Religion in a scientific and secular culture (part 1)

posted: 3848 days ago, on Thursday, 2007 May 10 at 17:45
tags: atheism, events, science and religion.

Fundamentalism or Atheism: The possibility of religion in a scientific and secular culture

Presented by Dr Augustine Shutte

Part 1: 2007 May 06

Dr. Carel Anthonissen, of the Centre for Christian Spirituality in Cape Town, welcomed the speaker, Dr. Augustine Shutte (Honorary Research Associate, Department of Philosophy, UCT).

The present lecture series was particularly relevant, Anthonissen said, as it addressed questions that are being asked today, namely, can faith, or a religious conviction, be reconciled with what one learns, from a scientific point of view, about our world. Shutte, he noted, has been pondering this for a long time, and what he would be presenting here is a distillation of his own struggles and search for answers.

The lecture series was presented earlier this year at the UCT Summer School and was attended by 200 people, Anthonissen said, and was then presented at the Centre for Christian Spirituality in Cape Town (with a 20-strong audience), after which it was decided to bring it to Stellenbosch (for which I'm grateful!).

By way of personal introduction, Anthonissen noted that Shutte is a theologian (he was a Catholic priest here in Stellenbosch) but also maintained an interest in philosophy and was later appointed at UCT where he specialized in the philosophy of African religion. He spent six years in the Dominican monastery in Stellenbosch while he studied, doing his postgrad work at Maties under prof Johan Degenaar.

"I'm a professional philosopher," was Shutte's opening remarks, "and this will be a philosophical kind of course, but don't be frightened by that, I just mean it will be an attempt to make you more conscious, more consistent, and more critical about what you believe, your world view, your values that's what philosophy actually is."

Shutte then invited the audience to participate by writing down answers to two questions he would ask. He has done the same with previous groups and would compare our answers with his Cape Town sample. The first question was: "I want you to give one example of the apparent conflict between science and religion", and the second, "What issue do you think is the most important in the science and religion field."

My response to the first question was "Intelligent Design vs the Rest of Science", and much the same to the second question, with added emphasis that the issue is actually the natural vs the supernatural.

After collecting the responses, Shutte promised an analysis and comparison of the results. He continued:

"As Carel said, I'm a Christian, but this is not a course in Christian theology. If anything, as I say, it has a philosophical character. The issues between science and religions aren't specifically scientific issues, nor are they specifically religious issues, they are something in-between, and that's what philosophy does."

He assured any atheists in the group that they could feel at ease, which I thought was sweet.

Shutte went on to point out that, in the history of thought, "it's been Christianity that has been the religion that has engaged with, and been forced to come into close contact with, the development of the scientific world view, because it was the dominant world view in Europe and this is where contemporary science began.

"I've been interested in the science and religion field in my department at UCT for the last five years or so," Shutte explained, "and I directed a research project which was funded by the John Templeton foundation, which is a big American foundation based on John Templeton's money that he made in the financial world, that is expressly designed to promote this kind of interaction. We got funding for a three-year project, and at the Summer School this year at UCT we launched the book that resulted from that ... 'The Quest for Humanity in Religion and Science: The South African experience'."

On the theme of humanity, Shutte remarked: "When we engage with the scientific world view we can often feel, somehow, lost or small or insignificant." This sense of losing touch with yourself, he remarked, can also be brought about by religion. "All religions involve one, somehow, attaching one's deepest self to an authority, an external authority of some kind," Shutte said. "And sometimes the way this is achieved, either because of your attitude or the attitude of the authority, one is also alienated from oneself. One lives with a kind of lack of freedom to be one self. So both science and religion can have this effect. So what I want to assure you is that what I'm going to present to you involves basically getting in touch with your own humanity, and seeing how scientific attempts to understand the Universe, and a religious attempt to find a complete and enduring fulfilment of one's deepest desires, can be done authentically, how they square with what one is. So at the centre of the whole thing is the idea that we have, of what it is to be human."

I wondered at this point to what extent the loss of self to another was applicable to Buddhism. Or for that matter, to spirituality in general (as distinct from the view of spirituality that sees it as essentially synonymous with religion). At the same time, I'm not sure if the sense of insignificance when faced with cosmic proportions is quite the same as the depersonalisation that accompanies contemplation of one's relation to a creator-god. Because the latter usually involves a relatable anthropomorphised being, absent in the former, I wonder if this does not bring about a distinct phenomenological response. Anyway, I can see that there are certainly parallels between one's reaction to the Universe, and to a God.

Shutte then summarised the five talks that he would give. Today's talk would be a presentation of his summary (informed by, amongst others, UCT's George Ellis) of current cosmology.

The second talk is on secularisation, which, Shutte said, "is often understood as the rejection of a religious view of the world. I don't understand it like that, but it is a rejection of what one could call the supernatural, and of course I will be explaining that. But it's more than that. It also involves a real step forward in human consciousness that occurs at the beginning of the modern era."

In the third talk, Shutte will present his view on what human beings are, "and how they can hope to find fulfilment of their human nature, and the reason I do that is because already in the scientific world view, and in the phenomenon of secularisation, we are being offered ways of looking at ourselves, of understanding what human beings are; every science has got something to say, and the philosophy of secularisation produces very powerful, influential views, of what human beings are, and I'm critical of them."

He considers his view to be a better one, but added: "You don't have to accept my word for it; philosophers always have to give reasons for what they say, so I'm always open to hearing reasons against what I say."

The philosophy of religion is the subject of the fourth talk, discussing the history of European thought about the notion of God, and God's existence. "And that's a preparation for the final talk," Shutte said, "where I tell you what I think, how I think that religion is a possibility in a scientific and secular culture, without being an atheist or a fundamentalist. The original Summer School had that title: 'Fundamentalism or Atheism: The possibility of religion in a scientific and secular culture.' I think I would add to that now, I would say, the 'possibility of authentic religion in a scientific and secular culture.' I will talk about the notion of God, my conception of God, and also our understanding of death ... I think it is mistaken ideas about both those fundamental ideas that alienate people from ... religion."

Shutte then presented a superb overview of cosmology, beautifully written and worth reading and re-reading.

The Universe began 15 billion years ago. You must not think of it as beginning at a certain moment in time, and a particular moment in space. When I say the Universe began 15 billion years ago, I mean that both time and space began then. This is the generally accepted view of contemporary cosmologists, based on data our present instruments provide us with.

That from which time and space and everything else emerged is in principle beyond the reach of science and is usually referred to as the initial singularity. Though it is strictly non-imaginable, the cosmologist Brian Swimme refers to it as the 'all-nourishing abyss' and describes it as 'an unseen ocean of potentiality, and infinity of pure generative power'. The reason for this is that in recent years, discoveries in quantum physics have led cosmologists to use the term 'quantum potential' or 'quantum vacuum' for that from which, in the present, new particles, and space and time, are continuously emerging, and to identify this with the initial singularity from which the Universe began. As we shall see again in what is to follow, Swimme's 'all-nourishing abyss of energy' continues to be as active now, as then.

The Universe began as a fountain of formless, featureless energy, pouring space and time into existence at a speed many billions times the speed of light. Then into this expanding space, from the quantum vacuum, poured the fundamental particles electrons, quarks, photons units of energy that were annihilated in the first moment of their existence, to be replaced in the primal fireball by more. Eventually, as the temperature of the fireball dropped, a threshold was reached, where only one-billionth of the particles remained, but in a stable state. A state ordered by the four fundamental forces: electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity.

The expanding Universe was both a sea of particles, and a furnace. It was also dark. The speed of the Universe's expansion was so great that no photon could escape beyond the point of its emergence. Then all at once everything changed. From the quantum vacuum, a density wave of energy swept through the Universe, transforming the particles into clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms, through which photons could pass without being destroyed. Suddenly, all was light. Huge bright clouds filled the Universe. The galaxies had been born. Each galaxy was a bonded system in which the primal stars were formed from their gas, billions of stars in each.

Speaking of the expansion of the Universe, it must not be thought that this is something that happened only in the far distant past. Its still going on, and in a way that is not easy to imagine. One must not, for instance, imagine it as though it started from a point, 15 billion light years away, and is now flaring outwards through empty space, carrying the galaxies with their stars, and oneself, along with it. That's a very misleading picture.

Swimme offers a far better one that of a loaf of raisin bread, baking in an oven. As it bakes, the bread enclosing the raisins expands in all directions. And this is like the Universe, with each raisin a galaxy, and the dough the space between them. Each raisin or galaxy is still the centre of expansion. Between each, the dough, or space, is increasing in size, pushing them further and further away from each other. This is what is actually happening in the Universe: new space is pouring into existence from the quantum vacuum, pushing the galaxies further and further apart. Each galaxy is situated at the very point at which the Universe began.

[ 1 ] Edwin, not Edward
[ 2 ] Hooker telescope, not Hubble telescope

(And its extraordinary to think that Einstein, even Einstein!, whose general theory of relativity produced the equations which explain the structure of the Universe, refused to believe his equations, which told him that the Universe must be expanding. He refused to believe that... and he added a constant which made the equations work out, called the cosmological constant. But then, Edward Hubble [1], with the telescope in California, actually got experimental proof that the Universe was expanding, and Einstein actually travelled to the telescope, the Hubble telescope [2], and was convinced, and he said that this was the biggest blunder of his whole scientific life.)

After 5 billion years, the force of gravity caused the primal stars in every galaxy to implode in supernova explosions that created second-generation stars. These stellar gas-clouds eventually became either pulsars (a super-dense inert mass of neutrons) or black holes (singularities of space and time, quantum vacuums into which all energy disappeared). Fragments of energy escaped, however, from these explosions, to form a new generation of stars, containing more complex elements, such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.

In our galaxy, known as the Milky Way, one of the 100 billion in the Universe, 4.6 billion years ago, a star, Tiamat, was destroyed in a supernova that produced, among others, the star which is our Sun.

(When I say the star's name is Tiamat, you mustn't imagine there were people observing it at the time, its just that retrospectively they've given it this name.)

Our Sun, like other similar stars, continued its intense activity, generating new elements in the nuclear furnace at its heart, and blasting them into space in dense clouds of matter. Some of these clouds under gravity's influence fell into orbit around the Sun. These were the planets we know. Mercury, Mars and Venus were too small to resist the effects of gravity and condensed eventually into balls of sterile rock. Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus were too large, and remained as clouds, in which no new more complex compounds of elements could form. Only on the planet Earth, because of its size, and precise distance from the Sun, did matter eventually take solid, liquid and gaseous form, and it was only in such an environment that the energy emanating from the Sun enabled the chemical reactions to take place which formed the complex molecules that made possible the first form of life.

[ 3 ] The Egyptian god of Thunder is Seth; Ahri-aze is my direct transcript of what Shutte said, which I couldn't quite make out.

Four billion years ago, that is 11 billion years since the Universe began, the first living thing on Earth, a single prokaryotic cell, called 'Ahri-aze' [3], after the Egyptian god of Thunder, came into being in the sea, drawn from the chemical reactions between the sea and an atmosphere filled with the continuous storms of lightning that played on the surface of Earth for hundreds of millions of years.

For the next three and a half billion years, life on Earth existed only in the sea, and in microscopic form.

Only 400 million years, did living organisms of various kinds emerge from the seas and begin to grow in size.

Initially there was only one land mass in the midst of the sea that covered Earth, the supercontinent Pangea. But gradually, under pressure from below, it broke up, and its parts drifted like water lilies on Earth's surface, their roots deep in its molten core. One of these, Gondwanaland, continued to fragment, eventually producing India, Australia, South America, and Africa. At that time, all the land was pure sterile rock no soil, no vegetation.

Slowly, over millions of years, this grew from decaying organic matter thrown up on the shores of the seas. Only then, could the more complex organisms in the sea begin to venture onto dry land: millipedes, and other insects, and amphibians of various kinds.

The history of our planet, as indeed that of the Universe, has been one of colossal destruction as well as creativity; mass extinctions, as well as wholly new forms of life.

In the case of Earth, these were caused, in the main, by collisions with other objects in the solar system, such as asteroids. Collisions that radically altered, for millions of years, the conditions and the climate on Earth. The first of which we have a record, the Cambrian extinction, 570 million years ago, destroyed 80 or 90% of every living species. This was followed at regular intervals by similar catastrophes, including the Permian extinction, 245 million years ago, when once again 80 or 90% of species were destroyed. And the Cretaceous extinction, 67 million years ago, that destroyed the dinosaurs. After each of these disasters, new kinds of living beings developed that could not have existed before it.

A good example of this, very early on, was the extinction caused by the release of oxygen into the sea and air. The simple organisms in the sea used the hydrogen in the water as food. But to take hydrogen molecules from H2O is to release free molecules of O, oxygen. And this simply destroyed every living thing from within, burning or rusting them to death. Except for one: prostera: a single mutation of the original prokaryotic cells, managed to deal with oxygen and actually turn it into food for itself. At once, a total transformation of the biosphere occurred. Eukaryotic cells, that is to say, with an enclosing membrane and a nucleus, came into being. These cells were able to combine with one another to produce entirely new forms of life. A threshold had been crossed, beyond which the development of more and more complex species could now accelerate.

Since the destruction of the dinosaurs 67 millions years ago, life on Earth proliferated in all its forms, in the seas and on the land. Four million years ago, both chimpanzees and hominids make their first appearance in the fossil record, and both in Africa.

Palaeontologists refer to these hominids as Australopithicus afarensis. Two of the earliest known are Lucy in south Ethiopia, and the couple who left their footprints in volcanic ash in Laetolian Tanzania.

2.6 million years ago we find the first humans. Not homo sapiens sapiens like us, but homo habilis, using stones as tools, at Olduvai, in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. 1.5 million years ago, homo erectus, a systematic maker of tools, clothes and fire, begins to move out of Africa and into Europe and Asia.

200 000 years ago, archaic forms of homo sapiens exist, and by 40 000 years ago have spread to the Americas and Australia. The Neanderthals of Europe are thought to be of this sub-species of human. With them, we find evidence of ritual and worship, especially focussed on the fact of death.

From 40 000 years ago onward, we find the first evidence of modern humanity, in cave paintings and other art and artefacts, in both Africa and Europe. Its from this period, known at the Upper Palaeolithic, that genuinely human language is usually dated. In spite of the comparatively small size of the human population, there were literally thousands of distinct languages, almost all of which have since become extinct. Some, like Indo-Arian, or Indo-European, have been handed down to us in a great number of different forms, including Hindu, and Sanskrit, as well as most modern European languages.

Originally, humans were nomads, or migrants, living in caves or moveable huts, but from about 12 000 years ago, there began to exist villages, farms, and domesticated animals. By 3 500 BCE the population on Earth is reckoned to have been between 5 to 10 million. Its from this time that the historical centres of civilization, with written records, begin to appear: in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in India and in China, in the Americas and the Pacific Islands.

And in all these civilizations, at about the same time, between 800 BCE and 300 BCE, the so-called Axial Period, there occurred a sudden development of human consciousness and thought, that gave classical form to the major religious and cultural traditions that are still with us today.

Contemporary cosmology does not only offer us a new vision of the past, it also makes predictions about the future. I will only offer a brief sketch here of what these are.

If the present rate of global warming continues, we will have to endure some centuries of increasingly horrifying heat. Eventually, however, Earth's energy sources will restore climatic equilibrium. But that will only be temporary. The dynamics of the solar system ensure that within 30 to 40 thousands years, Earth will be engulfed in a new Ice Age that makes human life all but impossible. This however will be followed by a final period of never-ending global warming as the Sun gets hotter and grows in size.

Its half a billion years since the first plants and animals began to inhabit dry land. In another half a billion years, the Earth will have become so hot that life on land will have become impossible. There will be no plants or animals or humans left. The only life forms will be increasingly simple, increasingly small, organisms in the increasingly hotter seas. Eventually the seas will evaporate, and all living species will become extinct. Finally, 7 billion years into the future, the Earth itself will vaporize, the molecules and atoms of which it is composed, streaming off into space.

"This is the scientific story of the Universe," Shutte resumed, "and I believe it to be a true one, but within the limits of scientific knowledge itself. And I want briefly to say something about that, and then to just list points in this cosmology which I think are important for the science and religion dialogue.

"Science is true but not the whole truth. Each science concentrates on one aspect of reality; physics on the physical aspect, biology on the biological aspect, and no one science is reducible to the others. So if you take all the sciences together, unless scientific knowledge is the only knowledge we have, you've got an inherently partial view of the universe.

"And, science is not the only knowledge that we have. How do I know this? Well, because all the sciences presuppose something. They presuppose thinking, choosing, scientists. We create science. We decide what is good science, what kind of method is likely to give us the truth, give true insights into the nature of universe. We decide that, no science tells us that. This is an indication that there is something about human beings that enables us to be scientists, which is forever beyond the kind of insight, the knowledge, the scope of sciences, however much they might develop. Thinking, choosing, subjects. Of course, human beings can be the objects of all the sciences, which gives us knowledge about ourselves, but there is something within us that transcends that kind of knowledge, and therefore that kind of reality.

"Now that's just, if you like, a philosophical proof that science is, however true (and I think it is true as far as it goes), inherently limited, both by its methods and also because this is a huge area of reality, (and which is, after all, the most important area of reality its the area that produces science, and religion, and morality, and art) that science can't get to grips with. Anyway, that's all I'm going to say at this stage about that, and I just want now to list the things that I think which are true, and are important, in the picture I've sketched.

"First of all, and perhaps the most important, is the idea of evolution. So often in the science and religion debate, evolution figures simply as a theory of biological development, the survival of the fittest, the Darwinian theory of how species change and develop. But the picture given to us by contemporary cosmology goes far beyond that. The whole Universe is an evolutionary process. What one means by that, is that its developing all the time, first its cosmological, it changes its character, it becomes biological, and its still going on, in human beings. So that's the first thing, to take seriously the idea of evolution is to see it as happening all the time, and is still continuing, and continuing especially in the latest product, if you like. And this means that the abyss of energy, this infinite generative source of energy which produces the Big Bang and the flaring out of the Universe 15 billion years ago, is still at work. And that's also important to know that the question about the beginning of the Universe is the same as the question of how it continues to develop.

"And here we come to what I think is perhaps the most interesting thing about this fundamental energy. It's an energy which hasn't got a scientific name; science just has to use the concept because it precedes science. The different forms it takes, the four fundamental forces, the different kinds of matter, that's fine, we can name them, they are units of energy. But the energy that they are units of, this is where science has to stop. But what is interesting about it, is that it is producing new kinds of being. As it moves from the initial singularity 15 billion years ago, originally they're just very simple kinds of being particles, gas: that's all there is in the Universe. Then as it goes on, more complex but totally new kinds of being, that can't just be explained by what has gone before. And this happens at every stage. There's a power of self-transcendence built into the process when life emerges from non-life, consciousness from non-consciousness, and finally, in the case of human beings, reflection and self-determination. This is what is called in scientific literature 'emergence' of radically new forms of being.

"And added to that, every new form of being has a quality which distinguishes it from the prior form, and this gives us an indicator that the evolutionary process has a direction. It moves in the direction of every greater complexity, physical complexity, and as that physical complexity increases, so does consciousness.

"If you think about what we mean by complexity, it's not just a lot of things, it's a lot of things that somehow have a unity, have a centre. A complex organism a snail is more complex than Table Mountain, because it has a centre. And the more centred something is, gradually the more conscious it becomes, working up from low forms of life to human consciousness. So, that's the direction the universe process takes, towards greater complexity and greater consciousness.

"And that's why, point number five, I like to think of humanity as a microcosm of the universe. Not only are we at the point where the Universe began, it is still producing newness. Human beings contain every other level that the universe has ever had, in us. The four fundamental forces, the basic physical particles, are all present in us, as well as human consciousness and freedom and everything in-between. So we are microcosms of the universe, and in a special way we contain the Universe in ourselves. Each of you sitting here, because we are talking and thinking about the Universe, we contain the whole Universe, in our consciousness, we are conscious of it as a whole. I mean, we can't see the outer limits, we can't see the beginning, but we can contain it in our minds. And also we can change it, with our choices. And that's the interesting part, where the science and religion discussion becomes very relevant, that the creativity which we find in the universe is now seen to be vested in us.

"OK, last two small points. One way, a good way, of looking at the notion of energy as what is fundamental is that it gets rid of the materialist myth, that somehow physics and physical particles are the only real thing. We now know that the laws of physics don't explain what happens at the chemical level, nor do chemical reactions explain what happens at the biological level, everything transcends the lower level, and if you think of everything as a form of energy (which oddly enough, African traditional thought is very much at home with this idea of 'everything is a form of vital force') then you don't fall into what is a very prevalent (especially in the academic world) aspect of our culture: materialism, a theoretical materialism, which has all sorts of problems. We're going to come back to why materialism is fundamentally a mistake.

"Lastly, I've stressed the fact that evolution is creative, but the creativity at every point I mentioned just one or two examples involves colossal destruction, near annihilation at times. I mentioned the annihilations of pre-living matter in the development of the cosmos. At every level, death, extinctions, seem to be needed to produce new things. When we get to the animal level, then death becomes a crucial aspect in the development of new species of a more complex kind. And this is important, I think, to grasp, even at this prehuman level, because death in our kind of culture is often presented as something (a) one doesn't talk about and (b) is somehow unnatural. Of course, death at each level changes its meaning, and in the last lecture I will talk about the human meaning of death. But I want to stress here how death, extinctions, destruction, and creation, are two sides of the same coin, in the picture that cosmologists present.

[ 4 ] A review in Publisher's Weekly accused it of "irresponsible New Age reasoning".

"I've spoken to Brian Swimme, and of all the cosmologists that I've read, this is the book I would recommend to you above all. Its called the Universe Story [4], and what he's trying to do is something which is so important in our kind of scientific, secular, culture. Hes trying to give a unified view, taking into account all the different sciences. See, what has happened is that each science has developed on its own and splintered take a science like physics, there are about 10 different sub-disciplines; and the same with biology and medicine. And, before the scientific era, people had a more or less unified world view, where-ever they happened to live. But since the sciences became the dominant influence in our view of the universe, and they split up so much, you know, we're wandering around, getting our world view from... the media! This is one of the things that Swimme has to say, and he's trying to bring us back to reality, away from the illusory pictures that the commercial media present.

"And that's it!"

A brief Q&A followed:

Question: Are new energies created? What about the law of conservation of energy, then?

Answer: Yes, the law of conservation of energy holds within physical systems { a closed system } yes, within a closed system. Contemporary cosmologists talk about multiverses, but of course, if the universe means everything, then you can't talk about many universes { so its not limited } yes, they're not in contact with one another, but, the point about this quantum theory is that the energy which produces the Big Bang, which is the present orthodoxy about how the universe began, that it did have a beginning, is still operative, pouring particles, space, and time, into existence. Now that's the thing which Einstein found he couldn't accept. And that's so recent ... but we talk about the expanding universe, and this is what is causing it.

Question: I have a problem with the concept of the quantum vacuum, maybe this is because I'm not an academic.. but if you take the metaphor of the raisin bread, outside of the raisin bread it is expanding into something.

Answer: Yes, that's right, and its Swimme's metaphor. And he says, look, a metaphor can only illustrate something, and he says specifically that we know that raisin bread expands into something, well, the Universe doesn't. But he just wanted to get that idea of the space between the galaxies expanding. Its a metaphor... to talk about the quantum vacuum in more detail I think would take us, I could say more about it, but its fairly technical, but quite honestly, I recognize my own limitations if George Ellis was here, he would tell you even more. If you ever get hold of Swimme's book, he goes into it in quite detail.. its too specialized a topic, sorry about that.

Question: Do the raisins also expand? { laughter }

At 12:05, Dr. Anthonissen drew the meeting to a close, thanking Schutte for his introduction to an extremely stimulating topic. He also invited the 30 or so attendees to tell their friends there is still time to join the course; part two is on Sunday, May 13, 11:00-12:00, in the chapel of the US Dept. of Theology.


  1. Part 2, delivered on May 13.

nothing more to see. please move along.