Philosophy / Science

“Can Science Fill the Spiritual Void? (Science Doesn’t Want to Take God Away From You)”

Below is a neat little opinion piece on the role of science in spirituality that was originally posted on NPR. I have always firmly believe that science does not take anything away from spirituality, that they are like two eyes looking out at the world. Like when you are laying in bed on your side, and you close one of your eyes… the shift in perspective is quite dramatic at that angle. Walking around believing either will be able to answer all questions is like closing one eye (myanalogy stops there).

Science is the pursuit of truth, and so is spirituality. They are just different approaches, and should be harmonized. As Carl Sagan said, “Science is not only compatible with Spirituality, it is a profound source of Spirituality.”

(Reading the comments, I think it’s all too clear that spirituality is often confused with religion, so let’s leave that notion aside for now. All spirituality is not religious.)

What are your thoughts and ideas?


Photo credit: ACTA

“Can Science Fill the Spiritual Void? (Science Doesn’t Want to Take God Away From You)”

Science Doesn’t Want To Take God Away From You

by Marcelo Gleiser

“I was once invited to give a live interview on a radio station in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. The interview took place at rush hour in the city’s very busy bus terminal, where poor workers come in from rural areas to perform all sorts of jobs in town, from cleaning the streets to working in factories and private homes.

The experience would mark me for the rest of my life and set a new professional goal that I had not anticipated early in my career: to bring science to the largest number of people possible.

The interviewer asked me questions about the scientific take on the end of the world, inspired by a book I had the just published (). There are many ways in which science can address this question. We can see, from , that the forces of nature are beyond our control, even if we pride ourselves on “taming” the world around us.

But the focus of my book was on cataclysmic celestial events and how they have inspired both religious narratives and scientific research, past and present. In particular, note the many instances that stars and fire and brimstone fall from the sky in the Bible, both in the old (e.g., Book of Daniel, Sodom and Gomorrah) and the new testament (e.g., Apocalypse of John), or how the Celts believed that the skies would fall on their heads to mark the end of a time cycle.

Back to the interview, I mentioned how the collision with a 6-mile-wide asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula of modern-day Mexico had triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. I made a point of explaining how that event changed the history of life on Earth, freeing the small mammals of the time from predator pressure and culminating with the evolution of humans. My point was that there is no need for divine intervention to explain these very essential episodes in our planetary and collective history.

It was then that the hand went up. A small man with torn clothes and grease stains on his face asked: “So the doctor wants to take even God away from us?”

I froze. The despair in that man’s voice was apparent. He felt betrayed. His faith was the only thing he held on to, the only thing that gave him strength to come back to that bus station everyday to work for a humiliatingly low minimum wage.

If I took God away and put in its place the rational argumentation of science, with its empirical validation, what would that even mean to this man? How would it help him go on with his life? How could science teach him to cope with life in a world without the magic of supernatural belief?

I realized then how far scientists are from the needs of most people; how far removed our discourse is from those who do not already seek science for answers, as surely most of you reading this essay already do. And I realized that, in order to reach a larger audience, to bring the wonders of science to a much larger slice of the population, we must start science education from the youngest age.

We must fill that education with the wonder of discovery. We have to take the same passion people direct to their faith and use it to fuel curiosity about natural world. We have to teach that science has a spiritual dimension; not in the sense of supernaturalism, but in the sense of how it connects us with something bigger than we are.

I also realized how completely futile it was to stand up there and proudly proclaim the value and wonder of science to someone who’s faith is the main drive behind all that he or she does.

They would naturally ask: “Why should I believe what you are saying about the universe being 13.8 billion years old more than I believe that Jesus is God’s son? How do I believe your truth?”

We have an enormous task ahead of us, if we really are going to make scientific education transformative.

I answered the man, in a shaky voice, that science doesn’t want to take God away from people, even if some scientists do; that science explains how the world works, illuminating the wonders of the universe — big and small — for all to see and appreciate. I went on to explain that scientific research is a passionate enterprise, one that brings us closer to nature, to the ongoing mysteries we face as we try to understand more and more of the universe.

The man smiled. He didn’t say anything. But I am sure that he saw in the scientific drive for understanding the same passion that drove him toward his faith.

I left the interview and went for a long walk around a lake, thinking of Einstein and how he believed that the scientific enterprise was the only true religion, with its devotion to understanding what we can of nature. It is an endeavor driven by awe and filled with humility.”

(Post originally found on NPR’s blog:


8 thoughts on ““Can Science Fill the Spiritual Void? (Science Doesn’t Want to Take God Away From You)”

  1. I think there’s room for both.
    If we can accept not completely knowing something or not necessarily being right, spirituality has its place beside science. This concept is difficult to us humans because we need to know everything, prove everyone else wrong and be right about everything. I think a lot of us stray from spirituality out of fear of being wrong…even though you can’t be wrong about your own perception.

    • I agree – there’s definitely room for both. I also think (in line with the comment below from Mark), that we have to accept the unknown, and that many things will remain unknown to us, in our current capacity. Non-material viewpoints are often dismissed by many scientists, but I don’t think science itself dismisses them, and you’re right that you can’t be wrong about your own perceptions or feelings. There’s fundamentalists on both sides that may be better off with a more happy medium.

  2. Great post, I’m not sure how WordPress linked me to this, but I’m glad it did… I have always been a scientist from my very early years (despite never having published a paper — it’s more of an attitude than publishing papers, and I have moved into the more practical fields of applying scientific knowledge to ecology and engineering).

    Even with my scientific side, I always had a strong spiritual side as well, and those two were at odds for my younger life, causing quite a bit of internal conflict. I researched and studied and philosophized for many years on how to reconcile this (at the time I was a devoted Atheist who did more indepth studying of that belief system and unfortunately came out missing something).

    Then finally, one day in my mid 20’s, it hit me one evening. It was a turning point in my life. The solution I found is ironically opposite to what many believe science to be — about searching for the truth — but comes to the same conclusion that you seem to. Science does not seek the “truth”. It is impossible to discover the truth since we are objective observers, part of what is being observed. We therefore do not have the perspective to be able to sit back and be subjective. Rather, WE create the objects that we study, and WE write all the previous stories explaining how those objects interact with each other, and WE interpret our observations based on all those previous stories.

    IMHO the truth is quite boring. Science is amazing and mystical because seeks what’s NOT the truth. It is then left up to our brains, imaginations and spirituality to come up with hypotheses to explain what the truth is.

    This is fundamentally how the scientific method works. A hypothesis is formed, and it is only accepted as a theory if it can withstand years of attack. If it is disproven, we automatically revert by default to the null hypothesis. If a hypothesis can make it to the level of theory, it still isn’t the truth, because we never know that it couldn’t be disproven, or need to be modified, tomorrow.

    For example, Newtonian Mechanics is a very logical and empirically accurate way of describing how things move; everything in fact that was observable in Newton’s time. Many back then were tempted to proclaim that even human bodies would be able to be explained using a Newtonian explanation of waves and particles. Of course that goal has since been proven false.

    If we had believed that Newtonian Physics is “the truth”, then how would that have left the door open for Relativity, which says that Newtonian Physics is merely a subset of more complex Relativistic equations that simplify down in our scale of time and space. Or, on the other end, that Newtonian Physics is merely a statistical macroscopic characterization of truly bizarre things happening on the microscopic scale of Quantum Mechanics?

    If Newton’s theories had been accepted to be “truth” then a whole other world out there would be off limits to us. Instead, Newton’s mechanics can be seen to be simply a way of explaining what is observable to us within the reference frame of time and space in which the observations were made, and nothing more.

    You could draw a Venn Diagram, and rather than trying to explain the truth of what is inside the circles, what science does is it INFERS what’s inside the circles by identifying what the circles AREN’T outside. This then leaves open a world of possibilities and mysteries. If science raises more questions for every one it answers, then how can the truth be fit into a neat and tidy circle?

    By abandoning the search for Truth, my scientific and spiritual sides were set free. This is Monism, the underlying theme of Buddhism. So in my own way I came to realize that I am a Buddhist, though I can’t say that I practice any of the religious aspects of it. But the scientific method is no different than the Buddhists’ “Great Doubt”.

    • Great thoughts, thank you for sharing! I do know what you are referring to in the context of “abandoning the search for Truth”, I call it acceptance. There has to be some degree to which you accept the vast unknown, and that most things will remain unknown, and of the known things, as we expand our awareness, those things will undoubtedly change and no longer be the known thing. Otherwise, we are bound to spend our lives in a state of anxiety and discontent.

      I’m trying to think about your Venn diagram, but I’m not sure I understand the drawing (though I think I understand the concept). The truth will never fit into the circle of our current awareness.

      I do think however, that there is beauty both in the path of pursuit (of knowledge/awareness), as well as in the the path of acceptance (of not knowing). It’s something I’ve struggled with myself – can I let go of the quest for knowledge? Do I need to? I don’t quite have an answer myself yet, though I waver between the two sides quite often.

  3. Science and spirituality go hand-in-hand. A spiritual person wants to know more about the beautiful world God gave us to help determine how they can play a productive role in it. Explaining the natural wonder of the world is a way to get closer to our faith. Each element we explore gives a sense of joy and discovery about all the gifts that are right at our fingertips.

    • I like the way you put that Jenny. Very succinct, and I completely agree. Having a sense of gratitude about the beauty of it all (whatever that is) is quite important to remember.

  4. Pingback: From Lightning Bolts to Your Heartbeat: Fabulous Fractals | Deciphering Science

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