Can Science Be Sacred?
January 20, 2012
Written by Adam Frank, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Rochester
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
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
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
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
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 allembracing 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.