In one hundred springtimes

23 November 2012 | Extracts, Non-fiction

Extracts from Uskomaton matka uskovien maailmaan (‘An unbelievable journey into the world of the believers’, WSOY, 2012)

In his new book the writer, professor of cosmology, a scientist without a religion Kari Enqvist explores religiosity, how it manifests itself in present-day Finland, in various churches and parishes. How will the expanding scope of science and secularisation change the world and the forms of spirituality in the course of the next century?

When, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder on to the surface of the Moon, it was a huge propaganda coup for both the United States and the scientific world view. Manned space flights as a way of gaining knowledge are both ineffective and brain-numbingly expensive, but it is hard to imagine a stronger individual and universally understandable demonstration of the superiority of the scientific world view than an astronaut on the surface of a foreign celestial body. Everyone can recognise it as a triumph of both engineering technology and the hard sciences.

But the astronaut solution has been tested already, and I do not believe that space travel will expand our consciousnesses in the next century. It is possible that we will not even have visited Mars. Fantasies about manned flights to other stars are, in my opinion, utopian in the extreme and I do not really believe that humans as physical beings will ever leave the solar system. Journeys to the stars are inconceivably long and so expensive that they cannot be embarked on merely in order to fulfil the Buck Rogers fantasies of teenage boys. Carrying humans to the closest one, alpha Centauri, a mere four light years away, would take, at best, hundreds of years (we can dismiss rockets that travel at the speed of light as mere scientific fantasy). Even if deep-freezing to slow vital functions were possible, it would make as much sense to pay hundreds of billions to freight pig carcasses to the planets. For everything that human beings can do can be done better – and, more importantly, more cheaply – by machines. Even if the spirit were willing, the flesh is so weak that silicone beats it hollow.

So it is my guess that in place of the macrocosmos the scientific world view will seek consolidation in the microcosmos. As a cosmologist, I am not happy to admit this, but admit it I must.

In place of nebulae, the gaze of the world view will turn toward virtual worlds. There is already visible a line of development whose growth can hardly be hindered. It is linked with the continual growth of computers’ calculatory power and memory capacity, which has given birth to a field of study that goes by the name of computational sciences. This is a motorway on whose hard shoulders await artificial intelligence and perhaps even machines with consciousnesses. It is a track along which the train of science is speeding ever deeper into the living cell and manipulation of life.

When we remember what a huge leap in scientific technology has been taken in a mere twenty years, one can only marvel at where we will be in a hundred years’ time.

Twenty years ago, when working in Copenhagen, I saw a functioning web browser for the first time; its name was Mosaic (a forerunner of Mozilla). A colleague invited me to his room specifically to see how you could use it to read articles on Stanford University’s electronic research database. ‘This is great!,’ he exclaimed. Incredulously, I followed the slow functioning of the browser, hoping that this was a passing whim of fashion.

That it was not. Soon afterwards, I bought my first computer, if you don’t count the Commodore 64. It was an Apple McIntosh, which I bought second-hand from a younger and, in computer terms, more evolved colleague. I wrote my first book on it. The machine had a disc-drive which afforded me a massive five hundred kilobytes of memory space. The mass memory of my latest home computer is two million times greater.

One hundred billion is the number of cells in the human brain. The brain is, of course, far more complex a physical system than lumps of matter floating individually in space, but computer simulations of, for example, cell membranes, medicinal drug molecules and even parts of the brain are already matters of everyday science. The burgeoning discipline of nanotechnology is also anchored in massive computer calculations.

And in a hundred years’ time? If the believer is already troubled by Darwinism and memes, there is much worse to follow. The computational sciences threaten all of what the faithful have declared to be mysteries and on which they base their faith, all of what ‘science is unable to explain’. Where is the spirit when it can be produced in the innards of a computer? What is the soul, what sin, what redemption when a sentient being can be created artificially?

In the no-man’s land between belief and science computational sciences are like a tidal wave whose rumble can already be detected by those with sharp ears. When you climb to the top of the hillock of science, you can see its foamy wall raging on the horizon. It is a tsunami which, when it comes, will inundate religion. There is no shelter from it: no planks to nail up at your spiritual windows, no roof of thoughts under which to shelter. In a hundred years’ time science will not have ‘become conscious of its boundaries’, as the reactionaries put it, but will have overcome the threshold that has been artificially set for it.

My own belief is that in a hundred years’ time everything on which the conservative certainty of faith is anchored will be nullified – not because computers will demonstrate that there is no God but because the detailed computational understanding of reality will profoundly influence our world-view and, through it, people’s religious thinking….

The influence of scientific knowledge always spreads more widely than its immediate target area. Edmond Halley’s celestial mechanics, for example, made no mention of theology. Nevertheless, the accurately predicted return of his comet, in 1758, played its part in changing the miracle-working theistic God into a heavenly clockmaker who, at the beginning of time, had fitted his work of creation into the framework discovered by Newton.

Although evolutionary theory is, by nature, more understanding than quantitatively explanatory, its intellectual influence has been more revolutionary than Newton’s mechanics because it concerns Man, who lies at the focus of Christianity. The same will be true of computational science, this time with mathematics. The image of reality sketched by them will force us to reassess humanity. Responsibility, memories, intelligence and emotions, beliefs, religious feelings – I see them all bobbing in the foaming wave that will arrive from the future and swimming like silver-sided fish into the net of the scientific world-view.

I do not claim that in a hundred years’ time science will have explained everything. I do not claim that in a hundred years’ time it will be possible to ‘calculate’ Man. Many things will remain obscure, and I do not believe there are any solutions to the problems of life. In a century, science will still not explain everything, but it will explain a very great deal more than today. On the other hand, religion will not explain anything: it will only offer a feeling which, in the future, will move fewer and fewer people.

And I do not preach the destruction of religiosity. Despite the triumph of Darwinism, there are still today creationists who foment against it, and I do not predict that in a hundred years time Christian fundamentalists will have become extinct. But I do not believe they will be members of Finland’s established church. For in order to survive, the Church will have to dilute its doctrines like a homeopath. When its membership falls below fifty per cent of the population, it will increasingly have to function according to the ideological currents of the society that surrounds it. This is the only way it can remain the largest individual civil organisation.

In a hundred years’ time church buildings will still stand, their peaceful towers protected by the surrounding graveyards, but will burial still be a monopoly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? I do not think so. And will the church still have the right to levy its members? I do not think so. Children will still be christened in churches, but I do not believe that child membership will survive in its present form as legally binding on adults. I also believe that in a century’s time the church will no longer preach original sin, redemption and damnation, and that most of its complex doctrine will have been carted off to the darkness of the cellars for storage. I think the traditional missions to pagans, the obsession with conversion, will also find its place there, to make room, I hope, for secularised deacons.

I do not demand that this should happen. I do not advise the Church. I do not even particularly care what path the Church chooses. But I believe it will be as I have described. That is my prophetic vision.

According to John Shelby Spong, an ultra-liberal American Episcopalian ex-bishop, Christianity must change radically, otherwise it will die. Some Christian apologists have, indeed, apparently sensed the change in wind-direction as they claim that although, as measured by church membership, religion is on the decline, spirituality is not disappearing, but rather seeking new channels. It is, however, unclear how much a matter of conviction the new religions are: how many people really believe that caressing crystals or muttering mantras have any significance. Perhaps the new religions are more a matter of an attitude to life whose fuel is a powerless lack of trust in science rather than any deep belief in humbug  doctrines.

In my opinion, spiritual hype consists in words of comfort in an attempt to create a positive interpretation for the collapse of religiosity. Western society has steadily been becoming secularised for hundreds of years and there is no cause to believe that the same megatrend should not continue for the next hundred years. Around this great development curve there may appear momentary madnesses, sudden enthusiasms for angels or tidal waves of resignation of Church membership, but all of them are mere background noise against the great symphony playing the tune of secularisation.

It is clear that everyone, as a result of their psychological architecture, has spiritual needs; if this were not the case, religions would have dried up on this planet ages ago. But the essential question is: if institutional belief by the book is replaced by a more indefinite spirituality, is the new belief a matter of conviction? Is it deep or superficial? My own guess is that this new spiritual redistribution is like the food industry, where sugar has been replaced by artificial sweeteners and everything else by low-calorie light products. In a hundred years’ time spiritually may well be present, but in a form that is light and whimsical, which plays with beliefs and changes them like clothes rather than anchoring the barque of faith in the lee of the breakwater of some antique dogma.

Hopefully, too, in the years to come, the Bible will be able to be read for its real value, moving it from its sacred throne and considering it instead as a book among other books. I believe that the endless poring over its passages will, in a hundred years, be of interest only to the Jaldabaoth’s Witnesses. I also believe that influences will be absorbed both from other religions and from secular intellectual tendencies.

For spirituality does not presuppose a belief in God; there is also non-religious spirituality, which would fit well with the Church’s agenda. Religiosity from which the bile of religion has been strained away also invigorates the non-religious. At Christmas the non-religious listen, brushing away a tear, as the church choir sings ‘O come, all ye faithful’, but their emotional experience is not Christian. At Easter they are celebrating not Christ’s resurrection but an aspect of our cultural tradition.

The ten-thousand euro question is: does the Church have the courage to become a Pantheon of secular and pan-human spirituality, a temple for all gods but also for the godless?

For I believe that even after a hundred years the Church can – in new clothes – play a positive role in the drama of our life and its problems.

In this connection it is worth, as so often, seeking a pioneer in Sweden, where church membership has over the past 30 years fallen from 93 per cent to 70 per cent. The nature of Christianity in Sweden is in the grip of massive changes, and the path of Sweden is also our path. For example, the former archbishop K.G. Hammar has acknowledged that some parts of the Bible belong in the dustbin of history. Hammar has called the conversions that occur as part of missionary work a form of cultural imperialism. I am thus in good company in criticising traditional missionary work. According to a recent study, as many as 75 per cent of the members of Sweden’s Evangelical Lutheran Church do not believe in Jesus, and 15 per cent consider themselves atheists.

One can also turn one’s gaze to Holland where, according to a recent study, one in six protestant priests are atheists or agnostics. In the western world, the great religious change is a reality. Finland, a small country on the margins of Europe, may generally be among the last to hitch itself to the bandwagon of great European ideas, but the direction of change is clear here too.

One hundred years is a long time, but it is also a short time. Among us there are already some who will live to see with their own eyes a Finland that is a hundred years older. As the accurate manipulation of the body at molecular level, nanomedicine and gene therapy advance in seven-league strides, as they surely will, there may be surprisingly large number of them. If I screw up my eyes, I can almost see them – those who are already born and who, in a hundred years’ time, will still remember this time: a perky old lady in a care home; and her daughter or granddaughter, who is visiting her, a woman in the prime of her life, forty, a hundred years of life still ahead of her, a long new century at the end of which she will still remember her grandmother. Someone who has now already been born can thus still be alive in memories in the year 2200. A hundred years, a century, it is just three generations – long is the span of time but light its touch, as it imperceptibly pushes its needle through the ages as if through a thin gauze. But it is hard to see even close up, hard to believe how much everything can change.

But the old woman remembers the change. She sighs, lays her hands in her lap, smiles; she takes her medicine and the younger woman helps her measure her blood pressure, dopamine and mineral levels. Perhaps the grandmother hugs her granddaughter. Perhaps the younger woman is going on a trip. Perhaps it is summer, or it is autumn, it is a gentle, rainy autumn or it is spring, an early spring. Goodbye granny, the woman says and walks down the steps to her car, which is like a green bubble, green is the colour of opening buds, it is early spring.

Perhaps on the threshold of this early spring the woman steps into her car, glances at the photograph on her screen-saver, which was taken in the spring, when her grandmother was young, in the bustle of a street of the last century – perhaps I happened to be in the picture, a blurry background figure who is stepping out of this time. All the dead relatives, phantoms who were flesh but a hundred years ago, the grandfather who died of a heart attack or his brother who succumbed to cancer and all of them who went before them, the whole numberless crowd, look on with indifferent eyes as the woman climbs into her car and turns it to follow the road’s induction loop. The car docks and diverges and joins another column, drives on, humming, directed by artificial intelligence, drives on as part of humanity’s great jigsaw puzzle, drives on as part of the future, and the pale spring evening darkens. Perhaps the woman dozes off and dreams of the buried century, its discourses and its idées fixes, its superstitions and its passions, its religious certainty that seems as strange to her as the dark side of the Moon. The voices of its phantoms have fallen silent and swirled into history; their demands have died down to a murmur, a powerless babble which cannot penetrate the metal armour of the age, can no longer startle or awaken. The woman sleeps and the landscape changes as the car obeys the beneficent directions of distant minds; on its tracks it listens to the song of the satellites, swaying ecstatically like dervishes, sailing on their trade winds, past cities as the buds open into leaves and the night falls in a peaceful wave over central Europe, where a solitary woman is travelling in her car toward the south and the future, whose form I cannot distinguish although I sense that the road that goes there leads ever further from the world of religion.

 Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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