Science, Religion and the New Age

This article was first published in Conjunction, magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association, around the turn of the millenium. I believe it is still relevant today.

In the recent media attention given to attacks by scientific and religious personalities on aspects of ‘New Age’ thinking you can almost hear the sound of paradigms shifting. The frozen floes are beginning to crack. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn did great service in clarifying the nature of the learning process of the scientific community, indeed of any human communities of common interest. He showed how the existing shared viewpoint (paradigm) is defended at great length by the current ‘establishment’ until finally it gives and is overwhelmed and superseded by a new and more encompassing paradigm.

We can see a parallel in the recent media discussions. Scientists attack the New Age as representing unscientific, woolly thinking, which threatens their rationalist paradigm; it is in some way even more threatening than religion, which is regarded as equally woolly – but which they have learned to live alongside and dominate. Religionists attack the New Age as primitive and dangerous mysticism which threatens the ‘true’ paradigm they have constructed over the nearly 2000 years AD.

Astrology, Astronomy and Paganism

It is interesting that astrology and paganism bear much of the brunt of these attacks. Both are more ancient than today’s science and religion. From the days of the ancient Greeks astrology and astronomy were a single field of study, until sundered by modern science. Many leading exponents in the early days of modern science were indeed astrologers, such as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Paganism as a loose and embracing term was there before Christianity. Many of its features were incorporated into Christian practice to ensure acceptability to the populace. Most celebratory events such as Christmas happen at the time of pagan festivals. Many churches are built on ancient sites of worship and incorporate pagan symbols such as the Green Man. They also include astrological symbols.

New Age interest in astrology and paganism is thus in part a return to our roots. It is understandable that science and religion should be suspicious of that which they thought they had superseded. Our concern should perhaps be that they have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

Science

The essence of science is its objectivity and insistence on proof by the experimental method. Its extreme proponents deny anything that is not amenable to this approach, and insist that the material world and its mechanistic operation according to scientific laws is all that there is. Modern physics has tended to retreat from this position as relativity and quantum theory have demonstrated that the objective separation of observer and observed is not possible.

We have perhaps put science on too much of a pedestal. It is after all only about the construction of models of reality, and not about reality itself. History tells us that today’s model which seems so natural will tomorrow become discredited by a better model. For example the ‘flat earth’ theory with the sun going round the earth was eventually superseded by the ‘round earth’ theory with the earth going round the sun.

It is difficult to see why scientists attack phenomena for which there is extensive subjective evidence, such as telepathy and spiritual development. Explanation of these phenomena is clearly beyond the capability of current scientific models, but their subjective reality is surely undeniable. A true scientific attitude should surely see this as the spur to developing new models, rather than reject the reality of the phenomena.

Mathematics has provided a salutary message in this context. Gödel’s theorem tells us that in any model that we construct there will be things that we can neither prove nor disprove – they are outside the scope of the model. A model of everything is impossible. Thus extremist science appears to be being unscientific, what about religion?

Church as Institution

If we look at the evolution of Western Christianity since the time of Christ we can see the construction of the Church as an institution. A theology of accepted belief has been developed – a paradigm. The history of the Catholic church contains a story of evolution of doctrine, with corresponding ideas outside the doctrine being regarded as heresies. Eventually the universal paradigm proved unsustainable and the Protestant movements in particular broke away.

The Catholic church provided the pathway to God, with the priests as mediators between the individual and the divine. The Gnostic traditions, which provided for the individual approach to God independent of the church as institution, were rigorously suppressed at the early stages of this process. Signs of resurgence were equally repressed, such as that shown by the Cathars in 13th century Languedoc. Thus was individual spirituality channelled through the church or suppressed.

Crisis of spirituality

In the modern world the church has lost much of its power and influence, contributing to a crisis of spirituality. If you doubt this look at our modern buildings and their lack of soul; stand in a field of modern agriculture with its loss of vitality; see world poverty and injustice with its lack of compassion; see the pollution of our earth and the loss of species,… You will only truly ‘see’ these if you open your heart and perceive as a whole human being, rather than just using your mind, and particularly your logical left brain.

Compare this modern evidence with the flowering of that which is highest and best in man during those special eras of the ancient Greeks, the early Gothic cathedrals and the Renaissance. It is surely the search to resolve this crisis of spirituality that much of the New Age is about.

New Age

Let us sum up. Science has led us too much into the limitations of an objective, left brain, mind-dominated world view, belittling the complementary parts of our nature which are subjective, right brain, and of the heart.

Religion is not providing for most the route to the spiritual that the testimony of the ages tells us is there. It is these chasms of malaise at the heart of today’s Western societies which the New Age is destined to resolve.

The paradigms of our science and religion must come up to date and become part of our solution. The strong reactions of those fundamentalists deeply embedded in the current paradigms are an encouraging sign that the change is beginning to take place. The ice is beginning to melt.

Featured image shows sunrise over tessellated pavement, courtesy of JJ Harrison and Wikimedia Commons

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