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Don't Talk About Creationism, Or Else

A Secular Age (4): “Religion” versus “Science”

Thomas_Carlyle_1 Why are these terms in quotes? It is because if one were to examine the whole of the phenomena collected under the term religion, and under the term science, one would find more conflict internal to each domain than between them. Yet there is undoubtedly a sense in which people believe in the reality of this conflict. What we mean by “religion” in this sense is not the entirety of religious phenomena, but simply a position of artificial confidence created by particular orthodox kinds of Christianity, and what we mean by “science” is rather a position of artificial confidence created by “the success of post-Galilean explanations”. Taylor notes:

The pure face-off between “religion” and “science” is a chimaera, or rather, an ideological construct. In reality, there is a struggle between thinkers with complex, many-leveled agendas, which is why the real story seems so confused and untidy in the light of the ideal confrontation…

The roots of this conflict lie several centuries in the past – in the “scientific revolution” that commenced in the sixteenth century, and in the resulting tensions which reached their apex in the nineteenth century – but even then (as we shall see shortly) the situation is not as clear cut as it is usually imagined. There is an obvious public side to the echoes of this conflict today in the battle between ideological Darwinians and Biblical fundamentalists in the United States, about which Taylor notes the following:

So then as now, in post-Galilean Europe and post-Scopes trial America, a fragilization of faith partly due to disenchantment, combined with an internalization of this disenchantment, produces a face off between “religion” and “science” of a strangely intra-mural quality. This is the face-off which figures so prominently in the ex parte “death of God” story so popular among unbelievers. One party, moved purely by the interests of “science”, that is, finding an adequate explanation for the undeniable facts, squares off against another, mainly actuated by an extra-scientific agenda, that of maintaining cherished beliefs and/or traditional authority… But the actual history doesn’t fit this dramatic picture. If we look at the period we’re examining, we see that the mantle of sober scientists was often seized by the defenders of orthodoxy.

This was a point that the philosopher Paul Feyerabend was also keen to observe in his reassessment of the Galileo controversy: it may seem in retrospect that Galileo was fighting for “truth”, but there were profound flaws in his actual research for which the establishment were quite justifiably cautious in accepting many of his claims. The fact that his position would come to be seen as factual was not enough in this case – Galileo may have intuited the actual situation from his observations, but his scientific research was in fact insufficient to carry his claim at the time. This does not, of course, exonerate the Church’s behaviour in this controversy, but it does render the historical situation more complex than is usually considered.

The driving forces behind this conflict were changes to the cosmic imaginary (that which “makes sense of the ways in which the surrounding world figures in our lives”, and is the parallel to the social imaginary discussed two weeks ago). No longer was the idea of an ordered cosmos the basis of humanity’s concept of its position in the grand order of things. Rather, a vast – perhaps infinite – universe was seen to lie in the space beyond our world: “Cosmos to universe: the way the world is imagined changed…”  

This change created conflict with particular religious beliefs at the time of Galileo, and the problem was to reoccur with increasing force in the Victorian era with Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Darwin himself never used the term evolution, as this had a different implication at the time). Taylor is keen to try and place this aspect of the story in adequate context, as it is easy to be misguided by focusing on the replacement of one theory by another, but the transformation of the cosmic imaginary requires much more than this. Kuhn and other philosophers of science have demonstrated in recent decades that “without an adequate alternative framework of explanation, the most refractory facts will not budge us from our established beliefs, that they can indeed, often be recuperated by these old beliefs.” Taylor accedes:

This is not to deny that science (and even more “science”) has had an important place in the story; and that in a number of ways. For one thing, the universe which this science reveals is very different from the centred hierarchic cosmos which our civilization grew up within: it hardly suggests to us that humans have any kind of special place in the story, whose temporal and spatial dimensions are mind-numbing. This, and the conception of natural law by which we understand it, makes it refractory to the interventions of Providence as these were envisaged in the framework of the earlier cosmos, and the connected understanding of the Biblical story. Seen in this light, “Darwin” has indeed, “refuted the Bible”.

But the usual perspective we have about the role of Darwin in the transition to widespread unbelief is misleading because it presents the theory of natural selection as the pivotal point of this conflict. Yet in fact the Victorian era was already grappling with this problem long before the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

Taylor identifies the historian Thomas Carlyle (pictured above) as a central figure in this debate. Carlyle had been raised in a strict Calvinist family, and his family had expected him to become a preacher; however, while studying at the University of Edinburgh he lost his Christian faith. Carlyle's work brought into the public awareness a wholly new perspective on history, and revealed what Taylor terms “the dark abyss of time” against which humanity was an almost insignificant speck. This was an important part of the background conditions in which Darwin’s theory appeared:

…evolutionary theory didn’t emerge in a world where almost everyone still took the Bible story simply and literally… this world was already strongly marked by ideas of impersonal order, not to speak of the dark abyss of time; and… an influential formulation had already been given to the displacement of Christianity by a cosmic vision of impersonal order, that of Carlyle. This doesn’t mean that Darwin was without impact. His theory gave an important push towards a materialist, reductive view of the cosmos, from which all teleology was purged (because explained away on a deeper level). But it enters a field in which many people had already felt the pull of the primacy of impersonal order; it did not initiate this pull on its own.

One of the most fascinating parts of Taylor’s account in connection with “religion” versus “science” is his exploration of the experience of conversion that people have when they abandon (say) Christian beliefs in favour of scientific materialism. He demonstrates quite comprehensively that this move does not occur as a result of “some rigorously demonstrated scientific conclusion”; in fact:

…the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality… the story that a convert to unbelief may tell, about being convinced to abandon religion by science, is in a sense really true. This person does see himself as abandoning one world view (“religion”) because another incompatible one (“science”) seemed more believable…

But by “science” here we mean scientific theory plus “a picture of our epistemic-moral predicament in which science represents a mature facing of hard reality”. It is this whole package which beats out “religion”, which is to say religious faith plus a rival epistemic-moral predicament. The actual findings of science are less important here, and certainly do not prove the impossibility of God – Taylor examines both the proofs and the disproofs of God (as have other philosophers before him), and shows once again that neither really hang together in any convincing fashion. As with all metaphysics, such issues can never be resolved decisively one way or another. Thus:

When “science” beats “religion”, it is one such [epistemic and moral] vision which expels another… But once this happens, then the very ethic of “science” requires that the move be justified retrospectively in terms of “proofs”. The official story takes over.

As a theist, Taylor has a unique perspective on conversions to unbelief, and notes that part of the appeal here is “the relief of revolt”. When one has a childish conception of God, for instance, as a protecting father who could prevent our suffering but does not, then the pain of holding onto one’s faith in the context of the unkindness of everyday existence can become unbearable – the only way to alleviate the cognitive dissonance is to ‘flip’ into atheism. Against this, Taylor shares his own image of God as suffering with us, but is keen to note that any kind of faith in God can be seen as childish from some perspective.

Returning to the core theme of secularization, Taylor identifies a pervasive “unthought” which can mislead unbelievers when they consider religion just as easily as equivalent “unthoughts” may lead believers into strange ideas. This hidden outlook is strong among intellectuals and academics who, having undergone a conversion to unbelief (or perhaps having begun there) believe that religion must decline either because science shows it to be false, or because disenchantment invalidates it, or because it depends upon authority and cannot survive the modern importance placed upon individual autonomy. This forms part of what Taylor terms the “intellectual hegemony” in the academic world, which excludes or renders irrelevant the study of religion, especially in the fields of social science, history, philosophy and psychology. Academics who study religion are often met with surprise, as if religious matters no longer had any bearing on the modern world. The extent of this problem, I can attest, is greater than most people give credit.

The historical battle between “religion” and “science” marked a powerful transition of the cosmic imaginary, one which did indeed create problems for conventional Christian faith both in the Victorian era and beyond. But this transition was not a change to an imaginary where scientific materialism is inevitable and religious faith is impossible:

…the salient feature of the modern cosmic imaginary is not that it has fostered materialism, or enabled people to recover a spiritual outlook beyond materialism, to return as it were to religion, though it has done both these things. …it has opened a space in which people can wander between and around all these options without having to land clearly and definitively in any one. In the wars between belief and unbelief, this can be seen as a kind of no-man’s-land; except that it has got wide enough to take on the character rather of a neutral zone, where one can escape the war altogether. Indeed, this is part of the reason why the war is constantly running out of steam in modern civilization, in spite of the efforts of zealous minorities.

We live in a world where the landscape of belief has diversified into an unfathomably variegated patchwork quilt of possibilities, against which both the narrow cleaving to ancient tradition represented by “religion” and the equally blinkered flattening of religious beliefs to irrelevance represented by “science” are merely the polar extremes.

Next week: The Nova Effect


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More great stuff, Chris, thanks. This is taking quite the long view on a very current topic... I appreciate how keen Taylor is on separating out recorded history from the popular perception of history.

Jack: it's Taylor's entire reason for writing this book, frankly: to deconstruct the actual history and contrast it to the modern subtraction stories. Yet the book achieves much more than this in its very wide margins; once the historical picture is painted, Taylor is free to explore all sorts of contingent themes, and that's where the book became even more interesting for me.

What I found fascinating about his account of the situation in the 19th century (which is included in this piece) is this idea that Darwin didn't bring a crisis to Christianity, he simply intensified a crisis of belief that was ongoing in society at the time by knocking out the teleological proof for God (which Kant had already demolished a century earlier, but in too abstract a form for it to have taken root in the popular consciousness). The book contains all kind of supporting materials that explore the metaphysical anguish of the Victorians at this time, but alas the serial form requires me to whittle down everything quite substantially.

Best wishes!

Do you think global warming is effecting the pigment in squirrels skin causing them to become darker?

Liane: all squirrel content from now on needs to go to Shadowtail. I've no idea why you choose this post to put this particular comment! :)

But no, it's nothing to do with global warming. The black fur results from an allele of a particular gene that (unlike the equivalent allele for albinism) seems to be dominant - which is to say, the young of a black squirrel are most likely to be black furred also.

Since the black squirrels in an urban or semi-urban environment are often just as or more camouflaged as they were in grey, they can survive, and gradually the dominant black gene overtakes the original grey gene.

It's one of those instances where genetics are actually relevant to interpreting the situation. :)

Thanks for asking - next time, please use the Shadowtail blog. Thank you!

The debate of Science vs. Religion is silly, because it is so broad. As Taylor noted, they are idealogical constructs with a broad array of meanings.

Do you have any input on more specific topics? How about "Science vs. Fundamental Religions?"

I assume when Taylor says "Atheist" he refers to the Atheistic variety that does not deny the possibility of a God, merely the plausibility? The term Atheist has taken on such a broad range of meanings that it is become muddled.

I agree with his ideas on unbelief becoming a religion unto itself. Ironically, many unbelievers have become equally religious as the targets of their crusades.

Quest: thanks for sharing your viewpoint here. And of course, I agree that "religion" versus "science" is such broad territory it is essentially meaningless.

As for "science" vs. "fundamental religions" - I'm not sure even this is the issue. The Amish are not *against* science, but they are fundamentalist. Conversely, Dawkins (for instance) is *against* "fundamental religions" (such as the Amish) and would claim he was for "science", although myself I am less certain of his claim in his regard. (It comes down to what is meant by "science" of course). I think, ironically, what he is against is faith in anything but "science". :p

We always get into trouble when one group wants to determine the epistemic territory for everyone else. (See also this post on Science and the Sacred).

Re: "atheist", none of the Taylor quotes in this piece use the term, so I'm not sure what you are referring to.

"Ironically, many unbelievers have become equally religious as the targets of their crusades."

Well, equally dogmatic. If that's what you mean by "religious", then fair enough - but "religious" in a strict sense is something that unbelievers by definition cannot be. :) This pedantic quibble aside, I do get what you are gesturing at here, and I agree.

We live in interesting times! :)

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