The role played by religion in people’s lives is not getting any smaller, but the religious field is currently organized differently, states Kocku von Stuckrad, professor of religious studies. In his opinion, many people are misled by the steadily emptying church pews in Western Europe. According to von Stuckrad, we should be looking at different things. ‘Maybe natural scientists have taken over part of the role of the church.’
‘If you want to study religion in the modern world, you have to look at places you’re not used to looking at’, states von Stuckrad. ‘Religion is not necessarily something you have to believe in. It’s part of a wider cultural and public domain. In today’s society, religion plays a different role than previously. There’s the familiar, established one, but also now non-institutionalized roles.’
‘However, I’m not saying that the scientists of today are the equivalent of the priests of yesterday. Many scientists sit in laboratories measuring things and then interpret that data. They build a model but do not claim to be building reality. Nevertheless, there are a number of scientists who are well aware of that role and even play with it.’
The relationship between science and religion is much more complicated than sometimes supposed. Even in the 21st century, natural science projects still regularly use religious metaphors about creation. One example is the words spoken by Bill Clinton – when he was still US president – when rounding off the first phase of the Human Genome Project in 2000: ‘Today we are learning the language in which God created life.’ ‘A statement with very religious overtones’, according to von Stuckrad.
Not long after, Francis S. Collins, a medical geneticist, born-again Christian and ex-head of that same Human Genome Project, used the Clinton quote as the title of his book: The Language of God. The subtitle was A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Another example comes from molecular biologist J. Craig Venter. ‘Last year, he was the first scientist to create a synthetic cell. In order to prove that this actually was a new life form, a secret code with a message was placed into the structure of that synthetic cell. That message included quotes from James Joyce (“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life”), Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Richard Feynman (“What I cannot build, I cannot understand”).’
Von Stuckrad: ‘Coding and decoding reality is a very ancient philosophical and mystical tradition. Just think of Pythagoras and the Jewish Kabbalah, which states that the cosmos actually consists of letters and numbers. If you could decipher those building blocks, you’d be able to write or build yourself. The Jewish tradition even says that God created the world by reading the Torah. Reading is thus an act of creation.’
‘Imitating God or taking on the role of creator can result in theological problems. However, in some religious traditions that’s what it’s all about’, according to von Stuckrad. ‘The borderline between religion, knowledge of nature, magic and science is easily blurred. Even in contemporary biology, science is not just about describing and understanding nature, but also about manipulating it. Scientific discoveries are providing more and more control over creation.’
This development clearly transgresses scientific model thinking in von Stuckrad’s opinion. According to him, this process is evidence of how religion has been transformed in modern history. ‘Interpretations of existence are being derived from scientific discoveries; natural scientists are operating as the providers of meaning, and of metaphysical and religious truths.’
According to von Stuckrad, this is all part of the human quest, and of the changing role of religion in modern culture. ‘People may be going to church less often, but the search for meaning and interpretation has not decreased.’
Prof. Kocku von Stuckrad (Kpandu [Ghana], 1966) studied comparative study of religion, philosophy and Jewish studies at the universities of Bonn and Cologne. He is professor of religious studies at the University of Groningen. Von Stuckrad is a specialist in the field of European history of religion, the history of astrology and the links between philosophy of nature, natural sciences, esotericism and religion. His expertise also includes method and theory in the study of religion.
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