It's fitting that a nation founded on rights, which are personal entitlements, should pause once a year to cultivate the opposite emotion.
Yes, I'm thankful: that, for all its undoubted flaws, something as mysteriously wonderful as America should really exist. Also that for no good reason I can see, I, of all the 6 billion people on this Earth, should be one of those lucky enough to inherit this nation. I'm grateful to all those who gave this gift to me, from the first Pilgrim souls searching to build a new heaven on Earth, to the Deist Thomas Jefferson methodically stripping his Bible of every evidence of the miraculous.
This original tension between Athens and Jerusalem (reason and faith) -- out of which much of Western civilization, but most especially America, was formed -- is still very much with us. Case in point: This month the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., held a forum on science and religion, which (according to The New York Times) "began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: In a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told." (See it at www.tsntv.org).
The scientists at this conference were almost all atheists or agnostics. They pose as strong men of Athens, but in the intense, lively, fascinating anger at religious influence, their clay feet keep peeping out: in the deep discontent some displayed with merely doing science as a rational activity, in their need to find a greater meaning and purpose, and in their strong human desire not only to proclaim the truth, but to suppress people and ideas that they feel threaten their founding truths.
On the one hand, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, displayed heartbreaking pictures of deformed newborns to disabuse the audience of any idea that an intelligent, loving creator could be behind our existence. On the other hand, Carolyn Porco of Colorado's Space Science Institute displayed a photo of Saturn and its rings as evidence of the universe's grandeur: "Let's teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome -- even comforting -- than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know." The fact that these are contradictory responses to nature seemed not to make a dent in the faith of those present that they are moved only by their profound commitment to reason.
The emerging religion of science has its fundamentalist prophets. Richard Dawkins, Oxford biologist and author of the "The God Delusion," thundered: "I am utterly fed up with the respect that we -- all of us, including the secular among us -- are brainwashed into bestowing on religion." Dr. Steven Weinberg, who has a Nobel prize in physics, argued: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."
The greatest contribution to civilization is the capacity to destroy?
At the La Jolla conference, Dr. Tyson pointed to a possible antidote to this fear-based church of reason. At the human heart of science lies not a fear, but a love -- the love of discovery: "That's a really cool problem. I want to solve it." He frets that having "God on the brain" will be the antithesis of this love of discovery, but we don't have to share that anxiety.
The desire to create and to discover, along with the capacity to love something outside of ourselves, is part of what being made in the image and likeness of God means. "Perfect love casts out fear." Happy Thanksgiving.