Alison Wohler, December 11, 2016

Unitarian Universalist Society of Florence and Northampton

I’m really happy to be here with all of you this morning.  I miss Sunday morning services.  I retired from my wonderful congregation in Amherst for health reasons, and I am now missing them, and ministry, a lot.  Thank you, Janet, for inviting me.

I have brought a scientific (we could call it a naturalistic) perspective to my personal theology and to many of my sermons over the years.  I identify as a religious naturalist. Today I will tell you a little bit about how it all began and why for me science has been a perfect fit, in fact the very basis, of my religious beliefs and spirituality.  Perhaps my experiences may strike a chord with you and your Unitarian Universalist faith.

I feel very lucky to have grown up surrounded by constant immersion in nature and the influence of science.  My science exposure went way beyond the classroom and what my teachers knew.  I was the lucky one in science classes because I had a dad who was a scientist, a radiation physicist, who worked for Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals in Cleveland.

When I was in third grade he helped me with my very first science report on The Cell.  I carefully and lovingly traced that classic cross-section of a cell and all its known components from the cover of Scientific American, somewhere around 1960.  I gathered information from library books, and I “interviewed” my father, learning how to use the phrase “personal reference” in my bibliography.  The following year my report was on Spiders, then Social Insects, and I was hooked.    

In High School my dad built an incubator out of a cardboard box and some light bulbs so I could conduct an experiment about the rate at which milk spoils.  It even had a thermostat!  He helped me build a maze to study the possible genetic basis of geo-taxis in fruit flies – that’s the tendency of the flies to want to move away from gravity (up), or with gravity (down).  One night he brought home a white lab mouse from the hospital.  I named her Amy.  One weekend Dave Snapp brought his mouse over for a sleepover with little Amy.  That experiment ended fifteen baby mice later.   

I have to mention my mom in this sermon too, because, of course, she also had to live through these science experiments, as the spoiling milk got smelly and the fruit flies escaped from their tubes and the baby mice grew into adult mice.  Or when my pet snake got out of his cage for a few days and suddenly appeared while she was on the phone.  Or the time in high school when we were asked to bring in road-kill for an advanced biology class on parasites and the only place to make sure the dead animals didn’t rot over the weekend (any more than they already had) was to put them in the freezer.  What a mom.    

I grew up with a lot of science around.  And every month an exciting new edition in the Time Life series on science and mathematics would arrive in the mail and I would pour through it.  I loved those books. 

On Sundays, after attending the Unitarian Church in Cleveland, one of our family customs was to ask my father, over dinner, how things worked or were made.  I distinctly remember asking him “Where does ketchup come from?”  Maybe I remembered because my mother laughed.  But you never know what the important questions might be at any point in your life.  

We were always taking long walks, too, in the woods and by the streams and lakes in our area.  My dad would point out all the little things that no one else would notice unless you were really looking.  Tracks in the snow…  Fungus on a dying tree….   He took a lot of really nice pictures of mushrooms and lichen and fungus.  My mother laughed at those, too.  

But you know what those photos taught me?  Not only are these things in the woods interesting – they are beautiful too.  You could say it was my first lesson in the balance between the material and the spiritual, the rational and the emotional, science and the philosophical.  

I was a biology major in college, but under my picture in my high school senior yearbook it said “philosophical.”  I was a very involved Unitarian Universalist youth and teen who did a lot of thinking and talking about my ideas and beliefs.  Something about the way I was raised, or perhaps a combination of that and my genes, helped me gain some intuition that nothing in our lives was separate from nature and the realm of science, just as everything was subject to the philosophical.  

For me there has never been a separation between science and religion.  Science brings me explanation, awe and wonder – and a humility born of knowing what we do not know.  Nature brings me joy and peace of heart.  My scientific studies strengthened my already intuited sense of the oneness and interconnectedness of everything.  My father is a scientist and a very heartfelt, emotional and compassionate man.  I had the best of role models if one is to understand that there is no need to put science in one category and religion or spirituality in another.

When I was required to write an essay about my journey into ministry for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA, it seemed perfectly natural to me that two out of the three greatest influences on my personal theology had to do with science and nature.  I believe I grew up not knowing that anyone actually thought there was a separation between science and religion.  

I find it interesting that the other new career I was considering, at the same time as my call to ministry was taking shape, was to become an elementary school science teacher.  Minister………  Science Teacher………   My congregation probably thought I was both!  

What is my understanding of the relationship between science and religion?

Let me start by saying that my definition of religion may be different than what you are imagining.  To me, religion is about the human need to reconnect to the oneness and the balance that is the nature of our world, from which we exiled ourselves when we evolved into sentient, that is, self-conscious, beings and began thinking of ourselves as different and separate and better than…  Religion is about finding our way back into right relationship with each other, the earth, the universe, the nature of good and evil, death.  

Sometimes, rather than the word “religion,” I like to use the phrase “religious thinking.” Religious thinking is not necessarily about specific beliefs but about asking the big questions we human beings seem to need to ask.  How?  When?  Why?  Who are we?  What should we do?  What next?  In the early days of human consciousness these questions were answered with stories, and with great imagination!  (And great insight!) But knowledge of our earth, our bodies, or our brains had not progressed to the point it has today.  It is only realistic and natural that what we are coming to know as scientific fact might not mesh well with the creative stories of old.  There are those for whom these discrepancies are unnerving and unsettling.  It can be an emotional as well as intellectual struggle to let go of imbedded, systemic, and often lovely ways of thinking.  

For many of us, though, science has and does play an extremely important part in how we answer, for ourselves, the age-old religious questions.  If two of our biggest religious questions are “How did existence happen?” and “How did life begin?” then the studies of astronomy and physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology all play a part in finding an answer that makes sense to us.  As for the questions “Why did all this happen?” or “Do human beings have a specific purpose?” it seems to me that often the scientific evidence is very much at odds with the needs of our human psyches.  I find that scientific information leads me to think there is no why or wherefore to it all – it just happened.  Even though I don’t know it for sure, the laws of physics and mathematics (in as much as I understand them) tell me that time and random chance and the physical laws of the universe alone have led to the world as we know it, and that there may not be a grand design or purpose behind any of it.   Scientific evidence leads many, and myself, to understand that even free will does not exist.  

But a combination of my scientific side and my religious side tells me that human beings cannot function without seeming purpose and the illusion of free will.  And I don’t care if love is just a product of some part of my brain that makes me a more survivable subject of the human species.  I’ll go with love any day.  And I will cry wonder.

I mentioned that I was a biology major in undergraduate school.  But biology majors at my school were also expected to take courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, environmental science, statistics, and experimental design, as well as the usual selection of electives that a liberal arts college encourages.    

Here is the most important lesson I learned in all my science classes:  that existence is all one Universe-wide connected system.   Maybe even multi-verse wide!  Every aspect of my studies, including sociology and psychology, ethics and even music appreciation had something to say to me about the interconnectedness, and interdependencies around and including me.  It’s our UU seventh principle about the web of existence.  What I do, what you do, what we do together, makes a difference because we are connected by both visible and invisible strands of the web.  We may only experience 4% of what is around us, the rest being dark matter and dark energy, but to me these are just parts of the natural world yet to be explored.   Don’t forget your flashlight.

In a 1964 article in Science, Jacques Bazun, French-born American writer, says: “It is not clear to anyone, least of all the practitioners, how science and technology in their headlong course do or should influence ethics and law, education and government, art and social philosophy, religion and the life of the affections.  Yet science is an all-pervasive energy, for it is at once a mode of thought, a source of strong emotion, and a faith as fanatical as any in history.” 

The subjects, many of them scientific, I have studied in my life also speak to me of spiritual things: fascination, awe, wonder and especially humility.  There is so much we do not yet know or understand.  And what I do know makes me what to know more.  

Science itself that is uncovering our human propensity for what we call the spiritual – that our minds are somehow hard-wired to enable the positive emotions of trust, hope, love and joy – because these things are critical to our evolution and survival. (   

In today’s world we need science to help inform many of the decisions we make in our lives – both on a daily basis and in a larger more global sense, issues such as planetary warming.  In a democracy and in the democratic process which we Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote in our fourth principle, it is knowledge that helps us make informed decisions.  Including what is ethical.  What will put us in right-relationship with each other and the earth.  In my opinion our recent election provides a frightening portent of what could very well happen when decisions are made in ignorance.  

“How are we to be with each other?” is one of our most important religious questions.  Science helps us answer that question.  Martin Robbins, in an article in the journal Science, wrote: “An understanding of science is vital to an understanding of politics, and not just in the obviously scientific issues such as global warming, obesity or stem-cell research, but in areas such as the economy, city planning, disaster management, and of course energy.  Science gave us the industrial revolution and the information age, and if we are to thrive in a post-oil world with new sources of energy then it will be science that shows us how.”  (    I am terrified of how damaging, and dangerous, it may be when those in power have an inadequate scientific background.    

I have been so happy these last eight years with President Obama’s position on science.   On his website called he said “Promoting science isn’t just about providing resources – it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. [another UU principle!]  It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. [religion]  It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient – especially when it’s inconvenient.  Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us.”  


Sounds like religion to me.  Our outgoing president has been some preacher!

What I have learned in science class tells me that everything that exists is made of and controlled by the same basic elemental particles – among them the bozons and quarks and gravitons, etc.  Everything is of one source.  We are indeed made of stardust.  All the animals on earth are but one life form.  A UU from San Francisco, Phil Marshall, wrote for the Church of the Larger Fellowship: “The only question for any pair of organisms is: What degree of cousins are we?” (Quest, Vol. LXXI, No. 9)

What I learned in science class has helped me to understand that there are no distinct lines of demarcation between areas of study – or between the various aspects of our everyday lives.  It is all connected. 

Science has shown me that the interdependencies of the web of our existence assure us that in any situation we may think we understand what’s going on, but it’s always more complicated than that. 

What I have learned in science class tells me that the differences human beings imagine between themselves (racial differences being one huge example) are primarily that – imagined – and a product of our ever so needy egos and now not-so-necessary instinctual fear of “the other.”

The immense library of scientific knowledge, and the even larger list of remaining questions, brings me to my knees with humility for the complexity of our world.  Here’s a little fact for our humility quotient: there are over 400,000 species of beetles in the world, and only 8,000 species of mammals.  

What I have learned connects me in intimate, not just abstract, ways to the earth and to all the animals and plants and other human beings that live on this planet with me.  And, importantly, I am compelled by the realities of interdependence to make it my personal responsibility to improve the world around me as best I can.  If only, sometimes, with my love.  

What I have learned in science informs every aspect of my theology of relationship and my religious thinking.  I am a religious naturalist.  Religion and science, together, in one descriptive identity.

There is always more to learn, more wonder to experience, more respect to be had and more appreciation to feel.  This thing called life is an awesome thing.  


From our opening words: “Out of our hearts cry wonder; sing that we live.”



Closing Words

“It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”   Wendell Berry