For the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, consciousness obliged Homo sapiens to grasp the world around him in cosmic terms in order to think about himself at all. And as he started to perceive order in what he had to deal with for practical reasons, the idea that everything was ordered became inescapable. His imagination filled the gaps his actual experience could not. The earth, the sky and the elements became wonderful things with exaggerated qualities similar to his which could perhaps be influenced to behave in helpful ways.
The step from gods to God was logical enough and ever larger groups of people came to be tied into communities with a shared identity built around shared beliefs that priesthoods, as the intermediaries between the day-to-day and the celestial, burnished, protected and re-enforced. Secular power as the power of material incentives and spiritual power as the power of the imagination rubbed up against one another in an uneasy alliance.
The great religions came into existence as attempts to put some order into Man’s thinking, combining a cosmic understanding of his position in the universe with rules for individual behavior, the one justifying the other. These were extraordinary acts of collective imagination which enabled enormous bodies of people to function together for their own benefit. Over time, however, as men burrowed into the nature of things, what religion assumed started to clash with what was being observed.
Religious hierarchies and their secular counterparts fought vigorously against this ‘new knowledge’ fearing it would undermine the basis of the beliefs that sustained their societies. In Europe, from the 16th century through to the middle of the 20th, one political order after another was forced to change, often violently, when a critical mass of its people ceased to believe in what sustained its hierarchical arrangements. The idea that tsars and monarchs were divinely appointed lost traction and people stopped assuming that the hereditary basis of apportioning power was the best available.
This was when what we think of as science started to displace what we think of as religion. But there was a problem. While the cosmic understanding behind the great religions was shot to pieces by science, science prided itself in being morally agnostic, save in the unhelpful formulation of at least one evolutionary biologist who held that moral behavior is the behavior that will enable a people to survive, determinist thinking of a kind that fueled the horrors of Communism and Fascism.
Traditional religion’s difficulty was that it sought to be comprehensive: tying a description of the cosmos to both the social order as well as to the behavior of individual men and women. This was a breathtaking achievement. Although the Roman Church pitched itself against Islam (and vice versa) and generally took a very hard line against any group that challenged its beliefs, it did attempt, with considerable success, to impose a moral order that afforded people a better and spiritually richer life than they would otherwise have had. But its comprehensive nature left little room for change and the new knowledge science kept unearthing seemed to be about nothing else.
So can science and religion co-exist? Let us assume that the day comes when we know all that there is to know about how the physical world works; the day when we have in our possession the physicists’ cherished and much sought after theory of everything. Then what? Will our travails be over? Will we fall into one another’s arms in a state of happiness knowing that we have nothing more to attain? It is an ancient dream manifest in our notion of Heaven or more prosaically in our expression ‘the peace of the dead’. But it is an illusion. Living demands effort and is creative.
The advantage consciousness gives us is that survival no longer depends upon random mutations throwing up something that just happens to work. It is facilitated by countless individual adjustments to the unfolding circumstances we face. However the context within which people live must allow it. While the market economy has enabled us to interact with one another to our material advantage and has been a great engine of transformation, our government structures have lagged badly behind. All too often they appear impervious to change and to function in a moral vacuum.
We have allowed ourselves to believe that our social order is rational because it is run by experts. Its failings, we assume, are because we are not being rational enough – so more sacrifices! But those who are being failed (a growing number) are beginning to think that the system is stacked against them. For this swelling cohort drain the swamp resonates. But before we allow ourselves to be lured into nationalism or any of the other populist ‘isms that have plagued human progress, a religious revival offers an alternative.
Our church leaders, irrespective of denomination, need to engage with the world as it is and become much better informed about science (social and natural) so that they can expose their congregations to the moral issues embedded within each and steer them forward. Their authority to do this has deep roots. At the heart of every religion there seems to be a common principle that can be expressed in two ways: respect for the individual and respect for the universal whole. Bolstered in this way and guided by their church leaders, individuals themselves will start to re-energize and adjust their political systems: science and religion hand in hand.
Robert Mercer-Nairne is the author of Multiverse, a novel about America’s political future.