Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.
- Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
- The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
- Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Searching for patterns is how we make sense of the world. We look for meaning in the often-overwhelming chaos by making connections between symbols and events. Some times these are meaningful discoveries, resulting in good science and breakthrough insights. Other times, these patterns may lead nowhere but still help us focus energies on what's important.
One intriguing source of patterns that has emerged thanks to our development of computers is the Bible. Among humanity's oldest and arguably most influential pieces of writing, the Bible has been studied and analyzed phrase by phrase by countless scholars and devotees. But what computers have allowed us to do, thanks to the work of Israeli mathematicians, is to see that the ancient text may be not only an intricately-weaved collection of spiritual stories and teachings but a code that speaks to the inner workings of history.
"The Bible Code," a 1997 book by the reporter Michael Drosnin popularized the idea. His book claimed to use the earliest parts of the Bible to predict the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Gulf war, and comet collisions. It also seemed to have information about the Holocaust, various other assassinations like those of JFK and his brother Robert. It similarly suggested a nuclear war was looming – a theme the author explored in subsequent books of the "Bible Code" series.
The inspiration for Drosnin's book came from the 1994 paper "Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis," published in the journal Statistical Science by mathematicians Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg. They presented statistical evidence that information about the lives of famous rabbis was encoded in the Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis, hundreds of years before those rabbis lived.
Dr. Eliyahu Rips is one of the world's leading experts on group theory and is the scientist who got most closely associated with the "Bible Code" hypothesis, even though the software used to implement the word search was designed by both Rips and Witztum.
Dr. Eliyahu Rips. 2017.
Rips later distanced himself from Drosnin's book. In a 1997 statement on the matter, he pointed out that he didn't make or support some of the specific predictions Drosnin claimed. Nonetheless, Rips wrote quite clearly that "the only conclusion that can be drawn from the scientific research regarding the Torah codes is that they exist and that they are not a mere coincidence."
The method used by the scientists to arrive at their conclusions is the Equidistant Letter Sequence (ELS). To get a word with some meaning, this method calls you to pick a starting point in a text and a skip number. And then, start selecting letters while skipping the same number of spaces every time (pretty much in any direction). If you're lucky, a sensible word will be spelled out. This method works well if letters are arranged in an array, like this one –
The Bible Code made a recent re-appearance in the public consciousness thanks to the work of author and fourth-generation antiques expert Timothy Smith. His 2017 book "The Chamberlain Key" describes how following 25 years of research, he unlocked a "God code" in the Bible. He calls his book "the Da Vinci Code on steroids, but it's true."
Smith's decoding work is based on his own ancient copy of the Bible titled "The Leningrad Codex" - it's the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament. Smith used a computer-driven application of the ELS method, as well as code-breaking techniques and his intimate knowledge of ancient and aboriginal ceremonial devices like scepters, crowns and thrones to arrive at his reading of the Bible.
Smith is a devout Christian and his conclusions revolve around Christian motifs. In particular, he claims to have found detailed informations about Jesus's birth, crucifixion and resurrection within a passage in Genesis.
The book has received a special on the History channel and a documentary series is being made about the travels leading to Smith's discoveries.
David McKillop, the executive producer for Jupiter Entertainment, which is creating the TV series, said that "Tim's quest is the ultimate treasure hunt for one of history's greatest mysteries, and his map is an ancient text that could possibly be talking to us."
Here's the History Channel's teaser for Smith's TV special
If you think there can't possibly be any pattern in the Bible and other long texts may produce similar results - there are studies for you too. The Australian computer scientist Brendan McKay famously came up with a table of assassination predictions in "Moby Dick".
While the Bible or "Torah Codes" can be criticized, there is scholarly evidence that ancient writers of the Bible, like Matthew, "consciously used numerical patterns or codes in their compositions," as writes Dr. Randall Buth, the director of the Biblical Language Center and a lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Another factor we should keep in mind that our understanding of how time and history work very much depends on our frame of reference. If time flows differently, for example as proposed by the Block Universe Theory, all bets would be off and a book could theoretically contain the code of history both of the past and the future.
Have you heard the one about the U.S. Open and Yom Kippur? You're about to.
Darren Levine is the founding rabbi of Tamid, The Downtown Synagogue in New York City, which is guided by Positive Judaism. In an open letter earlier this year, Levine defined Positive Judaism as a spiritual life that "expands the mind, deepens personal character, strengthens community, improves the world, and adds joy and optimism to everyday living." Because of pop-culture stereotypes and the Jewish history persecution, people may not instantly think that Judaism and positivity are in sync, but Levine contents that joy and hope have been at the heart of the Jewish mindset for 3,000 years. You can choose to look at history with pessimism and negativity, says Levine, or you can instead find beauty in brokenness and turn it into jokes, positive emotion, and wisdom. "In the 21st century, it is the People that will or will not choose to be Jewish... Historical memory, Israel, the threat of anti-semitism and are not strong enough motivators for Jewish engagement. We need something new and serious and Positive Judaism is one new construct." Here, Levine shares a timely joke for Yom Kippur, and shares a teaching about hope and perspective.
Rabbi Darren Levine explains how the psychology of happiness intersects with religious practice.
Science and religion have a complicated history. Scientists cannot quantify God—God is pretty difficult to bring into the laboratory, quips Rabbi Darren Levine—but what they can study and measure is the effect of faith on people's well-being and life satisfaction. When religious wisdom is taught and enacted well, it focuses on ideals like deepening relationships with family and friends, personal responsibility, and making a positive impact in the world. Levine is a proponent of positive Judaism, which merges key characteristics of positive psychology with practices of reformed Judaism. The field of psychology is often mired in humanity's flaws, but positive psychology is a movement that aims to study people's strengths rather than their weaknesses. The same shift can be true for religion, and nurtured by the power of community. Rabbi Levine sums it up in five letters: PERMA, which stand for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Together, those five pillars can foster greater happiness and health.
Faith is absurd — let’s embrace the comedy in that.
With something as sensitive as faith, humor isn't just a handy way to bring people of various religions together, it's an essential tool for social cooperation. Adam Mansbach finds plenty to laugh about within Judaism, the faith he grew up in, and believes that being on the margins of that community provides an incredible vantage point to witness how modern people try to squeeze themselves into the mold of millennia-old faith doctrines. A lot of creative talent has come from that uncomfortable squish: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer all had one foot in the faith and the other foot out. Mansbach is Jewish, but he's not you know, "Jewish". And that is another absurd duality that is unique to Judaism. You can be Jewish and Buddhist — but if you are, put on a light suit of armor, because the comedians are coming. Adam Mansbach's most recent book (co-authored with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel) is For This We Left Egypt?.