September 12, 2023 | David F. Coppedge

Can Secular Spirituality Exist?

The rarity of life in the cosmos is making some
scientists look for meaning in pointlessness
and mind in mindlessness


“Secular spirituality” sounds sophoxymoronic, like deafening silence or cruel kindness. By embracing concepts of materialistic spirituality, some scientists and writers act like they want to be clearly misunderstood. The silence of the cosmos is driving this new form of irrationality.

An unusual book review appeared in Science on 24 Aug 2023. With the title, “Embrace the improbability of existence,” philosopher of science and writer Matthew Stanley reviewed a new book by physicist Marcelo Gleiser, The Dawn of a Mindful Universe. Gleiser is driven by the ramifications of not finding intelligent life beyond Earth. What are secularists to think and do if it turns out we are the only sentient beings in the universe?

Both author Gleiser and reviewer Stanley appear to agree on the following ideas:

  • Life is likely rare in the universe, especially intelligent life.
  • The existence of life is highly improbable.
  • Multiverse theory amounts to a “secular God-of-the-gaps” explanation.
  • The “uniformity principle” that led to a belief that life is common is probably wrong.
  • The “Drake equation” that suggested life is common is a bad approach.
  • Secular science has not destroyed the natural theology tradition.

ABG: Anything But God

Neither man considers these ideas as justifying a return to the Bible, God, creation, or even intelligent design. But the silence of the universe calls forth deep human longings for some kind of hope or purpose in life.

Going against the tide of opinion, Gleiser argues that the failure so far to find life elsewhere means that we are, essentially, the only intelligent beings in the Milky Way—a conclusion he uses to call for a resacralization of nature. We should embrace a biocentric view that life must be protected as something unique and endangered, he maintains.

There’s that “should” word again. “Should” implies morality. Material objects do not say anything “should” do something. A “should-ing” being can swim upstream against the current of natural laws, and do things that material objects would never do. A moral being can act against his own evolutionary fitness, because in his mind, he has thoughts about what ought to be instead of what is. Stanley recognizes that to philosophers, “it is difficult to go from ‘is’ to ‘ought.'” But neither is it impossible or unjustifiable.

How Then Should We Live?

How, though, can a secularist go from is to ought? Is that even possible? How can Gleiser call for a “resacralization of nature” and say that “life must be protected as something unique and endangered”? Who says it must? On what authority?

Stanley entertains the book’s plea for respecting the preciousness of life, yet claims this has nothing to do with religion.

There is no supernaturalism here. Gleiser takes a nondenominational position that allows and encourages transcendent, sublime experiences of life. He rejects physicist Steven Weinberg’s classic conclusion about the apparent pointlessness of the Universe, instead contending that the more we understand the cosmos, the more we understand our own rarity and therefore preciousness.

The reviewer does not rebuke Gleiser’s notion that humans can embrace a kind of secular spirituality:

Gleiser suggests combining this cosmological interpretation with a kind of spirituality inspired by Indigenous traditions in which nature is revered. Like historian Lynn White Jr., he contends that the root of our ecological crisis is religious in nature and the solution must therefore be rooted in science-driven spirituality that establishes interconnectedness within the biosphere.

Non-religious religion? Non-supernatural spirituality? Secular morality? The oxymorons keep coming. But can author or reviewer justify getting spiritual blood out of the turnip of a “science-driven” or “nondenominational” worldview? The demon of non-cooperation in this secular game rises up and teases, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?

Reviewer Leaves the Kiva

Stanley rates the book generally highly, but doesn’t think the author gave strong arguments for embracing “Indigenous” spirituality as the answer to planetary crises. “Other resources are generally needed to establish value systems,” he says with clear vagueness. Wonder what those might be.

As with the long-standing tradition of natural theology, it seems unlikely that The Dawn of a Mindful Universe is going to convince anyone who does not already agree with Gleiser’s position that the biosphere needs protecting. However, it will no doubt provide ammunition and many interesting ideas to those who already believe.

To be convinced, Stanley would have to assess evidence and logic with reason. Those are all “supernatural” things, apart from material objects and forces. In the end, he doesn’t join Gleiser’s church, but walks away pondering some of the “insightful discussions” in the book. Where can a secularist find value systems, if “other resources” are needed to establish them? “Such a role might be played by the Indigenous systems that Gleiser attempts to bring into the conversation,” he says, leaving the door open for “secular spirituality” by not refuting it with scientific arguments.

Both author and reviewer, it must be noted, pay homage to the “story” of evolution. The book, Stanley says, “is both a story of the evolution of the Universe and life and a story of our understanding of them.” But one must ask: did understanding evolve? Please; tell us that story, Matthew Stanley.

Like the word “should” discussed above, the word understanding requires the supernatural to be understood (pun intended). Stanley cannot escape using the supernatural to judge this book. For example, when he says, “Other resources are generally needed to establish value systems,” why are they needed? ‘For logical reasons,’ he might reply. But logic is supernatural! To ‘establish’ anything, one must have a mind and the capacity of reason. Reason and logic can violate evolutionary fitness, and justify the violation on moral grounds: “I should think and act this way, because it is true and right.” Molecules and forces couldn’t care less about truth and righteousness.

To C.S. Lewis, the supernatural is as inescapable as breathing. One cannot do science without it.

The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.

A good book explaining and elaborating on Lewis’s “argument from reason” for embracing the supernatural as essential for scientific reasoning is The Magician’s Twin: Science, Scientism, and Society edited by John West (2012, Discovery Institute). The contents can be tasted with this video by the Discovery Institute. But the secularist’s case for scientific morality is even more irrational, in that it is self-refuting. Lewis said,

A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs.

The book The Magician’s Twin elaborates on the argument from reason with chapters by various authors. This book can lead the reader away from oxymoronic notions of “secular spirituality” but is not geared to lead him toward the Bible. For a follow-up work, I recommend Jerry Bergman’s book C.S. Lewis: Anti-Darwinist. And best of all, read C.S. Lewis’s own words in his evergreen books and novels, where the Oxford scholar explains his reasons for leaving materialism and becoming a Christian.

For a view of “morality” from the left, watch this short video by Victor Davis Hanson. And after watching another video by Victor Davis Hanson, ask whether a Darwinist can judge that hypocrisy is morally wrong, when it apparently improves the fitness of the powerful.






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