Must Religion Retreat?


  • Religious authority continues to view the modernism of the Enlightenment as an unprovoked attack on its power when in truth it was a desperate search to compensate for authority’s utter failures.
  • Religious authority’s longstanding view has warped the present battle between faith and reason, one in which faith insists on continuing the losing battle that began with Galileo.
  • Religion continues to attack science’s hubris for seeking answers long considered religion’s territory, but empiricism’s relentless march has reduced religion’s truth seeking to a God-of-the Gaps modality.
  • This abject failure has been abetted by religious authority’s attempts to scientize belief according to typologies applied by the human sciences, which only further humiliates religion’s authority, and by the enormous success and prestige of science, which only further erodes religion’s case so long as religion pits its warrants against science’s discoveries and methods.
  • Rather than continue in this losing battle, religion would be better served by two concessions: first, to revel in the complexity and mystery of the reality science reveals as evidence of God’s transcendence as well as to marvel at the human mind that seems capable of discovering it, and, second, to examine the contingent determinism that lies at the heart of the empirical quest.
  • The great mystery of contingent determinism that makes science possible is that its practitioners reject it utterly in their formulation of paradigms, theories, and hypotheses, claiming a freedom to analyze components of reality that are themselves entirely contingently determined.
  • This antinomy felt human freedom in tandem with universal contingent determinism — is essential to empirical success, for without the former, science would be limited to description alone and without the latter, its predictive capability would be no more than magic or guesswork.
  • Religion can totally cede determinist reality to science while still making space for the most important of divine interventions: the voice of an immanent God guiding human preferential freedom.
  • This division of labor does allow religion to reclaim some moral influence, but its epistemological limits must necessarily constrain institutional authority because immanence can be at most a guide to belief.
  • Private belief advanced as public morality is a recipe for moral conflict.
  • Religious authority has been slow to recognize its own limitations in determining theological truth prior to seeking the goods that truth offers and also to see how incapable human reason is to unlock the divine mystery; unfortunately, empirical science is happy to point out these errors, producing further embarrassments.

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 argue 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 religious 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 that 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 “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance)? He thrust reason above the babble 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 vacuum of English logical positivism where it survives today as a sterile academic pursuit most useful for clarifying terms. 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 three 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 (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”).

A major reason is that religion has essentially surrendered the moral high ground. Many of 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? The historicism that answers that question is likely not known by most defenders. A simpler answer is that few fundamentalists spurn the blessings of technology while they question the methodology that made these blessings possible. And they see the anomaly there, so they seek to make their case a reasonable one subject to empirical verification. No contemporary argument can escape the influence of empiricism, it seems.

The cornerstone of that methodology is contingent determinism and the predictability of the natural world it entails. Without it science would be magic. Religion’s task cannot be a rejection of this fundamental axiom of the entire empirical enterprise, nor can it be an admission of its complete dominance of reality, for that would render their metaphysical claims nonsensical (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 material 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 reasoning on its deterministic nature and then gave humans a sense of freedom, a perverse consciousness that refuses to see itself as merely a part of that nature. 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  space in a totally determined material reality that is amenable to predictive reasoning by the only thing we know of in the universe irremediably convinced of its own preferential freedom (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument“).And perhaps God operates in that mysterious space of human preference in a way that science can neither explain nor dispute. Indeed disputing it is a prime example of the operation that illustrates and elevates it. When empiricism argues for determinism, it denies its most fundamental axiom, for choosing a side proves our preferential freedom. And perhaps only human beings may use that felt sense of preferential freedom against the backdrop of a predictable set of consequences to make moral choices that God may offer to assist.

It is inarguable that this operation occurs in an atmosphere of permanent doubt, for science can never disprove divinity and religion can never prove it, requiring belief as doxastic ventures neither warranted nor dismissed by our reasoning. Beliefs may be at most permissible to reason. They can never be as influential as truth is to our knowledge or goodness to our preferences (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?“).  In this picture of divine intervention, God’s voice can only be a fideistic whisper, a prompt to belief, a gnostic wisp, not a full-throated voice from on high accompanied by all the apparatus of external power. Institutional religious authorities will likely find this a reductio ad absurdum that assaults both their power and their practice. It will confirm that science is an existential threat to their traditions, reinforcing Catholicism’s judgment of Galileo. While this modest approach closes the door to religious authority’s custody of earthly truth and power, it is entirely consistent with longstanding religious traditions in all faiths that value meditation and receptivity, mystery and majesty, the mystical and the numinous. It allows God’s moral direction, making public expressions of belief permissible so long as they are also consistent with our knowledge. This limitation will steer public religious pursuits toward other goods than the purely spiritual ones that derive from private belief, hypothetical goods that accomplish aims that secular morality can sanction and that organized religion has always engaged (see “Needs Anchor Morality“).  Such efforts establish widespread goodwill for institutional religions and also accord with the generalized beliefs of their congregations, though they do not fully satisfy believers’ need for spiritual commitment in itself.  Curiously, empirical methodology not only prevents science’s entry into that space; it even prevents science from seeing its existence (see “The Limits of Empirical Science). Empiricism may only approach questions of immediate utility. It must remain blind to moral goods whether spiritual or secular beyond immediate ones.

The right of institutional religion to make moral claims beyond what reason can justify by even an ultimate utility is less clear (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends“). Since empiricism began seriously challenging institutional authority in the early twentieth century, religion has fallen back upon its moral high ground, though it has diluted that message by its reliance on the human sciences to increase its respectability in an era when all authority is failing.  But how strongly institutional religion can advance claims to knowledge of divine guidance remains in doubt. Still, a morality defended by religious tradition consistent with science’s discoveries about the natural world is not a logical contradiction, and congregants might find their own reasoning sufficient grounds to support moral framework erected in part upon the truths found by empirical science, enlarged by truths ascertained by competent reasoning. But even this modest moral structure is difficult to build in the present climate because institutional religious authority refuses to honor the superiority of individual moral agency, and it is doubtful that a fully categorical public morality could ever be erected upon the basis of trust just as it will not be built upon the immediate utility of empirical science (see “Theocracy and the Commandments”).

To succeed, religions 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 failed 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 and sociologists and even philosophers who have practiced a kind of scientism that might seem congenial to religious belief but which seeks justification in empiricism, thereby further diminishing religious authority’s power and further bewildering believers in a very chaotic age (see “Modernism And Its Discontents”). The essence of this problem involves warrant. Religion depends on one of two justifications. Belief must reside in the private mazes of personal desire, a passional 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“). Beliefs are clearly not qualified to be bruited as pubic and consensual truths, and since spiritual beliefs concern what is numinous and ineffable, these beliefs are certain to produce discord without any means of resolution short of pure power, as the Protestant Reformation proved. Commitments to institutional authorities are quite different, for they rely solely on a trust in authority, which involves a surrender of moral agency to a person or institution to decide on the subject’s behalf. But this act violates the underpinnings of both modernism and postmodernism whose most foundational assumptions champion individual freedom. Contemporary cultures are deeply suspicious of claims to authority and regard private belief as having no claim on other persons’ judgment. Congregants don’t understand the mulish resistance of other members of the culture to the truths they either trust implicitly and so lack the capacity to criticize or believe passionately and so lack the will to (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). Unfortunately, this confusion and resentment has fueled a seemingly endless reactionary rejection of modernism itself with a concurrent nostalgia for lost authority and more recently a defiant defense of sincere belief as an adequate warrant for public declarations (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). In terms of warrant, these are impossible ambitions (see “Belief in the Public Square”). The defense of private belief that is so prevalent today is necessarily a condemnation of institutional religious authority, which has no means of confronting it or the spiritual vacuum it creates in societies. Therefore, a retreat to moral pursuits consistent with secular values seems religious authority’s most promising path forward.

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 undistilled but deeply felt experience as the means of establishing morality while also embracing the transcendent. Romanticism made the same mistake as traditional religious authority,did 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 as the basis for a subsequent goodness choice. This bifurcation of truth and goodness determinations is one of the glories of science and is called the act of severance (see “The Act of Severance”).  The judgment of the true must always precede and direct the judgment of the good. To combine these is a reasoning error because it mistakes a necessity of causation: that effects must follow causes. One cannot use her preferential freedom to choose a good before her natural freedom presents her with her options for choice (see “Our Freedom Fetish). Preference relies upon a clear articulation of possible options experience reveals to it. If what I want colors what I see, then I will certainly tend to see what I want. It took empirical science two centuries to learn the proper technique to accomplish this separation between the true and the good, one that we are constantly tempted to violate so that we might make choosing easier. This shortcut must impugn the moral pronouncements that follow, but it is tempting as an act of premature closure because it provides a false confidence 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. But if Romanticism and religious belief in general would abandon the easy error of claiming material truths and instead focus on metaphysical goodness, they might still make contributions to the culture. Though battered by the continued successes of science and technology, they retain at least some ability to resist the contingent determinism and materialist focus that must characterize the natural and human sciences. Religion cannot reject science, but it must reject the temptation to scientism, a temptation the human sciences have fully indulged in.

Empiricism 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 partnership with secular morality and with the permissible expanses of belief rather than try to appropriate the methods and language of scientific inquiry to appear more acceptable to the current zeitgeist, inviting invidious comparisons 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 a universe 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 historical relevance 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. But that would require surrendering the kinds of absolutist claims to authority that is institutional religion’s traditional role. 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 to articulate, much less resolve (see “Divine Justice“). And this unpardonable retention of a bankrupt claim to trust is aggravated by a blindness to religion’s responsibility to consensual morality, and indeed, the insistence on maintaining institutional authority may well be the reason for religion’s moral failures. Perhaps if religionists took human dignity and moral agency more seriously, they might commit to an act of severance that fearlessly faces the truths of this world rather than contort them to prop up past failures. And if faith can face God’s creation clear-eyed, it can mold its beliefs on the truths it finds rather than the ones it wishes it could find and from these truths project a morality that inspires belief even if it fails to force a surrender to trust.

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 in the human sciences they have attached themselves to, on the rationality of their own moral traditions, and on nourishing private beliefs consistent with these things, they can hold their own holy ground against the secularism that has pushed them to the edge of irrelevance. They can defend their traditions of charitable outreach, of fighting for the forgotten, of non-violence, and of communitarianism on public grounds as public goods. 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 instill a humility in the face of divine mystery that is at peace with their ancient traditions (see “Toward a Public Morality“).

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