned to claws.

Civilization itself is sacred. It's how we've learned to live together, in relative peace and prosperity — to enjoy, at scale, the miracle of human life. The virtues of civilization (manners, civility) must be celebrated; its vices (extraction, oppression) avoided whenever possible. We find symbols of civilization in our cities and skyscrapers, though their sacred qualities are often obscured by the profane nature of what goes on inside them. But if we squint in just the right way, we can make them out for what they represent: humans learning to live together in ever-increasing densities, striving ever skyward.

The rule of law is extremely sacred. Though it may be precarious and hard to pin down, it's the best institution we have for living peacefully together. We find symbols of the rule of law reified — often literally in concrete — in our courthouses, parliament buildings, and voting booths. On paper, we find it in foundational documents like our constitutions, the Magna Carta, and even our religious texts.

Space exploration is sacred. This is something I once learned by witnessing its violation. A year ago I watched some college kids unpack a weather balloon they'd purchased on a whim from eBay. Within two hours they had duct-taped an old smartphone to the balloon, filled it with helium, and let it go into the atmosphere. The shoddiness of the whole thing felt like a transgression against the sacred. You don't go to church drunk, and you shouldn't explore space (even inner space) unless you're willing to do it right.

The Earth is sacred. It's the only vessel we have, and it needs to sustain us for a long time. To steward it responsibly is an act of devotion; to pollute it, a sacrilege.

Earthrise sits at the intersection of the Earth and space exploration, and is among the most sacred images we've yet to capture on film:


Consciousness is sacred. As far as we know, it's evolved only once in the entire universe, here in our little brains. And if sacred means "set apart and forbidden," it suggests we should exercise caution in our attempts to manipulate consciousness, e.g., using drugs and technology.

... This is only a partial list. The important thing to take away isn't knowledge about specific sacred things, but rather the sense for what things might be sacred, and the instinct to treat them as such. The particular artifacts and embodiments merely serve to remind us of what truly matters: science, knowledge, consciousness, civilization, and life itself.

4. Rituals

Religion is a myth you can dance to.... but you can't dance to atheism. -- Andrew Brown

This is the hard part now — the big hurdle we need to clear in order to have something worthy of the title "religion." It's not enough to have beliefs, myths, and a sense of the sacred. We also need them to stick.

This is where religions excel, and where science is still catching up. Religions understand that we don't just learn with our minds; we also learn with our bodies. Thus an emphasis on rituals: embodied practices that connect abstract values to concrete experiences, and vice versa. So we need to figure out how to worship physically, and ideally together.

But we can't fabricate our rituals out of thin air. Anyone who's tried to start a new ritual knows how difficult it is to get others to adopt it. So like Christmas and Easter, which were co-opted from older 'grassroots' celebrations, we have to find rituals that already exist, and rebrand them for our own purposes.

Our best hope, I think, can be found in celebrations of space launches and landings. The Internet is a secular place, by and large, but the recent Mars Rover landing brought it to a frenzy bordering on religious excitement. The Space Shuttle retirement was a close second. And I can only imagine what it must have felt like to crowd around a TV in 1969, watching Neil Armstrong take that first giant leap for mankind.

These events strike all the right nerves. They're great achievements, they're fun to watch, they embody our upward striving, and they highlight both the significance and insignificance of our species. In person, watching a shuttle launch even gives us an opportunity to gather around a flame.

Penn and Teller give a surprisingly moving account of watching a launch:

The emotions caught us by surprise, we had our sun-glasses in our hands and tears pouring all over our faces. Three loves-of-my-life have left me because I wouldn't cry over them the way I cried over that first space shuttle.

(The whole thing is worth reading, in case you're curious.)

There are plenty of other existing rituals which resonate with the scientific mythology. None are quite as compelling as space exploration, but all have a good measure of popular support:

  • Eclipses, which highlight the predictive power of science.
  • Graduations, wherein we celebrate the acquisition of knowledge, and pay homage to our institutions of higher learning.
  • Time capsules offer a physical connection either to the past (when opening them) or to the future (when interring them).
  • Field trips to museums or archaeological sites. Think of these as pilgrimages to some of our sacred places.
  • Actually doing science, in the form of science projects, science fairs, or (even better) publishing a genuinely new finding.
  • Earth Day, a yearly reminder of all that is sacred about the Earth, and of our responsibility to take care of it.
  • Camping is a two-for-one opportunity. First, it lets us connect with nature. And second, it's an approximation, however imperfect, of the way our ancestors lived for millions of years.
  • The Day of Unplugging. Like camping, this is a chance to remind ourselves what life was like in the beforetime.

The important thing here is to see if we can treat these rituals as religious. I did a lot of camping as a child, for example, but it never felt like anything more than a fun activity. I think it's possible to develop the right mindset, but it won't come for free — we'll have to practice.

In addition to the above, Robin Hanson proposes a more somber celebration: Filter Day. On December 20, Robin invites us to "look up at the dark night sky, see the vast ancient and unbroken deadlands, and be very afraid." He goes on to muse, "What other activities makes sense on Filter Day? Visit an ancient ruin? A volcano? A nuclear test site? The CDC? A telescope?" It's a sobering reminder that our best 'outside view' of civilization isn't hopeful.

5. Experiential practices

Mikael Brockman writes (private correspondence) that one way to look at religion is "as a kind of 'cultural vessel' for transmitting a certain rare and precious experience."

That rare and precious experience is what others have called, alternately, a spiritual, transcendental, mystical, sacred, or religious experience. Freud described it as "an oceanic feeling." It is to lose oneself in awe and wonder in the (perceived) presence of a vast, powerful entity.

I've misjudged these experiences in the past, a mistake I won't make again. Loyal Rue argues that religious experiences are such a powerful force, for a large enough subset of the population, that a religion simply must find a way to make sense of them — or risk ceding their power to competing systems that can.

At issue isn't whether these experiences exist — they do. Something very real is happening in the brain during such an experience. The critical question is how to interpret it (in first-person, subjective terms). If someone interprets her experience as revealing God's presence, then her faith will be strengthened. But there will be no such hazard if we can learn to interpret these as scientific experiences.

Most of us cringe at the idea of dancing in the name of science. But we have far fewer misgivings about losing ourselves in scientific experiences. Awe and wonder are eminently compatible with science. Indeed, it's almost impossible not to lose yourself in spiritual feelings, when contemplating the nature of the cosmos.

And of course, we don't need to interpret the "vast, powerful entity" that tends to show up in these experiences as God — as we would if we were steeped in a traditional religion. Instead, if we've been properly steeped in science, we can follow Spinoza and Einstein, and interpret it as the Universe. Or we can follow Durkheim, and interpret it as society. God is just a symbol, after all.

I hope you're already familiar with these experiences, because words, being dry and technical, are hardly the best medium for conveying them. They're those 'mindgasms' you feel when you contemplate the scale of the universe, or when you marvel at the stupefying complexity of what goes on inside even a single cell. Or when you realize — in your gut, on an almost physical level — that you are related to every other life form on the planet. Or when you stretch your mind over the entirety of human history and prehistory. Or when you catch a glimpse of the awesome depth of physical or mathematical reality.

Religions are often attended by a mystical tradition, which specializes in pursuing these experiences within the framework of the religion. Among the better known are Kabbalah (for Judaism) and Sufism (for Islam).

So I imagine it would be possible, if unlikely, to have an analogous "scientific mysticism" — a set of practices, compatible with science, designed to help achieve spiritual experiences. But the scientific community is still a bit skittish. Spirituality has been monopolized by religion for too long, too deeply saturated in images of divinity. And as I mentioned, it's somewhat at odds with the analytic mentality of the laboratory and classroom.

Meditation is a start, and science is warming up to the practice. But we're not nearly there yet.

Taking stock

Well, there she is: science cast as a religion. But how does it stack up next to a traditional religion?

The answer, I'm afraid, is not very well.

Some parts of this religion are great. Its beliefs are extremely compelling. Its rituals are more or less 'danceable.' And it excels in providing triggers for spiritual experiences, along with a framework for their interpretation. All in all the package is fairly coherent, and it does a decent job of tying people together.

But its shortcomings are more numerous, and more serious.

For one, its myths are impersonal. They offer few (if any) relatable characters, and they're short on symbolism and personal significance. Though they're compelling to me, I suspect they aren't psychologically sticky enough for most people. It's much easier for a Jew to identify with his ancestors' suffering in Egypt, for example, than it is for anyone to care about our Paleolithic ancestors — perhaps because the former has political significance in a way the latter can't even hope for (even if it wanted to).

This sketch also fails, egregiously, in forging a connection between reality and morality. I had a lot of trouble with this, largely because science defines itself as descriptive rather than prescriptive. But all hope is not lost. I'm encouraged, for instance, by Sam Harris's opening volley in the struggle to claim normative judgements in the name of science.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, this religion is completely lacking in aesthetic and institutional support. There are few, if any, great works of art that stem from (or help reinforce) scientific spirituality. And while science itself is heavily institutionalized, especially in our education system, science-as-a-religion has almost no support, apart from maybe a few museums and non-profits. Specifically we have no churches — to guide us in our devotions, to invite regular congregations, and to help those of us in need.

A closing thought: perhaps we should look to the open source movement as a model for how to coordinate without strong institutional support. Science, after all, is at its best when scientists share their data and sources, and collaborate openly with each other and with the community. So: open source religion? It might be a stretch, but (no surprise) there's already a Wikipedia article for it.


Thanks to the many people who have contributed ideas and engaged me in thoughtful discussion about this essay: Nick Barr, Mikael Brockman, Jeff Lonsdale, David McDougall, Darcey Riley, Alex Vartan, and Rasmus Wißmann. I would love to hear more suggestions for things I've missed, and for other ways to improve what we already have.

If you enjoyed this, you should follow my Quora blog The Spirituality of Science (RSS), which will continue many of the themes explored here.

Originally published July 23, 2013.