Ways of Knowing

A Service for the

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus

July 14, 2002

"The knowledge of man is as the waters, some descending from above, and some springing from beneath; the one informed by the light of nature... the other inspired by divine revelation." - Francis Bacon, 1605

"I can't accept that God plays dice with the Universe." - Albert Einstein

"Not only does He play dice; sometimes He throws them where you can't see them." - response attributed to Werner Heizenberg

GATHERING: Until the temple bell calls us to worship

"Heaven and Hell", Part 1, by Vangelis

GREETING: welcome and news of the community

CENTERING: "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity"; The Planets, by Gustav Holst

OPENING: Responsive Reading, #445, "The Womb of Stars" by Joy Atkinson

The womb of stars embraces us; remnants of their fiery furnaces pulse through our veins.

We are of the stars, the dust of explosions cast across space.

We are of the Earth: we breathe and live in the breath of ancient plants and beasts.

Their cells nourish the soil; we build communities on their harvest of gifts.

Our fingers trace the curves carved in clay and stone by forebears unknown to us.

We are a part of the great circle of humanity gathered around the fire, the hearth, the altar.

We gather anew this day to celebrate our common heritage.

May we recall in gratitude all that has given us birth.

KINDLING: We kindle the flame and the light that has led us to ever greater knowledge of the world around us, and of ourselves.

INGATHERING: The Butter Battle Book, by Theodore Geisel ("Dr. Seuss"), 1984, Random House, New York

SINGING: Hymn 345 "With Joy We Claim the Growing Light"

AFFIRMING: Conclusion from On the Origin of Species , Final edition, by Charles Darwin

"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

COMMUNING: "Cries" Carlos Nakai

The Silence

READING: 1. From "Magisterium Is Concerned with Question of Evolution for it Involves Conception of Man" by Pope John Paul II

"With man, then, we find ourselves in the presence of an ontological difference, an ontological leap, one could say. However, does not the posing of such ontological discontinuity run counter to that physical continuity which seems to be the main thread of research into evolution in the field of physics and chemistry? Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the time line. The moment of transition into the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again, of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator's plans.

We are called to enter eternal life."

2. "The Pattern Seeking Animal"; from How We Believe , by Michael Shermer, 2000, W. H. Freeman & Co., New York, p. 34.

"In our complex and contingent world, random events often happen in seemingly peculiar sequences that cry out for meaning. We usually rise to the occasion, finding patterns in nature even when they do not exist or have no real significance: the "eagle rock" overlooking the 134 Freeway in Eagle Rock, California - it is just a stone outcropping but our minds see in it the general shape of an eagle-like bird; the "JFK" stone in Hawaii looking for all the world like the late president in profile; the face of Jesus in a tortilla; the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. The first two are amusing but do not strike observers as filled with cosmic import. For some, however, the latter two trigger emotional responses linked to spiritual significance - witness the crowds that appear whenever the Virgin Mary makes her "appearance" on a barn door, in the shadows of trees, or, recently, on the side of the Ugly Duck car rental building in Clearwater, Florida, where the faithful come in wheelchairs and canes to be cured.

We are especially attracted to patterns with a spiritual or religious link, which touch our deepest desire for there to be a Something Else calling the shots and running the show. For some, that Something Else is God; for others it is angels, or fate, or synchronicity, or collective consciousness, or some universal life force. For thousands of years our myths and religions have sustained us with stories of meaningful patterns - gods and God, supernatural beings and mystical forces, the relationship of humans and their creators, and our place in the cosmos. For the past four centuries, however, science has provided a means for determining which patterns are real and which are illusions, and so we have expelled most ancient and medieval traditions from the pantheon. Or have we?

REFLECTING: "Ways of Knowing" Tom Baillieul

If you haven't been out of the country, you can hardly have missed hearing about the controversy surrounding the effort to revise the state's science curriculum standards. This is not some esoteric scientific dispute; nor is it simply an argument over religion in public schools. It is a battle about the "correct" way of knowing the world around us, a centuries' old conflict who's origins lie in the dim past of human history.

Our species, homo sapiens, arose in Africa some 100,000 years ago. These ancestors were unique from all other hominids that preceded them. Artifacts from African habitation sites as much as 70,000 years old show a level of thought and awareness previously unknown. Objects with stylized markings, which can only be interpreted as art, accompany these very early homo sapiens remains.

By 40,000 - 50,000 years BCE and the advent of Homo Sapiens in Europe we find a great outpouring of imagination and creativity. Stone tools from what European archeologists refer to as the Neolithic Period are finely worked - to a degree far beyond what was necessary for basic utility. In other words, there was joy in craftsmanship; beauty and style were being appreciated in their own right. Stone, wood, and bone were carved into animal and human shapes, often stylized. The same materials were made into musical instruments which would play note intervals that we would find pleasing today. Jewelry was fashioned and worn, perhaps as a symbol of status, or to denote a clan affiliation, or simply to make a fashion statement. And then there are the great cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet who's purpose remains unclear, but whos' craftmanship leaves no doubt as to the artistic ability of our ancestors.

Early homo sapiens' heightened self-awareness and imagination led to the use of symbols, abstract thinking, projecting future events, and beginning to ask "ultimate questions."

There was a fascination with death. Death was all around these hunting and gathering peoples. When the light went out of the eyes of the great kudu, it meant that the hunters' family would continue to thrive. Life came from death. Green shoots sprang forth from the ash of a range fire. Leaves would always reappear on the winter skeletons of trees. The imagination our ancestors, displayed in the crafting of great works of art, also made us the first species able to foresee our own deaths. What was death? The person or animal who died never came back again. Was grandma only the flesh and bones of the person we knew; or was there something more? Ritualistic burials with anointed corpses, flowers, tools, jewelry, and more are proof of the deep thoughts early people had about the meaning of death.

And this type of questioning led to other puzzles...

Birth, death, and illness were mysteries. The lives of simple hunters and gatherers were dominated by natural forces. The patterns of the seasons were marked by the sun, the moon, and the stars. Life followed changes in the length of a day, changes in temperature, the migrations of the great herds, and the ripening of fruit and grains in the places where they were found. Natural disasters - floods, droughts, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes - came without warning and could have dire consequences for the family group.

Lightning was known for its power to kill, and the thunder was terrifying; but lightning also gave fire. Even pre-homo sapiens had learned how to control fire. In much the same way, we have always sought for ways to intercede with the supernatural to influence outcomes. Burial rituals are only one example.

Writer and editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, describes the evolved human ability to perceive patterns. Recognizing patterns of the seasons, the weather, animal migrations, predator behavior, ripening fruits, the properties of stones, was essential for survival. According to Shermer, we are "hard-wired" for pattern recognition. We need to make connections; to discover causes for events, even where none exist. Because any pattern recognition ability gave a survival advantage, and false positives were seldom fatal, we didn't also evolve logic and critical thinking as necessary traits.

Now, combine pattern thinking, curiosity, and imagination, and humans were doomed to search for "meaning" in all aspects of life. Also, in the human psyche, the impersonal is strongly rejected. We can't stand the idea that things happen to us simply by chance. Having to accept an impersonal cause, for bad things or for good, threatens our identity; it rejects our uniqueness. This is our greatest fear - to be insignificant. We want to know that someone or something is responsible for whatever happens, even if it rationalizes out to be a capricious deity.

We are also prone to remember and reinforce the positive and forget the negative - the basis for the gambling industry. If a ritual once coincidentally results in a desirable outcome, it will be repeated; and any future failures rationalized away.

Among our ancestors, each family group had members with certain skills. Some were the tool makers, some the hunters, some the preparers of skins, or of baskets, or of pots; some the tellers of stories and keepers of the tribal lore. And some were skilled in dealing with the forces of illness, birth, and death. We might call them shamen, or wise women, or witch doctors. Once humans discovered agriculture and established permanent settlements, these skills became more structured. The role of the shaman became that of the high priest, the medicine woman became the temple priestess, and the rituals of intercession became the practices of the temple. From these roots come all modern religions.

In one form or another all religions provide:

For more than 99% of human history, a religious world view and belief in supernatural causes that can be influenced has governed the way humans think. Then came the Enlightenment, and with it a new way of knowing.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century had shown that the authority of the church could be questioned, and the questions weren't long in coming. Early astronomers - Copernicus, Galileo, Tyco Brahe, Kepler - showed (at some personal risk) that the Earth was not the center of creation. Newton's calculus, his Laws of Motion, and of Gravity could be used to describe the movements of the planets and moons in geometrically precise, consistent orbits. It was one of the greatest discoveries of all time - Nature could be understood in terms of basic forces - and predicted! Mathematics became the tool to describe the natural world.

Rationalism, another product of the Enlightenment, said that:

This logical approach to the study of the natural world led to the development of the scientific method as it is applied today. It is a uniquely European phenomenon, driven by a historical conjunction of nationalism, trade, and exploration in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

It is significant that science has replaced religion in only one area of human knowledge, that of explaining the natural world. Science is silent on ultimate questions, on rules for proper living, on social values, or interceding with the divine. However, in the western world, science has become the preferred method for understanding and predicting natural phenomena simply because it works so well.

Most mainstream religions have made accommodation in these areas of understanding. "Let science tell us about nature, and let religion inform us on matters of faith, and of spirit." The late Stephen J. Gould defined these two realms of knowledge as "non-overlapping magisteria" - NOM. Yet, if these two magisteria, these two ways of knowing, are mutually compatible, then where does the current conflict lie?

Across the centuries there have been religious groups who have been unable and unwilling to accept that science provides a more accurate understanding of the physical world than does faith. The early years of the Twentieth Century saw an American resurgence of conservative Christianity. A Bible Conference held in Niagara Falls was convened to define those things that were "fundamental" to Christian belief. From this conference came the publication of a series of twelve books known as "The Fundamentals", published between 1910 and 1915 by Milton and Lyman Steward. These wealthy brothers were concerned with the moral and spiritual decline they believed was infecting Protestantism. One of the perceived causes of this moral degeneration of America's moral fiber was Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Their books were a call to arms and an explication of the fundamentals of the faith.

Basically, this comes down to the belief that salvation through Jesus requires the concept of original sin. Original sin is the result of Adam and Eve's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. No original sin, no salvation. Therefore, anything that brings into question the stories of Genesis specifically, or a literal interpretation of Biblical scripture in general, is a threat. This includes all science, history, or other religious beliefs and interpretations.

A particularly intense level of fear and anger is reserved for the Theory of Evolution because it posits humans as arising from non-human ancestors, not as the purposeful act of an involved creator. Without God, the argument goes, there is no authority for moral behavior.

In this view, acceptance of the Theory of Evolution has led to all the ills of the modern world... drugs, crime, racism, facsim, homosexuality, abortion, suicide, fluoridation, communism, humanism, moral relativism, environmental degradation, Brittany Spears...

Finally, Science is viewed as removing God as the necessary direct cause of natural events, making them impersonal. If science is right, then we can't influence outcomes in the world around us through faith, prayer or ritual.

The 1920s were a heyday for Fundamentalism. States like Oklahoma, Florida, and Tennessee, under the influence of conservative religious leaders actually passed anti-evolution statutes, banning the teaching of Evolution in schools. This led in 1925 to the infamous "Scopes Trial." Although Scope's was convicted and fined, this trial marked a turning point of the influence of Fundamentalism on American life. Subsequent court actions ruled that all anti-evolution laws were unconstitutional. Even the idea of teaching a "creationist" view as an alternative to evolution in public schools - the so-called "balanced treatment" concept - was found by the Supreme Court to violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Evolution was confirmed as soundly based science; and creationism, in all its manifestations, was shown to be religion, plain and simple.

So why, after all these years, with the continuing advances being made in the scientific knowledge of the world, is there still a conflict??

According to a 2001 survey by the National Academy of Science, nearly 70% of Americans do not understand even the basics of the scientific method. Belief in pseudoscience - astrology, extra sensory perception, crystal healing, alien encounters - is on the rise. In another recent poll by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohioans were asked the question: "Which of the following is the principal source of your views on the development of life on Earth?" Only 15% of respondents answered "science classes in school." Another 10% referred to the work of scientists. Five percent pointed to the news media. And fully 54% said this knowledge "came from religious teaching." Obviously the distinction between the two non-overlapping magisteria is not as complete as Stephen J. Gould, or even the Pope, would like.

The old ways of knowing, rife with superstition and fear, are alive and well in 21st Century America. One wonders if this is not due to some basic structure of the human mind. We have a need to believe that we are at the center of things, and that we can influence the forces which control our lives in much the same way that we try to influence each other. We take the world personally, and expect it to respond in kind. As Michael Shermer notes, we didn't evolve logic as a necessary trait for survival.

Clearly, the challenge is laid out for us. Right now, Ohio is under attack by conservative religious forces under the direction of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture - a right-wing think tank. From this group comes "the Wedge Strategy". It's overall goals are:

Over the five year period between 1997 and 2002, the Wedge seeks to:

And over 20 years, the Wedge's proponents expect:

Before you start laughing, understand that the Discovery Institute is not a fly-by-night operation. It is extremely well funded by private contributions. Billionaire, Howard Ahmanson, gave $1.5 million to help start the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Ahmanson has been associated with Christian Reconstruction, a radical faction of the Religious Right that sought to replace American democracy with a theocracy based on biblical law and under the "dominion" of Christians. An Ahmanson company, Fieldstead and Co., has pledged a further $2.8 million through 2003 to support the institute's work. The Tennessee-based Maclellan Foundation gave $350,000 to support research proving that "evolution was not the process by which we were created." The Wedge may have been stopped temporarily in New Mexico, Kansas, and Ohio. It may be running behind schedule; however, the promoters of the Wedge Strategy have time, public apathy, and scientific illiteracy on their side.

Now more than ever we need to promote a solid understanding of science as a way of knowing, both in the public schools, and in the population as a whole. If we don't want to see rationalism and the basic ideals of the American way of life set aside and replaced by a Taliban-like sense of order and control, then we need to act - each and every one of us. The battle is being fought in the halls of state boards of education and in our legislatures. We vote with our silence.

OFFERING: An opportunity to support the community's life

"God Said"; from Mass by Leonard Bernstein

RETURNING: Our identity is wrapped up in our beliefs. Rejecting the validity of others' beliefs sets us on a path to confrontation. It is not coincidental that all the major religions have as a central tenet the concept - "do to others only that which you would want them to do to you." When we respect the beliefs of others, everyone can feel validated.

MERGING: The Tao of Lao Tse - Responsive Reading #606

Before creation a presence existed, Self-contained, complete, formless, voiceless, mateless, changeless, which yet pervaded itself with unending motherhood.

Though there can be no name for it, I have called it the "way of life".

Perhaps I should have called it "the fullness of life," since fullness implies widening into space, implies still further widening, implies widening until the circle is whole.

In this sense the way of life is fulfilled, Heaven is fulfilled, Earth is fulfilled, and a fit person also is fulfilled.

There are four amplitudes of the universe and a fit person is one of them.

People rounding the way of Earth, Earth rounding the way of Heaven, Heaven rounding the way of life till the circle is full.

BLESSING: At the Beginning of all things we were one with all matter in the universe. We need to hold on to the feeling that we are connected to one another. Go in Peace.

CELEBRATING: "Icarus" by The Winter Consort