The idea that science and religion are incompatible concepts has almost always bugged me.
It doesn’t seem to me like a particularly accurate assumption in practice, given that most of the people educated enough to pursue science in its early stages were people of faith or outright clergy. Hans Christian Lyngbye, for example, was studying pilot whales and other marine life in the Faroe Islands when he recorded Lokka Tattur.
It is still absolutely true that Tycho Brahe fudged the numbers in the name of Geocentrism, and modern fundamentalists rail against simple biology and geology. And, speaking for myself, I absolutely detest plastic shamans who believe herbal medicine is inherently safe compared to pharmacological medicine.
Raw apricot kernels aren’t gonna cure cancer.
But I think, ultimately, that behavior comes down to a failure to understand the source material of their spirituality, rather than a failure inherent to the spirituality itself.
And I’ve written before about how science (specifically, astrobiology) got me even more fired up about my faith. When you learn that gold on Earth is the remnants of supernovae, it’s a little hard not to have intense feelings about firey regenerative patterns and Gullveig. And when you learn that the earliest life on Earth emerged from a literal union of volcanic heat and frigid moisture, the Voluspa suddenly has a lot more gravity.
That was not a physics pun, but we can pretend it is.
Science is about figuring out how and why things work. So too, before science as we know it existed, was religion. To me, it makes perfect sense that those who admire and seek to glorify their gods would want to understand the underlying patterns, which are complex and astoundingly interdependent.
It is difficult, as is, to go investigate the stars. We now know what many of them are made of, how hot they are, how old they are now and how old they will get to be; because we have spectrometers, probes and satellite cameras. Earlier humans didn’t have this luxury. They didn’t know what hydrogen was (it wasn’t properly identified until the late 1700s), or that it is the most abundant gas in the universe, or possibly that there was a universe–not as we now know it, at least; that designation emerged in 1925.
But what they did know was that there were firey orbs in the sky, and they had to get there somewhere.
A Norseman looking for an explanation would look at the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, and reach the very logical conclusion that the gods put them there. Specifically, they were Thjazi’s eyes, and their placement in the sky was weregild paid to his infuriated daughter Skaði. Even knowing these stars are a good deal farther apart than they look, and their categorization emerges from a simple human need for pattern-matching, there is no loss of wonder staring into them. If anything, knowing the vastness of space adds to the fear and wonder of staring into Thjazi’s eyes. He would have had to be terribly mighty.
These people weren’t being stupid. And I don’t think an assertion of ignorance is particularly fair, either, because it’s not like Vikings could have gone to space. (Not until the late 1970s, of course. Hachacha.)
Our stories were best guesses–and very logical guesses!–in their time. New information does not invalidate religion, so long as you have the right approach. And this is why fundamentalist and literal approaches are the problem. Clinging fiercely to literal interpretations allows for the whole thing to be picked apart, disproven and eventually destroyed.
And people of faith generally don’t want that. I sure don’t.
While I believe the gods literally exist (maybe not physically, and to be honest I’ve never really laid the whole thing out in detail), these stories are still viable metaphorical explanations. Mythology was already heavily metaphorical, even in a context where it was understood literally. These people believing in this kind of thing weren’t being stupid, they were using a specific model to approach the objective and observable.
I’ve joked in a few Heathen-geared comment sections that I don’t have the “personality” for godlessness. And it’s true. The set of personality traits that are common among the faithful occur in me as well. Science explains phenomena in a way that I find perfectly accurate and satisfactory (like why people might perceive and strive to interact with the divine in the first place), but I need a strongly emotional outlet to experiencing and processing the world. Science gets me very enthusiastic about dirt, and birds, and trees, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room to tell the trees I love them.
Further, science–at least hard science–doesn’t contribute to our personal growth. Our comparative intelligence as humans complicates our lives. Rather than just a struggle to keep our place in the ecosystem and survive, our lives are filled with purpose-seeking and contemplation. That is a solely emotional process, even though science is eager to explain how it came about. Which is absolutely fair, because the same laws that govern anything else allowed for it to happen.
But the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are indifferent to us. They are not invested in us. They explain our existence in the context of lawful chance. They are neutral baselines for how the observable universe works, and they don’t care about us.
The gods do.