Adam Frank is an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. In The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (California; $24.95), he attempts to move past the antagonisms between religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists. Instead of debating the Bible or arguing about the existence of evil, he turns to thinkers like William James, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade for ideas about experience, the sacred, the sublime and hierophanies, manifestations of the sacred in the physical world. –Christine Smallwood
You use the word "sacred" instead of the word "religion" or "spirituality." What do you mean by that?
If you trace the etymology of "sacred," you’ll see it’s related to the architecture of Roman temples. The sacer was the domain inside the temple, where you met the gods. So the sacred was the inside, and the profane was the outside of the temple, where you sold your walnuts or whatever. It’s this sense that we have, that we sometimes encounter–or the sacred erupts into our lives–this sense of the world being wholly other than our profane and everyday experience. You just suddenly notice how weird everything is, or how beautiful.
Can you talk more about what you mean by experience?
As human beings we’ve always, since the dawn of self-consciousness, had this experience of the world where the sacred appears to us. And earlier civilizations were very close to that experience. Because they felt it as a power in the world, they would create mythic narratives that set themselves into a context in the universe. There would be the myth of the hunt and the rituals of the hunt, and part of those rituals was a kind of science. In hunter-gatherer societies, after the hunt people would take the animal apart and try to put it back together. The cultures that were building the Neolithic astronomical monuments would have very carefully constructed astronomical alignments. But it wasn’t just a calendar; it was part of an emotive response to the night sky. So those narratives they told did both.
So narrative is a kind of hierophany?
Yes. In hunter-gatherer societies or any society that was prescientific, myths weren’t told all the time. There were special times of year when people would gather and the shaman or priest would recite the origin myth around the fire. And hearing the myths told and the rituals enacted, you were brought back to that time. The individual was meant to participate in the sacred through experience. When I teach Astronomy 101, I always show a movie, a standard program about the birth of the universe. It has cool animation and the music soars, and afterward I ask my students about the music, which is designed to make them respond emotionally.
What of those who might say that emotions are the problem?
That’s crazy! That’s like saying love is really a problem, so why don’t we just have mating behavior. Many of the founders of science were deeply religious. They saw their interest in scientific inquiry as a way of honoring this sense of something more, this unseen order, as William James called it. We should emphasize that aspect. We should show people that science is a hierophany. It’s part of a long human tradition of encountering the world through awe and wonder.