Religion 202, Physics 101: Spirituality and Light…


Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka

Many religions, especially the New Age-y kind, use light as a prime metaphor, imagining this light and imagining that light as it assumes shape and form in your mind’s eye.  My ‘white light of spirit’ is not imaginary, though, even if still a bit metaphorical. That light for me is exactly the same light that any good physicist refers to, the equivalent of electricity and magnetism and one of physics’ four prime forces, together with gravity, the strong (nuclear) force and the weak (interactive) force.

For the uninitiated, that weak force is: the fundamental force that acts between leptons and is involved in the decay of hadrons. The weak nuclear force is responsible for nuclear beta decay (by changing the flavor of quarks) and for neutrino absorption and emission…

Got it?  And the strong force is: the force that holds particles together in the atomic nucleus and the force that holds quarks together in elementary particles.

Simple, right?  These last and latest forces derive from quantum mechanics, and the study of smaller-than-microscopic realities that are probably best described as mathematical, i.e. the theory works, even if it doesn’t make (common) sense.  But then, neither do gravity and electromagnetism (light).  We’re just more accustomed to them, and they are available to us on a macroscopic level. 

Their very inexplicability is what makes them prime ‘forces’, in fact, physical realities that must simply be accepted as given, irreducible to more simpler explanations.  But since light is common, it makes sense, even if it is so much more than that, in effect defining a dimension, for me a spiritual dimension.  The proof is right above our heads…

…and you can turn it on or off at will. It’s an electric light, and it comes in many forms—incandescent, fluorescent, LED, or energy-savers, the higher dimension enlightening our lower world of pain and/or suffering, with the click of a switch. How do I know? Well the concept and presence of light has always inspired us, no, as a symbol of heaven and a gateway to what’s up above?

But that was intuition, the vision of Heaven as something like Light, best viewed on a death bed or hovering slightly above, on a journey already defined and in progress.  Now it’s been proven scientifically, and not only do we have light at our fingertips, but we have it through a well-defined network of electrical current, 220 volts or 110, depending on your country and your conveniences.

They are proof of the miraculous nature of our existence and you can prove it at any instant by simply rubbing a balloon on your flannel shirt and watching it as it defies gravity, marveling at its stick-to-itiveness—simple science. Unfortunately some religions are at odds with science and math, elevating analogies and metaphors to facts of faith, to be recited endlessly, with no further discussion.  That sort of dogma is a fact of faith gone horribly wrong.

The trick is to maintain the faith and emotion and good feeling of ‘belonging’ that religion brings, while updating it for the modern scientific age at the same time.  Buddhism, in fact, is not the hand-maiden for hedonism that some would like to make of it, chanting something about the ‘Eternal Now’, which the Buddha never really said, but Jesus did, in Matthew 6:31: So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

So it’s no wonder that colonial-rich Westerners are the ones lost in the moment, ready to ditch the very science they largely created in favor of fad religions and get-healed-quick cures by self-proclaimed ‘healers’.  But, contrary to some popular belief, Buddhism is no New-Age Oozy-Woozy religion that makes it OK to take drugs or shirk responsibility for scientific accuracy.

After all, it was the Dalai Lama who said: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”  So that’s gospel.  The hard part is resisting the impulse to soup it up, add spice, and serve with side dishes of romance and intrigue.  Inspiration is always good, and motivation is necessary to get us up in the morning, but blatant fudge-jobs should be foregone.

I’ve read quotes by Thich Nhat Hanh that are nice as far as they go, romantic and inspiring, but totally suspect in the eyes of science.  For example: If my inner child and my long-gone ancestors live inside me, then let’s talk about DNA, not souls.  Anything else is religious malpractice and wishful thinking, vanilla slathered in fudge, guilty of exactly what atheists accuse ‘religionists’ of: imaginary friends and imaginary gods.

So let’s keep religion and philosophy on the up and up, and use language that makes that clear.  That’s where much of the problem lies: in language, or the lack thereof.  Of course, pop psychologists are guilty of the same thing: they invented the inner child!  That doesn’tnecessarily  make it okay.  Just label your analogies and metaphors as such.  There, done, simple!