Here we have another person blathering on about the limits of science, emitting the usual noises about how science, whatever its value in materially improving our species, can’t answer the Big Questions.
This time it’s Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of the WorldPost, a branch of the fluffy Huffington Post, and his piece is “How science is resurrecting the religious imagination.” Even the very title offends me. If science has stimulated the “religious imagination,” it’s only to confect new stories and metaphors to replace religious claims that science has falsified. See, for example, how the mind of the Discovery Institute has been “stimulated” to make up bogus stories about God’s intrusion into evolution.
I don’t understand how a rational person can believe that, without religion, democracy would crumble, underlain as it supposedly is with Judeo-Christian values. All you have to do is look at Europe—Scandinavia in particular—to see that Western nations that are largely atheistic are not not marinated in the “lethal concoction of nihilism and technical prowess” that Gardels decries in the passage below. Nor does the concept of treating humans with respect and dignity require that we believe we’re made in God’s image. Quoting a Nobel-prize-winning poet who is soft on religion does nothing to establish this thesis:
Science has no knowledge of being. It can only report that we are a collection of cells. A bundle of nerves. An immune system. “Being,” “the person” and “human dignity” are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination. In Islam, our body is God’s trust. In the Judeo-Christian heritage the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God’s grace, made in God’s image.
If we no longer believe in this link between the person and the sacred, as the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has reflected, the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess.
And this, of course, is a blatant lie:
Increasingly, societies speeding toward the future are looking to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance as they commit to their mutation in the new age of biology.
All societies, or at least Western ones, are becoming more secular, and their inhabitants increasingly looking to either nontraditional religion, “spirituality,” or simple humanism for this ethical guidance. It always amazes me how blatantly people ignore the data about religion’s wane, asserting just the opposite.
The whole tenor of Gardels’ post is that religion is the only source of moral guidance in the world, and he quotes many religion-friendly philosophers to that end. It’s as if the man never heard of Euthyphro.
Note the liberal use of quotations (rather than evidence) to support his thesis.
What is certain is that the faster the pace and the greater the scope of scientific discovery, the more the religious imagination will be stirred. As French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote of our technological society in “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,” “in this disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains what it was, i.e., too small to fill it and too feeble to direct it. … this enlarged body awaits the supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical.”
The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it in more definitive terms. “As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification,” he told me in an interview at Oxford in 1991:
“Who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation.”
The more scientific discovery reveals, the more we realize it can’t answer the great existential questions. In the end we are compelled to agree with Kolakowski’s conclusion: “Man does not live by reason alone.”
It’s palpably false that mankind can’t rid itself of the need for religion. Of course there will always be some folks who need the succor of religion, but if the last century has taught us anything, it’s how easily society can rid itself of faith.
Further, I don’t know where people get the idea that religion can actually answer the “Big Questions.” It can address them, but every religion has a different answer. Take the question of “what does my life mean?” NO religion can answer that question. Catholicism may assert that the “meaning of life” is to worship and obey God, but nonbelievers, Buddhists, and Unitarians would disagree. And what it means to “obey God’s will”, of course, differs drastically among faiths. As I’ve written before, what people construe as “the meaning of their life” is simply a post facto characterization of having done what they like and pursued those things that give them satisfaction. Religion can’t answer the Big Questions any better than a combination of humanism and rational thought. In fact, I’d take humanistic over religious morality any day.
The questions “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” can, of course, be answered by science. Construing them in any other way produces nonsense. “Why am I responsible?” has philosophical and humanistic answers. As for “How will I face death?”, that depends on what you choose to believe, and even that differs even among members of a single faith. Some Catholics will face death with equanimity, others with fear and terror. By and large, Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, something that also conditions your attitude towards death.
Even the most obvious Big Question—”Is there a God?”—cannot be answered by religion. Most of them say “yes,” but of course Hindus accept more than one god, and for us nonbelievers that answer is a nonstarter.
It’s a sign of the toxic effects of religion that it turns people into Rationalizing Machines forced to perpetuate the meme of faith because it’s supposedly good for society. All reason, all evidence, shows us that societies can do just fine without religion, and that nonbelief does not entail immorality. Gardels is clearly a smart guy, but when he writes about religion and society, it’s as if his brain has been commandeered by the faith meme, just as the brain of some ants are commandeered by a fungus to help spread fungal spores.
And really, is there any big question that religion can answer? I’m asking seriously; post your thoughts below.
UPDATE: Re the penultimate paragraph above, Reader Pliny the In Between had the same idea back in 2014. Click to enlarge: