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 heliocentrism 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 the heavens move, 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 seems 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 (see “Premodern Authority“), the eighteenth was marked by a ravenous hunger for plausible alternatives, the strongest of which was reason and closely examined experience (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). Imagine Descartes on the cusp of publishing his Meditations on First Philosophy in 1640 amidst the rubble of the French wars of religion and the horrors of the Thirty Years War. His desperate search for certain truth was the lament of a century fractured by doubt of the reliability of thirteen centuries of authority. For without truth, how could he, could anyone, identify or choose the good (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”)? 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 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 metaphysical subject to empirical doubt? Why do they play the game by science’s rules?Perhaps because I don’t see too many fundamentalists spurning the blessings of technology while they question the methodology that made these blessings possible. The cornerstone of that methodology is contingent determinism and the predictability of the natural world that entails. Without it science would be magic. Religion’s task cannot be a rejection of this fundamental axiom of the entire empirical enterprise (see “Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle”). Yet it must also find something for a deity to do in such a reality, something more meaningful than the God-of-the-Gaps who seems to exist as a place marker until science gets around to finding the naturalist explanation that takes away yet another divine function. This relentless probing into ever greater depths is unlikely to either find ultimate answers or be ignored, yet the complexity thus revealed glorifies not only science’s power but also God’s. The material universe from quanta to multiverses to the absurdly complicated interaction of genetics and environment on biological development is a thing of enormous majesty and ever-astonishing inventiveness. In light of even its most recent discoveries, what scientific fool could say in his heart, “There is no God”?

The most mysterious discovery is human consciousness itself if only because of the bewildering sense of freedom it grants us despite a simultaneous realization that the rest of material reality is ruled by contingent determinism. Are we the most self-deceptive representative of that reality or are we made of and for something beyond it (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem” and “The Determinism Problem”)? Perhaps the God-of-the-Gaps set up a reality conducive to reason by means of its deterministic nature and then gave humans a sense of freedom by means of a perverse consciousness that refuses to see itself as determined. And perhaps that God finds enough to do in moving the only thing in this universe that feels itself free to move, moving minds toward the good. Perhaps the God-of-the-Gaps has left none in a material reality totally determined and so amenable to predictive reasoning by the only thing we know of in the universe irremediably convinced of its own freedom who may use that reasoning in the context of that determinism to make moral choices. And it seems entirely possible that this operation occurs against a backdrop of permanent doubt, for science can never disprove divinity and religion can never prove it, requiring belief and trust as doxastic ventures neither warranted nor dismissed by our reasoning. And perhaps that gap in science’s purview opens a very wide door indeed to religion as a custodian not of the true but of the good. Curiously, empirical methodology not only prevents science’s entry through that door; it even prevents science from seeing its existence (see “The Limits of Empirical Science“). Science may only approach questions of utility. It must remain blind to those of quality or morality.

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 tradition consistent with science’s discoveries about the natural world is not a logical contradiction. It is one of the few clearly incontestable points of contact between the two domains. Science claims excellence at seeing the true, religion at seeing the good. Each one is utterly immune from trespass by the other by nature of their warrants, so long as each sticks to its own space.

To find that space, religionists should expend some effort in exploring the limits of empirical science as even empiricists must admit and making those limits known to their congregants. If it cannot be quantified or perceived, it is not a suitable subject for scientific inquiry. For most of the nineteenth century, natural science struggled to establish its proper limits of inquiry. The human sciences are one failing result (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). It is unfortunate that religionists have been so eager to embrace the quasi-scientific, quasi-religious musings of a legion of early twentieth century psychologists who have practiced a kind of scientism that might seem congenial to religious belief but which seeks justification in empiricism, thereby further diminishing religion’s power and further bewildering believers in a very chaotic age (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). The essence of that problem involves warrant. Religion depends on one of two justifications. Belief must reside in the private caverns of coherence, the private assemblage of truth and goodness claims warranted only by the principle of non-contradiction. All revelation, conversion experiences, and other inner discernments can only be verified privately (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief“). More common commitments rely on a trust in authority, which involves a surrender of moral agency to the authority. But this act violates the underpinnings of both modernism and postmodernism; their central axioms are built upon a reliance on reason and experience for truth and goodness claims. Both are deeply suspicious of claims to authority and both regard private belief to hold no claim on other persons’ judgment. But religionists don’t understand the mulish resistance of other members of the culture to the truths they profess to see so clearly (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). Unfortunately, this confusion and resentment among religionists has fueled a seemingly endless reactionary rejection of modernism itself with a concurrent nostalgia for lost authority (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). But that world is long gone.

Rather than engage in a flirtation with the human sciences that dispute the founding axioms of their faith, it might be more productive for religion to embrace the mystery of the supernatural. After all, even in the midst of the deification of science and reasoning in the nineteenth century an entire philosophical movement arose in defiance, championing intuition and insight and unexamined experience as the means of establishing morality while also embracing the transcendent. Romanticism made the mistake of traditional religious authority, though it rejected authority itself in toto. That mistake was the effort to justify goodness claims by the same single examination of warrant that was used to determine truth, an act which not only violates the empirical method but one which ridicules the necessary work of determining truth as correspondence reality before using the judgment thus procured can serve as the basis for a subsequent goodness choice. The judgment of the true must always precede and direct the judgment of the good. To combine these is a reasoning error. This shortcut must impugn the moral pronouncments that follow, but it is an attractive bit of premature closure because it provides a certainty not only about the truth thus derived but even more so about the moral decision for which the determination of truth is but the means. And this is the point, really, for morality is inherently more difficult to warrant than truth because nothing about morality is material; all is conceptual. So empiricists have sufficient reason to challenge Romanticism for its quick-and-dirty claims to correspondence certainty just as they challenged the religious authority that Romanticism rejected, just as they challenged the Gnostic revelationism that it emulates. But if Romanticism and religious belief in general would abandon the easy certainty of claiming truths and instead focus on metaphysical goodness, it might still make a contribution to the culture. Though it has been battered by the continued successes of science and technology, it retains at least some ability to resist the contingent determinism and materialist focus that must characterize the natural and human sciences.Science will continue its relentless assaults on material reality, something we should be grateful for. But much of life as we experience it remains beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and religionists might do well to regroup and defend their paradigms in these unknown expanses of belief 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 identity, for example, reveal much that is mysterious and closed about the most basic structures of human experience. Rather than reduce the dignity and majesty of the soul by subscribing to a meretricious, pseudo-scientific theology tinged with psychology and sociology, religion should elevate consciousness as the great mystery and the source of moral freedom in the universe (see “Our Freedom Fetish“) unique and glorious in its reflection of a far greater Glory. To succeed, they must forego challenges to determinism in material reality and feeble defenses of historicism and Biblical literacy. The truths they profess privately would be both more powerful and more beneficial to the culture if they were moral ones consistent with knowledge judged true by a preponderance of the evidence, even if their prescriptions were built upon authority, though such claims are heir to those flaws in its mode of warrant the Reformation so painfully revealed. This might entail considerably more humility than religious orthodoxy has felt comfortable with, though empirical science has shown us a creation so complex that it must move us to a reverential silence in the presence of such immensity and complexity (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip“). It is also worth adding that the many variations in religious belief speak not only to the weaknesses of authority in enforcing orthodoxy in the face of divine mystery that confounds any dogmatic claim to truth but also to truths far beyond the capacity of either reason or authority(see “Divine Justice“). If religionists insist on carrying the fight against science onto their opponent’s turf, they will continue to retreat as Catholicism did with Galileo and “creation science” does with the educated public. If they reject theology’s flirtation with the human sciences and with pseudoscience in general and focus instead on the errors of scientism and on their own moral traditions, they can hold their own holy ground against the secularism that has pushed them to the edge of irrelevance. More importantly, believers can face the collapse of authority as correspondence justification for truth and goodness claims with a clear-eyed acquiescence that might make peace with the culture and build into modernism an admirable elevation of individual conscience, at least modestly congruent with their ancient beliefs and traditions (see “Toward a Public Morality“).


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