“In every true searcher of Nature
there is a kind of religious reverence”
In a number of religions, seeking knowledge is seen as an option for a spiritual path. In Hindu tradition, jnana yoga (the Way to God through Knowledge), is one of four paths toward the goal of unity with the ultimate. Seeking knowledge is also a focus in study of the Torah and in the mandate, “Know thyself”, inscribed at the ancient Greek temple at Delphi.
For religious naturalists, the study of origins, human nature, and the natural world can give emotional and spiritual satisfaction. As Stephen Hawking put it,
“ . . . ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.”
Seeking knowledge can be done in a wholly secular way. But, when seen in context with a central story, the urge to understand can be seen as a core part of who we are and what we do. In the spirit of “seek, and you will find”, active questioning and study can be part of personal spiritual practice.
This effort has provided advances in medicine and technology that let us to live longer and healthier lives. (For some, the “miracles” of modern medicine far outstrip the alleged miracles that once caused people to believe in the powers of gods.) Knowledge can also have psychic benefits, in leading to views that can help to minimize disappointments that come from misconceptions, and in leading to attitudes that can contribute to peace of mind. As it helps us to maximize good and minimize problems, seeking knowledge can be seen as a path toward salvation (as in the root word “salve”, to alleviate suffering or heal). Similarly, as part of the Buddhist 8-fold path, “right understanding” can contribute to avoidance of suffering.
Beyond practical benefits, understanding the workings of nature can prompt a deep sense of appreciation for the intricate order and beauty of the world. And, as partial answers uncover new questions, the quest to understand can prompt appreciation for the mysteries that remain. As Michael Shermer put it:
“It is not the answers of science that provide transcendence,
but the quest for those answers.”