PuffHo touts syncretism: a particularly loopy form of accommodationism

December 7, 2015 • 10:30 am

I mention syncretism in Faith versus Fact as one of the many varieties of accommodationism, but don’t devote much space to it because it’s loopy. What I mean by “syncretism” is the argument that there can be no disparity between religious and scientific “truth” (a conviction of some Christian fundamentalists, who see the “truth” of evolution as simply wrong), but also that scripture is a source of scientific truth: that you can find in the Bible or the Qur’an the very same truths that were later revealed by science.

I’ve seen this anticipatory exegesis of scripture before, but mostly among Muslims. Since many Muslims see the Qur’an as literal truth, but also want to be down with science, they simply amalgamate the two. A Muslim cab driver, for instance, once told me that the Qur’anic explanation for the creation of humans is precisely the same as that revealed from studies of human reproduction (you can also see that argument here). I was too tired to argue with him.

I didn’t dwell on syncretism in my book because it’s pretty dumb: you have to stretch scripture into unrecognizable forms to get it to comport with modern science, and it’s mostly the strict fundamentalists who do that.

HOWEVER, PuffHo is not beyond publishing this kind of drivel, as evidenced in a new piece by Samita Sarkar (described as a freelance writer and an animal-rights activist), “How studying science strengthened my faith.” In her case, since she’s a Hindu, she finds in Hindu scripture everything that science described millennia later. I won’t dwell on all her examples, but here are a few.

First, Sarkar’s thesis:

Many people think that science and spirituality will always be at odds, but true religion must be supported by science, and true science must be supported by religion.

Real religion is sanatana dharma, or eternal duty. It is based on universal truth rather than rituals or superstition. Real religion is about truth because God is truth. When religion is true, it is applicable to the material world and can be used to explain natural phenomena.

What are the scientific phenomena that Hinduism anticipated? Here are three (Sarkar’s words are indented):

The Big Bang:

When I started taking science courses a couple of years ago, I began with astronomy. We learned that our universe started with a bang, a sound vibration that expanded and continues to expand to this day. By studying scriptures (BS 5.48, BG 17.23-24), I learned that through Mahavishnu’s exhalation, our universe began to expand with the primeval sound vibration of “om.”

In fact, The Srimad Bhagavatam frequently refers to the universe as “the cosmic ocean,” with the planets as “islands.”

The strong force of physics. Surprise!: it’s Krishna! Physics hasn’t even found that yet!

My astronomy course also discussed the four types of universal forces: the strong force, the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the gravitational force. The strong force is what binds the protons in the atomic nucleus together despite the fact that positive charges should repel each other. Although without this force, the universe would be chaotic, scientists have yet to explain how the strong force functions. As The Brahma Samhita (5.35) describes, Krishna, the controller of the universe, is responsible for the strong force. He maintains order through His energy, which pervades His material creation: “All the universes exist in Him and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time.”

I look forward to the discovery of the K particle.

Newton’s third law:

This brings me to my final point: Newton’s third law, which is also known as the law of karma, states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What we eat has a direct and profound impact on our physical and mental wellbeing, which is why scriptures encourage an ahimsa (non-violent, vegetarian) diet for those that are serious about their spiritual development. Studying science only strengthened my conviction and commitment to this amazing, spiritual, and delicious diet. It also complimented what I’d been reading in various ancient scriptures and made my faith even stronger.

It’s not really science that’s made Sarkar’s faith stronger, it’s her own confirmation bias, which makes her to see everything as a reflection of Hindu scripture, able to force even the most recalcitrant text into the Procrustean bed of science. She gives other examples of scientific discoveries miraculously anticipated by ancient texts (intermediary metabolism, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and so on), but I needn’t go on.

Sarkar concludes with her beginning:

Unfortunately, there will always be people who misinterpret data and misquote scriptures. People who do this will always be questioning the validity of “the other side,” but in actuality, science and spirituality must always be aligned. Both are valid because both are based on truth.

It’s a sign of PuffHo‘s willingness to publish any sort of drivel (Sarkar’s post was in the “religion” section), and its unwillingness to pay these contributors for writing, that encourages the publication of this sort of wrongheaded junk. One might as well claim that all scientific discoveries were anticipated in the Beowulf story.

55 thoughts on “PuffHo touts syncretism: a particularly loopy form of accommodationism

  1. Funny how the volumes of prescient scientific knowledge in religion is only apparent to believers post hoc, just as are the prophesies of Nostradamus. Sigh…

    1. Exactly! A case once again of being able to find anything in scripture, once you know what you are looking for.

  2. I favor “Precretisim” which is the a gentle saute of organ meat and a through examination by a shaman for signs from the real gods. Fool proff I tell you!

      1. That would be the sweet bread of the argument.
        Is this the time to mention lava beans and a fine Chianti, or am I forgetting my recipes?
        Freudian Slit alert ! : I’m SURE I tried to type “fava beans”, but it seems geology can extend into the subconscious as well as the subsurface.

  3. Well, I once saw a creationist claim that dinosaurs were alive and well in historical times because the monster Grendel in the Beowulf was clearly a T. Rex!

    I don’t recall how he reconciled that claim with Grendel living underwater in a swamp…

  4. Gilgamesh knew about Germ Theory. If only we had listened!

    I feel like the author is targeting scientists/atheists for her audience. But really, isn’t she saying that all the Jesus and Allah and Essential Oil worshipers are wrong as well? It’s not religion she claims to be in sync with science, it’s *her* religion.

    I’m totally open to the possibility of some kind of ultimate creator who demands certain behavior, but not until all the religionists come to some kind of consensus.

  5. Well, a lot of science fiction was anticipated in the Beowulf story.
    And a lot of science was anticipated in science fiction.
    My case rests. 🙂

    On a more serious note, Ptolemaic astronomy got one thing right- the moon orbits around the earth. And although Aristotle’s biology is seriously flawed, his discovered and got epigenesis correct. You’d expect ancient writings to be correct about a few things. But Krishna being the strong force is quite a stretch.

    1. Isn’t this about scientific knowledge supposedly embedded in ancient tomes of religious revelation?

      Ptolemy and Aristotle might have been a little offended to have their writings (at least some of which are empirical science in the modern sense) lumped in with goatherd superstition!

      1. Possibly, but Ptolemy was deeply into astrology, and Aristotle spends 5 chapters of his Metaphysics arguing for the existence of God, and he remains (posthumously) a revered figure among Catholic theologians in part due to his belief in a purpose-driven cosmos.

        But it’s a loose analogy admittedly. I’m thinking of the many folk who think Vedanta Hindu philosophy predicted quantum physics. Well, they influenced Bohr’s thinking and there is apparently some overlap but it’s mainly due to luck not some advanced insight or revelatory character of the Vedanta texts.

  6. Om my d*g! What drivel. Sound in the early universe? And as far as not explaining the strong force, we haven’t really explained any force that I know of except gravity, which is not a force, it’s the geometry of space. Some folks speculate that the universe has more (maybe many more) than 4 dimensions and that the other three forces are just what we perceive of the gravity in those other dimensions. Which would reduce _everything_ to geometry. I don’t know that Brahma was a geometer.

    Wonder what she does with the lotus growing out of Vishnu’s navel.

      1. Yes, plasma compression waves of extremely low frequency. The mystics ignore the fact that the waves have to be scaled up by a factor of 10^26 to match the response of the human ear to sound. Not the 136.1 Hz om frequency.

        1. Picky, picky. She said sound waves and she was right about that part right? Let’s give her credit. Don’t be a scrooge about it. How about 2 points for being imaginative?

      2. To pick a nit… It looks like the baryonic waves came about some time _after_ the Big Bang, tho they were apparently fairly early on. I admit to having expressed myself badly. Thanks for the links.

  7. I have it on good authority that it’s Jesus who’s responsible for the Strong Force.

    From a Jack Chick tract:

    “Protons have positive charges. One law of electricity is: LIKE CHARGES REPEL EACH OTHER! Since all the protons in the nucleus are positively charged, they should repel each other and scatter into space.

    “It says that Christ the creator is before all things, and by him all things exist (are held together.”

    Maybe the PuffHo will start publishing Chick Tracts.

    1. You haven’t gone deep enough. Hadrons are made of THREE quarks. And they cannot be separated. They are three, yet they are one! See where I’m going with this?

      1. I think you were going to say one quark has a heavy white beard and another has a dark stringy beard and the other is shaped like a spear.

  8. I liked her description of the “… amazing, spiritual and delicious diet …” of vegetarianism. With apologies to vegetarians, who I absolutely don’t have a problem with, it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself that she really enjoys vegetarian food. I wonder why she feels the need?

    Of course, that’s often my reaction with many religious people – why are they so defensive and insecure about their religion and personal faith? It’s a question I think they need to answer themselves.

    1. And I thought it was bizarre to link diet to Newton’s third law. I’ve never read any Hindu stuff before, but if this is a reasonable sample of how followers think, it’s as circular and confused and divorced from reality as any of the religions I’m more familiar with.

  9. IIRC, “syncretism” also has a perfectly useful sense in the sociology of religion where it amounts to borrowing of religious practices, etc. from one group to another. I wonder if this use is also an attempt to say ‘science is a religion too!!’ or some other bafflegab.

  10. The bible actually predicts the invention of motorcycles. Not sure if it’s in scripture or just the Christmas carol

    ‘Join the Triumph of the skies’ (for non-motorcyclists see Steve McQueen in the Great Escape).

    That’s clearer than the article’s silliness, especially what I thought was the low point, Newton’s third law. I didn’t know Newton was a dietician.

  11. Based upon my admittedly limited understanding what science is supposed to be it appears that the thoughts of Ms Sarkar are precisely be opposite. As all the interpretations of imprecise religious tracts she asserts seems to desperately depend on today’s knowledge which conceivably could be incomplete or just plain wrong, the same tracts in tomorrow’s scientific world may well seem point in a totally different direction to be considered as authoritative.
    It is the very imprecision of religious texts which is the elephant abiding unrecognised in the living rooms of believers

  12. Sarkar’s biased view of physics is wholly compatible with stone age thinking. She needs to step forward about 10000 years and update her ideas. In order to do so, she should be required to spend >1000 community hours in science labs before she is permitted to espouse her unrefereed judgements.

    1. Yeah, my thought too. Some specific headdesks:

      The strong force is what binds the protons in the atomic nucleus together despite the fact that positive charges should repel each other.

      [Headdesk]. There is no ‘should’ about it. The charges repel. The strong force simply overwhelms them, the same way a strong magnet can hold up a nail and stop it from falling. You wouldn’t say ‘even though gravity should cause it to fall’ in that case, would you? {Maybe I’d better not ask that sort of rhetorical question, for fear of what she might answer.]

      Although without this force, the universe would be chaotic, scientists have yet to explain how the strong force functions.

      [Headdesk] Exchange of gluons between quarks. Geez, even Wikipedia gets it right.

      Add another item to the list of things some nonscientist has claimed ‘nobody knows’, even while the information is readily available through a couple of keyboard taps and a few joules of brain use.

  13. Hindu syncretism is taken very seriously in many Eastern countries. Sarkar’s examples of science-and-spirituality reminded me of this marvelous passage from Meera Nanda:

    ALL these numerous celebrations of “Vedas as science” follow a similar intellectual strategy of finding analogies and equivalences. All invoke extremely speculative theories from modern cosmology, quantum mechanics, vitalistic theories of biology and parapsychology, and other fringe sciences. They read back these sciences into Sanskrit texts chosen at will, and their meaning decided by the whim of the interpreter, and claim that the entities and processes mentioned in Sanskrit texts are “like”, “the same thing as”, or “another word for” the ideas expressed in modern cosmology, quantum physics or biology. Thus there is a bit of a Brahman here and a bit of quantum mechanics there, the two treated as interchangeable; there are references to “energy”, a scientific term with a definite mathematical formulation in physics, which gets to mean “consciousness”; references to Newton’s laws of action and reaction are made to stand for the laws of karma and reincarnation; completely discredited “evidence” from parapsychology and “secret life of plants” are upheld as proofs of the presence of different degrees of soul in all matter; “evolution” is taught as the self-manifestation of Brahman and so on. The terms are scientific, but the content is religious. There is no regard for consistency either of scientific concepts, or of religious ideas. Both wholes are broken apart, random connections and correspondences are established and with great smugness, the two modes of knowing are declared to be equivalent, and even inter-changeable. The only driving force, the only idea that gives this whole mish-mash any coherence, is the great anxiety to preserve and protect Hinduism from a rational critique and demystification. Vedic science is motivated by cultural chauvinism, pure and simple.

    She’s a writer well worth reading, partly because she writes so well – and partly because she levels her incisive criticism and analysis at the b.s. in non-western religions.

    1. Excellent article, thanks.

      I have heard that some Hindu fanatics take the opposite and deny scientific progress in some cases, and deny the moon landings. The god Chandra lives on the moon, and he would have told Neil Armstrong to get off his lawn, if the moon landing had really happened.

      1. Yes, I think that in general the Eastern religions tend to be similar to the Western ones, in that when it comes to supporting the faith there are groups which deny the discoveries of modern science, groups which co-opt the discoveries of modern science, and groups which attempt to do both by inventing some sort of “cutting edge” modern science which is overthrowing what scientists “used to believe.” With overlap between the groups, of course, depending on what’s working better for them at the time.

        The only wrong way to do religion is to go full atheist. Never go full atheist.

  14. OMG, scripture has predicted cars:

    “The chariots race madly through the streets;
    they rush to and fro through the squares;
    they gleam like torches;
    they dart like lightning.”
    –Nahum (in the Hebrew Bible) 2:4

  15. So all these things were in scripture written in collaboration with god so-and-so? Yet the god could not write clearly enough to make the science understood until secular scientists “rediscovered” them?

  16. Well, I too can find profound truths anticipated in ancient texts that science described millennia later – but I guess the Religious won’t like it:

    “By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.”

  17. Did anyone else click those links to her scripture? I read the two under “The Big Bang” and couldn’t find anything in them even remotely connected to “sound vibrations” or any of her other claims. Here they are:

    BS 5.48 – Brahmā and other lords of the mundane worlds, appearing from the pores of hair of Mahā-Viṣṇu, remain alive as long as the duration of one exhalation of the latter [Mahā-Viṣṇu]. I adore the primeval Lord Govinda of whose subjective personality Mahā-Viṣṇu is the portion of portion.

    Bg 17.23 — From the beginning of creation, the three words oṁ tat sat were used to indicate the Supreme Absolute Truth. These three symbolic representations were used by brāhmaṇas while chanting the hymns of the Vedas and during sacrifices for the satisfaction of the Supreme.

    Bg 17.24 — Therefore, transcendentalists undertaking performances of sacrifice, charity and penance in accordance with scriptural regulations begin always with oṁ, to attain the Supreme.

    By the way, if her holy book speaks of sound in space then it’s definitely not compatible with science. She seems to take the “Bang” in “Big Bang” too literally.

  18. Watching this discussion between Dawkins & Krause at the moment. Dawkins said something I hadn’t heard before, which is kind of relevant to this topic, namely that a couple of theologians have suggested to him over the years that the “selfish gene” is evidence of original sin!

    1. No, I’m willing to bet there are a lot of intelligent, excellent writers who will agree to let their work appear on PuffHo for the “exposure.” That’s because there’s possibly a small proportion of this group which doesn’t really need the money — and there’s probably a larger proportion of this group which really, really does need the money and this looks like shot at that. Better than waitressing, at any rate.

      1. What’s that old saying? “You get what you pay for”- in this case, PuffHo gets “lucky” every once in a while with an article by someone who actually knows how to think! Their publishing policy smacks to me of the, “all ideas are equally valid”, New Age trope….

  19. Have any religious scriptures told us how to build a fusion reactor? Or reconciled gravity with the other fundamental forces? Or even predicted the outcome of global warming?

    Thought not. Squaring what we know now with vague mutterances is easy. Using those mutterances to accurately predict the future not so much.

  20. Hey, isn’t anticipatory exegesis like the “false-belief test” in psychology? A toddler is asked what’s inside a box of crayons. He guesses “crayons,” but is then told that candles are actually inside. The investigator introduces a Snoopy toy and asks the child what Snoopy thinks is inside the box. The child says “candles.”

    1. Hm. Interesting analogy. I’ll have to think about this. Thanks.

      Religion in general does seem to draw much of its force and plausibility from the sort of folk psychology and Theory of Mind comfortably held by toddlers.

  21. After some further thought, I’m okay with this publication. No I don’t think her arguments are good. But I think it’s valuable from the Stephen Roberts perspective; a Hindu syncretic argument will bring out Christian criticisms; and hopefully some of those Christians will be smart enough to see how their own counter-arguments apply to Christian syncretism.

  22. But we DO have an extremely accurate quantum model for the strong force. It’s not really anything less than what we have for electromagnetism, so the claim might as well be that scientists have yet to explain how electricity works (which of course sounds absurd on its face).

  23. Forget the confirmation bias. Let’s imagine, for a thought experiment, what the implications would be if it turned out some holy texts contained extremely unlikely scientific knowledge.

    Why is this a reason to take religion seriously? For starters, all the hard work of gathering the evidence and showing the working has been done in complete independence by the scientists, not by whoever wrote down the crossword puzzle clues in the old text before diving back into their fever dreams.

    Secondly, the phenomenon to explain – extremely prescient understandings of science long before their modern breakthroughs – doesn’t require a supernatural explanation. Maybe the writer was a beneficiary of an unknown scientific society, now sadly wiped out by an unknown disaster? Maybe it was aliens briefly stopping for a chat while they got the saucer fuelled up? Maybe the writer was a monumentally hyper-intelligent hard worker who also happened to be a religious nut? Maybe time travelling pranksters were involved? A lot of competing hypotheses rise up that, while extraordinary, don’t involve jumping off the supernatural deep end.

    1. In my experience, those who believe in Atlantis, alien visitation, mad geniuses, and time-travelers tend to consider themselves spiritual. The competing hypotheses then may not be jumping off the supernatural deep end, but they often do dabble in its vast and expansive shallows.

      1. They aren’t supernatural, though, at least not necessarily. What they are is more plausible than “goddidit”, even if not by much.

        There are genuine scientific endeavours to establish the existence of extraterrestrial life, and plenty of physicists have pondered over how time travel would fit into the modern understanding of how our universe works. Mad geniuses push the limits of probability, but they’re an extreme version of, say, autistic savants or Greek philosophers striking upon atomic theory. As for “Atlantis”, it’s at least plausible – for an elastic definition of plausible – that a lost and advanced civilization could arise and then vanish with little trace. If we were to vanish, a lot of our cities, cars, roads, and other infrastructure would be eroded out of existence in a surprisingly short amount of geological time.

        All of these speculations have problems as extraordinary claims, and I’m not saying we should take them seriously. But the simple fact that we can posit them as hypotheses for precocious ancient texts is awkward for religious apologists. It torches the non-sequitur idea that, if religious texts contain scientific knowledge anachronistically, the best and/or only explanation is that religion is valid. Compared with verifying a religious worldview involving strenuous moral metaphysics and pontificating about divinity, even these kooky ideas might as well be workaday science.

        1. Agree. The supernatural connection isn’t necessary so there’s more inherent plausibility.

          It’s just that in practice conceits like “more was known in the past” and “the universe is watching us” dovetail neatly into a supernatural world view. Those are both aspects of supernaturalism.

        2. This requires moving the goalposts on Atlantis, alas. Plato is the source for the myth, and he goes out of his way to say “this is made up!!!!” (for example, how old he claims the story is and how it got to him), but …

          1. I agree it’s nonsense to believe in Atlantis, though I must admit I didn’t know about where the myth came from. That said, I didn’t have Atlantis specifically in mind when I wrote about hypothetical ancient lost civilizations.

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