Interfaith Now
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Interfaith Now

Subtracting God from Science and Life

A necessary consequence of the advance of science?

Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash

The ‘subtraction story’

Charles Taylor’s Secular Age begins with an interesting question. Why in medieval times did almost no one doubt God’s existence but for many in the 21st century it is almost impossible not to doubt his existence?

Most of us have heard a version of this ‘subtraction story’. In medieval times, people in Western culture needed religion as a tool for explanation. They believed in an ‘enchanted’ world of magic, demons, and evil spirits where faith in God comforted them. But now we have science we can leave that world behind. We are now free to face reality.

Science or culture?

Taylor spends 900 pages tracing the development of this story from medieval times up to the present. He observes that, despite their popularity, people rarely state the scientific evidence for these subtraction stories.

They may refer to the success of science or evolution but with little further justification. There’s no point where the scientific evidence tips the scales inevitably towards secularism.

Taylor traces the origin of subtraction stories back to the 19th century. During this period, a trend developed for ‘conversion stories’ where influential figures testified to the divorce of science from religion as an inevitable stage in humankind’s development. For example, Max Weber:

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently…The arms of the Church are open widely and compassionately for him.

The driving force behind these ‘testimonies’ seems to be the moral imperative of casting off superstitions to face life ‘like a man’. This ethical motivation remains common in the “culture wars”. Where those who reject their norms are dismissed as being “on the wrong side of history”.

As with most sacred stories, it reflects the time and place of its origin. These secular narratives combine the rise of science with rugged Western individualism — the “frontier spirit”.

These myths grew during the European Industrial Revolution as people left the comfort and authority structures of village, family and church to make a new life in cities. It is not surprising that these subtraction stories have struggled to gain traction outside of Western culture.

Science or philosophy: is naturalism testable?

It is now common to argue science requires methodological naturalism. It is easiest to begin by defining a related concept, metaphysical naturalism. Michael Ruse calls this “a complete denial of the supernatural” (Oxford Handbook of Atheism, p383).

Ruse then defines methodological naturalism: “a conscious decision to act… as if metaphysical naturalism is true…”(Ruse, p383)

Methodological naturalism requires us to assume there are no authorities — other than human reason and science.

People will often present methodological naturalism as a neutral position. We will act as if metaphysical naturalism is true until there is enough data to reject it.

But what would be enough evidence to reject methodological naturalism?Richard Lewontin, formerly Professor of Genetics at Harvard, provided a candid response:

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Secularism and logic

Another problem with naturalism is that it fails to account for the objectivity of logic — a key assumption of science.

Greg Bahnsen’s debate with Gordon Stein is a classic. They both agreed the laws of logic are objectively true (that is, true for all people at all times). They also concurred that this is a foundational assumption of the scientific method.

But as Bahnsen pointed out, in the naturalist worldview the laws of logic can only be human conventions:

“well if you’re an atheist and a materialist you’d have to say they’re just something that happens inside the brain… If the laws of logic come down to being materialistic entities then they no longer have their law-like character.”

Stein had no answer. Since the debate in 1985, a viable naturalistic account is still lacking as acknowledged by several atheists.

For example, Thomas Nagel, an atheist and Professor of Philosophy and Law, Emeritus, at New York University essentially repeats Bahnsen’s conclusion. Most naturalists believe in the objectivity of logic but “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis.” (Mind and Cosmos, p83–84).

Paul Feyerabend, an atheist and formerly Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkely rejected the claim that scientific knowledge is objectively valid. He argued, in Farewell to Reason, this was impossible as the scientific method is based on culturally bound conventions.

An alternative story

The central role of Christianity in the development of modern science is now commonly accepted among historians of science, such as Edward Grant. On a practical level, the funding and support of cathedral schools by the medieval church was key to the development of modern universities. As were the development of scholarly societies, like the Royal Society in the UK, formed by scientists motivated by “faith seeking understanding”.

An ordered universe

A central assumption of science is the ordered nature of our universe. For example, Samuel Clarke, a pioneer of modern science in the 18th Century put it like this:

What men commonly call ‘the course of nature’… is nothing else but the will of God producing certain effects in a continued, regular, constant, and uniform manner.

Alvin Plantinga, formerly Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame argues this assumption is rooted in Christianity:

The idea is that the basic structure of the world is due to a creative intelligence: a person, who aimed and intended that the world manifest a certain character. The world was created in such a way that it displays order and regularity; it isn’t unpredictable, chancy or random (Where the conflict really lies, p272).

Out of the armchair and into the world

Another foundation of modern science is the need to test our conclusions using empirical data. This is often cited as a key contrast between science and the ‘blind faith’ of religion.

But once more, we can trace this scepticism back to Christian theology. Peter Harrison, formerly professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, argues the rise of experimental science in the 17th Century was inspired by the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation challenged the medieval church’s reliance on ancient authorities like Aristotle. The Reformation also led to the rediscovery of Augustine’s teaching on sin:

“On the one hand, the fall provided an explanation for human misery and proneness to error; on the other, Adam’s prelapsarian perfections, including his encyclopaedic knowledge, were regarded as a symbol of unfulfilled human potential.” (Peter Harrison, Fall of man and the foundations of science, p11)

The popular subtraction stories of our time ignore the Christian foundations for the origins of modern science. The 19th Century conversion stories of leaving behind the superstitions of the past still resonate with us as heirs to the modern world. They make us feel courageous and mature. The psychological benefits of these stories, rather than any obvious scientific discovery, seems to account for their enduring success.

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Nick Meader

Nick Meader

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My background is in psychology, epidemiology and medical statistics. I’m mainly discussing here theology, philosophy of religion and mental health.