Church is Our Classroom

If we ever want to turn our classrooms into churches, we must first make church our classroom. Before you vehemently counter that our classrooms should not be turned into anything like a church, allow me to explain. We are at a point in history not only where the scientific method can shed light on the origins of religion, its adaptive value in our species’ evolution, the efficacy of its rituals, its neurological bases, and so on, but where religious fruits can grow in scientific soil.

Religion is often called upon by scientists to adjust its theology to new scientific discoveries. This bending process happens at a snail’s pace, so slow that most of the time it doesn’t even look like it’s happening. It is time for science to step into the classroom of religion; not just to empirically take note of its place in cultural life, its modes of teaching and dissemination, its leveraging of emotion, and it’s long journey from evolutionary origins to culture, but to apply the knowledge gleaned to itself.

The pursuit of turning science and evolution into a new religion is easy to misconstrue. Jerry Coyne writes, “Scientists fear that if evolution became anything like a religion, it would be abandonment of its main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.” There are strategies, however, for attaching emotion to scientific empiricism and for making it special by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, without compromising its core principles.

Efforts are underway. The science museum. The integration of art into the classroom. Sesame Street. 321 Contact. Seed Magazine. Carl Sagan. Discovery Channel. Time Warp. PBS. Unweaving the Rainbow. (Stay tuned for links.)

It is not the monotheistic conception of God that we must find in evolution and science, but the spiritual realities that our hominid ancestors discovered. Perhaps it is better phrased as finding spiritual realities in science or imbuing science with a mystic glow. Einstein felt it. Carl Sagan felt it. Francis Bacon, too. E.O Wilson sees it.

In ethological terms we realize that science is a baby, born only 500 years ago. On top of that, it is one of the most unintuitive modes of thought. The first stirrings of religion can be seen as long as 100,000+ years ago. It was in this early period that the myth was born as an effective compressor of emotional information.

The new myths must tell the awe-inspiring stories of science. The new hymns must breathe the true depth of our history into our bones. Religious rituals incorporated artistic activities into a highly effective positive feedback loop. The new rituals can use art in the same way to create emotional involvement in science; not to incorporate emotional involvement into the scientific method, but to link emotion -  to quote E.O. Wilson, the modication of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity - with the mental activities of science.

In our personal efforts to understand religion, we recently embarked on a church tour. Each Sunday, we will visit a different church in the Boston / Cambridge area. Part anthropologist / part student, we enter with open minds, observe, and participate in holy rituals. It is a vital piece of our conversation with religion, art, and science.

Can science assuage the existential anxieties that religion has so adeptly adapted to deal with? If it is to ever come close, science and evolution must be made to inspire the deep sense of mystery and wonder that the world’s religions have articulated for thousands of years. The way to find these spiritual realities in science is the same way religion found them, through art and ritual.

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One Response to “Church is Our Classroom”

  1. dan says:

    Trying to retrace my own history of religion to think about the various stages of belief, disbelief, anger, curiosity, opportunity… As a kid i remember being really bored with everything but the songs and the wafer eating. When you entered church through the main doors, there were two bowls with wafers. You would take a wafer from the source bowl and put it into the blessing bowl so when the priest prepare the wafers, he blessed the right number. Pretty nice system. Sitting in a seat for an hour in church on sunday was anything from mildly enjoyable but fidgety to pretty boring and annoying. I stopped going in early high school. I really did enjoy the songs and the unison prayers. Group resonance always starts as striking? How did the “this is a cult” or “this is dumb” type thoughts begin? We had nice hymnals and a letterboard at the front of the church that indicated the songs for that service in the various standard portions of the mass. (I’m very excited about the general hymnal concept right now.) I believe the ordering of events was pretty standard for a catholic church. Most services were about an hour but some holidays were longer. The physical church as pretty long (over 50 rows?). Thousands of total members from about 3 local towns of maybe 50k total population? Just kind of guessing there. See overhead view of church during Applefest here.

    Here is link with photo of inside and group of recently confirmed members. Priest on the left in the photo is the same pastor (David Harvey) as when I was there. He was a great speaker and really nice guy. I enjoyed talking to him. His sermons were pretty good too.
    My parents were always involved in the church and they are still very active, just living in Colorado now instead and it is a much smaller church. It was definitely difficult for my mother when I decided to stop going to sunday school and skip “Confirmation”, which is the coming into adulthood in the church community. I was a disruptive student in the classes and my mom made the very correct point that I was ruining it for others and that I needed to make a decision on my own if I would continue. I definitely appreciate my parents ability to leave this to me, despite their very strong beliefs. But at the time I was just sort of jumping for joy. Yay! No more of thing I think is boring. More time on football, science, snowboarding, parties, etc. It was a relief. I did not fit. I also spent several years in my early/mid twenties having regular arguments with my mother about god every time I went home. I was not very cool and collected in these.

    Every September there was festival hosted by the church call the Apple Fest and it’s still running. A carnival comes and parks in the church parking lot. They had pie tent, beer tent, and some other locals groups of people church and business who set up booths to share or engage in commerce. I had a lot of fun. Definitely a social scene for many of my years living there. I remember being in an air guitar type but full band event in middle school and we (rebecca, dana, mark, steve and myself) “performed” Alone by Heart. Colored cardboard guitars, cheesy 80’s power ballad stances and all. And the tilt a whirl.

    I will be visiting Fenton again in early August. I’ll report back.

    Ever more classrooms…

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