Religion & Science, God & Politics: not such strange bedfellows after all

John Gray, author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, reviews David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions in the Globe and Mail Saturday:

The idea that the practice of science is at odds with religious commitment has long been part of conventional wisdom. In the 18th century, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment argued that science is the voice of reason while religion is little more than blind faith. Only by embracing science as the one true source of genuine knowledge, they argued, can humankind be rid of superstition.

A glance at the longer sweep of history shows this Enlightenment view to be misguided. Doubt has been an integral part of religion at least since the Book of Job, while science has often gone with credulity. The doctrines of dialectical materialism and “scientific racism” promoted by communists and Nazis, respectively, during the 20th century were as irrational as anything in the history of religion. Yet in the 20th century, millions of people embraced these pernicious ideologies as scientific truth.

John Gray is an ideological provocateur and controversial public intellectual in Britain.  Less well known in the U.S., he has made a noisy habit of taking on the current stars of “scientific atheism” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Gray’s critique boils down to that the atheists bring the same religious fervor — the same religious ideas and themes to their irreligious endeavors — as those evangelicals and other believers do to theirs. Gray’s critics tend to argue him on the facts: their science is testable, they say. But that argument precisely misses the point.

Gray is trying to demonstrate and explain how our secular political thought has inherited all kinds of religious myth that should be uncovered and understood so that we can think more rationally and reasonably about our public policy debates. He suggests that in America, where religion is far more pervasive than anywhere else in the western world, this is especially true.

In Black Mass he described the “utopian right” and America’s neoconservative belief that it could spread western-style democracy in a matter of days as a cure-all in the Middle East as a scheme to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. He similarly thinks it impossible to ever defeat evil or end history.

An absolutely fascinating thinker, he should not be so easily dismissed and deserves wider consideration here in the states. His conclusion from the above quoted review:

The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off. Theories of how humanity or the universe came about are strictly beside the point. Claiming to have a better explanation of the natural world than orthodox science – as creationists do – does nothing to advance the cause of faith.

Religion expresses the human need for meaning, not a demand for explanation. For those who have it, faith entails understanding the limits of the human mind and an acceptance of mystery. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, and for that reason alone they will need religion.

NOT PRECISELY RELATED: While on the topic of God, in Is God An Accident from the December 2005 Atlantic, I found a new and better understanding of God; and (if I recall correctly) why Americans go to church more than Europeans…