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Monkey gone to Heaven

Although there has been tension between science and religion since well before Darwin, passions are running higher than ever. The lines are drawn: You're either with God or you're against him, as President Bush hinted when he was in China, pretending to encourage greater religious freedom there. You either support teaching intelligent design or you "believe in" evolution, as if it's some half-cocked theory like, well, ID.

A little of that tension has always resided within me. The tension between science, which my family embraced, and organized religion, which made some kids cliquish and some adults belligerent.

Being raised without religion was fine with me. It was the '70s -- the age of Rachel Carson and Small Planet cookbooks and the new practice of taking your trash to a special place called a recycling center, where someone would make something new out of it in order to save the Earth. We didn't need a macho authority figure up there in the clouds. We had Mother Nature.

On our hikes and trips to the shore, we viewed every skunk cabbage poking its hardened, stinky beak up through early spring's frozen mud as a miracle and a scientific event. We viewed every rosehip, fat with bitter juice from which we made jam in the late summer, as a revelation and a part of the cycle of life. We agreed with Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, "I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."

When, as a teen, I looked for answers, I found them in an unlikely place. An ugly and complex electromagnetic spectrum chart that my father had brought home from San Francisco's Exploratorium made its way onto my bedroom wall. I don't know exactly when it became central to my self-styled spiritual-scientific philosophy of life. To me, the electromagnetic spectrum was like a tree of life, or, rather, a tree of energy.

It described an invisible, omnipresent force; nearly everything I experienced lay somewhere along that spectrum. I loved that it could explain color and light, heat and tanning, X-rays and those black lights at Spencer Gifts. It was all there, if you looked hard enough. Sort of like the Bible, I guess.

The coolest waves were at the far edges of the spectrum. As a young anti-nuke activist, it confounded me that the power in those tiny gamma rays could be both beneficial and destructive. Way at the other end of the spectrum were the larger, car-sized FM radio waves that brought Aerosmith and Tom Petty into my bedroom. Late at night, with my ear pressed against a short-wave radio, I'd seek out foreign voices rolling toward me across the ocean.

But the invisible forces didn't stop there. Like the giant ears of a partially hidden deity, the satellite dishes dominating the New England landscape -- Cold War eavesdroppers -- were also represented on my chart. And if that symbolism wasn't quite enough, at the time my father's job was designing the software those radars used.

The tension between religion and science has always seemed like an either/or proposition. I found a way to reconcile them in 2000 when physicist Freeman Dyson won the top religious prize. There's never been a better time to recall what he said:

"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big Universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but both look out at the same Universe. Both views are one-sided; neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect."

I like the calm truce in this statement. A great mind should be able to embrace both science and religion. Now it is this quote, not the electromagnetic spectrum chart, that I tape up where ever I go. That old chart finally fell apart a few years ago, and I tossed it. But, like a parent who feels guilty that she doesn't drag her children to church more often, I feel bad that my kids are growing up without an electromagnetic spectrum chart. I wonder how they explain the world to themselves.

Jennifer Loviglio is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y.

  • Monkey gone to Heaven

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