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Science and spirituality:

Some people say science is against spirituality and scientists can’t understand the “inner worlds” of human beings and so they cannot have harmony between inner and outer worlds. Far from it! I feel these words are said by people who don’t have first hand experience in science and even if they have, they don't know how to walk on the spiritual path science lays before them. I want to remove this false perception about science with regard to spiritualism and show how science can fulfill ones' spiritual quests.

What is spirituality? You can sum up spirituality in this way:
Spiritual journey is actually an inquiry into one's own existence. It is an inquiry into existence and non-existence and the relationship between these two. It is realizing true existence. An inquiry has to be open without any fear in mind about the ability or outcome. So being fearless is the first step in the path of realization. We are always under the influence of some or other fear. The fear is an outcome of either illusion or weakness to understand and tackle the situation. Illusion can be overcome by acquiring knowledge while weakness can be overcome by acquiring strength. Fearlessness is prerequisite as well as an outcome of spiritual quest. For this to happen, you have to be emotionally neutral. First you should not get associated with anything mentally and should be able to analyze everything rationally. That is what science tells us to do!
There are two types of reasoning:
(1) the one that is attached to emotions and beliefs
(2) the one that is detached and neutral
An example: You have a very young daughter whom you love more than your life. If one day she behaves very badly during a party, you try to understand with your loving mind and think that as she is still a child she doesn’t know how to behave properly and she would definitely learn things when she grows up and excuse her! Here your love for her shaped up your behaviour! As an unemotional person I would say that even if the child is young, she has to be taught how to behave in a public place with a mild warning after understanding her innocence so that she doesn’t repeat it and help her correct herself.

There is another aspect to this type of reasoning: Motivation. You want to forget your ex-girlfriend. So you try to reason that you would be better off without her by recollecting all her negative qualities!

This biased analysis of anything is due to the now well-known psychological phenomenon of motivated reasoning. Research suggests that all people tend to seek out information that confirms (or at least does not challenge) the conclusions they want to draw on a given topic. In other words, we will work to discredit or avoid information that might require us to reconsider our pre-existing beliefs. Motivated reasoning is particularly likely when taking the other side might create conflict within our social circle—like religious or political groups.

Likewise if you are attached to a belief (or emotion or group), it fogs your reasoning power out of fear, hope, love or respect and affects your behaviour. A mind that is agitated by belief can never be free and therefore never know truth.

The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear - Jiddu Krishnamurthy

You shouldn't reason backward from belief to evidence because that will subject you to numerous cognitive biases and you risk fooling yourself about the nature of reality.

During the earlier times people saw lives with pains, tragedies, sorrows  and several things around them. They wanted some kind of theory which could explain all this. Therefore, they thought about explanations and theories which gradually led into beliefs. These beliefs, which were influenced by the times they lived in i.e., non-scientific reasoning, were products of constant fear of the unknown. Instead of taking on the fear head on and finding permanent solutions, they just escaped into the world of false beliefs that gave them temporary relief. In a world where people clutch at all kinds of straws to make some sense of the madness around them, truth can never be found. Instead of analyzing, examining and understanding why something happens and how it should be handled realisitically, they tried shortcuts by bringing unknown and untested factors to interpret things! These beliefs divided people because each person had a different set of experiences and those in turn influenced their explanations and the resultant beliefs based on their mental makeup and situations and not on one truth. That's how different  beliefs - both religious and non-religious - originated.

""Faith is, `To believe what you do not see', the reward of which is, `you see what you believed'''!

To avoid such pitfalls science asks us not to get attached to emotions and beliefs. It tells us to have an unattached reasoning power so that your mind can seek truth in a neutral manner.
For instance, if scientists say all properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe, that again becomes a belief. As an example consider this: we know life here on our planet. We know the needs and necessities for the life to originate and sustain on Earth. But in some other galaxy, there is every chance of life originating in different conditions and therefore has different set of needs to come into existence and continue (Ref 1)! Therefore science asks us to be open to such uncertainties and prepare and correct ourselves to face them as and when new data and information arrives.
Contrary to the popular prejudice that science has an answer for everything, science has built into its process that no answer should be considered certain and final -- that we must rely on the best knowledge of the moment but also embrace the uncertainty that it may be provisional. Scientists always think that theirs’ is a work in progress!

Science doesn't actually claim to know all the truth. It works hard by getting closer and closer to the truth, but of course science learns by its mistakes and advances by disproving hypotheses and getting things wrong. One of the virtues of science is that it is prepared to change its mind as and when the evidence warrants it. Science is not religion and therefore need not be afraid to say 'we do not know ... yet'. Scientists know that all scientific knowledge is conditional, dependent on repeated questioning, testing and confirmation.

Public sharing is an important part of science. No scientist will ever say - 'Oh, it's true for me, it may not be true for you' or 'Because I believe in this, this is the truth" or "Everyone believes it.  It must be true". Whether someone's belief is true is not a prerequisite for (its) belief. On the other hand, if something is actually known as proven a fact, then it categorically cannot be false. There will be only one fact given that the conditions in which it is searched, observed and perceived are the same. But again a fact here need not be a fact somewhere else in the universe. Science is in pursuit of  these facts and the conditions in which  these facts evolve so that we can give  a meaningful definition to our existence.
The fundamental principles of science say we need to understand the world in all its complexities. Observing, experimenting and interpreting real phenomena are essential steps towards comprehending the world around us.

Any rational approach requires some distance between science and ideology. Belief is what happens when your mind thinks you need some sort of external emotional support to balance itself. Then your motivational reasoning shapes up your perception of the world.
Humans have to see their lives in some sort of importance, and it is this that provides shape and meaning, whether acknowledged or not and in the absence of a dependable narrative, scientists try to fill the space with science, which they think is closer to truth than any other belief.

All of us are subject to the psychological forces at play when it comes to choosing between facts and beliefs when they do not mesh. In the long run, it is better to understand the way the world really is rather than how we would like it to be.
The path of evolutionary enlightenment is one of ego-transcendence that is a means to a higher end, to open up some space within the self – space for evolution to occur. Being inspired by the idea of conscious evolution is one thing, while actually engaging in the process of evolution is something else altogether. But within themselves people are not free. They are trapped in psychological hang-ups and attachments, with little or no space for that which is new. Their souls are not liberated, and their choices and actions are still being shaped by unconscious adherence to values and perspectives that have nothing to do with being a liberated vessel for the evolution of consciousness and culture. Merely being inspired by the potential for conscious revolution does not automatically give us access to the fearless inner freedom to actualize that potential. In order to find that freedom, to open up that space for new, it is essential that you liberate yourself to a significant degree from your personal fears and desires and your culturally conditioned values. This inner freedom is not different from the goal of traditional enlightenment where freedom is an end itself. Ideally, freedom becomes the foundation from which to engage in conscious evolution. You must disentangle yourself, free yourself from your deeds, your history, culture that is entangled in beliefs and personal ego.
That empty space or a clean slate will become the ultimate source and wellspring of new awakening thoughts, their evolution which finally leads to enlightenment.

It is with this clean state of mind most of the scientists pursue the path of spiritualism and try to seek truth about our very existence and also tread on the path of self-realization. Haven’t you heard about quantum mechanics that is getting closer to the very existence of human mind and inner selves? All most all the scientists think about God and religion at some time or the other in their lives. Great scientists like Einstein and Hawking mentioned several times about God and Universe in their talks. One scientist even said, our creator, if there is really one, is the greatest scientist in this universe because he created it in a very scientific manner! (Please see the art work I created on this very theme here: ). Some scientists even say light-heartedly, that God is their colleague! Carl Sagan said: Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is profound source of spirituality. When we recognise our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

However, most of the scientists feel that instead of chasing things that cannot be proved or disproved immediately, it would be better if we concentrate on things that can help living beings and the world. They know if there is really a creator, he will not get influenced by our offerings of bribe for giving us things that might make us happy temporarily or don't get influenced by our emotional blackmail! He will be happy if we help other living beings with the intelligence and courage he gave us!

Theists, Scientific laws that run this universe themselves are part of what is created. Or, atheists, the universe came into existence on its own based on scientific laws. Even if both views are taken into account, we have to use only scientific methods to unravel those mysteries. There is no other way!

Like one of my scientist friends says...even to prove god real requires science!

Scientists have in their mind a project of being able to definitively answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.  That's not a project to approach lightly.  It involves a lot of very careful distinction between truth and falsehood, between reality and perception, between logic and epistemology and ontology.

So, scientists don’t follow religious dogmas blindly but try to understand the world around us in a rational and systematic way. They try to help the world with the knowledge gained in the process. They feel this path started with a clean mind free of all beliefs,  an unbiased mind in search of truth and work that can help the world can lead to spiritual fulfillment in the true sense.
Anyone who knows how a nervous system works during pain processing can do no physical harm to any living being. And anyone who knows how the brain really works at the emotional level will never try to harass another living being. Any person who has seen how the scientific rules are followed universally in a given set of conditions, and understood its beauty can never think in local terms and can never come under the influence of artificially created races, castes, groups, communities or citizenships. He sees all the living beings as his own images - following universal rules of life and as citizens of this universe.

Science guides my pursuit of spirituality. I learned all about human existence, morality, humane nature, universal brotherhood, secularism, tolerance, inner strength and everything a human being should be from science! It gave me answers to several of my questions - including the most testing ones like  - how to be calm in the most trying circumstances, how to have peace of mind when everything around you is falling apart ( Please read my poem based on this here: ). I have faith in science  - not a blind one though as science warns us against any such traps - and my approach is scientific in everything I do { "Believe" is a word that, as a person of science, I use rarely and only with great care. To believe something is to accept it on faith without evidence or logical explanation. This is completely contrary to the scientific method and fundamental principals of science.  I think I trust (the most appropriate word than faith and belief) science more than anything else during the times of stress because it  gave solutions to several of  my problems )}. If you know what science is really about and how to go about in this world scientifically, you really can be a great human being. And that is my experience!

If a scientist still acts in a biased manner despite his scientific background, I feel the person didn’t understand science properly and that he couldn’t overcome his cultural conditioning of mind with his scientific temper!
'Science, far from destroying the beauty and romance of the world as seen by artists, musicians and writers, enhances it by revealing the underlying reasons and purposes' – McConnell .

When it comes to questions of morality and meaning, the way we go about deciding what is right and wrong, and meaningful or not, is not the same as the way we discover what is true and false or facts. Some emotions like kindness and empathy will be involved. Controlling them is highly important to arrive at a good decision. Just because a criminal cries and acts funnily, you cannot support him. Oh yes, his brain could be differently wired! You try to analyze what could make any person behave so differently from others. On the other hand you can empathize with a poor thief  when he steals food. But if you are a logical thinker you will try to understand what circumstances made him stole the food and try to correct them. Critical thinking helps here.

Unlike what several people think, science deals with moral ( derived from reasoning related to...empirical evidence) issues too and can be a good guide to life's journey through the  checkerboard of blacks and whites!- Krishna Kumari Challa

Science in itself is a spiritual journey. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe and trying to know the truth and meaning of our existence.. 

If people of various faiths try to understand why science says what it says and that it is on the pursuit of truth without any fear, illusions, preconceived notions and beliefs I think there can be harmony between science and religion.
Yes, science tries to provide all dimensional full pictures of everything in terms of space, time, balance, rhythm and  unity in this universe and their relevance to both inner and outer worlds. It provides true meaning to our very existence.   And the pictures brought forth by science are  very beautiful and total than the partial ones others see in all aspects of life and  spirituality is no exception!

Questions people asked me based on this article... and my replies...

 Q: Dr. Krishna, I am a spiritual guru. Your article science and spirituality is really engaging. But have you ever achieved a state of higher consciousness while dealing with science? Is it even possible?

Krishna: Hah! A spiritual guru's visit to this network and his getting engaged with its content is really heart-warming. Welcome to the world of Science, Sir!

 Some spiritual gurus told me a higher state of consciousness will lead you to a more Self-Empowered state of being. It will let more love flow easier to your Heart. It will get you in motion to a journey where you won’t play the victim anymore. It will lead you to listen to your Higher Self. It will give you infinite energy.

If that is what you achieve with higher state of mind, my answer is an emphatic "YES, I HAVE"!

I am highly empowered, I don't depend on anybody or anything for mental support.  "Critical thinking, thorough and fact dependent analysis of everything" brings peace and stability to my mind. Scientific investigation of everything brings satisfactory and the right answers to all my questions and problems. Problems don't seem problems anymore. I truly feel I am not a victim of circumstances but a higher self that is made to test and emerge victorious all the time. My love for all living entities is universal and doesn't stop at the boundaries of my home, city, region, state or country and is universal in nature. I am not afraid of anything anymore! I conquer fear with my rational thinking.

Understanding the scientific principles this universe is based on made me realize I am one with the universe and is not a separate entity from it and that there is no difference between me and the other forms - either living or non living - in this universe!

My expansive scientific knowledge brought me keen perception that combines innumerable perspectives at one instance. I can also sense how others are interpreting the world, how others feel based on their view points. Their judgments become very clear to me. And that doesn't bother me much if it involves me. 

I feel I have infinite energy in my body which makes me do things both mental and physical and multi task. I can feel and reach my higher potential. This energy made me a polymath too.

I always have new insights into things and thoughts and see things completely different from those aspects of others and in several different ways. 

Strangely sometimes I feel I am 'others' I am watching and what they are undergoing is actually me undergoing it! I feel one with others around and that we are not separate! I am both the beings who is enjoying life and who is suffering. And that I am everything and everybody in this universe! I am one with the universe. I deeply empathize with other living beings around.

Whenever I am out in the Nature's lap, watching mountains, streams, or stars in the night sky an overwhelming feeling engulfs me filling me with unexplainable experience. I feel a vast presence of energy and knowledge which is just infinite and pretty mind-blowing and surprisingly it completely fills me too.  My mind and  body become different and new entities then! 

I no longer fear death because I feel I cannot die - I can still live other lives, take other forms ( the atoms and energy in my body can get recycled ), and I can live others' - who are actually me too - lives!

I am totally free, highly independent, completely satisfied, very empowered and truly peaceful. If that is what spirituality brings, to my surprise, science too brought all these things into my life!

This is really enchanting and interesting. 

But my scientist friends told me they don't feel the same way as I do. Maybe their approach to scientific way of life is different from that of mine. And I am glad to say I stepped on the right path! That is why I succeeded in reaching these heights.

Q: This is spiritual guru again. There are several ways to follow to reach a higher state of consciousness. Yours is really interesting. I heard it for the first time - reaching it through a scientific way. Can you explain it in a more detailed way? 

Krishna: Why do you want to remain anonymous, sir? Why don't you come and meet me in person so that we can discuss it in detail?

Anyway, I deal with reality and facts. I explained above what a scientific way is.  I strictly apply scientific facts to my thought process and follow them when I act. That led to my higher awareness. That's all. I don't claim any miracles or super-natural powers. I don't have any of them.

Q: Madam, looks like your Kundalini has awakened.

I want to ask you  a Q - what is the difference between spiritual awakening and scientific awakening?

Krishna: Kundalini? I don't know anything about it. When I googled it I found some strange explanations. I have never undergone those. Feelings like serpent going up your spine and all. Never saw any lights or anything like that. No supernatural things occurred to me. Never saw any supernatural beings too.

My approach is completely scientific and not religious. I never even tried religious way of doing things. So I don't know anything about them. 

On the other hand science deals with reality and facts. I strictly apply them to my thought process and follow them when I act. That led to my higher awareness. That's all. I don't claim any miracles or super-natural powers. I don't have any of them.

Science and Spirituality


© 2012 , Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa

Copyright 2012 Dr. Krishna Kumari Challa.

All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Replies to This Discussion

A friend of mine, who is  also a scientist, sent me a message after reading this article. The message said:

"The way you put it and the ease with which you put it is amazing, Krishna!"

Another scientist said:

"I never saw anyone putting science's view point on spirituality  so well, Krishna. Very well done!"


Another one: A well balanced article.


The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can't be organized or regulated. It isn't true that everyone should follow one path. Listen to your own truth - Ram Dass


Image result for Funny quotes from scientists

Another one said...

Hands down!

That is one great article. My perspective might have changed by this. And that poem of yours is amazing. Thank you mam.

And my reply to this article:

Your argument that "Science on the other hand doesn’t do that; it doesn’t give an inch. The Speaking Tree may have a ‘Science and Spirit’ column but would Scientific American or New Scientist have something similar unless it was to run down faith-based thinking? No way. To lay people, science comes across as far more rigid than religion" seems true. But Science asks for proof - provide it and it will give a lot of its territory to your argument. Several of the scientists in the world - you yourself said that in your article - think about God and religion at some time or the other. I have read in Scientific American some of the writers and bloggers writing about religion! Who says science doesn't accommodate other's feelings? But scientists don't believe anything blindly. It takes a lot more than mere words and emotional arguments for science to accept them.
Eastern religions are more close to scientific way of thinking. That is why people who follow them don't clash with science as much as Westerners do.
Genetic basis for religious beliefs? What rubbish! It Is one of those arguments that takes pseudo-science's help to stand! Epigenetics has opened a can of worms and now people are arguing genes are responsible for everything!
Science is not trying to dislodge religion. It only wants to dislodge baseless beliefs. If some religious dogmas come under this category, scientists can't help it. People have no other go to accept truth in the end if they want to move forward. Argue, fight, make war, but you cannot escape truth! And science is trying to find out these facts and truths.

Science flies you to moon; religion flies you into buildings! - Late Christopher Hitchens

Attachment is the great fabricator of illusions; reality can be obtained only by someone who is detached.

Simone Weil

Come behold this world, which is like unto an ornamented royal chariot, wherein fools flounder, but for the wise there is no attachment-.Dhammapada

Peace ends when you are emotionally involved in a situation. The practice of being a detached observer helps you stay stable and calm.

Brahma Kumaris


Yes, science and religion can co-exist only if the people belonging to the latter field don't try to undo what the former is trying to do!- Krishna


To believe in a supernatural being or force you have to abandon all of the evidential standards of science.

For the existence of god to be a non-unscientific assertion it must be defined so as to be falsifiable.


Science cannot give humanity purpose. Rationality cannot give human life meaning.
Wrong assessment. Read why here:

some-science/forum/topics/science-and-spirituality. If you are trying to belittle other fields, religions, subjects and areas to promote yours, you have already lost your race and are accepting that you don't have any other go but to blacken other things so that others don't see their importance!

Both rational scientific inquiries and intuitive spiritual quests try to get logical answers to some perennial questions of the human mind - 'Who am I', 'What is the never-changing true nature of the ever-changing universe about which I know through my sense organs', 'What is the relationship between myself and the physical universe in which I stay for some stipulated periods of time'. Science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive.


A basic tenet of critical thinking is that the burden of proof, or evidence, is on the party making the claim. See Russell's teapot. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. All of which means it is not the atheist's job to find evidence to refute the existence of a god. When a claim is made it is the responsibility of the one making the claim to provide evidence for it.

-- ( appeal to ignorance)


The "god of the gaps" is a bit of theological reasoning which invokes divine intervention as a way to understand natural phenomena that science is presently unable to explain; since we don't know how x happens, it is assumed that Goddidit. Of course, scientists and most rationalists would argue that naturalistic explanations for still-mysterious phenomena are always possible.

The god of the gaps is one way for intelligent and scientifically literate theists to deal with the cognitive dissonance of believing in a transcendent god.



5 Ways To Connect Science And Spirituality

Exploring the scientific background of spiritual claims.

The day science will find the perfect answer to the phenomenon called illusion that day it will dislodge religion--otherwise never - Anonymous


After reading my article somebody said: Science does not ask us to do unattached reasoning.  It asks us to be very much attached to empiricism and parsimony.

And my reply:

Then what is quantum mechanics ? It says we don't perceive the world as it really is with our senses! Why do we spend billions on scientific research if science preaches us parsimony?
I think you didn't understand what i said in the right way. We deal with the things perceive with our senses. But while thinking about them, we should do the process in a detached way. Otherwise we cannot do critical thinking properly. If you cannot do this process in the right way, you won't be able to do scientific research successfully!


The same is being said about Makarjyoti of Sabarimalai. People believe in whatever they want to believe. The rationalists say some people themselves do this (carry lights) to deceive the innocent.

Science doesn’t have a role in this belief. It doesn’t even subscribe to such miracles. Miracles are just rare and poorly understood phenomena. A miracle is a miracle until science explains it. Just because science takes a lot of time to study and explain things, you cannot ridicule science, that it cannot understand certain things. Scientists have much more important things to do like saving lives before coming to less important things like explaining miracles. Meanwhile, people try to deceive you by telling stories. And keep taunting science.

When people saw lives with pains, tragedies and sorrows during pre-scientific era, they wanted some kind of theory which could explain all this. Therefore, they thought about explanations and theories which gradually led into beliefs. These beliefs, which were influenced by the times they lived in i.e., non-scientific reasoning, were products of constant fear of the unknown. Instead of taking on the fear head on and finding permanent solutions, they just escaped into the world of false beliefs that gave them temporary relief. In a world where people clutch at all kinds of straws to make some sense of the madness around them, truth can never be found. Instead of analyzing, examining and understanding why something happens and how it should be handled, they tried shortcuts by bringing unknown and untested factors to interpret things! These beliefs divided people because each person had a different set of experiences and those in turn influenced their explanations and the resultant beliefs based on their mental makeup and situations and not on one truth. That is how different beliefs - both religious and non-religious - originated.

I admire the creativity of this story-telling. And the lengths people go to ‘make people listen’.

But history tells us every miracle will meet its nemesis when science steps in. Wait till that time.

Science will not try to dislodge religion. Science is a study for betterment of mankind if applied properly. Religion is a way of life ,a daily life with traditions and superstitions.Which are coming along with the civilisations of mankind. Yes, of course some day people are more and more educated and know more about science. Superstitions will reduce even the traditions also may be brought down. But both will go along side by side. - Anonymous

Science and spirituality are complimentary to each other. Your assertion in the article, (extract below) bears testimony that religious beliefs when challenged by scientific researches, were accepted by religion, belatedly.
"Be that as it may, there are still two very important reasons why science will always find it difficult to dislodge religion. The first is, for thousands of years now religion has co-existed with science and more often than not, accommodated it when it hasn’t co-opted it outright. Sure, the Church burnt Giodano Bruno at the stake for saying the Earth was not unique in the universe, arrested Galileo for writing about heliocentrism and vilified Darwin for his evolutionary theory going against the Bible. But in the end — sometimes even centuries later, maybe — it has accepted its mistakes and cleverly incorporated the new ideas."
Science as a discipline with various fields and branches, endeavors to bring,the newer researches towards the integration of science with religion: and not attempting to dislodge the religion.
From classical Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics, the wave particle duality has lead to the concept of probability of occurrence of a certain phenomenon, rather than a certainty. Yuri Orlov , in his paper on "The wave Logic of Consciousness: A Hypothesis", published in international journal of theoretical Physics, vol. 10,no. 40, has argued that quantum indeterminism and superimposed probability states must be playing a role in the brain's openness to all the potentialities latent in Consciousness- for example,our ability to see many possibilities all at once. According to this approach , out of the many possibilities, one version 'pops up' (materializes) as a result of free choice. Thus aphysical concepts ( like Consciousness)are also being brought within the realm of science. The integration process is on, towards new horizons of knowledge. - Anonymous

Religion makes the biggest difference for well-being in places where life is hard, suggesting the belief system, or the camaraderie that accompanies it, provides support when times are tough. But if you are affluent, and things are going well, you may be perfectly happy without this psychological safety net, studies show. Being religious also seems to be most beneficial if you live among mostly religious people, indicating it is way of fitting in socially. In countries where few people believe, the psychological benefits of faith disappear.

So if you are nonbeliever, surround yourself with like-minded people, and work on achieving your goals in other parts of your life (see “The Secrets of Self Improvement,” by Marina Krakovsky, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2012). Having close friends and other forms of psychological support can also boost your well-being. Your social and professional successes will then help you weather life’s ups and downs just as religion does. If you live in the U.S., these accomplishments might even help you withstand the most unrelenting downside of being nonreligious: the feeling of not fitting in.


Wealth may have driven the rise of today’s religions

Today’s most popular religions all have one thing in common: a focus on morality. But the gods didn’t always care whether you are a bad person. Researchers have long puzzled over when and why religions moved away from a singular focus on ritual and began to encourage traits such as self-discipline, restraint, and asceticism. Now, a new study proposes that the key to the rise of so-called moralizing religions was, of all things, more wealth.

The new study “is by far the most significant advance I’ve seen in a long time,” says Richard Sosis, an anthropologist who studies the evolution of religion at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. “They’re offering what I think is a really novel theory to address this long-standing problem in the study of religion.”

Religion wasn’t always based on morality, explains Nicolas Baumard, a psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. For the first several thousand years of human recorded history, he notes, religions were based on rituals and short-term rewards. If you wanted rain or a good harvest, for example, you made the necessary sacrifices to the right gods. But between approximately 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., a radical change appeared all over Eurasia as new religions sprung up from Greece to India to China. All of these religions shared a focus on morality, self-discipline, and asceticism, Baumard says. Eventually these new religions, such as Stoicism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and their immediate successors, including Christianity and Islam, spread around the globe and became the world religions of today. Back in 1947, German philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the pivotal time when these new religions arose “the Axial Age.”

So what changed? Baumard and his colleagues propose one simple reason: People got rich. Psychologists have shown that when people have fewer resources at their disposal, prioritizing rewards in the here and now is the best strategy. Saving for the future—much less the afterlife—isn’t the best use of your time when you are trying to find enough to eat today. But when you become more affluent, thinking about the future starts to make sense, and people begin to forgo immediate rewards in order to prioritize long-term goals.

Not coincidentally, the values fostered by affluence, such as self-discipline and short-term sacrifice, are exactly the ones promoted by moralizing religions, which emphasize selflessness and compassion, Baumard says. Once people’s worldly needs were met, religion could afford to shift its focus away from material rewards in the present and toward spiritual rewards in the afterlife. Perhaps once enough people in a given society had made the psychological shift to long-term planning, moralizing religions arose to reflect those new values. “Affluence changed people’s psychology and, in turn, it changed their religion,” Baumard says.


Robert McCauley (William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor and director of Emory's Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture) talks about his new book, "Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not" (Oxford University Press, 2011). His main point is that our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry. Religion has existed for many thousands of years in every society because the kinds of explanations it provides are precisely the kinds that come naturally to human minds. Science, on the other hand, is a much more recent and rare development because it reaches radical conclusions and requires a kind of abstract thinking that only arises consistently under very specific social conditions. Religion makes intuitive sense to us, while science requires a lot of work. The naturalness of religion, he suggests, means that science poses no real threat to it, while the unnaturalness of science puts it in a surprisingly precarious position.

Book homepage:

Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not

The battle between religion and science, competing methods of knowing ourselves and our world, has been raging for many centuries. Now scientists themselves are looking at cognitive foundations of religion—and arriving at some surprising conclusions.

Over the course of the past two decades, scholars have employed insights gleaned from cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to illuminate the study of religion. In Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Not, Robert N. McCauley, one of the founding fathers of the cognitive science of religion, argues that our minds are better suited to religious belief than to scientific inquiry. Drawing on the latest research and illustrating his argument with commonsense examples, Robert argues that religion has existed for many thousands of years in every society because the kinds of explanations it provides are precisely the kinds that come naturally to human minds. Science, on the other hand, is a much more recent and rare development because it reaches radical conclusions and requires a kind of abstract thinking that only arises consistently under very specific social conditions. Religion makes intuitive sense to us, while science requires a lot of work. Robert then draws out the larger implications of these findings. The naturalness of religion, he suggests, means that science poses no real threat to it, while the unnaturalness of science puts it in a surprisingly precarious position.

Rigorously argued and elegantly written, this provocative book will appeal to anyone interested in the ongoing debate between religion and science, and in the nature and workings of the human mind.

Table of Contents:

Chapter One: Natural Cognition
Chapter Two: Maturational Naturalness
Chapter Three: Unnatural Science
Chapter Four: Natural Religion
Chapter Five: Surprising Consequences


How I'm rushing through this! How much each sentence in this
brief story contains. "The stars are made of the same atoms
as the earth." I usually pick one small topic like this to
give a lecture on. Poets say science takes away from the
beauty of the stars - mere globs of atoms. Nothing is "mere".
I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them.
But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches
my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch
one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a
part - perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star,
as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of
Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point
when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or
the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery
to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth
than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the
present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of
Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense
spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
 -- Richard P. Feynman, a footnote in "Six Easy Pieces"




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