Wonder & Love: How Scientists Neglect God and Man
by George Stanciu
In the Western World, religion is in decline. Early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI lamented the weakening of churches in Europe, Australia, and the United States. He told a meeting of clergy in the Italian Alps, where he vacations, that “the so-called traditional churches look like they are dying.” For many people, spirituality has replaced religion. I often hear my former physicist colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory say, “I do not believe in God, but I am very spiritual.” I do not think this is an anomaly of living in Northern New Mexico, where everyone I know feels the allure—dare I say the spiritual attraction—of the high-desert landscape. Señor Rudolfo Quintana, an old healer, un curandero viejo, once told me that the magical beauty of northern New Mexico opened a spiritual corridor and that the prayers of the Pueblo Indians and the Spanish settlers kept the world in balance for years. Right after Señor Quintana told me this, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Mi hijo, you scientists at Los Alamos, by making instruments of mass death, defiled this sacred space.” Despite that I never worked on nuclear weapons, I did not protest. For all I knew at that time maybe science had cut off the corridor to the spiritual.
Elaine Howard Ecklund, a social scientist at Rice University, surveyed religion and spirituality among scientists at elite universities. She reported that nearly sixty-five per cent of the scientists in her survey were either atheists or agnostics. (In a survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences, Edward J. Larsen and Larry Witham found a “near universal rejection of the transcendent,” with the belief in a personal God and in human immortality a mere seven percent.) Yet, Dr. Ecklund concluded from her data that “scientists are surprisingly interested in spirituality,” since about seventy per cent described themselves as spiritual.
Probably not too much should be made of this latter result. To ask a person “Do you believe in God?” is a sharply defined question, but to ask “To what extent do you consider yourself a spiritual person?” is vague, for in contemporary life the meaning of the word “spiritual” seems to vary from person to person. For instance, Richard Dawkins, the evangelical atheist, said in a recent interview that he has experienced “wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time… [something] which you could call spirituality.”
But to wonder about nature and technology is part of human life. Most adults have wondered how birds fly, why the trees turn color in the fall, and how bees find their way back to the hive. My son, Nikolai, when young, barraged me with questions:
How can electricity come through a wire that doesn’t have any holes in it? Why can you see your breath in the winter but not in the summer? Do the telephone wires ever end? Why does a scratch relieve an itch? How do they grow seedless orange trees with no seeds to start from? Why does the moon seem to follow us when we drive along at night? Why doesn’t a spider get caught in its own web?Children are experts at wondering, for they see the world with new eyes. If wonder is the essence of spirituality, then a five-year-old boy or girl would be more spiritual than any Zen Master.
Science, however, does lead to a rigorous, universal understanding of spirituality, not by following the path of quantum physics first proposed over forty years ago by Fritjof Capra in his book The Tao of Physics but by taking clues from ethology, the science of animal behavior. Surprisingly, the study of the perceptual life of frogs, jackdaws, and chimpanzees reveals the spiritual nature of Homo sapiens.
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