Tao and the Myth of Religious Return

I’ve noticed an odd theme running through conversations and my reading over the last few months as I seek clarity on the nature of religious knowledge. Discounting psychological, pragmatic, and utilitarian arguments in favor of how believers justify the core claims of their faith, I’ve found a surprisingly consistent common thread, an historical narrative that parallels the loss of Eden in Genesis. Only the serpent in this garden is science.

This is not just a version of the bumper sticker mentality: “The Bible says it/I believe it/That settles it.” It does not stoop to denying the determinism that underpins the scientific enterprise, which is an affront to reason as well as science (see “Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle“). Nor does it resemble the misguided attempt to establish some parity between the methodologies of religious and scientific reliability, an effort foredoomed (see “Latest Creationism Debate”). Its attack is far more subtle, respectable, and powerful. These mythmakers deserve a thoughtful response.

Perhaps the most impressive phrasing was given by Alasdair MacIntyre in his magisterial work on ethics, After Virtue. C.S. Lewis covers some of the same ground in his most direct polemic, The Abolition of Man. Chesterton, Newman, Eliot, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Maritain, Percy, and a host of other very respected authors make their own versions of the same case, each differing in some details but all agreeing in essentials.

The story they tell is this. Something vital has been lost to culture, stolen by the revolution in thought begun by Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century. His attempt to establish objectivity and autonomy for our pursuit of knowledge was misguided hubris that launched the scientific enterprise and the Enlightenment, which in toto have rained catastrophe on western culture (see “Modernism and Its Discontents“). Our fading hope for reprieve can only lie in a return to traditional values informed by religious truth, rejection of materialism, and repudiation of scientific theories of man.

Altogether, it is a good story. Some of it is even true.

The first thing to notice is precisely that it is a story, one with the requisite moral. In fact, it is a very old story, as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s flood. It is the story of Eden, of the Pharisees and Jesus, of Augustine’s two cities. Equally telling, it is the story of Plato’s cave, of Aeneas, and of Lewis’s beloved Norse sagas (see “Tall Tales“). The tale of the wrongly chosen path and of human hubris is both an archetype and a touchstone. It informed the entire Romantic era’s love of all things medieval. It inspires the young through tales of Atlantis as it characterizes their grandfathers’ fond recollections of misspent youth. I found it surprising to find so much unanimity among philosophers, theologians, cultural commentators, and poets about the centrality of narrative to an understanding of truth, at least until I recalled how saturated they were by Romanticism as it was filtered through the artifices of the Victorian era and how antagonistic they were to the discursive language of science  (see “The Victorian Rift“).

But pegging its roots does not dispute its truth. And it goes without saying that nearly all modernist literature of the first half of the twentieth century was colored by just this sense of loss and diminishment. My issue is not with claiming a loss per se. It is with the nature of that loss.

For the regret expressed by the mythmakers is rooted in historical and ethical generalizations that cannot face real scrutiny. I count seven serious errors in their analysis, any one of which would prove a fatal blow to their version of events.

First, it is clearly untrue that there was some homogeneous value system that scientific thinking has attacked and is in the process of destroying. What C.S. Lewis calls “the Tao” as a shorthand for traditional values was no more coherent than the lost America conservatives wish to resurrect based on wholesome television series of the 1950’s. No single moral system characterized world culture before the scientific revolution, though religious authority itself was unchallenged as the warrant for disputatious claims to truth and goodness. One only need consider the challenge medievalism posed to classical culture to see how fragmented western ethical history was in the anno domini, not to mention in other parts of the world. Probably the most sourced of the works I’ve read recently is Michael Aeschliman’s “Restitution of Man,” which marshalls thinkers as diverse as Aquinas and Samuel Johnson to his cause. The deeply religious authors who present this myth of moral unanimity need hardly have looked beyond their own Christian faith for disproof of their contentions, for the bloodbath of the Reformation is sufficient proof that no moral position went unchallenged during that miserable era when religions warred over divergent moral outlooks (see “Premodern Authority”). What could they be thinking to claim otherwise?

I have yet to see a straightforward answer to this question from any of these thinkers, but I think I can provide one that they conspicuously avoid supplying. While we see no less moral controversy before Descartes than we’ve seen since, the grounds of the argument have shifted. The unanimity was not in the truth and goodness claims offered by pre-modern thinkers. It was in their mode of justification. What writers like MacIntyre and Chesterton wish to return to is the power of authority as a warrant. Granted, they locate the source of that authority in different places, for MacIntyre the culture and for Chesterton dogma, but both revere tradition. It was authority that the eighteenth century attacked and defeated, something only made possible by the glaring deficiencies religious authority made manifest during the awful decades of the Reformation (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“).

Second, these critics of modern science treat its rise as an unprovoked challenge to traditional values rather than a desperate attempt to find alternatives following their collapse in the Reformation (see “Modernism’s Midwives” ). But by ignoring the causes for, say, Descartes’ efforts to find consensual warrants for truth claims amidst the ruins of the French Reformation, they also overestimate his success and underrate the power of later attacks on his method. One can hardly blame writers like Chesterton for missing the postmodern revolt that was emerging in his own time. Perhaps he might have seen more clearly how modernism’s warrants, reason and closely examined experience, were assaulted by their very modes of analysis in ways that authority could never withstand if he had realized that the tradition he most revered was authority itself. I think a critic as brilliant as Lewis would have recognized– and abjured– the postmodern revolt on modernism and indeed might have then traced back the roots of his unease, but his death in 1963 came before the brilliant formulations of postmodernism that mainly emerged in the 1970’s, themselves explaining events that had been sorting themselves out since the turn of the twentieth century, though without much logical consistency (see “One Postmodern Sentence”). Why MacIntyre, writing in 1984, failed to see it befuddles me. By rooting values and moral duties in culture, he seems to find agreement with postmodernism, though how he could avoid the charge of cultural relativism that tarnishes their arguments escapes me. In either case, the argument that science actively opposed religion is far more true of the twentieth century than of the seventeenth, for what we know as science was still in its birth throes when religion imploded in the Reformation. It was the lack of adequate replacement warrants for religious authority that both caused the epistemological crisis and induced empiricism’s birth. The interval was nightmarish beyond our comprehension.

Third, they assumed that the “science” that emerged from the birth of empiricism in the seventeenth century is synonymous with modern science, so the boasts of a Comte or a Bayle might be seen as proofs of scientistic hubris. This issue requires a bit of teasing out, though. First, the entire nineteenth century has been a continuing effort to refine what counts as valid scientific experience (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). This effort has been reductive in the extreme, rooting out pseudo-sciences and outliers as it builds disciplinary paradigms and establishes links across fields of study. No one can deny that the early proponents of empirical processes were guilty of hubris, but one glory of their method of warrant is that it is self-correcting, and the boasts of early natural science have long been muted as science has matured in the last century. No one who understands true science can argue today that its efforts are guided by any greater value than respect for the truth. On all other values beyond a simple utility to arrive at that truth, natural science must remain mute for the simple reason that its focus on material, measurable, and mathematical substance provides no means to warrant moral or qualitative claims (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Goodness’?”). Had its critics clearly differentiated truth claims, which science does exceedingly well within its sphere of competence, and goodness claims, they would recognize that morality was safe from science. But in the two centuries after its birth, science hardly realized that itself. But we might pardon this error, especially when we see how slow science itself has been to learn its own limits. The mythmakers have their strongest point here, for the human sciences have proved guilty of all their charges: hubristic, value-laden, misleading, and a threat to every other means of knowing (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“).

Fourth,  the mythologists here make another mistake in that they don’t seem to distinguish the human from the natural sciences. The former justify all their charges and have since the Enlightenment first championed “the science of man” as an extension of “the science of nature.” But their enterprise has brought disgrace to their field and misery to humanity, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when human sciences purported to represent a real alternative to traditional morality. There’s some truth in traidtionalists’ charge that the “human sciences” are neither science nor humanizing. But any natural scientist working after 1900 could have told them that. Real science resents “soft science” basking in its reflected glow at least as much as traditionalist humanists do. To tar all science with the hubris of the human sciences is tantamount to charging all religion with the crimes of Torquemada.

But it is not likely that academics trained in the arts and humanities would seek out the counsel of the college of sciences. For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, they attempted a flanking attack that drew its power from some of the more gruesome scientific accomplishments of that difficult time. This tactic might be called the “Mary Shelley” argument: that natural science freed from moral restraint would create abominations. It did. The killing fields of the Great War faded into nightmare only to be replaced by the genocides that followed, and then by total war and the specter of the mushroom cloud. We may be too close to that era to appreciate how powerfully these prophecies affected culture during the Cold War. Scientistic utopias of the Brave New World or 1984 variety may have seemed possible, even likely, but history has shown them to be the fifth mistake of the reactionary mythmakers. The technology produced by the scientific revolution has not diminished human flourishing; the consensus judgment is that it has improved it. It is a gross ingratitude to decry the advances in public health, human comfort, and human knowledge that are empiricism’s bequest. Would anyone be willing to trade today’s life for that of the sixteenth century?  The cry of the Luddites and the counterculture seems to be fading. At any rate, the technologies that natural science has wrought are so woven into the fabric of world culture today, it is far more difficult to imagine a successful primitivist rebellion now than it would have been a century or even a generation ago.

The mythmakers were more perceptive in tracing some of the cultural products of a technocentric culture. Perhaps it was natural that they would characterize the popular view of science in terms reminiscent of the laity and the clergy. After all, this was their preferred social structure. They were correct in seeing the layman as befuddled and overawed by the new priesthood of scientists, viewing their accomplishments as equally mysterious and inexplicable. This credulity is a major motive for the human sciences’ efforts to ape the terminology and training of the natural sciences, though, of course, without their successes. It is perhaps more the laymen than the scientists who merit the charge of scientism, for an exaggeration of the capabilities of science analogous to magic can only succeed for the outsider. No practitioner of modern natural science could perpetuate such a hoax from within the discipline. For laymen, pseudo-scientists and some practitioners of soft science, such overblown claims with their echoes of the early prophets of true science might impress nonspecialists for awhile. I should add that popular cosmology is sometimes guilty of that charge, particularly when it attempts to confront questions of the universe’s origin that depend on shaky theoretical underpinnings. What this popular scientism does lead to is a misunderstanding of the nature of moral thinking, but it is an error the mythmakers share. The layman yearns for moral certitude somehow produced through the methodology of science. The mythmakers are right to condemn this is a false hope, for no “ought” can ever derive from even the most certain “is.” Or to put it in liberal arts terms, no imperatives from the indicative. Every capability of science requires a moral injunction to direct it, and that injunction can never be derived from the science that serves it. Medical science may extend life, but it may not decree that life ought to be extended. But the nostalgia for the moral directives of religious authority are, like their historical narrative itself, a longing for a myth. Authority of any kind must founder on disagreement. It cannot resolve dispute within its own mode of warrant. Neither empirical science nor religious authority can provide certain moral guidance in a multicultural climate. What can?

I consider expertise to be an admirable guide to judgments of quality as well as to issues of truth that yield to repeated and studied experience, but I must agree with the mythmakers that expertise is difficult to come by in the rough-and-tumble of undifferentiated experience (see “Expertise“). So in that sense, they are right to condemn the mid-twentieth century’s obsession with soulless professionalization and mass efficiency, though I should quickly add that an increasingly complex society cannot survive without bureaucracy and middle managers.

Sixth, the mythmakers’ ominous charge that in the absence of religious morality, “efficiency experts” and technocrats would by default be the moral arbiters of mass culture proved to be yet another error on their part. Wouldn’t you agree that is a role more likely assumed by commercial artists and entertainers in today’s culture (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“)? At any rate, expertise, though a powerful justification for many kinds of truth and goodness claims, can only have a tenuous hold on moral ones, and that merely the clarity derived from a long life well lived. We can appeal to no experts for moral truth and goodness. Neither scientists nor technical experts have replaced bishops, ministers, or mullahs as moral arbiters. It is not pretty that celebrities have, but that can be laid at the feet of impotent pastors more than lab technicians.

The “Myth of Religious Return” so prized by conservative literati is a good story for sure. But like all narratives, it suffers in any effort to translate it into discursive language. Without a doubt, the failure of their analysis can be traced to the dawn of modernism, a thought revolution spurred entirely by the dismal failure of religious authority over the century and a half of Reformation conflict. But the mythmakers failed as miserably in understanding their own age, and this serious mistake constitutes their final misjudgment.

Seventh, they failed to appreciate the postmodern revolution that rejected modernism at the dawn of the twentieth century in favor of group identities molded by spurious claims of social science, existential Romanticism, utilitarianism, and American pragmatism. We are certainly still suffering the consequences of postmodern moral thinking (see “Postmodernism is its Discontents”), and some of the strongest objections conservatives raise to the current moral climate are valid objections to postmodern thinking. Still, thanks to the Enlightenment revolution, itself condemned by both the mythmaking reactionaries and postmodern nihilists, morality is still seen as the most prized possession of the individual’s rational will in pursuit of what it calls good. Many of us exercise that will by choosing to respect religious authority not as a childlike surrender of moral agency to tradition but as a rational commitment of trust granted by individual moral autonomy, an inevitable result of the relocation of moral axioms from the premodern to the modern and postmodern (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Rather than yearn for some mythic, medieval paradise lost, religionists must compete for the moral assent of their adherents as adults, not as children cowering in fear. The intellectual revolution that freed reason from authority also established the sacred right of the individual to choose her own moral outlook justified by her own moral warrant. The mythmakers are certainly correct in asserting that hasn’t always gone so well, but moral agency does not preclude error any more than it perpetuates it.

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