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…

  • mikkel

    The general premise that science has large components of faith (which I’ll explain a bit later) and that scientific atheists are as dogmatic as the religious (inherently, since science is unable to test God, denying God is outside scientific rigor and so not science at all) does have a lot of weight to it, but from the book review, it sounds like the book does at terrible job of actually having a critique.

    Communists (at least the actual countries, the philosophy is more ambiguous) were not atheists because they had some overriding need to reject God and go on rationalism, they wanted to replace The State as the object of worship. It had nothing to do with running a civilization with scientific principles. Indeed, most Communist ideals proved to be highly unscientific, and the way they ran it was obviously incorrect but they never sought to change it.

    The Nazis had the same overriding goal of getting fealty only to the state, but they actively used religion to graft that loyalty onto them. The German churches were complicit in the worship of Hitler and he never meant for the country to be atheists.

    That said, I think if there were no religion we’d find something else to kill each other over, like preferred color of shoes or something.

    The proper way to point out faith inherent in science is to point out that most discoveries take decades — if not centuries — to fully understand. During this time, there has to be a lot of faith that eventually it’ll work out or otherwise people wouldn’t be able to work on it (or get funding). The bad part is not that there is faith, it’s when people are no longer open to questioning the science or entertain new theories.

    And by questioning the science, I don’t mean how people normally attack global warming or evolution. The common attacks against those (again repeated in the book it seems) is that since we can’t explain everything, then obviously it’s not that good and is open to other interpretations. That is, quite frankly, idiotic. That (true) scientists understand that The Truth is beyond human grasp and therefore never try to think we can explain everything is a strength of science, not a flaw. The best way to attack it is to attack the data by pointing out flaws and then offering reasonable alternatives that can be tested.

    Indeed, some global warming skeptics suggested that perhaps it was sunspots that were causing the warming (to give an example, there are several) and it was recently calculated the exact effect that increased sun activity should be having (under 10%). [On a side note, there are some general concerns with the quality of temperature readings that need to be resolved, and some people say it shows there is no warming but those concerns are unable to explain obvious climate changes in parts of the world.]

    In essence, in Gray’s (legitimate) concern about dogmatic atheists, religion is not the best comparison, Science — and our collective struggle to fulfill its ideals — is.

  • JWindish

    Terrific comment! Thanks…

  • runasim

    Mikkel’s comment is excellent, but it’s not complete, IMO.

    There needs to be a stronger distinction made between dogmatic atheists, like Hitchens, and atheism (atheists come in many different shades). Hitchens crosses into an improper area of logical derivation,by claiming that what can’t be proved is consequentally false, whereas science simply has nothing to say on the subject of the supernatural (the basis of religion), , one way or the other.. Scinece, by definiton, can only deal with the natural world.

    I do think, however, that the human yearning for meaning can’t be dismissed lightly. It’s not scientific. but, like love, it’s undeniably there. There are people who can’t live without absolute answers and who can’t , for some reason, rely on themselves to make choices without a divine authority telling them it’s the right choice. I don’t know any atheists who would deny them the solace of religion, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the private space of the atheists. I think yearning has to be acknowledged as we deal with one another and neither disparged nor pandered to.

    I have doubts, also about Gray’s depiction of doubt as a part of relgion. It’s in the bible, but orgainzed religion would allow doubt only within narrow confines of religious tenets. Go too far, and you threaten the administrative self-perpetuaiton mechanisma of religion.

    In his role as provocateur, Gray certainly provokes thought.

  • JWindish

    Runasim, I enjoyed and appreciate your comment too!

  • Jim_Satterfield

    Gee, runasim, you beat me to it. I agree with each of your points.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    “The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation.”

    I suppose that assertion sounds very soothing, both to the science weenies and the faithful, but it’s nonsense. When you’ve got two different cognitive strategies acquiring chunks of the same resource–i.e., the human mind, with its inability to store more than a fairly small number of concepts and behavior–then you’ve got a pure “competition” in the most basic biological and/or economic sense.

    In the eleventh century, I would probably pray to God to heal me if I got sick. I would be in awe of God as I looked uncomprehending into the sky. I would appeal for God’s help as invaders marched through my land. And I would take comfort in God’s oversight of my soul, that it might be delivered to a better place upon my death. These were all perfectly rational intuitions for humans when they had no knowledge of medicine, biology, astronomy, physics, economics, or political science. (Yeah, yeah, I know–fuzzy studies. They may be fuzzy, but they’re still studies.)

    Today, I’m much more likely to seek out diagnostic tests for pathogens, and proven treatments for identified conditions, when I get sick. I’m still awestruck by what I see in the sky, but that awe is informed more by how such simple physical rules can produce such magnificent complexity. I’m likely to read the news and apply my (pathetically inadequate) knowledge of economics and political science to determine how safe I should feel today. And I may still hope for an afterlife, but that hope is tempered by my knowledge of cognitive behavior as an emergent property of complex neural systems.

    Note that there’s still room for God in all of the above, but there’s less room now than there was a thousand years ago, and there’s likely to be even less room in the future. Maybe the day will come when there’s a genuine equilibrium between religious thought and scientific thought, but that day has not yet come. Meanwhile, it’s pretty clear what system of thought is consuming that precious idea space at the expense of what other system of thought.

    (Gee! I managed to get through that whole comment and not use the word “meme” even once–oops! Damn.)

  • crashfrog

    Wait, what? “God can’t be tested”? “Science has nothing to say about the supernatural”?

    Says who? I mean, proponents of these things – God, the supernatural – claim very loudly that science simply can’t address them, but I see no reason why they should be believed. If God exists as something worth worrying about, something that can have an effect on this life and this universe (which you must believe is true if you believe that praying to God is useful), then science can test that. If we can have any kind of knowledge about the supernatural, then we can have scientific knowledge about the supernatural, including the knowledge, potentially, that it doesn’t in any likelihood exist.

    Having faith in God is not, as Gray says, a recognition of human limits. It’s quite the opposite – it’s an attempt to ignore the limits of knowledge. When you say “I have faith that God exists” instead of “I don’t know”, or even “there doesn’t really seem to be any evidence”, you’re not respecting the limits of human knowledge. You’re pretending like they don’t exist. At best, atheists like Hitchens and Harris and Dawkins say “without evidence, there’s no justifiable reason to conclude that God exists. And things for which there is no evidence generally tend not to exist.” That’s not a dogmatic position in the slightest – all you’d have to do to convince Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins to believe in God would be to show them some evidence for it.

    What would it take to convince John Gray and Joe Windish of the opposite? Likely, nothing could possibly convince them (especially if the works of Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins haven’t already.) So remind me who’s being dogmatic?