Sunday, May 28, 2017

What the Hell Is Religion?

Last Monday Gerald Urban, professor of physics, talked about: Religion, was zum Teufel ist das eigentlich? at the Freiburger Museumsgesellschaft. The announcement of this talk reminded me of a statement by one of my directors at CERN. When young hopefuls in high-energy physics complained about the lack of chairs at universities he said: A physicist can do anything ... almost. In fact, only few could expect to become a professor of high-energy physics but during that time there were ample openings in information technology. These are nowadays taken by people with a special education in IT. So a physicist talking about religion?

Professor Urban told the audience that it had been his personal interest to understand what religion really is. He has tried to address the question using a scientific approach and blamed the church fathers for having successfully hindered the development of science for centuries. For Augustine science is just an ancillary discipline and faith surpasses knowledge whereas Jerome (Hieronymus) regards philology as important only when reading and translating the Bible. While the Latin version of the New Testament, the vulgate, is the basis of Christianity the historical development of the Church was more influenced by the writings of the church fathers. The Reformation did not change this for both Erasmus and Luther heavily relied on the church fathers.

While Wikipedia tries to define "religion" as either substantialist (the transcendent holiness, the religious feeling) or functionalist (the community) these two definitions are not exclusive.

In one of his slides Professor Urban presented a collection of material with two main categories "religion" and "religiosity".

The process of religion has its origin in the observation of our environment when the amazement about its incomprehensibility reaches our brains. Explanation attempts lead to "world models" aiming to answer the question of the meaning or purpose of our existence. This process is by no means static but of a burning dynamic.

At this point Einstein's "definition" of religion may be helpful:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder,
no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion.
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate,
our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty,
which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds:
it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.
In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man.
Other quotations from Einstein deepen his conviction: Every scientist becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men. Behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force is my religion. To that extent, I am in point of fact, religious.

This firm belief in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. My God created laws … His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws. The divine reveals itself in the physical world.

There is harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, yet there are people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me to support such views ... I am not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist ... but there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source.

Professor Urban placed a "complete" overview into his last slide. Religions eventually arrive at "closed" world models pointing to their last mysteries. Religious groups close themselves off and will fight other groups in bloody wars: Templars against Saracens, Catholics against Lutherans and both against Calvinists and Anabaptists, Shiites against Sunnites. Where do brotherly love or even the Christian love of the enemy come in?

What makes me sick is that while only few are fanatic in their religious practice and belief, many (mis)use their religion as an instrument of power either to suppress their people or as a pretext for "holy" wars. No war ever was, is, or will be holy.

Let me finish by congratulating Professor Urban on his efforts ending with a conciliatory quote by our eminent physicist:

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