Why One God Is Better Than Ten

[This is the 6th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.
– Albert Einstein

With the idea of god, early humans were imagining someone or something who knows, who understands, who can explain things well enough to build them. Now then, if God knows, then maybe, just maybe, we can learn to do what He does. That is, we too can build models of how things work and use them for our purposes.

The idea of modeling emerges naturally from the idea of god because with the positing of god we’ve made understanding itself something we can plausibly aspire to. There has probably never been an idea so consequential as that of the world’s comprehensibility. Even today’s scientists marvel at the fact that, if we try hard enough, the universe seems intelligible. Not a few scientists share Nobel-laureate E. P. Wigner’s perplexity regarding the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.

Comprehensibility does not necessarily mean that things accord with common sense. Quantum theory famously defies common sense, even to its creators. Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” But a theory doesn’t need to jibe with common sense to be useful. It suffices that it account for what we observe.

Our faith in the comprehensibility of the world around us mirrors our ancestors’ faith in godlike beings to whom things were intelligible. Yes, it was perhaps a bit presumptuous of us to imagine ourselves stealing our gods’ thunder, but Homo sapiens has never lacked for hubris.

Genesis says that after creating the universe, God created Man in his own image. The proverb “Like father, like son” then accounts for our emulating our creator, and growing up to be model builders like our father figure.

In contrast to polytheism, where a plethora of gods may be at odds, monotheism carries with it the expectation that a single god, endowed with omniscience and omnipotence, is of one mind. To this day, even non-believers, confounded by tough scientific problems are apt to echo the biblical, “God works in mysterious ways.” But, miracle of miracles, not so mysterious as to prevent us from understanding the workings of the cosmos, or, as Stephen Hawking famously put it, to “know the mind of God.”

Monotheism is the theological counterpart of the scientist’s belief in the ultimate reconcilability of apparently contradictory observations into one consistent framework. We cannot expect to know God’s mind until, at the very least, we have eliminated inconsistencies in our observations and contradictions in our partial visions.

This means that the imprimatur of authority (e.g., the King or the Church or any number of pedigreed experts) is not enough to make a proposition true. Authorities who make pronouncements that overlook or suppress inconsistencies in the evidence do not, for long, retain their authority.

Monotheism is therefore not only a powerful constraint on the models we build, it is also a first step toward opening the quest for truth to outsiders and amateurs, who may see things differently than the establishment. Buried within the model of monotheism lies the democratic ideal of no favored status.

To the contemporary scientist this means that models must be free of both internal and external contradictions, and they must not depend on the vantage point of the observer. These are stringent conditions. Meeting them guides physicists as they seek to unify less comprehensive theories in a grand “theory of everything,” or TOE. (A TOE is an especially powerful kind of model, and I’ll say more about them later.)

There’s another implication of monotheism that has often been overlooked in battles between religion and science. An omniscient, unique god, worthy of the name, would insist that the truth is singular, and that it’s His truth. In consequence, there cannot be two distinct, true, but contradictory bodies of knowledge. So, the idea of monotheism should stand as a refutation of claims that religious truths need not be consistent with the truths of science. Of course, some of our beliefs—be they from science or religion—will later be revealed as false. But that doesn’t weaken monotheism’s demand for consistency; it just prolongs the search for a model until we find one that meets the stringent condition of taking into account all the evidence.

It’s said that it takes ten years to get good at anything. Well, it’s taken humans more like ten thousand years to get good at building models. For most of human history, our models lacked explanatory power. Models of that kind are often dismissed as myths. It’s more fruitful to think of myths as stepping stones to better models. We now understand some things far better than our ancestors, and other things not much better at all. But the overall trend is that we keep coming up with better explanations and, as more and more of us turn our attention to model building, our models are improving faster and our ability to usurp Nature’s power is growing. To what purpose?

Religion offers a variety of answers to this question and we’ll examine some of them in subsequent posts. Religion has also famously warned us to separate the wheat from the chaff, and we must not fail to apply this proverb to beliefs of every kind, including those of religion itself.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

How to Keep Your Balance When There’s No Place to Stand and Nothing to Hold On To

[This is the 5th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

Know you what it is to be a child? … it is to believe in belief….
– Francis Thompson, 19th c. British poet

We don’t forget our first ah-ha experience any more than we forget our first kiss. The difference is we have some idea of what to expect from a kiss, but we don’t know what to make of an enlightening incident. The experience lingers in memory as something special, but since we can’t account for it, we’re apt to keep it to ourselves.

Only in my thirties did I realize that an experience I’d had in my teens was the analogue of that first kiss. About six years after discovering that our third grade science book contained mistakes, it struck me that anything could be wrong. There were no infallible truths, no ultimate explanations.

In high school we were learning that science theories and models were not to be regarded as absolute truths, but rather taken to be useful descriptions that might someday be replaced with better ones. I accepted this way of holding scientific truth—it didn’t seem to undercut its usefulness. But I still wanted to believe there were absolute, moral truths, not mere assumptions, but unimpeachable, eternal verities. My mother certainly acted as if there were.

But one day, alone in my bedroom, I had the premonition that what was true of science applied to beliefs of every sort. I realized that, as in science, political, moral, or personal convictions could be questioned and might need amending or qualifying in certain circumstances. The feeling reminded me of consulting a dictionary and realizing that there are no final definitions, only cross references. I remember exactly where I was standing, and how it felt, when I discovered there was no place to stand, nothing to hold on to. I felt sobered, yet at the same time, strangely liberated. After all, if there were no absolutes, then there might be an escape from what often seemed to me to be a confining social conformity.

With this revelation, my hopes for definitive, immutable solutions to life’s problems dimmed. I shared my experience of unbelief with no one at the time, knowing that I couldn’t explain myself and fearing others’ mockery. I decided that to function in society I would have to pretend to go along with the prevailing consensus—at least until I could come up with something better. For decades afterwards, without understanding why, I was drawn to people and ideas that expanded my premonition of a worldview grounded not on immutable beliefs, but rather on a process of continually improving our best working assumptions.

Science Models Evolve

It’s the essence of models that they’re works in progress. While nothing could be more obvious—after all, models are all just figments of our fallible imaginations—the idea that models can change, and should be expected to yield their place of privilege to better ones, has been surprisingly hard to impart.

Until relatively recently we seem to have preferred to stick to what we know—or think we know—no matter the consequences. Rather than judge for ourselves, we’ve been ready to defer to existing authority and subscribe to received “wisdom.” Perhaps this is because of a premium put on not “upsetting the apple cart” during a period in human history when an upright apple cart was of more importance to group cohesiveness and survival than the fact that the cart was full of rotten apples.

Ironically, our principal heroes, saints and geniuses alike, have typically spilled a lot of apples. Very often they are people who have championed a truth that contradicts the official line.

A turning point in the history of human understanding came in the seventeenth century when one such figure, the English physician William Harvey, discovered that the blood circulates through the body. His plea—“I appeal to your own eyes as my witness and judge”—was revolutionary at a time when physicians looked not to their own experience but rather accepted on faith the Greek view that blood was made in the liver and consumed as fuel by the body. The idea that dogma be subordinated to the actual experience of the individual seemed audacious at the time.

Another milestone was the shift from the geocentric (or Ptolemaic) model (named after the first-century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy) to the heliocentric model (or Copernican) model (after the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer Copernicus, who is regarded by many as the father of modern science).

Until five centuries ago, it was an article of faith that the sun, the stars, and the planets revolved around the earth, which lay motionless at the center of the universe. When the Italian scientist Galileo embraced the Copernican model, which held that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, he was contradicting the teaching of the Church. This was considered sacrilegious and, under threat of torture, he was forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, making further astronomical discoveries and writing books for posterity. In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The Galileo affair was really an argument about whether models should be allowed to change without the Church’s consent. Those in positions of authority often deem acceptance of their beliefs, and with that the acceptance of their role as arbiters of beliefs, to be more important than the potential benefits of moving on to a better model. For example, the discovery of seashells on mountaintops and fossil evidence of extinct species undermined theological doctrine that the world and all living things were a mere six thousand years old. Such discoveries posed a serious challenge to the Church’s monopoly on truth.

Typically, new models do not render old ones useless, they simply circumscribe their domains of validity, unveiling and accounting for altogether new phenomena that lie beyond the scope of the old models. Thus, relativity and quantum theory do not render Newton’s laws of motion obsolete. NASA has no need for the refinements of quantum or relativistic mechanics in calculating the flight paths of space vehicles. The accuracy afforded by Newton’s laws suffices for its purposes.

Some think that truths that aren’t absolute and immutable disqualify themselves as truths. But just because models change doesn’t mean that anything goes. At any given time, what “goes” is precisely the most accurate model we’ve got. One simply has to be alert to the fact that our current model may be superseded by an even better one tomorrow. It’s precisely this built-in skepticism that gives science its power.

Most scientists are excited when they find a persistent discrepancy between their latest model and empirical data. They know that such deviations signal the existence of hitherto unknown realms in which new phenomena may be discovered. The presumption that nature models are infallible has been replaced with the humbling expectation that their common destiny is to be replaced by more comprehensive and accurate ones.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists believed they’d learned all there was to know about the workings of the universe. The consensus was that between Newton’s dynamics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism we had everything covered. Prominent scientists solemnly announced the end of physics.

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
– Lord Kelvin (1900)

Then a few tiny discrepancies between theory and experiment were noted and as scientists explored them, they came upon the previously hidden realm of atomic and relativistic physics, and with it technologies that have put their stamp on the twentieth century.

Albert Einstein believed that the final resting place of every theory is as a special case of a broader one. Indeed, he spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified theory that would have transcended the discoveries he made as a young man. The quest for such a grand unifying theory goes on.

In the next post in the series, I’ll consider some distinguished models of religious provenance, and explain why I think they needn’t duck evidentiary tests any more than science models do.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

The Secret to Science’s Success

[This is the 4th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself,
and then comes to resemble the picture.
– Iris Murdock

The title of Mark Twain’s What Is Man? poses a question that humans have pondered for millennia. Our species modestly calls itself Homo sapiens—Man, the wise. We’ve also been dubbed Man, the builder; the tool maker; the game player; and the talker. Twain himself argued that man is a machine, Homo machinus.

While all these characterizations capture some aspect of humanness, none does so uniquely. On the contrary, it seems that every time someone makes a case that a particular trait sets humans apart, experts in animal life say, ‘No, animals do that too.’ Animals show intelligence and build nests, dams, and webs. They make tools, play games, and make war. They communicate and display emotion.

But no species other than ours holds the fate of the Earth in its hands. The question, then, is what is it about humans that has brought us such power?

There’s one faculty that humans have developed more than other animals. It’s our capacity to build ever more accurate and comprehensive models that explain the world and nature and thereby give us a measure of control over it. In this context, you can think of models as explanations and stories—explanations of how the world works; stories about how we ourselves behave.

I’m not saying that other animals don’t employ models. Once again, the distinction doesn’t appear to be absolute. We may never know exactly when our hominid ancestors began inventing stories and telling fortunes, making maps and myths, keeping accounts and ledgers, depicting animals, explaining disasters, and speculating about death.

What’s clear, though, is that these first steps to simulate aspects of the world and our place in it were taken at a time when there was no distinction between religion and science. Though we didn’t think of it as modeling, building models was what we were doing. The crowning accomplishment of proto-religion and proto-science, which were then one, was the emergence of a model featuring us as individuals in the cosmos.

It’s beside the point that these early models are now dismissed as “creation myths.” What’s important about them is not their validity but their existence. When humans began trying to explain the world, they embarked on a path that in time would give them a power advantage not only over other animals, but also over other human groups that handicapped themselves by clinging to inferior explanations.

Explanations, theories, maps, laws—models—are the path to power. Most of them are no good, but the few good ones rule. When models compete, better ones confer advantages on those who adopt them, and, over time, these first adopters gain an advantage over people saddled with models that harness and organize less power.

A Primer on Models

The sciences … make models. By a model is meant a … construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.
– John von Neumann (1903–1957), Hungarian-born American mathematician, creator of game theory and computer logic

Scientists use the terms “model,” “theory,” “explanation,” and “law” almost interchangeably. The popular idea that a theory is more tentative than a model, or even a law, is quite wrong. These terms do not indicate relative degrees of certainty, but rather have their origins in history. For example, Newton’s classical dynamics are referred to as “laws of motion” whereas the relativistic dynamics that Einstein discovered go by the name of the “theory of relativity.” One might think the word law would indicate greater certainty, but in this case it’s just the opposite. As of this writing, Einstein’s “theory” has no known exceptions, and Newton’s “laws” break down in the subatomic realm and for ordinary objects moving at high speeds.

Similarly, Darwin’s “theory of evolution” is not so-named to suggest flaws in it. The theory of evolution has been thoroughly tested and to date has not been found wanting. Another very accurate, comprehensive scientific theory describes the elementary particles and their interactions. It goes by the unassuming name of “the standard model.”

Building better models is humankind’s defining activity. For better or worse, it’s made us who we are. The aforesaid “standard model” describes three of Nature’s four forces, and, by enabling us to predict their effects, allows us to tap sources of energy otherwise unavailable. The flip side of taming Nature’s power is that we may use it in ways that damage the planet and harm each other.

We learn modeling early, starting with Legos, dolls, and model trains. The fables we grow up with can be understood as models that show us how to behave. People fancy themselves as characters in video games, sometimes deploying an avatar, and can try out different behaviors vicariously without risking their own lives.

Scientists Francis Crick and James Watson modeled the double-stranded helical structure of the DNA molecule with Tinker Toys. There is a model of the San Francisco Bay—complete with miniature piers poking into the water, a scaled-down Golden Gate Bridge, and “tidal currents” propelled by pumps—that fills a warehouse in Sausalito, California. By studying it, scientists can anticipate the effects of proposed real-world alterations of the Bay.

Weather bureaus, using computers and mathematical models, provide weather forecasts. As everyone knows, the predictions are not always right, but they’re getting more accurate as the models are improved.

Experimenting with model planes in wind tunnels enabled the Wright brothers to build the aircraft they flew at Kitty Hawk. Even more significant than the plane they built was their pioneering use of modeling in engineering. Models enabled them to anticipate problems through trial and error without paying the price of crashing a piloted plane. Today, flight can be simulated on computers by representing both the airplane and the atmosphere in a mathematical model.

Grand unifying models are the holy grail of every branch of science. In biology, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is such a model. In chemistry, it’s Mendeleyev’s periodic table of the elements. In geology, the theory of plate tectonics accounts for the earth’s principal geological features. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” (often abbreviated TOE) that, as Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, picturesquely puts it, would “explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt.” One of these models is called string theory. Like all theories and models, string theory will ultimately live or die depending on whether its implications agree with observations.

Though much of science consists of building models, the use of models is hardly limited to science. Indeed, normative, prescriptive social models predate by millennia the descriptive and predictive nature models mentioned above. Beginning in the distant past, cultural codes of conduct—for example, the Ten Commandments—were used to regulate family and tribal relationships. Other examples of socio-political models include the theologies of religious institutions, organizational charts of universities, by-laws of corporations, and national constitutions.

Entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who invest in their companies are guided by hypothetical plans—that is, models—that delineate scenarios based on various economic assumptions to chart a path to profitability. The governance models of nation-states range from the divine right of kings to fascism, communism, constitutional monarchies, and many sub-species of democracy. Sometimes users of social models actually lose sight of the difference between their models and reality. As Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, warns: “A surprising problem is that a number of economists are not able to distinguish between the models we construct and the real world.”

When we see parents, heroes, public figures, and fictional characters as “role models,” we’re using behavioral models to shape our own character.

To sum up, models are descriptive or prescriptive representations of the world and ourselves. Their functions include providing us with an identity, shaping our behavior, maintaining social order, and guiding our use of power. Modeling has made humans what we are and our success as a species depends on learning to use them wisely.

In the next post, we face the fact that despite our preference for fixity, models evolve.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Whatever Happened to “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”?

[This is the 3rd in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Sunday School, I had noticed, everyone had noticed, that the commandments, precepts, and rules that were taught there were often disregarded, not only by scoundrels and criminals in the news, but by some of the very people whose job it was to teach us these morals.

Upon detecting hypocrisy in the messenger, my impulse had been to throw out the message. But I couldn’t quite shake the golden rule. Its symmetry gave expression to an intuition that ran deep: that I shouldn’t expect to be well-treated by those whom I treated poorly; that I should afford others the dignity I sought for myself.

My take-away questions from Sunday School were:

  1. Why are moral precepts—even those that everyone accepts—widely ignored?
  2. Why has “peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men” not been realized?

I wondered about this gap between the ideal and the reality as World War II raged, as the Holocaust was revealed, and as Japan surrendered to American atom bombs. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that religion’s most serious short-coming was not that it harbored “deniers” of well-established science models, but that it had not found a way to realize its own aspirational goals.

For example, the golden rule was suspended when it came to so-called “Negroes” (they were not allowed to own homes in my town), the mentally handicapped (a boy with Down Syndrome hung around my school’s perimeter, but was barred from school property), homosexuals (a boy we thought “queer” was humiliated), and poor, overweight, unstylish, or “dumb” kids were often subjected to ridicule.

At college, when I argued that life might someday be created in a test tube, I was mocked as a “heathen” and a ridiculed as a “mechanist.” When I responded with insults of my own, the result was a shouting match.

Later, I wondered if “getting even” gave me a pass when it came to obeying the golden rule. After all, they had hurled the first insult. But then hadn’t I upped the ante? The logician in me noticed that the golden rule, like the best rules in physics, allows for no exceptions. It didn’t say anything about who went first. Did that mean that retaliating in kind was wrong?

Finding an answer to this question took decades, and I’ll come back to it after addressing an even more fundamental, methodological question, a question that no discussion of religion and science can ignore.

Are There Really Two Kinds of Knowledge?

In the mid-1960s, stirred by the passions of the civil rights movement, I left physics to play a part in the reform of higher education then sweeping the country. Overnight, my life took an activist turn toward issues of equity and justice. Though exposure to the golden rule had predisposed me to sympathize with those demanding equal rights, I did not trace my political ideals to religion.

I’d spent most of my time since Sunday School in pursuit of scientific truth, where evidence is king. During that time, my skepticism toward the faith-based claims of religion had grown stronger. But in my political work, I couldn’t help but notice that the reformers I worked with often invoked religious teachings to good effect in support of the goals we shared.

By the mid-seventies, the transformational energy of the sixties was spent and, seeing no chance for further reforms, at age thirty-seven, I left academia. The bitter academic politics of that period had left me bruised and burnt out. In search of a less contentious way to bring change, I wondered if the world’s holy books contained anything that might have helped me be a better leader. In particular, Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Vedanta, were drawing attention from Western seekers, and the word was that they offered a more tranquil, enlightened path to personal and social change.

Before I could take in anything positive from religion, Eastern or Western, I had to deal with the negative. Yes, some churches had provided a home for leaders of the civil rights movement, but it seemed to me that if institutional religion practiced what it preached, it could have done a lot more to oppose racism and done it sooner. What more obvious violation of the golden rule could there be than a segregated America?

My old questions about religion’s ineffectiveness were joined by new ones concerning its exceptionalism. What if religion defended its teachings in the same way science does—by marshaling evidence, making predictions, and testing them against outcomes? What if religion applied its teachings to its own practices? What if seemingly utopian prophecies like “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” were regarded not as naïve pieties but rather as testable predictions of a state of social equilibrium toward which humankind was muddling?

It seemed to me that, with a few changes, religion could stand up to the criticisms of non-believers, regain the respect of its critics, and be the transformational force its founders and prophets had envisioned. In this re-visioning, the parts of religion that are counterfactual or unproven could either be dropped—as science jettisons theories that don’t hold up to scrutiny—or retained as speculation, metaphor, or personal preference. After all, anyone is free to believe anything, and most of us, including scientists, discreetly exercise that right in one area or another.

Fast forward thirty years. The twenty-first century has brought an avalanche of evidence, and official admissions, of religion’s moral lapses. Extreme ideologues and fanatical true believers continue to tarnish the religious brand. When religion aligns itself with discredited science, its losing streak is unbroken, and where educational levels are on the rise, religion is in decline. This wouldn’t matter if religion had succeeded in imparting its most important teachings, but the golden rule is still widely flouted, and “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men” remains a distant dream.

Sometimes, when you can’t get from A to B, it’s for lack of a steppingstone. In that spirit, it seemed possible to me that for religion to realize its vision of peace on Earth, it may first need to make peace with science. The goal in these posts is to show that religion and science can indeed co-occupy that steppingstone of peace, and from it, deliver on their complementary promises.

Although grievances leap to mind when we consider making peace with an old foe, ultimate success depends on identifying not where each side is wrong, but where each is right.

Current attacks on religion are ignoring the fact that it got some very big things right. However, religion must take responsibility for much of the criticism directed its way because its spokesmen have repeatedly failed to distinguish between its great discoveries and its mistakes. Not only have some religious leaders ignored compelling evidence, but they, like the leaders of secular institutions, have often failed to live up to the standards of behavior they espouse. Nothing undermines authority like hypocrisy.

Paradoxically, science makes even more mistakes than religion; but it saves itself by being quicker to recognize and correct them. Niels Bohr, the father of atomic physics, ascribed his breakthroughs to “making my mistakes faster than others.”

The difference between science and religion is not that one has “babies” in its bath water and the other doesn’t. The difference is that science drains its dirty bath water faster, leaving its gleaming babies for all to admire. As the American scientific statesman, James B. Conant, said:

The stumbling way in which even the ablest scientists in every generation have had to fight through thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks.

In what follows, I’ll try to give both religion and science their due without soft-peddling their differences. Signing onto a new deal will require adjustments from both of these venerable antagonists.

The principal tool needed to end the historical enmity between science and religion, though nothing new, goes by a name that may be unfamiliar. It’s called model building—“modeling,” for short.

In ordinary language, models are representations of an object, a phenomenon, or a person or group that describe or prescribe the behavior of what’s represented. Some models take the form of stories, rules, or codes that show us how to behave. Hence the phrase “model behavior.” Other models take the form of explanations or theories that tell us how nature behaves, for example, Bohr’s atomic model. These days one does not start a company without first creating a business model.

A model is a representation of an object, phenomenon, or person that resembles the real thing. By studying the model we can learn about what it mirrors.

When we ask if there are two distinct kinds of knowledge—scientific truths and religious truths—we’re really asking if the same methodology can unlock the secrets in both realms. In forthcoming parts of this series, I’ll try to show that the tool of modeling, coupled with demystification of the discovery process, provides a conceptual framework broad and deep enough to unify science and religion.

I begin with a look at some models from science (part 4), then examine some models from religion (part 5). Once we’ve identified what’s of lasting value—that is, the time-tested teachings—in both traditions, the next step is to spell out their complementary roles in addressing the life-threatening challenges facing humankind.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Two Notions of Truth: My Sunday School vs. My Public School

[This is the 2nd in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

My parents were not church-goers, but they thought their children should be exposed to the religious perspective. So, until we graduated from eighth grade, they made my brothers and me attend a Presbyterian Sunday School.

When I asked my Sunday School teacher how Jesus could turn a few fish and a little bread into enough food to feed a crowd, she explained it as a miracle. She gave the same answer about walking on water, raising Lazarus, and coming back from the dead. When I pressed her on the biblical account of creation—“He did all that in six days?”—she reread Genesis to the class.

My other school, a public school in Chatham, New Jersey, was located in the shadow of Bell Laboratories, where my father worked. Bell Labs was then one of the top scientific research labs in the world.

In third grade we studied the solar system. Our textbook had a diagram of Copernicus’s heliocentric model showing the planets revolving around the sun in circles. A table gave the distance of each planet from the sun in miles and its period of revolution in days: 365 for the earth, 225 for Venus, just 88 for Mercury, and so on, all the way out to Pluto. Printed alongside each planet’s orbit was its average speed in miles per hour as it circled the sun.

It was just then that we were studying circles in arithmetic. The lesson for the week was that the circumference of a circle C = 2πR, where R is the circle’s radius and π is a universal constant approximately equal to 3.14. A closeted nerd in the days before we had our own identity group, I decided to verify the speed shown for the orbiting earth using this formula. The computation was simple enough—just form the product 2πR and divide by the time—one year—that it took the Earth to complete one revolution.

But something was wrong. My result did not agree with the Earth’s speed in the book. It was not even close. So I tried the same calculation for Venus and Mercury. No agreement with those either. I did the other six planets. Not one of my calculations agreed with the numbers in the book. Frustrated, I asked my father for help. He checked my figures, examined the textbook, and announced the unthinkable: the book was wrong. I had thought books couldn’t be wrong. We all had.

The next day I showed the error to my teacher, Mrs. Bahoosian. It made her nervous. She drew me aside and spoke in a hushed voice. I think she worried that if word got out it might cast doubt on the entire educational enterprise among my peers. But she mollified me by promising to write the publishing company.

Months later she reported that the publisher was going to change the numbers in the next edition. She never told the class. I remember checking a year later and sure enough the mistakes had been corrected.

Catching that mistake broke the spell of the printed word, and a new notion of truth took hold of me: the truth is not necessarily what some authority says it is, but rather what can be proven.

But, if so, where did that leave the truths taught in my Sunday School? Some of what was taught there contradicted our science lessons. It seemed my two schools stood for two incompatible worlds: science and religion.

People hadn’t always had to face this dilemma. For millennia, science and religion were not regarded as distinct. Religion offered explanations of life and the cosmos, and for a long time there was scant evidence to contradict them.

However, bit by bit, evidence contradicting the religious explanations was gathered and, by the seventeenth century, battle lines were forming. A more evidence-based way of pursuing truth was taking shape within the religious consensus, and sometimes the findings of those who insisted on seeing for themselves threatened the doctrine espoused by church leaders.

Science cited facts, made predictions, and tolerated dissent. In contrast, religion invoked scripture, urged faith, and required conformity. Science said, “Doubt me.” Religion said, “Trust me.”

As a child, I couldn’t make peace between my Sunday School and my grade school, so I took the easy way out. I dismissed religion as unfounded and resolved to ignore it. With hardly a backward glance, I set my sights on a career in math and physics where I was encouraged to question authority.

But I did not go away empty-handed. On the contrary, I took with me a pair of questions that, in time, would shape my life’s work. Those questions are posed in the next post; my answers later, once some misconceptions about science and religion have been cleared up.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Reason to Hope: A New Deal for Religion and Science

[This is the 1st in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

[The 21st] century will be defined by a debate that will run through the remainder of its decades: religion versus science. Religion will lose. – John McLaughlin, TV talk show host

Former priest John McLaughlin is hardly alone in his pessimism about religion’s future. A spate of bestsellers—The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith by Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens—argues that religion, as we’ve known it, no longer serves the needs of people with a modern education and a global awareness.

Books like these have spelled out religion’s shortcomings and I see no point in piling on. Rather, in a series of posts, I’ll make the case that, in the long view, both religion and science come off as godsends (forgive the pun). And that, looking ahead, both are indispensable to letting go of old predatory practices and creating a fair, just, and peaceful world. If religion can see its way clear to making a mid-course correction and science can get off its high horse, John McLaughlin’s prediction could be proven spectacularly wrong.

Many of the voices now being raised against religion are over-confident and patronizing, rather like those of trial-lawyers who feel the jury is in their pocket. Perhaps that’s because they are increasingly preaching to a public alarmed by clerical abuses and fundamentalist zealotry. Contemporary religious leaders, painfully aware of the relationship between public participation and institutional viability, realize that religion is in a fight for its life.

I realize that this terrain is full of landmines. In the hope of defusing a few, let me acknowledge at the outset that the word religion means different things to different people. To some, it’s knowledge and wisdom; to others, superstition and dogma. To some, it’s worship; to others, wonder. To some, religion is salvation; to others, it’s seeking. To some, religion is of divine origin; to others, it’s man-made.

I use “religion” to refer loosely to the metaphysical, moral, and transformational precepts of the founders, prophets, saints, and sages of the major religions. The focus of these blog posts is neither the theological doctrines associated with particular faiths nor the liturgical practices characteristic of various sects. Rather, the goal is to present a unifying perspective on the findings of religious and scientific inquiry.

Then, since the divergence between science and religion no longer serves either, I’ll address the obstacles that have kept them from developing a “beautiful friendship” and describe the pay-off we may expect once they’re both on the same side.

Science gives us reason to think we can vanquish famine, disease, and poverty. Religion heralds “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” Neither of these venerable institutions can deliver on its vision without help from the other, but together there is reason to hope that they can. As partners, science and religion can make the golden rule largely self-enforcing, and hasten our arrival into a world wherein everyone’s dignity is secure.

I know this sounds utopian, but wait and see. Developments in both science and religion have laid the foundation for a new synthesis. Ending centuries of fruitless squabbling and initiating a beautiful friendship is at last possible. If you’ll suspend your skepticism long enough to follow this series of posts, I think you’ll agree. And, if you’re not persuaded, you’ll at least come away with some new questions.

The next post tells what hooked me on these issues in the first place: the incompatible notions of truth advocated by my two schools—Sunday School and Public School.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Ten Ways To Stop Rankism in the Professions

1. Work: Take the trouble to understand how co-workers contribute to getting the job done and acknowledge their contribution.
If you are a boss, it’s not enough to avoid treating your employees in a rankist manner (though the example you set will reverberate through the entire organization) ; you are also responsible for making sure that your subordinates treat their subordinates with dignity. Dignitarian companies are not only happier workplaces, they are also healthier, more creative, and more productive ones.

2. Education: Create “Indignity Free Zones.”
Teachers are increasingly sensitive to the harm done to students by indignity. If you’re an educator, you can bring this awareness into the open and communicate it to those students whose bullying and humiliation of peers unconsciously mirrors that of adult society. A threat to a student’s dignity is more than a discourtesy. It is an attack on one’s status in the “tribe,” and carries an implicit threat of ostracism and exclusion. Status has historically been a matter of life and death and remains a determinant of whether we prosper or decline, so an attack on status is experienced as a threat to survival. Rankism poisons the learning environment.

3. Healthcare: Enlist your patients as partners.
If you are a healthcare provider, you can help your clients make the awkward transition from patients to partners. Ridding healthcare of its legacy of dehumanization and infantilization is good medical practice. You can also insist on respect throughout the organization in which you work. If you are a patient, have compassion for doctors, too. It’s not easy to give up one’s “deity status,” and many physicians are doing so with remarkable grace. Moreover, remember that they’re victims of rankism themselves at the hands of HMOs that often treat them less like the professionals they are and more like pieceworkers on an assembly line.

4. Sports: Have respect for the other team.
If you’re a coach, you can forbid trash talk, on and off the court, among your players and to your opponents. Show your team that they are capable of more—not by humiliating them but by teaching and inspiring them. Rent the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly and show it to your athletes. Its punch line—“I rag on nobody”—puts it in the anti-rankist hall of fame.

5. Religion: Exemplify rather than exhort.
If you’re a religious leader, you can refrain from pulling spiritual rank. You can do more for your flock by listening and providing them with a personal example worthy of emulation than you can by invoking higher authority, which is often little more than a claim that God shares your politics.

6. Guardian professions (policing): Bring dignity to law enforcement.
If you’re a policeman or woman, protect citizens’ dignity as you already protect their lives. Any kind of profiling is rankism.

7. Military: One part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place.
Indignity is the source of indignation, so to avoid escalation or revenge, take care to spare your foes gratuitous indignities.

8. Politics: Restore civility to politics
If you’re in electoral politics you can point the way to a dignitarian society, even if your colleagues aren’t yet ready to embrace your ideas. Treat your opponents with dignity. Don’t sneer, mock, or condescend. Avoid patronizing or posturing. When politicians lay claim to moral superiority, they extend rankism’s lease. Since rankism is an attack on both liberty and dignity, denounce it along with the other isms. Explain to your constituents why you’re against it—in all its forms—and then go after them one by one. Be the leader you wanted to be when you first imagined running for office. Be willing to lose an election for your dignitarian convictions. If you do lose, run for office a few years later, and win! To paraphrase Victor Hugo, dignity is an idea whose time has come.

9. Other professions: Show the world dignity through your profession.
If you’re an artist, expose rankism; put dignity on exhibit. If you’re a philosopher, define and deconstruct dignity. If you’re a psychologist, demonstrate the consequences of malrecogntion. If you’re a comedian, make us laugh at the double standards that apply to somebodies and nobodies. If you’re a filmmaker, give us heroes who overcome rankism without resorting to rankism. If you’re a songwriter, write an anthem for the dignity movement. If you’re a TV producer, stop exploiting humiliation and celebrating rankism. Sooner than you think, the staple of TV entertainment—humiliation—is going to feel as off-key as racism, sexism, and homophobia do today.

10. Be a Susan B. Anthony of the Dignity Movement.
In the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony traveled a million miles by train and gave 20,000 speeches advocating the enfranchisement of women. Sadly, she did not live to see the success of the suffragette movement she spearheaded (but her image is on the dollar coin). If you’re an organizer, create a chapter of the dignitarian movement in your area. Coordinate with other chapters and make them a national force under the slogan “no rankism” and the banner “dignity for all.” Programs to help the poor or end poverty will continue to fall short until those trapped in the underclass have found their voice and together insist on respect and equity. Do what Susan B. Anthony did for women and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. did for African-Americans: help the victims of chronic indignity find an effective way to give voice to their plight and change the status quo.

How Nobodies Can Be Somebodies (FAQs re The Dignity Movement against Rankism)

Q: What do you mean by “somebodies” and “nobodies”?
A: “Somebodies” are the relatively powerful and successful, “nobodies” the relatively weak and vulnerable. Somebodies with higher rank and more power in a given context can maintain an environment that is hostile and demeaning to nobodies with lower rank and less power in that context. Taken together, those of low rank vastly outnumber those of high rank. If they were to stand together against rank-abuse, they could overcome it. But it’s not that simple because nobodies may also abuse their rank by putting down those of still lower rank. There is usually someone weaker on whom you can pull rank, even if it means kicking the dog.

Q: How can “nobodies” stand up for their dignity?
A: The same way women did in the 1960s. They broke the taboo on discussing gender and initiated a process of consciousness-raising about gender issues. In the process they coined the term “sexism,” which served to identify their grievances and put men on the defensive. In like manner, we must (1) break the taboo on discussing rank, (2) give a name to rank-abuse, and (3) replace the prevailing social consensus, which tacitly sanctions abusing and exploiting the weak, with a new consensus in which rank-abuse is regarded as uncool.

Q: What shall we call rank-based abuse and discrimination?
A: When discrimination and injustice are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re gender-based, we call it sexism. By analogy, rank-based abuse and exploitation are rankism. We won’t be able to confront rankism until we overcome our fear of seeming uppity by using the word in public. Following in the footsteps of uppity women, expect to see more uppity nobodies as the dignity movement gains momentum.

Q: Are you proposing to do away with rank?
A: Not at all. When earned and exercised appropriately, rank is a legitimate and virtually indispensable tool of organization. We rightly admire and respect those who attain it. But when those of higher rank abuse their authority, those of lower rank experience indignity not different in its material and psychological effects from the indignities we now disallow when victims are black, female, elderly, gay, or have a disability. People do not object to legitimate differences in rank, only to rank abuse. Overcoming rankism does not mean doing away with rank any more than overcoming racism and sexism mean doing away with race or gender.

Q. Isn’t rankism human nature?
A: One of the hard-earned lessons of the twentieth century was that racism and sexism are not immutable. While it is virtually inevitable that a power advantage will be exploited initially, it is just as inevitable that such abuse will eventually be resisted. In this sense, rankism, of whatever sort, is no more part of human nature than are racism or sexism. If anything is human nature, it’s that human beings resist abuses of power. Racism, sexism and rankism may be hard to uproot, but they are not immutable. The first two were put on the defensive in the late twentieth century, and rankism itself is no more likely to survive scrutiny than the now-familiar isms.

Q: Why focus on rank instead of class?
A: In modern democracies we interact with authority in terms of rank, not class. In contrast to aristocratic societies, it no longer matters whether your superior has blue blood or blue collar ancestry. What matters is that he or she is your boss, your professor, your doctor, a police officer, or a president.

Q: What are the dynamics of rankism?
A: Rankism occurs when rank-holders use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at others’ expense. It typically takes the form of self-aggrandizement and demeaning and exploiting subordinates. It is the opposite of service. Good leaders eschew rankism; bad ones indulge in it.

Q: Where is rankism found?
A: Although it is not necessary to abolish rank to eliminate the abuse of rank, it is true that hierarchies are breeding grounds for rankism. When authorities are not held accountable to those served by the hierarchy, rankism invariably develops. Thus, rankism can be found in bureaucracies, corporations, businesses, workplaces, families, schools and universities, as well as religious, nonprofit, and healthcare organizations. It can be especially hard to confront in non-profits, which see themselves as “doing good,” and may become blind to malpractice within their ranks. Rankism, however, is an equal opportunity malady, and will infect any organization where accountability is lax.

Q: What are the effects of rankism?
A: Rankism distorts personal relationships, erodes the will to work and to learn, taxes productivity, fosters ill-health, and stokes ethnic tensions.

Q: Who are the victims of rankism?
A: Although racism and sexism target specific identity groups, we are all potential victims of rankism. This is because rank is not fixed, but relative. You can be a nobody in one context—and as such vulnerable to rankism—but a somebody in another—and thus a potential perpetrator. Likewise, you can be a somebody one day and a nobody the next. Like racism in the era of segregation, rankism is pervasive and enjoys the support of a tacit social consensus. Rankism afflicts no group more than the working poor, whose hand-to-mouth subsistence makes them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich makes a compelling case that the working poor are in effect unacknowledged benefactors whose labor subsidizes the better off.

Q: What are some examples of rankism?
A: Examples include a boss harassing an employee, a customer demeaning a waiter, a coach bullying a player, a doctor humiliating a nurse, a teacher disparaging a student, a parent belittling a child. The civil rights and women’s movements have managed to put racists and sexists on notice. But there has been no corresponding outcry against abuses that occur within a race or gender, in part because until now we haven’t had a name for them. Blacks insult and exploit other blacks of lower rank, whites do the same to whites, and women to women, all with confidence that such behavior, which does not fit the definition of racism or sexism, will pass for business as usual and escape censure.

Q: Do we really need another “ism”?
A: Yes, but rankism, which includes the other ignoble isms as special cases, is the last of the lot. Identity politics, because of its exclusive focus on the rights of particular groups, can foster resentment in those who feel that its concerns and protections don’t extend to them. But no one is immune to rankism. Everyone has experienced it in some context or other (and most of us have dished it out). So overcoming rankism is an inclusive, unifying goal that reduces the myriad injunctions of political correctness to just one: Protect the dignity of others as you would have them protect yours. Sound familiar? The concept of rankism puts teeth in the golden rule.

Q: Does the dignity movement have a slogan?
A: To succeed a movement needs to know what it’s for and what it’s against. The dignity movement is for dignity and against rankism. Imagine the bumper sticker. Better yet, design one.

Q: What would a dignitarian society look like?
A: A dignitarian society would provide universal healthcare, equal access to quality education and retraining, an equitable tax structure, affordable housing, campaign finance reform that prevents vote-buying by special interests, and compensation compatible with living in dignity. In short, a dignitarian society does not tolerate a dignity gap, as created and maintained by rankism, and that, in turn, will require us to make good on the promise that the Founding Fathers imprinted on the American psyche—liberty and justice for all.

Somebodies and Nobodies: Understanding Rankism

What is rankism? First, some examples; then, a definition.

An executive pulls into valet parking, late to a business lunch, and finds no one to take his car. He spots a teenager running towards him and yells, “Where the hell were you? I haven’t got all day.”

He tosses the keys on the pavement. Bending to pick them up, the boy says, “Sorry, sir. About how long do you expect to be?”

The executive hollers over his shoulder, “You’ll know when you see me, won’t you?” The valet winces, but holds his tongue. Postscript: That evening the teenager bullies his kid brother.

The dynamic is familiar: A customer demeans a waitress, a boss humiliates an employee, a principal bullies a teacher, a teacher mocks a student, students ostracize other students, a parent beats a child, a coach bullies a player, a professor exploits a graduate student, a doctor insults a nurse or patronizes a patient, a priest abuses a parishioner, a caregiver mistreats an elder, executives award themselves perks and bonuses, police use racial profiling, politicians serve the special interests. Surely, you can add to the list.

Most such behaviors have nothing to do with racism, sexism, or other discriminatory isms. Yet perpetrators of these insults, like racists and sexists, select their targets with circumspection. In every case, a disparity of power and rank figures in the choice of target and higher rank shields perpetrators from retaliation.

Rank signifies power. Sometimes rank is abused, as in these examples, but often it’s simply an organizational tool used to get a job done in a timely manner. Many bosses, coaches, doctors, priests, and professors interact with their subordinates without insulting or exploiting them. Yet in the hands of a sadistic bully, rank is a cudgel if not an instrument of torture. What can victims of rank abuse do to protect their dignity?

Those abused on the basis of color unified against racism. Women targeted sexism and the elderly took aim at ageism. By analogy, “rankism” denotes abuses of power associated with rank. Once you have a name for it, you see it everywhere. More importantly, once you call it by name, everyone else will see it too, and perpetrators will find themselves on the defensive.

“To have a name is to be,” said Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractals. As “sexism” gained a foothold, men’s desire to avoid being labeled “sexist” caused them to modify their treatment of women. Likewise, the desire of perpetrators to avoid being labeled rankist will make them think twice about insulting the dignity of subordinates.

Rankism is what people who take themselves for “somebodies” do to those they mistake for “nobodies.” Whether directed at an individual or a group, rankism aims to put targets in their place and keep them weak so they will do as they’re told and submit to being taken advantage of.

In the examples above, rankism consists of abuse of the power attached to rank. Another expression of rankism occurs when the abuse lies not in how rank is used, but in the very fact of ranking in the first place. There are lots of hierarchies whose only purpose is to justify privileging one group over another. Then, high status is used by the creators of these fabricated hierarchies to rationalize the privileges they’ve arrogated unto themselves. Contrariwise, the inferior status of the less powerful is invoked to justify their on-going exploitation. The irony is that while the less powerful are forced to serve as benefactors to those of higher rank, they are routinely depicted as dependent and inferior.

Examples of rankism based on pseudo rankings include the illicit hierarchies maintained by racism, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, and heterosexualism (or, homophobia)–in short, the familiar isms that plague societies and that, one by one, are being discredited and dismantled.

Like abuses of legitimate rank, the use of illegitimate rank is a source of humiliation and indignity. Both expressions of rankism are indefensible violations of human dignity. Rankism is simply an umbrella name for the many ways that people put others down to secure advantages for themselves. All forms of rankism have their roots in predation and have evolved from the practice of slavery.

The relationship between rankism and the specific isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as varieties of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific cancers all had their origins in cellular malfunction.

In this metaphor, racism, sexism, and homophobia are analogous to organ-specific cancers and rankism is the blanket malignancy analogous to cancer itself. Rankism is the mother of all the ignoble isms.

Now that rankism has a name, we must learn to say it aloud. It was not easy to use the word “sexism” at first. Men utterly refused, and women demurred for fear of seeming “uppity.” As we overcome our reluctance to be uppity nobodies, and gain the confidence to stand up for our own and others’ dignity, rankism will become insupportable.

The demise of rankism in all its guises will mark the dawn of something new in human affairs–dignitarian societies. In a dignitarian society, no one is taken for a nobody and, regardless of role or rank, everyone is accorded equal dignity.