Unless one considers every word of the Bible literally true—including the verse about executing neighbors who work on the Sabbath—we think it should be possible to reconcile science and religion. But Columbia College’s thought-provoking “Dis/Believer: Intersections of Science and Religion in Contemporary Art” shakes our faith.
Curated by Columbia’s Neysa Page-Lieberman, “Dis/Believer” addresses the conflict between scientific inquiry and spirituality through an international group of artists including locals Industry of the Ordinary and CarianaCarianne. Some of the most disturbing pieces needle viewers about humans’ instinctive credulity. In his video World Contact (2004), Joshua Thorson reenacts a Connecticut chapter of the International Flying Saucer Bureau’s 1953 attempt to contact aliens telepathically. Thorson’s low-fi footage of average-joe actors making a silent (but subtitled) collective plea for an extraterrestrial visit makes the real-life incident seem ludicrous. It forces us to ask, however, what distinguishes the IFSB’s invitation from more socially acceptable forms of prayer.
Other artists remind us science—particularly genetic engineering and physics—erodes the distinction between miracles and everyday life. Kysa Johnson’s painting Blow Up 84—The Asexual Reproduction of Yeast After Tiepolo’s “Immaculate Conception” (2007) deftly links the Virgin Mary’s iconic experience to natural phenomena.
Yet placing too much trust in science can be dangerous. The satellite photos in the Glue Society’s 2007 God’s Eye View series (pictured) appear as accurate as Google Earth, but they’re fakes. While we came out of “Dis/Believer” convinced no belief system can bear close scrutiny, Columbia philosophy professor Stephen Asma has a more optimistic response. In the catalog, Asma suggests art can bridge the gap between science and religion, constructing meaning without moralizing or quantifying.