Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.
Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean. Go to sleep. Let darkness
lap at your sides. Give darkness an inch.
You aren’t alone. All of the continents used to be
one body. You aren’t alone. Go to sleep.
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow,
Zoology says: on rainbow-fish and lithe gazelle,
Psychology says: but first it has to be night, so
Biology says: the body-clocks are stopped all over town and
History says: here are the blankets, layer on layer, down and down
I’ve actually been thinking a lot about science lately. Not in a literal sense, but as an abstract concept. A post from a friend about religion and atheism and death started the ball rolling, and then a question from my friend Lyn, a UU minister, pushed it a little further.
I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on developing my sense of faith, or spirituality, or whatever you want to call the amorphous blob that makes up my approach to life as someone that needs to have something to believe in. As a kid, we weren’t really a religious household, though my extended family was heavily involved in non-denominational Christian churches across the state of Illinois, so church and the basic tenets of Christianity (and, later, evangelicalism) were always on the periphery of my awareness and experience. As a thirteen-year-old, a series of events and acquaintances and chance meetings led me to involvement in a couple of youth religious groups, both in-person and online, and for several years thereafter a loose version of Christianity held a lot of my life together. Eventually that community proved toxic, though at the time I wouldn’t have described my deviation from belief that way.
In time, I got past what everyone had been hammering into me for years: the idea that there is no morality, no human decency, without faith. I finally met and knew many people of a wide variety of backgrounds who found ways to disprove that idea completely, and to demonstrate that if someone’s sole reason for being decent is because they’re afraid of divine punishment, they’re probably not actually very decent people. That doesn’t mean that I think every religious person is bad, by any stretch, only that the active proponents of that particular bit of ideology have a somewhat warped concept of the motivations behind human behavior. People do good things without reward and horrible things knowing the consequences; carrots and sticks might make it easier to manipulate others, but they don’t serve as a very effective internal compass.
At that point, though, things got a little bit more complicated. The bits of religion I’d been clinging to all revolved around two things: treating each other well, and a need for wonder. Those two things, I think, are some of the biggest parts of what most individuals find in faith: belief in others, and belief that good things can happen. Believing that the sun will come up tomorrow and that your friends will help you be well. That latter part is something I no longer need help believing; I’ve seen it evidenced on my behalf and on behalf of others for reasons that make absolutely no sense in a carrots-and-sticks world. I do my best to hang onto the knowledge I have about people from those events, and put it into practice in a “these are my people” mentality (that link opens a pdf of a sermon by Sean Newton at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto; the relevant part starts on page 3), even though I can’t always hold onto it. I can also relate a lot to this bit, from Andrew Jackson Jihad’s song “People”:
People are my enemies and people are my friends.
I have faith in my fellow man,
and I only hope that he has faith in me.
In the end, what I needed was a little more exposure to science. Turns out, the universe is awesome in the old sense of the word, and that there’s a lot of wonder to be had even if you don’t have whatever it takes to believe with confidence in a moderator hanging out in the ether. Even if you limit your scope to the things that scientific theories explicitly support, the universe is open to endless possibility. I think that, above all, is huge for me. The idea of endless possibility. Belief in it manifests in a lot of ways and still requires a fair bit of faith, but it works for me not least because it’s applicable to people regardless of their own religious tradition (or lack thereof). I get so thrown off by the manufactured conflict between religious leaders and scientists, because if you ever talk to someone who knows about science and is passionate about it, the sense of wonder in them and in what they can show you is immense. If you want to believe a god had something to do with that, the fact that it’s orchestrated by things that can be demonstrated doesn’t have to conflict. Regardless, Moderator or no, the universe and its infinite processes make beautiful things. They make terrible things, too, of course, but so much wonder.
The lingering difficult part of that has been thinking about death. I do believe in souls, or spiritual essence, or something. At the very least I fully believe that nobody ceases to exist when they die as long as people remember them. I want to share something from NPR commentator Aaron Freeman that means a lot to me:
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”