It was reported recently that author and entrepreneur Alain de Botton is building an "atheist temple" in London. The questions queue up quickly, do they not: How can he get away with calling it a temple? How do atheists feel about this? What is de Botton getting at? And how come we Christians don't get cool, mind-blowing stuff like this in our churches?
It really is pretty cool. The structure is not what you would normally think of as a temple. According to de zeen, It will be a "huge black tower... measuring 46 meters [150 feet] tall, [representing] the age of the earth, with each centimeter equating to 1 million years and with, at the tower's base, a tiny band of gold a mere millimeter thick standing for mankind's time on earth. The Temple is dedicated to the idea of perspective, which is something we're prone to lose in the midst of our busy modern lives."
That's all fine and good. I like a little perspective. I love it actually. But what in the world does the cosmic perspective have to do with atheism? Why must science once again be opposed to religion? Can't we religious sorts have a little cosmic perspective too? And if we can, what if that perspective is not peripheral, but integral to our faith?
When I was in third or fourth grade my dad showed me a geologic timeline in a Time-Life book on natural history. By its lights we located ourselves within the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic era of the Phanerozoic eon, right up there at the top. We sat on the sofa and together peered down the deep well of the past.
Standing at the edge of that precipice was, for me, secretly scary. It made me feel like I was exactly nothing. But it simultaneously made me feel happy and free; God, I figured, must be really big. (I did wonder why Adam and Eve did not appear anywhere on the timeline, but I worked that out fairly quickly.)
That rare combination of emptiness and joy is something I have come to recognize, and today I understand my early encounter with geologic time as one of my first religious experiences. I think God got involved. Which is one reason I teach science -- evolution, cosmology, geology -- at my church. I want my fellow parishioners to know the mind-expanding awe that comes from an even modestly scientific perspective of creation. I want them to see that science can be a path to God.
But there are other reasons. Christians -- at least Protestants, at least in America -- are not exactly well-known for accepting science. Outright rejection of evolution and even of fundamentals of astronomy and geology is depressingly common.
Why? Back in November, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky published an article at The Conversation that helps to answer this question. His basic point, that science often poses threats -- commercial, professional, intellectual, personal -- is neither new nor surprising.
But right at the end he asks, "Are there ways in which gaps between scientific knowledge and public acceptance can be bridged?" His answer is yes. Three points follow:
"There is much evidence that the framing of information facilitates its acceptance when it no longer threatens people's worldview. Similarly, the messenger matters. Finally, people are more likely to accept inconvenient evidence after their worldviews have been affirmed."
This is why, if one wants to help end the war between science and religion, teaching science in church is such a good idea. As an experienced teacher, I do not speak in alienating jargon. As a fellow Christian, I share the students' basic worldview. As one who they know personally -- most of them know my extended family as well -- I do not come as a stranger with an agenda. And the classes are held in a familiar and comfortable setting.
Not everyone who attends my classes walks away convinced. Many will never embrace evolution. Only a few -- if that many -- will glimpse the cosmic perspective I try so hard to communicate. But if I can remain open to them while dropping my own rather strong need to always be right, they will listen. And if I can somehow do this while doing justice both to science and the Christian tradition, they might be a little skeptical the next time they hear someone insist that science and religion are naturally opposed.
The science problem in American churches is huge, and I'm one person in one church. But small steps are how big things get done.
That being said, if I could talk Alain de Botton into moving his tower to Atlanta, we'd really be getting somewhere.
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