Recently I participated in a Point of Inquiry podcast hosted by Chris Mooney that took on this question. I argued there (as I will here) that science is, indeed, an organic focus of the human sense of “spirit.” The key, of course, is that we must allow ourselves to adapt language to the living needs of those generations living now. But for me spirituality may not be the right word on which to focus this effort. The question is not one of science and spirituality but science and the sacred. For me thinking in terms of the sacred, or better yet what I call the sacred character of experience, provides a better frame for this discussion. As a practicing scientist (theoretical astrophysics), when I hear the word spiritual it leads to questions about the spirit as some kind of essence that lives above and beyond the world I study. If there is a spirit then I am forced to ask what is its origin and its dynamics—the same questions I would ask of any of the other “things” I have been trained to study. But turning to the sacred means a focus on experience and that changes the entire focus of the debate between science and “religion”.

First, lets deal with the oft-stated criticism that any attempt to adapt or enlarge language for new purposes represents nothing more than “invention.” If we are looking to avoid connotations of the supernatural—which I am—why try and use “sacred” to mean anything other than what people think it means: God. The answer is simple, even if there are a number of ways to reach it.

Every generation has the right, indeed the responsibility, to take the language it was given, listen to its resonances and use them for the purposes at hand. To do anything less would be to kill the language through atrophy. In a sense this is what scholar Elaine Pagels means when she talks about “creative misreading” of earlier texts in a religious tradition.

But there is another reason for turning to the “sacred” rather than the “spiritual” in a scientific age. It’s an old, old word whose roots are in Roman temple architecture. One meaning of “Sacer” is to be “set apart”. In Roman temples it meant the interior where visitors needed to be attentive to the needs of the gods. Outside the sacer you could do anything you wanted including selling walnuts or old 8-track tapes of the Commodores Greatest Hits. Inside however you were expected to pay attention to a different quality of experience.

The concept of attention in this context is key. Attention and the sacred always go together which is why 20th century scholars of religion like Mircea Eliade emphasized the sacred in their attempts to describe its vital role in the 50,000-year history of human culture.

For Eliade the sacred was an experience, it was the eruption of a certain kind of attention, a certain kind of position with respect to the world. The sacred often appears to us in the middle of our “profane” everyday activities. We are taking a walk in the park thinking about what we have to do tomorrow and—bam!—suddenly we see the breathtaking tangle of vines curling around a tree or the deep stillness of the robin sitting attentive on its branch. This shift in attention is exactly what happened to me that day in the cafeteria. I was just buying a cup of coffee but my experience was suddenly, radically transformed when my attention was shifted through the lens of the science I had just learned. The breathless excitement that overwhelmed me (and I had not even touched the coffee yet) came because I felt as though I was seeing the invisible superstructure of the world laid before me even in the most humble of objects. Science—specifically the mathematical physics of elastic surfaces—made that experience of the sacred possible.

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