Tamara Grizjuk, Detachment, 2002. From 29 November – 20 December, Ms. Grizjuk’s work will be on display at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. I believe it will be her first show on this side of the Atlantic, so go check it out if you can. Image source: ARTmine. Used with permission of the artist
The neutrinos are back.
The particles, alleged in September to be traveling faster than light, are at it again. In a paper submitted last Thursday to the Journal of High-Energy Physics, physicists say they have officially eliminated one major possible source of error. And the neutrinos are still breaking the speed limit, by exactly the same margin. Einstein’s theory of relativity is at stake, as is much of physics.
In the face of this, the physicists themselves are pretty cool and skeptical. As they should be. They are are right to separate a bit, knowing that detachment is their greatest virtue at times like this. Only from a posture of clear-headed disinterest do they have any hope of hearing what the data are telling them.
Science is open like that. Is religion? Not so much, but it can be.
I’m waiting for the next wave of bloggers to echo what Alom Shaha, enamored with the celebrated openness of science, wrote at the Guardian in response to the first neutrino result:
Unlike religion, science is not dogmatic… science can seem rather weak in comparison to the certainties religion offers. But it is this very ‘weakness,’ this refusal to issue absolute statements of truth, that allows science to progress, and to come up with increasingly better ways of explaining the world.
Reflexively, I object: Religion offers more than mere certainty. And although science is not dogmatic about its conclusions, it is plenty dogmatic about its assumptions.
But Shaha is basically right: On the whole, we religious believers could use a little detachment from religion.
In physics, detachment comes easy: there is nothing but to be detached from neutrinos. They make absolutely fascinating objects of study. They don’t hurt anyone. They don’t challenge anyone’s worldview. They don’t send anyone to hell. So let’s just poke at them a bit and see what happens.
When it comes to God and religion, however, detachment is a little harder to come by. There’s a lot more at stake: being “right,” eternal bliss, maybe even life itself. If my religion is wrong or incomplete or somehow lacking, the thinking seems to be, that leaves me nowhere. And that’s bad.
It’s just not so.
The rewards of detachment from religion are great. I am not talking about permanently giving up one’s faith or religious practice, but about separating from these things long enough to see them for what they are: means to an end. And I am talking about separating from religion long enough to see ourselves for who we are: a frightened and bewildered lot, set down on this lonely planet for no apparent reason.
Like physicists who may soon have to remove themselves from their reliance on relativity, we religious believers may be well-served by removing ourselves — even for a moment — from our reliance on our religious ideas. Only from such a posture do we have the chance to see religion and ourselves — and God — clearly.
Detachment, itself one of the highest goals of religion, should be a virtue for those of us who pursue religious lives, just as it is a virtue for those who pursue lawless neutrinos.