Science and Religion

At Odds or Parallel Paths 

Introduction 

Back in the summer of 2017 I started writing, what I intended to be, my first book. It was going to be a critique of New Atheists and claims about grounds for morality. I got the first half of the book written, having suffered through some relatively well written books that were trying their best to articulate grounds for making moral claims in books by Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, and Alex Rosenberg. Suffice it to say that that upon actually finding the argument, I discovered that they often fell apart into self-contradiction or arbitrariness. 

It was sad because they presented evidence about morality, its universality, and the similarity of reasoning used in coming to moral conclusions that was relatively compelling. That being said that as much as they wanted to celebrate those things that were incontrovertibly morally good, the argumentation that they employed often equally applied to those things which we would normally morally condemn. For example, the same logic that they would use to argue about the evolutionary appropriateness of being kind to person A, could not say that it was evolutionarily inappropriate for killing and eating person A, without assuming that there’s something inherently wrong with the latter over the former. Evolution, as a means of explanation, can only be judged ex post facto, because it has no ability to provide a priori reasoning. It’s only in looking backward, evolutionarily, assuming that the point from which you are looking back that this is where you are supposed to be. Of course, in looking backward one cannot see that they might have set in motion their own evolutionary demise. But in almost every instance where I was reading, there were two things in common: a disdain of religion and an appeal to science.

I noticed that in their disdain of religion was a religious appeal to science being able to tell us something true about the world. So, I figured that it would be best to  dig into some philosophy of science and look under the hood.

Faith as a Substrate

As I have written before, “faith” is often misunderstood and misrepresented. In spite of that we have to realize that there is always something upon which all of our beliefs are necessarily preconditioned upon. We believe and therefore we act. Astrophysicist Paul Davies noted this in his New York Times editorial where he wrote,

[Both] religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. 

It’s not that science is an inherently irreligious exercise; rather, it’s quite the opposite: it is an utterly religious exercise. Challenge it’s orthodoxy and you will be hauled before a blasphemy court, or worse

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Like any almost any other religion that finds its anchor as one that defines a cultural identity, it can suffer no competition, no dissent from its orthodoxy. It apes Christianity, in regards to what it assumes about the world, because it exists as a result of Christians. However, like the former, you are forced by its adherents to make a choice. I’m not the only one seeing this. In his paper on Scientism, independent researcher Steven Lehar notes,

[While] religion and science are in some sense polar opposites, there is also much in common between them. Both are carefully crafted systems of thought, concerned with establishing the real truth behind the world we see in experience. Both use logic and reason to persuade, and both record their laws, methods, and conclusions in a rich literature that is taught to subsequent generations in educational institutions. They are both concerned with the propagation of knowledge, even if that knowledge is arrived at by different means. In fact, science can itself be seen as a kind of religion, or at least a logical successor to religion, the latest, most reasonable faith, that serves the purpose of providing an explanation of the origins and workings of the world, but without recourse to a supernatural world beyond scientific observation. Science seeks to replace dogma with observation and reason.

The fact that, “[science] seeks to replace dogma with observation and reason,” Lahar ties to Scientism. Scientism makes its claims dogmatically. The problem, of course, is that the proponents of Scientism in their insistence on “observation and reason” somehow is able to replace dogma, is that one must necessarily believe that their faculties of observation and reason are, in fact, reliable. Proponents of Scientism often paint themselves into a corner of faith upon which they have no evidence for believing those things to be capable of identifying what is true or reliable. 

As previously noted by Davies, one must believe in something in order to do science, and the instance that you begin your answer to any proposed question with, “because”, you are making a religious statement. 

Science: The Intersection of Theology and Philosophy 

If you go back in time, and look at things historically, not being dismissive of causes, what one will find is that modern science—experimental science and its underlying principles—grew up out of an environment of synthesis. While most historians will put the credit solely onto Greek philosophy, specifically Aristotelian philosophy; however, if one looks closer, one cannot help but see that it was people with a particular theological bent that were actually working with Aristotle’s philosophy. It was men (sorry, feminists) putting scriptural principle into practice that brought about what we would eventually call “science”. It was the theological position that, “all truth is God’s truth,” that enabled curious minds to reengage with philosophy that the ancient world had simply dismissed and essentially buried because it was not theologically articulate enough to explore it conceptually. What is meant by that?

Pagan theology, somewhat typified in Greek and Roman culture,—if there even was such a thing—was not unified. This is probably best seen in the work by Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero titled The Nature of the Gods, where he notes that,

There are and always have been some philosophers who believe that the gods have no concern whatever with the affairs of men. (1)

Conversely, he also notes that,

There are however other philosophers, great and noble ones at that, who believe that the whole universe is administered and governed by the mind and purpose of the gods: and who believe also that the gods are concerned to make provision for the life of man.(2)

This differentiation in perspectives means that, by and large, the philosophers were not concerned about necessarily testing their hypotheses in regard to their concepts of the world based upon their concept of their gods to the world of men. The fact that there was no unified concept of the world or its systems meant that there was no reason to try to understand the world or that it was even possible to have such understanding because they did not have,”…a coherent system of beliefs grounded in a comprehensive view of the cosmos…”(3). That means that it requires a new kind of theology, one that has the ability to give a coherent account for the universe and ground human expectation of the universe. Moreover, this theology has to be able to allow those who operate under it a philosophy that can produce science as an exercise.

Does this mean that science has nothing to offer theology? No, not at all, in fact I would argue that theology should know its limits. I, speaking theologically, would be foolish to believe that in my theology that I could speak on the nature of that which a scientist in the field of quantum physics would and could speak regarding the nature and effects of quantum fluctuations. But at the same time, a physicist should have a comparable humility to speak of those things which are of a theological nature. 

This is why it is important to keep your head, think presuppositionally, and ask what is being argued. Is science being forwarded as a tool that people can use to know more about the world that we inhabit, or is it being used in an attempt to leverage itself into the place of religion, with people in lab coats replacing the robes of the priests, the Bunsen burner replacing the candle of God’s presence, and a chemistry set replacing the sacramental elements?

Notes

  1. Cicero. The Nature of the Gods (Classics) (Kindle Location 964). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Ibid. (Kindle Locations 971-973).
  3. J.B. Rives. “Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology”. The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries: Essays in Explanation. W.V. Harris, ed. Brill Publishing. Boston, MA. 2005. p. 32

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