Built on Facts

Unyielding Hierophant

The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate
Adam Frank

Adam Frank is an astrophysicist and a man on a mission. It’s a brave mission, one which cuts strongly against the grain of the science vs. religion zeitgeist. It’s probably a mission which won’t succeed.

Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate is the book’s subtitle, and in fact if you ignore the first word you’ll be expecting a very different book. Frank feels that all of the sound and fury behind the debate either misses the point or accomplishes nothing. It is not about the debate, and if you’re looking for that kind of thing you won’t find it in these pages. This is attempt to go beyond the debate.

How so? Three ways, which each constitute one of the three sections of the book. The first is some building of common ground. Frank deserves high marks in particular for the chapters examining the history of the conflict, which had often had its actual history distorted beyond recognition. In many cases the famous early skirmishes concerning famous scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno were in fact often proxy wars fought by political powers using religion and science as an excuse to assert their own territorial claims. During the same periods science was in fact practiced perfectly happily by people of all varieties of religious opinions, including extensively by actual clergy. The stereotype of the battle between the lab coat and the clerical robe is one that only began to express itself extensively in the 19th century, for obvious reasons.

Taking the case studies of evolution and quantum mechanics (cf. Deepak Chopra and related ideas), he discusses in two chapters what might be called the modern version of the conflict. It’s a competent review, but I suspect that if you’re in the market for this book you’ll be quite familiar with the content which has of course been done to death from all sides from Dennett to Collins. Or Day, for that matter.

Things begin to get interesting as he pushes through the other direction. He argues that the fundamental character of religious experience is the experience itself. Creeds and beliefs are secondary structures which form around those experiences, and those experiences – he prefers the term sacred – need not have anything to do with the supernatural at all. Those experiences can happen when looking at a beautiful Hubble telescope image, or contemplating the symmetry of physical laws, or almost anything else you care to name. The experiences need not be inspired by religion or science, but they can be inspired by either or both. In this sense he describes science as a hierophany – a generator of sacred experiences. Lest anyone get antsy over this, he emphasizes the purely experiential character of these feelings of the sacred. This is the kind of thing where neuroscience and philosophy of science can lead quickly into the fever swamps. Frank discusses this over a few pages, concluding that empirical description of brain states is not the same thing as “the fundamental presence of these phenomena as the field of our experience.” Which it isn’t.

Having built up his foundation of experience as the fundamental sacred thing, he going on to look at two more case studies, the origin of the universe and climate change as things which resonate with humans as myth in the literary sense. The final sections of the book flesh out where sacred experience and science might find themselves in the future of mankind. It’s an interesting read, and by that point how you feel about this part of the discussion will be entirely contingent on how you feel about the sacred as purely experiential and science as a conduit for that experience.

The weakness of this interesting approach is one of continuity. To get beyond the science vs. religion conflict you’re going to have to get the combatants to stop fighting. Scientists and religious people (and the not insubstantial intersection of those sets) believe what they believe because they hold those things to be factually true. Frank may be able to get the arrayed battle lines to think about things in a more clear and nuanced way, but fundamentally the battle lines will still be there. When Frank says early on that “This book is actually atheistic or at least nontheistic. I am not interested in theism, ideas about God, but in the profound experience of the world as sacred,” he has picked a side. It’s not possible to move beyond a conflict once you’ve picked a side. You’re involved, win or lose.

But as an inspiration for scientists to pay more attention to the awe that the universe can inspire, I think it’s successful. As an inspiration for the public to think of the seemingly abstract facts of science in a more immediate and experiential way, well, it can’t hurt to try!

[Disclosure: The publisher kindly provided a free review copy and asked if I’d consider reviewing the book. I’m always up for some interesting reading, so I did.]


  1. #1 Chris P
    January 2, 2009

    Why should atheists stop fighting religion. Religion has had its way for too long. They think they own everything. They get tax breaks, too much influence over laws and it is almost impossible to hold office as an atheist.

    No – I will not stop fighting people who cannot decide whether women should were head coverings in church and who being gay is bad when it is clearly common in the animal kingdom. Most religious people don’t even acknowledge the presence of transgender people.

    Oh and that creation thing – not a fact. PROVEN.

  2. #2 Kevin Sooley
    January 2, 2009

    To number one. Stfu plz. You are ruining it for all of us.

  3. #3 Schmeer
    January 2, 2009

    It is interesting to hear that there was some political action that may have been behind the attacks on Galileo or Bruno. However, the Catholic Church was silent for hundreds of years with regard to Galileo’s “house arrest”. If it was only a politically motivated action, you would think that they may have apologized sooner. In addition to that delay, the current Pope has made comments which are interpreted to rescind that apology given by Pope John Paul II. That would indicate that even if the original motivation was political there is still very much a religion vs. science conflict in the current Pope’s mind.

  4. #4 Chris P
    January 2, 2009

    Kevin Sooley?

    Exactly how am I ruining anything for you? I am trying to get rights similar to the religious – something called equality. I don’t want somebody who doesn’t understand homsexuality telling me to hate gays. Since when did facts hurt? You are welcome to refute facts but you have to provide some evidence.

    Chris P

  5. #5 Uncle Al
    January 2, 2009

    Yahweh has claimed universal omniscience for 5769 years. Given the Hebrew calendar and the Church of Rome’s astronomy, there being no Yahweh is the kindest and gentlest conclusion to be drawn. Sacred is fundamentally indistinguishable from scared.

    Can God make a collection plate so vast that even He cannot fill it? Sure! ALL OF THEM. Don’t piss off Accounts Receivable.

  6. #6 Roger Sweeny
    January 3, 2009

    Chris P is right. I’m sick that churches get tax exemptions but schools have to pay just like everyone else. It’s so wrong that the National Religion Foundation and the National Institutes of Faith Healing give out billions of dollars to people with a religious agenda while real scientists get nothing.

    What’s that you say, Chevy? Schools and foundations get the same tax exemptions as churches? It’s actually the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and the billions go to people who avoid any mention of religion?

    Never mind.

  7. #7 eddie
    January 3, 2009

    “Scientists should pay more attention to the awe that the universe can inspire.”

    Wow. Unbelievable.

    The polite response to this is so obvious as to go without saying. Instead, you get the response you deserve.

    [Impolite response removed. Kids read this site, you know. -Matt]

    [[Update, considering the below. “Impolite response” is my euphemistic way of saying “a one-sentence ad-hominem consisting mostly of obscenity”. That’s not going to fly. -Matt]]

  8. #8 ppnl
    January 4, 2009

    “Scientists should pay more attention to the awe that the universe can inspire.”

    Well I can’t see the impolite responses edited out above but I’d probably second them. But I will attempt a more polite response.

    People interested in science are interested in it exactly because of the awe that the universe inspires. It is religious people who mostly miss the awe. The physical universe is denigrated as an ugly dirty evil place full of pain and suffering and the sooner you are “called home” the better. We were not “made for this world” right?

    Religious people use whatever awe they are able to experience to justify their narrow dogmatic doctrines. That makes religion ugly, dirty and evil.

    Now this does not describe the attitude of all religious people. There is a long tradition of religious intellectuals. But it is currently a rapidly shrinking component of the religious community.

  9. #9 Roger Sweeny
    January 4, 2009


    I’m not sure how the percentages work out but a lot of American religious people do have that “awe.” In fact, that’s one of the arguments they make for the existence of God, “See how great, how awe-inspiring, the universe is? That couldn’t have just happened. God made it. Isn’t God wonderful?” I remember a poster a friend had up. It was a conventionally beautiful nature scene with the words, “Have you seen Him in the things He has made?”

    In fact, one of the great problems that many theists have is trying to answer the question, “If God is good and created the universe, why do so many bad things happen in His creation?”

    Many scientists are inspired by awe, but many others are driven by a desire to answer their own version of that question, “Why is there disease, starvation, war, etc.–and how can things be made better?”

  10. #10 eddie
    January 4, 2009

    Have I accidentally stunbled into nisbet’s blog?
    First you insultingly and hurtfully misrepresent us in the name of finding common ground. Then you censor dissent and demand civility from your victims when they respond properly.
    As for kids reading: your deceit and abuse are all too typical religious behaviour.

  11. #11 ppnl
    January 4, 2009


    “I’m not sure how the percentages work out but a lot of American religious people do have that “awe.” In fact, that’s one of the arguments they make for the existence of God, “See how great, how awe-inspiring, the universe is? That couldn’t have just happened. God made it. Isn’t God wonderful?” I remember a poster a friend had up. It was a conventionally beautiful nature scene with the words, “Have you seen Him in the things He has made?””

    That’s what I was talking about. The “awe” is reduced to a tool to further a preexisting religious commitments. The awe-inspiring nature of the universe tells us nothing about the nature of any possible god. What if the universe was designed and has a purpose and we aren’t it. Is it somehow less inspirational if we aren’t the point? Does the beauty really mean we must be at its center?

    Imagine a large wondrous museum loaded with all the mystery and knowledge of the universe. Imagine a small child wondering around that museum. Now imagine that child desperately clinging to a teddy bear.

    That teddy bear is religion. It is not the product of awe but rather of fear. We try to place our self at the center of a loving caring universe for the same reason a child holds on to a teddy. We are scared. The possibility that the universe is neither good nor evil but simply does not care is the most frightening thing some of us will ever face.

  12. #12 Matt Springer
    January 5, 2009

    “Then you censor dissent and demand civility from your victims when they respond properly.”

    I did not censor dissent. I censored obscenity. Express whatever opinion you want, but if you’re going to do it here you’re going to do it with at least the level of civility you’d find in Science or Nature. You apparently are incapable, so don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    To respond to a few other commenters who have made much better points, I don’t want to give the impression at all that scientists don’t pay attention to the awe of the universe. Adam Frank does, and so do most of the scientists I know, and so do I. Frank’s point is considerably more subtle, and I think I could have better represented it by saying that he’s interested in showing that that awe is not entirely divorced from religious awe and that it’s a place where people can move beyond the debate. I’m not saying I agree with it entirely (I don’t), just that it’s a point of view that merits some consideration.

  13. #13 ppnl
    January 5, 2009

    “Frank’s point is considerably more subtle, and I think I could have better represented it by saying that he’s interested in showing that that awe is not entirely divorced from religious awe and that it’s a place where people can move beyond the debate.”

    I guess I could agree with that. The problem is the awe is nothing by itself. An image from the HST is just a pretty colored picture unless you put in the effort to understand it and are willing to accept what it tells you. Unfortunatly the “culture wars” has devistated this component of the religious community.

  14. #14 Kate
    January 6, 2009

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  15. #15 Brian Sullivan
    January 6, 2009

    I am not going to justify the Galileo incident, The chrch got it wrong. However, politics was involved. A number of priests who were in the sciences at the time supported Copernican model as did the Jesuits. They were not vilified by the Church. The Pope at the time, Urban VII (from memory) had supported Galileo when a cardinal. However, Galileo demanded Biblical texts be reinterpreted and buffooned the Popes arguments that as science did not verify the copernican model at that time and hence it sould be taught only as a theory. It was taught as a theory in Jesuit Universities at that time. More scientests were still satisfied with the Ptolemaic model at that time, arguing that if the earth went round the sun Astral paralax. This argument presumed a much smaller universe, hence we now know paralax does exist but it is minute.
    For me science and religion are different realms of the hui,an experience.
    Sadly, I think p[roblems exist when either realm decides too attack the other. Although not a ‘religionist’ as such, I think humanity has a spiritual dimension tjat needs t obe sated.
    I just hope that both can respect each other and forget the past. (Afterall science and religion have both been misused. Scientific theories are routinely used to juistify political decisions when ethics are in conflict. Rhodesian archaeology was used to justify white supremicist ideologies and in Australia Darwins theory was misused to argue that Aborignal culture is dying and the fitter European should take over. Of course, politics grab a hold of religion when it suits to justify any numberr of attrocities.
    Add to this the visceral immediacy of the media, the thirty second grab seems to hinder rather thabn encourage a well roinded and respectful debate. (see Al gore’s’The Assault of Reason’ on this point.
    I think that ‘fundamentalist’ positions of any form, religious, p[olitical and even some in the name of science can be a problem because they hinder respect for differing views.

  16. #16 adam frank
    January 6, 2009


    I thank you for the thoughtful review of my book and felt like I wanted to add just a little something to the discussion which flowed from it.

    “Awe” was identified explicitly by the great scholar of religion Rudolf Otto as an essential component of religious experience. In The Idea of the Holy he speaks of the “Awe-ful” character of an experience of the numinious. Part of my goal in writing the book to try and create a language that transcends the endless traditional debate by seeing where and how Science and the long history of human spiritual endevor connect. Awe is content!

    I have doing some writing on getting past the fruitless (and rather boring) traditional debate on http://theconstantfire.blogspot.com/

  17. #17 eddie
    January 12, 2009

    Then perhaps “the girl was asking for it, wearing that dress” and “arbeit macht frei” were more subltle than I can understand.

    As I said before. My response was appropriate to the insult given.

  18. #18 Matt Springer
    January 12, 2009

    I’m pretty sure you’re seeing things. Nothing I or Frank said was an insult, and it’s pretty likely your disagreements with Frank match mine in a lot of places. Anyway strings of obscenity do not help your case. As such I’m going to have them published here. That’s that. If you’re determined to air them, I can help you find any number of free web hosts who would be glad to help.

  19. #19 eddie
    January 13, 2009

    Some things are obscene, nomatter how politely they’re dressed up. The phrase I objected to was every bit as obscene as my response and those other phrases I quoted. If you can’t see how, I can’t help you.
    The issue for me is that obscenity in a pretty coat is still obscene. And that giving such a free pass is not only obscene but dishonest.
    If it is indeed obscenity that offends you, you would be even handed. Unfortunately the evidence points el@AG – Clearly that’s not what I meant because it wasn’t what I asked.
    I asked ‘when’ because you made a distinction between ‘old enough to decide’ and ‘parents own their children’ and no-one should intervene to protect children from abuse.
    In addition, your statements about nake[d] mole rats and extended families show your double standard. Clearly all humans are an extended family. It is notable that you draw a line that favours child abuse.swhere.

  20. #20 eddie
    January 13, 2009

    Browsing from my phone has sometimes surprising results.
    I’m afraid more than a little of pharyngula has invaded this blog.

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