Can religion evolve in the age of science?
Rev. Galen Guengerich, author of the new book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, argues that it must—and that nontheists should embrace it.
The Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, Guengerich is also a regular columnist for Psychology Today. Below, he tells me why religion must embrace science, why he left conservative Christianity, and why he thinks even the nonreligious need a religious community—a point that many nonreligious nontheists (including me) might take issue with.
Chris Stedman: God Revised rejects scriptural literalism—you write, “As a child of the age of science, I refuse to place blind faith in a scripture that contains obvious scientific and historical errors”—and urges readers toward a spirituality that embraces science and reason. What inspired you to write this book?
Rev. Galen Guengerich: I felt pummeled by the opposing sides in the God wars. One side believes a supernatural God has handed down a divinely-inspired revelation that’s always true for everyone, everywhere. The other side insists that this God does not exist, and therefore all religious activity is superfluous. I became convinced that the problem here was a lack of imagination on both fronts.
In the modern world, science and reason must take precedence when it comes to establishing the facts. But knowing the facts won’t necessarily tell you how to live a life of meaning and purpose in light of what you know. I wanted to speak up for people who are caught in the middle—those of us who believe deeply in science and reason, but who seek a source of meaning and purpose as well.
CS: What do you hope readers take away from God Revised?
GG: I am an ordained minister who has rejected the traditional views of God and religion. But this rejection doesn’t mean we have to make our way through life by ourselves. Everyone wants two things in life: We want to be free, and we want to belong. People today are leaving traditional religious communities in order to be free of beliefs and practices they don’t believe in. But the experience of freedom can be lonely, especially when tough times come. I want people to know about another way to experience belonging, one anchored by a religious community that fully embraces the modern world.
CS: You were once a conservative Christian; what changed?
GG: Three factors forced me to move. The first is deeply personal. My niece Krista was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age three. Eight years and five brain surgeries later, she died at age eleven, by then mostly blind and immobile. Theologians call this the theodicy problem: how can a good and just God permit the innocent to suffer? I believe in the experience of God, but not a magical one that’s all-knowing and all-powerful.
Second, I came to understand that the natural world operates according to laws that are knowable, reliable, and predictable. The idea of a supernatural God who can step into the natural order and change the rules is an archaic remnant of a bygone era.
And third, the more I learned about religions and how they developed and changed over time, the more I became convinced that religion is a human construct in response to our experience of the divine, not a divine construct in response to the existence of humanity.
CS: You write: “If I were to distill everything I know about religion and faith into a single dictum, it would be this: find your place in a religious community.” What do you make of the quickly growing number of American Millennials disaffiliating from religion—most saying they’re not looking for a religious community or house of worship?
GG: We experience seasons of the soul as we move through life. Sometime we feel hemmed in or held down, and we want our freedom. At other times, we feel the crush of disappointment or the burden of loss, and we want to feel like we’re not alone. My own view is that some of the received wisdom about the Millennials–their wariness of institutions, for example, especially religious ones—will turn out, over time, not to be wholly true. I’m seeing this trend in my own congregation in progressive New York City. When it’s time to raise children, or bury parents, or deal with a serious illness, it helps to be part of a community of people who care deeply and can help grapple with ultimate questions. And there are numerous published studies showing that people who participate in a religious community are generally happier and healthier than those who don’t, and they live longer.
CS: Do you think people can find this kind of community in a nonreligious context, such as in a secular Humanist community?
GG: No, I think religious communities are different than other types of communities. We can certainly feel a sense of belonging as part of a family, or an advocacy group, or a political party, or a soccer team, or a book club. At some point, however, we may begin to wonder how we belong on a larger scale. We begin to ask big questions about the meaning of life, even ultimate questions about existence itself. We wonder about belonging not just to a family, or community, or even a nation, but to everything.
The experience of ultimate belonging—the experience of transcendence—lies at the heart of the spiritual quest and the religious journey. What is the experience of ultimate belonging? I describe it as the experience of God: an experience that intimately and extensively connects us to everything—all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible. My own sense is that even avowed atheists can believe in such an experience.