Science has long been gaining ground in a several hundred-year battle with religion that began with the dawn of modernity and is still not complete.
The long march of modernity has been a deepening process of “disenchantment,” in the words of Max Weber. The Medieval world was an enchanted place, in which fairies inhabited the forests, long dead ancestors appeared present to the living, the human social order appeared consecrated by God, and every thing had its place in a self-referencing system of spiritual correspondences, notes the philosopher Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age.
Since that time, science has stripped the world of one illusion after another, and in the process dissociated mind from body, humans from nature, nature from culture, and self from other. The process can be said to have began with the recognition that the earth does not lay at the center of the universe. It grew with the recognition that humanity evolved from the lower orders of life, and it continues as we learn increasingly more about the biological roots of human behavior.
Neuroscience, genetics, primatology, and evolutionary psychology are converging on a set of shared beliefs concerning human nature. As more and more of human behavior can be explained biologically, even humanistic theologians and spiritual thinkers are being sidelined in favor of an increasingly biological story of humankind.
The founder of evolutionary psychology, E.O. Wilson, believes the interlocking system of mutually re-affirmed truth that has long been characteristic of the natural sciences is gradually spreading through the social sciences and humanities, as more and more of human behavior is being explained biologically. Hence, according to Wilson, we may find the social sciences and humanities arguing less over perennial truths in future years and instead using biological research to advance a more certain knowledge of humanity. But whether or not such an advance of science is for the better remains to be seen.
Religion used to provide a gateway to the good, the true, and the beautiful, suggests the American spiritual philosopher, Ken Wilber. But over the course of the modern era, science came to dominate discussions of what is true, secular art came to address the human need for beauty, and religion was left with the rump of morality. Now religious thinkers and philosophers alike are challenged to integrate a wealth of new research on the biological origins of ethics. While a biological account of morality may give no guidance on the great moral questions of the day, it can nevertheless go far in setting the parameters of moral discussion. Even religions’ last bastion of secular morality is being stormed.
But as some reject a religiosity that fails to provide believable answers to the great questions of life, others seek solid ground in whatever fundamentalism is most ready at hand. Islamic radicals and Christian fundamentalist are in many ways two sides of the same coin. Both groups tend to be anti-liberal, both tend to interpret scripture literally, both are prone to violence, and both are wholly postmodern phenomena.
Christian apocalypticism and Islamic terrorism also share with Friedrich Nietzsche and many postmodernists a nihilistic disdain for the modern societies of which they are a part. And both Christian fundamentalists and Islamic radicals alike share with the new atheists a tendency to place belief at the core of religion. The emphasis on literal interpretation so characteristic of fundamentalism today is in many ways a response to science’s demand for black and white answers. Prior to the modern era, religious thinkers tended to emphasize the ways in which God is unknowable. But once again, science is setting the terms of the debate.
We seem to be witnessing something like the long and drawn out end of a great war in which both science and religion are trying to grab as much territory as possible just as the peace talks move toward closure. While the secularists may be beating back the fundamentalists this decade, last decade the fundamentalists seemed to be winning, and it is difficult to tell where it will end. But the ground that is being fought over appears increasingly sterile and denuded of life.
Whether Islamic radicals, Christian fundamentalists, or the new atheists win more converts, none of them seems able to provide an answer to either the postmodern predicament or the great questions of life. Even as Christian and Islamic evangelism intensifies, the bottom is falling out from these and other religions. And even as science gains ground on religion, scientific writings are becoming increasingly imbued with religious implications as scientists speculate on the meaning of the universe, the origins of human consciousness, and the nature of morality. Science may be winning, but it can often appear increasingly religious in its orientation.
The bottom is falling out for precisely the same reason many are gravitating back to a new spirituality. Postmodernity has overturned most traditional sources of authority, and this has left us seeking some deeper source of grounding. And when times are tough, even the tough-minded get religion. At the same time the rug is being pulled out from under religious authorities, many of us are yearning for some sort of spiritual connection. Our lives have been upended and we are thus seeking a deeper foundation upon which to ground ourselves. And it just so happens the yawning chasm into which the great religions of the world seem to be slipping is the same void from which religious realization arises.
The religious urge could be said to lie in the gaze into the dark unknowing void from which all questions and all meanings arise. We tend to seek religion, in other words, when we stare life in the face and realize we do not have the answers. God is in this sense not so much something we might attach characteristics to but rather the source from which all characteristics come into being. Out of the void of our confusion, we come to see the universe and everything in it in a new light. Hence, when our lives and worlds our shaken by the great earthquakes of the day, and the foundations upon which our lives are premised seem to tumble into some great void, we turn toward religion. And in an era in which everything is up for question, and thus seems repeatedly to cast us into this void, it is not so much that we need travel to it; rather everything seems to drag us down into the void. Meanwhile, the same forces that have spread the knowledge that has done so much to smash the foundations of religiosity are also generating new religious memes and repackaging old practices.
What we are witnessing seems to be not the death of God but rather a great reconfiguration. We long for and increasingly need something to unite all of humanity, not just the members of this or that sect. We need to unite humanity because we have practical global tasks that need to be accomplished, like forging a global climate deal and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. But we also need to unite humanity for our own personal sense of rootedness and security. The failure to attain global consciousness in a globalized world can leave us feeling misplaced and out of sorts. Religion has often served as an antidote to just this sort of experience.
But the religion many of us are returning to is often not even recognized as such. What seems to be emerging is something far more pliable and universal. We mix and match practices, draw a ritual from this sect a poet from that great religion. Like so many other aspects of order, a religious order that has been shattered is re-emerging at a higher level of integrated complexity, and that level is increasingly global in scope. And like so many other aspects of the emerging global order, it is difficult to discern the shape it might ultimately take.
Science may have killed God, but it may also be the case that, like so many of God’s prophets, God is more powerful dead than alive.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May