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# Can Science Be Sacred?

Posted: 01/20/2012 7:00 am

I had just come from my undergraduate partial differential equations class and was in serious need of caffeine. We had completed our fourth straight day of lectures on the equations of a vibrating membrane. My head hurt and my hands where cramped from taking notes. Partial Differential Equations (PDEs) appear everywhere in mathematical physics. They provide scientists with the language to describe the evolution of collapsing clouds of interstellar gas, the nature of oscillating electromagnetic fields, and even the flow of traffic on a four-lane highway. By solving these equations in all their abstract glory the behavior of the real system can predicted, described, understood. It was very cool.

The going was tough though. Like constructing an invisible house of cards, we had to spend the last few days building up a story based on theorems and postulates. Then, finally, we had enough background to really get started. The vibrating membrane was a general problem. The membrane could be a drumhead, the surface of a lake or even the surface of a star. The professor taught us to use simple vibration patterns as a kind of grammar. He showed us how to add these simple patterns together and describe complex oscillations. Imagine, for example, the quick smack of a drumstick on a drum. Using what we had just learned we could, exactly and explicitly, describe every detail of the drumhead's complex, evolving pattern of vibration by adding up lots of simple patterns.

I had filled up half a notebook with these four lectures. Now I was tired and needed a caffeine jolt. In the student cafeteria I got a Styrofoam cup, filled it up and the got in line to pay. In search of my wallet I put the cup down on an ice cream freezer. After extracting the needed \$1.25, I reached for the cup and was stopped dead in my tracks. There it was, laid out with exquisite perfection, right in front of me.

The freezer was gently vibrating, set in motion by its small motor. Resting on the freezer, my coffee cup picked up these oscillations. On the coffee's surface I saw the exact pattern I had just learned about in class. The ordered flow of the surface reflected florescent light from above revealing tiny circular ripples superimposed with crisscrossed radial stripes. The pattern was complex but ordered and stable. Ten minutes ago I had seen the exact same pattern represented as a long string of mathematical symbols or as a diagram drawn on graph paper. Now it was real. Now it was "true." Suddenly the abstractions were alive for me. The mathematics was made manifest in motion. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen or ever would see. There was a long moment before I was willing to exhale and get on my way. I had, in my way, just had encounter with the sacred character of human experience delivered to me through the prism of science.

Spirituality vs. The Sacred

"Spiritual But Not Religious" is the way many people describe themselves these days. It's a term that drives a lot of others crazy. For those who happily describe themselves as religious, "Spiritual But Not Religious" can imply a dilution of faith and a rejection of the creed and doctrine which, for them, is an essential aspect of spiritual life.

Yet, for people who happily describe themselves as atheist, "Spiritual But Not Religious" is a dodge -- an attempt to get "the warm cozy feeling" of religious life without making the intellectual commitment to what they see as the central question: Does God exist?

Where should science lie on this spectrum of debate? Can someone still call themselves "spiritual" and hold fast to the principles of science?

Recently, I participated in a Point of Inquiry podcast hosted by Chris Mooney that took on this question. I argued there (as I will here) that science is, indeed, an organic focus of the human sense of "spirit." The key, of course, is that we must allow ourselves to adapt language to the living needs of those generations living now. But for me, spirituality may not be the right word on which to focus this effort. The question is not one of science and spirituality but science and the sacred. For me, thinking in terms of the sacred -- or better yet, what I call the sacred character of experience -- provides a better frame for this discussion. As a practicing scientist (theoretical astrophysics), when I hear the word spiritual, it leads to questions about the spirit as some kind of essence that lives above and beyond the world I study. If there is a spirit, then I am forced to ask what is its origin and its dynamics -- the same questions I would ask of any of the other "things" I have been trained to study. But turning to the sacred means a focus on experience and that changes the entire focus of the debate between science and "religion."

First, lets deal with the oft-stated criticism that any attempt to adapt or enlarge language for new purposes represents nothing more than "invention." If we are looking to avoid connotations of the supernatural -- which I am -- why try and use "sacred" to mean anything other than what people think it means: God. The answer is simple, even if there are a number of ways to reach it.

Every generation has the right -- indeed, the responsibility -- to take the language it was given, listen to its resonances and use them for the purposes at hand. To do anything less would be to kill the language through atrophy. In a sense this is what scholar Elaine Pagels means when she talks about "creative misreading" of earlier texts in a religious tradition.

But there is another reason for turning to the "sacred" rather than the "spiritual" in a scientific age. It's an old, old word whose roots are in Roman temple architecture. One meaning of "Sacer" is to be "set apart." In Roman temples it meant the interior where visitors needed to be attentive to the needs of the gods. Outside the sacer you could do anything you wanted, including selling walnuts or old 8-track tapes of the Commodores Greatest Hits. Inside, however, you were expected to pay attention to a different quality of experience.

The concept of attention in this context is key. Attention and the sacred always go together, which is why 20th century scholars of religion like Mircea Eliade emphasized the sacred in their attempts to describe its vital role in the 50,000-year history of human culture.

For Eliade the sacred was an experience, it was the eruption of a certain kind of attention, a certain kind of position with respect to the world. The sacred often appears to us in the middle of our "profane" everyday activities. We are taking a walk in the park thinking about what we have to do tomorrow and -- bam! -- suddenly we see the breathtaking tangle of vines curling around a tree or the deep stillness of the robin sitting attentive on its branch. This shift in attention is exactly what happened to me that day in the cafeteria. I was just buying a cup of coffee, but my experience was suddenly, radically transformed when my attention was shifted through the lens of the science I had just learned. The breathless excitement that overwhelmed me (and I had not even touched the coffee yet) came because I felt as though I was seeing the invisible superstructure of the world laid before me even in the most humble of objects. Science -- specifically the mathematical physics of elastic surfaces -- made that experience of the sacred possible.

Eliade's point was that much of human history has been the attempt to cultivate such experiences, to draw them out and bring them closer. Their efficacy is why the best of our churches, temples and mosques harbor a profound quiet and stillness that even an atheist like me can feel. The construction of those buildings reflects not only awful power politics and all it entails, these temples also contain our ancient and ongoing attempt to evoke the sacred in the world. If they didn't, the populations institutional religion so often sought to control would never have shown up. Eliade has rightfully been criticized for implying a universalism to all those experiences. There are differences between cultures and ages, and those differences are important. But as writers like Wendy Doniger in "The Implied Spider" has shown, difference need not force away unity. As a scientist I know the world always pushes back, and our response to the world -- including the sacred character of experience -- is one way it pushes back into us.

Eliade even had a word for the experience I had that day: hierophany. This was his expression for the eruption of the sacred into our lives. Just as an epiphany can relate to ideas, a hierophany relates to experience -- the experience of the sacred.

It is at this point that we can see the connection, and the usefulness, of the sacred to a world saturated with the fruits of science. For all its usefulness in developing technology, science is elementally a path to hierophany. The insight and all-embracing vision of life (and cosmos) so apparent though science is also gateway to the experience of the sacred.

It always has been.

From the Pythagorean Brotherhood's contemplation of mathematical beauty to Kepler's elation on finding the true geometric form of planetary motion, science has provided us with experiences of the world as sacred. It is an experience that is not reserved for scientists.

The fruits of science manifest in culture in many ways: from HST images to the narratives of life's origin. These fruits are often presented in a way that is meant to explicitly invoke that "oceanic feeling," as Freud would call it. From NOVA programs to IMAX movies, we are often given our culture's pathway to experience the sacred through science. If we cannot immediately recognize that science plays this role as hierophanic pathway in culture it is only because we have been steeped in a polarization between fundamentalist religion and science for so long that we have been trained not to see it.

The reflexive rejection of words like sacred by many who reject institutional religion is misguided. It is, without a doubt, true that a great and real danger we face today is the rejection of science by religious literalism. But to ignore the essential aspect of being human in these experiences -- called sacred by some and spiritual by others -- is to miss the ancient resonance in these words. They are, in their essence, atoms of a poetry to which we have always responded.

In this remarkable historical moment, we face existential challenges that demand an informed deployment of science. In response, the question before us becomes how to marshal the resonance in words like "sacred." We will, without doubt, need its poetics as we build the next version of culture our evolution now demands. Science reveals an elemental poetry in the world that has always been experienced as a hierophany. That essentially aesthetic economy of form and relation must now be recognized for what it is and what it always has been -- a gateway to the sacred character of our own, inmost experience.

This essay in being crossed posted at freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality.

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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:23 AM on 02/06/2012
All science is sacred science. Read the Ancient Nubian Egyptian Text entitled "The Book of Coming Forth By Day" and any and all of the Coffin Texts that you can find and the wrtitngof explorers of the Ancient African Tribe that told the French Anthropologists about Sirius A,B and C before Western Scientist discovered Sirius B in like 1973 or something like that. Ancient Mysteries tell a story that have and still do lead to scientific study and their supporting findings of the Ancient texts knowledge that was gained by the centuries of observation and charting of Nature and her glory. Western man is so immature and childlike in their discovery of Nature and all of her glory for they do not have not developed their spiritual facilities to any great extent so they have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear and they wonder in the darkness constantly seeking for a way out of the fear and anxiety of life with illusionary diversions.
10:05 PM on 03/05/2012
I'm sorry, but this kind of bunk simply doesn't float.

For all of the supposed wonder of ancient texts, not one of them illustrated the causes of many illnesses or effective cures, provided an accurate picture of the earth's geologic history that didn't rely on mysticism and mythology, explain the life cycle of stars, the functioning of gravity, or anything that deals with modern physics.

This is nothing but "past worship", the idea that folklore passed down through the generations from largely preliterate societies without a single modern tool somehow completely trumps modern scientific methods.

For every example you try to raise showing something the ancients "knew" that modern science didn't, it is easy to show hundreds of examples the other way around.

If you feel so strongly about the failure of "Western" science, then by all means stop using the tools created by it. You know, like electricity, computers, indoor plumbing, heat and air conditioning, refrigerators, medicine, etc. etc.
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12:37 PM on 01/28/2012
It's important that Scientists view science as sacred, otherwise you get mad scientists and the Jurrassic Park syndrome where they fail to know the boundaries of their capabilities....and fail to foresee the consequences of their ignorance (nuclear waste). Einstein set a pretty good example for having awe at the mysteries of life.
I find it comforting the universe is mathematical and resembles a computer, this means, on some level, at some time, it could simply re-boot and fix itself. I think being "Spiritual but not religious" is learning how to re-boot from moment to moment, and that includes plenty of anti-virus to keep religion out of the equation.
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Thinkster
I Think, therefore I POST!
12:32 PM on 01/28/2012
Good article - thanks Professor Frank.

I understand the import of your contention that sacred means other things rather than spiritual - unfortunately, it has been permanently hi-jacked by theists, and cannot be easily used in the context you describe without automatically meaning "religious spiritualism".

Science SHOULD be sacred - it is the best way we have of finding out the truth of things - knowing the Universe - it is sacred to me, and to others of a scientific bent. But the word nowadays means something else entirely - so - I can only use it with difficulty, and in a very restricted manner.

Thanks all the same - enjoyed your article very much.
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wutrup
We are here to Evolve
08:29 AM on 01/28/2012
" As a practicing scientist (theoretical astrophysics), when I hear the word spiritual, it leads to questions about the spirit as some kind of essence that lives above and beyond the world I study."
Percisely, as I explained in an earlier post. Spirit needs to be viewed that way, beyond the world we live in, but also included in the world we live in. Science is the known or unknown study of the sacred. Depending on the viewers views. Just think about the creation of an atom and how it had to be tested in all degrees, under all situation, in all circumstances, before in could be released into physical manifestation. Whenever science studies the core of creation, its got to be exciting. Slowly we are peeling back the layers, until we come to presents of .... All That Is.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:27 AM on 02/06/2012
The "ALL" is an ancient reference that is as relevant today as it was to the Ancients who sought to understand Nature as the underlying truth behind the existence of the universal mind that was known as the Creator.
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wutrup
We are here to Evolve
01:55 PM on 02/06/2012
Right On....
10:10 PM on 03/05/2012
Its just a shame that such mystical ideas have no actual evidence to support them.

Science has nothing to say about your alleged "Creator". The best you can hope for is that our current understanding is ambiguous.

If you are comfortable with all of the evidence being ambiguous, and feeling that such proves your creator idea, then enjoy I guess.

Just don't call it science, because invoking mythology to explain reality is anything but.
08:48 PM on 01/26/2012
I'm Catholic and I believe in God as the definition of what created the Universe. What this means is there is no conflict between science and religion. Science is discovering the laws of the universe which is understanding God. The Catholic church to me is a vast storage of knowledge of the science of the human person and society. Sins are not to be used as a judgement against another's actions but a recognition of our own moral failings. Sins are things that make us unhappy even if nobody else knows about it. Take envy. Why would envy be a sin? Because it puts you in a mental state where you look in resentment upon someone else based on their possessions.
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Thinkster
I Think, therefore I POST!
12:38 PM on 01/28/2012
You are much too reasonable, Trout007 - if other theists would see things the way you do, there would not only be no conflict between science and religion, it wouldn't even need to be discussed at all. Science doesn't care about gods or demons - science is about knowing whatever we can about the Universe, and it by definition eschews the ideas of religion - for science, there are no gods at all - they don't exist. If theists would stick to theism, and not interfere with science, there would be perfect harmony - you can believe whatever you want to, but the fruits of science are based on facts and evidence - a totally different way of thinking - nothing to believe - if you don't like the conclusions of science - go do your own experiment and report the results - we'll all think about it and get back to you after we do OUR own experiments. No religion works this way - they are all about telling, and you will listen and do - OR ELSE. That's the main difference - that's why science and religion are not compatible in any way - they can co-exist, but that's all.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:31 AM on 02/06/2012
Western Catholicism supports and encourages dualistic thinking and that is the scourge of scientific thought. Catholicism as it has been manipulated in its doctrines to enslave the souls of men as to control the wealth of the masses of the believers has no legitimacy any longer. Mystical Christianity is very seldom practiced any longer. If the Gnostics are still active they hold more or less to the sacred science of their Kabbalistic roots.
10:11 PM on 03/05/2012
They also have just as much evidence for their beliefs.
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04:09 PM on 01/25/2012
nature is natural and science is our guide to understanding it. however, creating nature, such as quarks, protons, atoms, trees, people, out of nothing is not observable and must be supernatural. sacred should have definitions on more than one or two levels....
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:33 AM on 02/06/2012
Out of nothing? There is the flaw in your thinking for everything is nothing and nothing is everything. Until you learn the union of the opposites you will remain in flux.
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02:16 PM on 02/06/2012
the simplicity of the union of opposites has a place, but also is limited in scope in terms of the topic... for instance, why is there more matter than antimatter? for under such a paradigm, you, are something rather than nothing, and thanks for replying....
10:12 PM on 03/05/2012
Before you wander out on a very thin limb, I have a simple questions.

Define nothing.
10:15 AM on 01/25/2012
Interesting article. It seems to me that the 'sacred' as defined in this article is a state of consciousness. Science is not a state of consciousness. One person may experience a feeling of the sacred while viewing an IMAX movie while another person might be bored to tears. Trying to convince the bored person that they're witnessing something 'sacred' is as silly as trying to convert someone to Christianity.

Some religions teach methods for evoking this consciousness in people, Buddhist meditation for example, Hatha yoga, lucid dreaming through shamanic practices. These practices are not necessarily delusional, they can evoke a state of consciousness that's not easy to explain or to understand fully but can be as real as a state of depression or joy or love. Religion grew out of this human need to explore the sacred. I generally agree with most criticism of organized religions but I do not agree that all spiritual practices should be dismissed as delusional. Some are quite fascinating.

Spiritual practices can help to bring about better mental health and happiness for some people. Science does have a role to play, studying the changes in brain chemistry that can take place through spiritual practices. Using fact based studies to better understand the experience of 'the sacred' and to understand why or how this can be beneficial to an individual. A belief or a disbelief in a deity or in some system of dogma is irrelevant for many 'spiritual' people. Live and let live.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:34 AM on 02/06/2012
Everything is a state of consciousness for form follows thought.
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sweetlilthing
hurt no one but tell the truth
10:08 AM on 01/25/2012
"It's an old, old word whose roots are in Roman temple architecture". And so is the word "angel", but it can't be used in the public square without it being associated with God and religion. It's just not the time...

Thank you for this fine article.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:35 AM on 02/06/2012
Angels and demons are man made concepts used to explain competing energies.
10:15 PM on 03/05/2012
Do you have some sort off "mystics decoder ring" for this little one line quips you've been using?

Not to make this a personal attack, but this kind of pseudo-mystical-philosophical comment just doesn't add anything.

Define for me competing energies. Make sure you base it on the known, observable, testable energies. You know, the ones with actual evidence to show they are real.

Reality doesn't need mysticism to be amazing, fulfilling, rewarding, and moving. It does fine all by itself.
11:19 PM on 01/24/2012
Those who cannot reconcile science and religion are doomed to be slaves.
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Thinkster
I Think, therefore I POST!
12:40 PM on 01/28/2012
Then we are truly doomed, since science and religion cannot be reconciled. Looks gloomy out there for us slaves.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:37 AM on 02/06/2012
Yes they can be reconciled and it is found in the union of the opposites and many have found it but very few know where to begin the search.
10:29 PM on 01/24/2012
If you're being blown away by the fact that the ripples on the surface of the coffee can be rationally explained, that the physical world is in fact caused deterministic empty and meaningless, then I would say that is quite the opposite of spirituality.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:37 AM on 02/06/2012
All is One.
10:20 PM on 03/05/2012
He's blown away by the way the mathematics came to life before his eyes, that what was dry, complex logical constructs showed themselves in reality.

And that he could understand it.

Thats not spiritual in the sense of some mystical pseudoknowledge. That is spiritual in glimpsing the workings of nature, and getting it.

And yes, it does feel like a big deal.
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wbthacker
Can YOU pass the Turing Test?
05:59 PM on 01/24/2012
Earlier I posted explaining why I consider myself a spiritual atheist. (In short: "spiritual" refers to the things my mind perceives subjectively, like love and pleasure, as contrasted with the things everything in the universe experiences objectively, like gravity and matter. Being spiritual means recognizing that humans can enjoy life more if we understand and manager our subjective experiences. Religion is one form of spirituality.)

But while I'm comfortable with the word "spiritual", I can't abide using "sacred" instead. "Sacred" is derived from the Latin "sacer", meaning "holy". It has always referred to religious things, and the few secular uses (e.g., "sacred memories of my youth" or "sacred cows") are metaphors implying a secular experience that rivals a religious one.

If we get to pick a word for this phenomenon, I don't want to condemn future generations of atheists to the predictable argument from future theists, "The fact that you call viewing the Grand Canyon a sacred experience PROVES that you really believe in God, because sacred means holy."
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Thinkster
I Think, therefore I POST!
12:44 PM on 01/28/2012
I also have trouble with using the word "sacred" and science in the same sentence - as I posted above, the word sacred has been hi-jacked, and cannot be used to refer to things scientific without immediately being misunderstood.
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PublicCitizen21044
The truth will set you free!
11:43 AM on 02/06/2012
The Ancient Nubian Text "The Book of Coming Forth By the Light" is a book of sacred science that can be used to day to explain the natural order of things. Western religion and science is not sacred nor is their religious divine therefore they are common and mundane and uninspiring dull and non creative. As they are dead sciences and dead arts now. the spirit has long left the incantations and the men who speak them cannot activate the spirit of the letters because they are too impure to affect any meaning or activate any forces in nature to do their bidding.
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wbthacker
Can YOU pass the Turing Test?
04:39 PM on 02/07/2012
I've not read it, but by all accounts I've seen there's no science in this book. It's a collection of ethical values similar to those found in any other culture's literature, an instruction manual for achieving afterlife, and some magic spells that don't work.

So what you've written here sounds to me like a bunch of malarkey.
Joeyjackal
A small varmint that barks 47% of the time!
12:38 AM on 03/15/2012
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, originally titled The Book of Coming Forth by the Light of Day, was created to help the people of ancient Egypt prepare and survive in the afterlife. A copy of the book, wherein the soul's journey through death is mapped, was buried with the recently deceased for guidance along an unfamiliar path.
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wbthacker
Can YOU pass the Turing Test?
04:18 PM on 01/24/2012
"Yet, for people who happily describe themselves as atheist, "Spiritual But Not Religious" is a dodge"

Here's one atheist who strongly disagrees.

I think humans are biological machines and our brains were programmed for success at survival and reproduction. We're wired to experience pleasure or pain -- Pavlovian reward or punishment -- based on the outcomes (or probably outcomes) of our decisions, and this wiring was designed by millions of years of evolutionary trial and error.

But knowing that these feelings are just electrochemical states in my brain doesn't make them any less real to me. I experience *everything* as electrochemical states in my brain. The experience of love is just as real to *me* as the experience of touching a stone, even though the stone's existence is objective. A falling drop of water is stopped by the stone, but unhindered by all the love in the world.

To me, "spiritualism" is the profound, subjective experiences of human minds. Spirituality is a self-study to understand these experiences and manipulate them to maximize our happiness.

So when I look at the night sky I'm filled with wonder and awe, and it feels good. Understanding this lets me do things that produce more pleasure. Being an atheist doesn't mean I reject these sensations, it just means that I don't see gods as a useful way to understand them.

Religion is a subset of spirituality, not the other way around.
12:11 PM on 01/25/2012
Very well put. I concur.
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Thinkster
I Think, therefore I POST!
12:43 PM on 01/28/2012
Good points - thanks.
11:08 PM on 01/23/2012
The pure, clear, self-evident concepts we recognize as Truth, Justice, Love, Peace, Security, Liberty, Contentment, Beauty, Joy, Patience, Self Control, etc. are both sacred and secular. Any natural pure tone, color, resonance, symmetry,or perfect shape such as a sphere embodies the sacred designs of creation. Automakers seek to follow ratios of height verses length in aerodynamic designs. Coke bottles mirror the tantalizing feminine curves that spark desire. A sunset produces overlapping colors and textures that explode across the sky, exaggerating the last rays of the sun that gives us light, food, heat, and hope. These are inherently sacred whether they be purposeful creations or random events. We respect these concepts because they are the meaningful absolutes that balance the unknowns we fear. Life is hard, then you die. These truths, whether mathematical, physical, spiritual, or just plain meaningful, raise our spirits and give meaning and purpose to the life force we perpetuate by giving birth to the next generation, by planting a seed or creating art and music. Ironicly, scared and sacred share the same letters yet they are two sides of the same coin. We "fear" the laws of nature and stand in awe of light, gravity, nuclear energy, and the design of a perfect rose. As said in our Bill of Rights, "These truths are self-evident..." We try in vain to define them.
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01:00 PM on 01/28/2012
True that the sacred and secular are woven together, that is the greatest place where they meet, there you have harmony.....it is like the magic spot.no battles there.......I have often thought to my self how the readers' digest seems holier than the Bible.....or the power of the unity in a baseball stadium every bit as sacred as a whole church choir....I just disagree we try in vain to define them, as you defined it pretty well...more often that not they are defined by perception, though, not by words...but sometimes words...
been2there
Facts have a liberal bias.
09:39 PM on 01/23/2012
Yes, science is sacred. It is a blessing to understand how the universe works and a very small glimpse into God.
Now, religions have a tendency to let hubris get in the way of that fact. That, however, is a human problem, not a reflection on God or the sacredness of His creation.
BurtonDesque
Fear a Blank Planet
11:05 PM on 01/23/2012
"It is a blessing to understand how the universe works and a very small glimpse into God."

Science has never given us anything that could in any way be considered a "glimpse into God". Everything science has discovered and come to understand is entirely naturalistic. There is no evidence whatsoever of anything supernatural, let alone some sort of deity.

In other words, your statement shows a deep misunderstanding of just what science is and what it has told us about the Universe.
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onionboy
Blessed are the Cheese Makers
02:48 PM on 01/24/2012
Yes.

Science is about questioning. The answers are just artifact to that process.

Religion just starts with the answer.
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bbriani3842
400+ yrs of science & STILL no evidence for a god
09:26 PM on 01/23/2012
No ... next?