The Need To Believe: Where Does It Come From? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Religious belief offers a sense of community with the unknown — with what transcends the confines of our humanity — as science aims to extend our reality, says astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser.

The Need To Believe: Where Does It Come From?

Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, is a place of worship for Buddhism and Chinese popular religion. iStockphoto hide caption

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Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, is a place of worship for Buddhism and Chinese popular religion.


When discussing the relationship between science and religion, people often take a polarized position: It's either "I believe" or "I don't believe."

Much grief comes from the insistence from either side that the opposite is wrong or meaningless. (Here is an example, as secularist Sam Harris criticizes National Institutes of Health director and believer Francis Collins.)

In practice, however, there is a whole spectrum of in-between positions, as doubt and the limits of what we know creep in. Like Collins, many scientists are perfectly fine with practicing their science and believing in God. They claim that science is an incomplete description of reality, that there are many questions beyond its purveyance. More to the point, they claim that the more they understand the world through their science, the more they admire God. To them, science is a form of religious devotion.

Historically, many great thinkers have shared this position — and many still do. What irks people like Harris and Richard Dawkins is that they consider this in-between approach to be inconsistent with the tenets of science: Nature is material, and matter is organized according to quantitative laws. The goal of science is to uncover these laws. There is nothing else.

They claim that this metaphysical position, although appealing and apparently conciliatory to many, is fraught with epistemic difficulties as it places the natural and the supernatural in an uneasy coexistence. How could nature be both natural and supernatural? Indeed, one of the problems is that to claim an event as a "supernatural phenomenon" seems inconsistent: Any event that has been observed has emitted some kind of electromagnetic radiation and exchanged energy with a detector or with our own sensorial organs. As such, the supernatural is very much natural, even if not understood or deeply mysterious.

One may adopt what Stephen Jay Gould called a NOMA approach ("non-overlapping magisteria") and compartmentalize science and religion into limited spheres of influence, naïvely stating that "religion begins where science ends," or something to that extent. But clearly such worldview will not carry very far. As science advances, the boundary between the two magisteria keeps shifting as with any god-of-the-gaps approach. To state that the supernatural has an intangible existence, immeasurable and, thus, undetectable, places it beyond the scientific discourse and renders the conversation moot.

The fact is that religion and science do overlap in people's minds, in their life choices, in the difficult moral challenges society faces. To strictly deny the power of religion in the world, with billions following a diversity of faiths, is also terribly naïve.

The difficult question that needs to be asked is why so many people across every culture need to believe. What is religion providing that so many need to embrace?

To belong to a religious group immediately confers a person with a sense of community. You meet your peers in church or temple, and you feel justified in your beliefs, as they are shared by many others. This is as true for believers as for secularists. Humans are tribal animals, and tribes unite around a central symbol, myth or value code. There was an evolutionary advantage to being in a tribe, as it enhanced your chances of survival; power in numbers. There is a social advantage for being in a tribe, as it confers the person with legitimacy. To many people, belief may justify the allegiance to the group, but it's the sense of community, of shared values, that drives it.

However, there is another aspect to faith, one that is purely subjective. As William James portrayed in The Varieties of Religious Experience, there is something unique to the individual at the crux of the true religious experience, a sense of community with the unknown, with what transcends the confines of our humanity. There is more to the world than what is seen and measurable, and these hidden features are equally important to us:

"Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it."

Even if philosopher George Santayana and others have criticized James for "encouraging superstition," one cannot deny the obvious fact that the reach of reason is limited. Science extends its reach into all aspects of the world, but its reach is not unlimited.

When Einstein invoked his "cosmic religious feeling" to describe his unorthodox spiritual connection to nature, he was trying to express this elusive feeling of the mysterious, our human attraction to the unknown. Perhaps surprisingly to many — especially to those who don't understand what drives people into science, having a stereotypical view of the scientists as cold rationalists — the engagement with unknown aspects of nature through science is deeply spiritual.

Even the secularist scientist, as he or she uses research to probe beyond the known, is practicing this creed, fulfilling our deep need for understanding our history and seeing the new, for extending our grasp of reality.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.