Gazing into the spiritual future


Expectations: In an age of information and technology, a poll predicts a convergence between religion and science.

March 12, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- With the battle over teaching creationism in public schools grabbing headlines, it might seem there is little hope for a future meeting of minds between science and religion.

But a Gallup poll released at a gathering of journalists, academics and religious leaders at Phildelphia's Franklin Institute Science Museum last week suggests otherwise. It found that the American public believes spirituality will play a key role in shaping society in the 21st century. And it predicts a convergence between religious thinking and scientific pursuits.

"If the expectations of the great mass of Americans -- based on observation, intuition, study, faith or simply educated guesses -- come true, the 21st century could become the most spiritual and religious century in the last 500 years," says pollster George Gallup Jr.

"The public, by and large, expects a great surge of spirituality in the next 100 years, fed by global communications, discoveries in astronomy and an extended life span, that will profoundly affect the world scene."

The survey, "The Future of Religion in the 21st Century," was conducted by the Gallup Organization for the John Templeton Foundation, which supports programs that foster links between science and religion. It found that nearly all those surveyed, 95 percent, believe in God or a universal spirit, and an equal percentage said religious beliefs or spiritual practices are important in their lives.

Other findings include:

Six in 10 think that religious beliefs or spiritual practices will change the way we think over the next 100 years.

By a ratio of 4-to-1, Americans think that such beliefs and practices will become more of a force in people's lives, rather than less.

Eight in 10 predict that such beliefs and practices will have a great deal or some impact on the course of history.

Seven in 10 believe that growth in the quality of spiritual practices or religious beliefs is important to guide and inspire the growing power of science and technology.

Two academics, a scientist and a historian of religion, addressing the Franklin Institute gathering, find in the poll's results confirmation of their beliefs that religion and science can enlighten each other's ultimate quest.

Lawrence E. Sullivan, director of the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religion, says scientific and technological advances will raise profound human and spiritual questions:

"Instantaneous access to information, travel over cosmic distances at great speeds, the increasing virtualization of matter, the growing awareness of the infinity of worlds in the universe all these changes will shift the spiritual horizons that must be mapped through the labor of the religious imagination if humans are to take up their proper place in the world."

Physicist Paul Davies, who has written several books on the convergence of science and religion, says that in the next century, which will be dominated by scientific and technological advances, the need for spiritual guidance will be stronger than ever. Any religion that refuses to embrace scientific discovery, he says, "is unlikely to survive to the 22nd century."

Davies points to two scientific theories that threaten some religionists, the big-bang theory of the birth of the universe and evolution.

In integrating the notion of a creator with the big bang, Davies says, our image of God must be "not so much a cosmic magician or pyrotechnic engineer, but as the rational ground in which all physical existence is timelessly rooted."

Davies dismisses the notion of a pre-creation eternity that existed before God finally decided to create the world. Rather, time itself comes into being with creation, an idea that was espoused by St. Augustine, who talked about creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, and by Albert Einstein, who states in his theory of relativity that time is inseparable from space and matter.

"There is no time before the big bang; time itself comes into being with space and matter," Davies argues. "The big bang theory describes how the universe originates from nothing -- nothing at all, not even space and time -- entirely in accordance with the laws of physics. Augustine would have understood perfectly."

Darwin described the evolution of more complex life from simpler forms, but he never addressed how the first living thing came into existence. It has been conventional scientific wisdom that life is a random chemical accident, making our existence unique.

"On the other hand," Davies suggests, "a growing number of scientists suspect that life is written into the fundamental laws of the universe, so that it is almost bound to arise wherever earthlike conditions prevail. If they are right -- if life is part of the basic fabric of reality -- then we human beings are living representations of a breathtakingly ingenious cosmic scheme, a set of laws that is able to coax life from nonlife and mind from unthinking matter.

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