Religion Editor’s Note: An important perspective in evolutionary studies of religion focusses on cognitive processes enabling humans to perceive phenomena as religiously significant. In the follwoing piece, Nature-author Daniel Sarewitz recounted such a personal experience, thereby igniting a furious debate.
Visitors to the Angkor temples in Cambodia can find themselves overwhelmed with awe. When I visited the temples last month, I found myself pondering the Higgs boson — and the similarities between religion and science.
The Higgs, of course, has been labelled the ‘god particle’ because it accounts for the existence of mass in the Universe. But the term (coined by physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, perhaps to the regret of some of his colleagues) also signals the ambition of science, or at least of certain branches of physics, to probe the origins and meaning of existence itself — which, to some, is the job of religion. Science may seek a theoretically and empirically sound explanation of such origins and religion may not. But this distinction is less clear than it seems.
The wonder invoked by the Angkor temples is not an accident or a modern conceit. It flows, at least in part, from the intention of those who designed the temples. “In each of the Angkor monuments,” the architect Maurice Glaize explained in his exhaustive 1944 guide to the temples, “a preoccupation with symbolic order seeks to create a representation of the universe in reduction … realising a kind of correctly ordered model”. The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.
Read more at Nature.