Must Religion Retreat?

Galileo was sixty-nine when he was summoned by the Roman Inquisition in 1633 to defend truth claims he had published in Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It is not as though he didn’t know he was in hot water. He had had six meetings with Pope Urban VIII  and had been warned not to advance his hypothesis about geocentrism as truth, though we might wonder what else he would call it. He even dedicated the work to the pope in the hopes of softening the inevitable hammer blows to come. None of it worked. The old man was summoned to trial and spent the rest of his life either under suspicion or house arrest.

His crime was in questioning the authority of Holy Writ, which had explicitly stated that heaven moves, not  earth. In this charge, we see all of the players in the melodrama that would preoccupy thinkers over the next three centuries: authority challenged, perceptions questioned, reason defended, and technology  in the form of the newfangled telescope Galileo used in his observations arbitrating the disputes. Galileo, who is said after his testimony recanting his heresy  to have muttered, “Nevertheless, it moves,” became a hero to the new empirical science (the victory sealed by Catholicism’s 2000 apology to Galileo among others). His crime became the theme of the Enlightenment as hostility toward authority grew into a modus operandi by 1750.

But what could replace the comforting certainty of authority as guarantor of truth and goodness claims? The short answer is, “nothing,” and without that lost authority as a touchstone of lost psychological comfort, the history of the following centuries becomes incomplete, even incoherent, in the same way as the angst of the current defenders of Biblical inerrancy seem incomprehensible to postmodern thinkers.

Just as the seventeenth century in western cultures was marked by the brutal dismemberment of authoritative justifications for claims to truth and beauty, the eighteenth was marked by a ravenous appetite for plausible alternatives, the strongest of which was reason. Imagine Descartes on the cusp of publishing his Meditations amidst the rubble of the French wars of religion and the horrors of the Thirty Years War. His desperate search for certain truth as the gateway to goodness was the lament of a century fractured by doubt of the reliability of thirteen centuries of authority. He thrust reason above the cesspool of competing authorities and for another century or so the serene reasoning of Cartesian mathematics competed as a model for detecting truth and goodness. But life is not so neat as theorems and axioms might wish it to be, and pure reason wandered into the morass of English philosophical positivism where it survives today as a sterile academic pursuit. Reason applied to experience fared far better, for building on the foundations of close observation established by the Greeks, the pursuit of careful thinking about experience grew into the great modern edifice of empirical science through the next two centuries, always holding its methods as the exemplar of truth-seeking as it refined and popularized itself through remarkable technology. Who could dispute that science had replaced religious authority as modernism’s high road to truth?

If you think I am going to take on that particular battle, think again. To my way of thinking, empirical science is winning in this conflict, though not for the reasons most people might think. Consider the following points.

First, the battles, mere echoes of the kind of struggle Galileo faced, are almost always fought on empiricism’s turf. Must religionists perform experiments with snakes to fulfill the scripture? Must miracles be verified by papal investigation? Must creationists really invent “creation science”? Must adventurers actually find Noah’s ark or Herod’s tomb? Why must religionists seek to make the immaterial subject to empirical doubt? Perhaps because I don’t see too many fundamentalists spurning the blessings of technology while they question the methodology that made these blessings possible.

Second, religionists should defend their right to make goodness claims, something empirical science is utterly unable to accomplish. Of course, such claims are dependent on a prior knowledge of truth, and empirical science has proven very adept at revealing some kinds of truths. Still, a morality defended by religious authority consistent with science’s discoveries about the natural world is not a logical contradiction.

Third, religionists might expend some effort on exploring the limits of empirical science as even empiricists must admit. If it cannot be quantified or perceived, it is not a suitable subject for scientific inquiry. It is bad enough that philosophers have rolled over on the existence of metaphysical truths. I don’t see why religionists should do the same when their standard of justification must be only internal consistency.

Fourth, in the midst of the deification of science and reasoning, an entire philosophical movement arose in defiance, championing intuition and insight and unexamined experience as the means of establishing truth. While this Romanticism has been battered by the continued successes of science and technology, it retains at least some ability to resist the contingent determinism that must characterize the natural and human sciences. I recommend ceding the field on elements of reality that might be quantified or isolated and examined through the senses. Science will continue its relentless assaults on material reality, something we should be grateful for. But much of reality remains beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and religionists might do well to regroup and defend their paradigms in these realms of knowledge rather than try to appropriate the methods and language of scientific inquiry to appear more acceptable to the current zeitgeist, inviting the charge of pseudoscience in the process. Empirical studies of consciousness, for example, reveal much that is mysterious and closed about the most basic structures of human experience.

The historical developments that greeted the collapse of authority in the seventeenth century are complex and explained more fully in my book What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification.  Reason and empirical science are the two broad responses to the cataclysmic collapse of authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their triumph was no rout as the rise of Romanticism in the nineteenth century demonstrates. Our culture’s struggle with justification stems from the insufficiencies of any attempt to replace authority as a source of certainty.

Next week, a short foray into postmodernism as yet another effort to find truth, goodness, and beauty. Have a good week.

S. Del


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