He Blinded Me with Science Part… the Third: The Final Chapter

The conversation continues…

I know… I know… different 80’s science reference. But how often will I get a chance to use this pic on a Catholic blog?

BOB:  “I’m asking for evidence for this remarkable claim”  (that Christian cosmology is necessary for science).

Dr. Greg: You mean other than the entire academic discipline of the history of science?  I’m afraid you’ve got me there.   Start with Stanley Jaki’s foundational book, “The Savior of Science.”  Columbia University has a brief summary of some of his major points here.

BOB:  “I’ve read this claim from other Christian thinkers, but I didn’t find their claims any better defended.”

Dr. Greg:  Not sure what you mean.  The history of science and epistemology aren’t primarily the purview of Christian thinkers.  How much reading have you done in either field?

BOB:  “I don’t see what’s special here. Couldn’t you and I brainstorm and come up with a dozen make-believe religions that also satisfied your need for a cosmology that presents an orderly universe?”

Dr. Greg:  We could, but you’re asking me to indulge in a fantasy. There are a million scenarios that we could conjure up in our fantasies, but I’m asking you to stick to how science actually came to be.  It has a story.  A real story.   You should get to know it.  That’s not a dig.  I mean it.  Someone in your position needs to know this stuff.  History shows that  science, as a sustained, systematic, enterprise was not a gift from the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It was a gift of Christianity, and specifically, the Catholic Church.

BOB:  “…Just don’t go into science with a religious presupposition.”

G:  Tell that to these dudes.    Bob, I do understand that it is an inconvenient truth, but science is, in fact, founded almost entirely on religious presupposition. You’re flirting dangerously close to scientism.   http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~mryder/scientism_este.html

BOB:  “And what happens when there’s a conflict between science and scripture?”

G:  Your fundamentalist slip is showing again.   Christianity is more than the bible.  This particular objection has never been an issue for traditional Christians.   20th Century American fundamentalists?  Sure.  Traditional Christians?  Never.  And in anticipation of your Gallileo objection

BOB:  “People are inquisitive and they found that an accurate understanding of the world led to progress. Where’s the puzzle?”

G:  So, “Science happens.”  THAT’s your argument?  Here’s the problem.  Science doesn’t just happen. That’s your 21st Century Western Christ-haunted bias talking.   I will grant that science tried to happen many times throughout human history but until Christianity came along it did not have the fertile soil it needed (Christian cosmology), a systematic way of conducting it (Bacon’s Scientific Method), the institutional structure to support its growth (monasteries) and a comprehensive means of communicating itself (the Church’s development of the university system).

With that, I do think I’ve done the best I can.  I hope at least some of my comments have given you food for thought.  I’ll give you the last word.  I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to thoughtfully engage these issues with you.  Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to do it again.   God Bless!

He Blinded Me With Science Part Deux: Just when you thought it was safe to leave God out of the lab…

The conversation continues…

Bob:  Christianity is a newcomer. Agriculture, metalworking, and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World preceded it, for example.   You’re simply noting the confluence of Christianity and science. What I need is cause. That it happened to be the meme at the time doesn’t give us cause.   For example, Isaac Newton was a Christian. Good thing, because his Cambridge position required a particular statement of faith. To say, “Take a look at the great scientists of the last 500 years—mostly Christian!” gives us nothing to argue that Christianity was the cause.   I can think of no science that came from the Bible. There are lots of retrospective insertions of science into the Bible, but never the cause. It didn’t even have a recipe for soap!

Dr. Greg:   If I understand your point, you’re basically saying correlation isn’t causation.  I agree with that.  But I’m saying much more than that. My argument is not “lots of Christians happened to be scientists, therefore science is Christian.” That would be an absurd tautology.  My argument is that a Christian cosmology is the intellectual soil that allowed the seeds of science (that popped up here and there but were largely choked out or ignored in other cultures) to germinate and thrive.  I would encourage you to read up on the history of science and epistemology.  Choose any secular source on either.  If you do, you’ll get a better sense of what I’m saying.

Regardless, I just need to be clear that I am not advancing a theological argument. That wouldn’t make sense in this context. I am advancing what is largely accepted to be true as far as most, secular historians of science are concerned.  The facts are what they are. I can respect your rejection of religion, but surely you aren’t an a-historian too?  😉

In reference to your point about the bible, I’m honestly surprised by your fundamentalism. Do you really mean to say that because you can’t find the word “physics” in the bible then that settles it?    I happily agree the bible is not a scientific document and is chock-full of bad science.   That’s not the point.   My argument has nothing to do with any of that.  My argument is that the bible presents a cosmology that gets the mind thinking about an orderly universe that functions according to pre-designed rhythms.  This mindset is not present in other religious traditions.   Likewise, the bible establishes that God is knowable through his creation (a uniquely Christian concept) and establishes a Church to facilitate the accumulation of that knowledge about him.  That means that the seeds of science not only have the fertile soil of Christian cosmology to rest in, they have an institution dedicated to watering and nurturing the plant that springs up because it sees that plant as a means of understanding God.   And that is exactly how history shows science, as a sustained human enterprise, came to be.

Your argument appears to be that science emerged from its own head as an uncaused cause.  That strikes me as an oddly theistic argument for an atheist to make.   Can you present your understanding of the history of how science came to be?  I think that would be helpful.  In fact, I think it would be necessary if you really want to support your argument.  I’m not asking what your opinion is.  I’m asking what is your understanding of how science actually came to exist as a flourishing, sustained human enterprise.  I would need to understand your vision of this before I could continue the conversation further.

At any rate,  thanks for the opportunity to discuss this.  It’s a great topic and I hope we have the opportunity to cross swords in the future.  Peace.

He Blinded Me with Science: Conversations with an Atheist on The Christian Roots of Reason and Science

Over at the Atheist blog, Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker, posted an article that examines the debt secular society owes to Christianity.  Last night, Bob and I agreed to attempt a respectful “interfaith” discussion about various topics, beginning with a look at the relationship between Christianity and the roots of science and reason.   Here is the first exchange in that discussion.

Bob:   (Here’s) a popular article argues that all of us—atheists, too—owe a great debt to Christianity. It grounds the stable Western society that we take for granted. (Or does it?)

Dr. Greg:  Interesting.  Rodney Stark, a prominent sociologist of religion (an agnostic last I saw) argues in, The Victory of Reason, that the West owes its reliance on reason, itself, to Christianity.  It’s a pretty audacious claim, but his argument is that in order to engage in scientific inquiry at all, you have to believe in an orderly universe in the first place which is impossible unless you believe in a God who not only creates, but agrees to live by the rules of his own creation.  If I believe in tree spirits, for example, who’s to say that tree would decide to be in the same place tomorrow?  What could I possibly gain by studying it? The inquiry might even be offensive. Likewise, if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time, it would never even occur to me to ask the kinds of questions science asks because it would never even dawn on me that such questions could be answered (hence the lack of significant, sustained,  scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures.  History shows that science happens in these cultures,  but only in fits and starts and not as a sustained enterprise).  The Christian God however, not only created the universe, but wedded himself to his creation eternally (Christians believe that Jesus Christ is eternally human and divine and has “divinized” creation through the incarnation), so while God could do whatever he wants in theory, he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order  that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him.  Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature,  because not only did God make the universe, but he made it in his image, unites himself eternally to it (so now I can understand something about his inner life as well (i.e., the doctrine of the trinity) by studying creation), and abides by the rules of his own creation (except in those very rare instances we call miracles–which are the exceptions that prove the rule).  Stark makes an interesting case that I really can’t do justice here.  It’s a good read though.

Bob: Or, you could not have any supernatural presupposition and just follow the scientific facts about the natural world where they point. Do the fundamental axioms (that is, those that we can’t derive from still-more-fundamental laws) have to be taken on faith? Of course not—we test them. If we found an exception to 1 + 1 = 2 (“Dang! We forgot to test it on avocados, and it doesn’t seem to work for them.”) then we’d incorporate that exception.

“if I believe in a capricious god who would/could do anything at any time”

Yes, a consistent god does seem to be important. But I’m not sure you have it with the Christian god. Some Christians (perhaps not you) will use human analogies to God as a teacher or parent. God is more loving, just, reliable, etc. than any human. But when it comes to difficult issues (God’s demand of genocide or his support for slavery, for example), then suddenly there are exceptions and God follows his own rules. God isn’t good by example, so he becomes good by definition.

“hence the lack of significant, sustained, scientific inquiry in traditional and eastern cultures.”

The West is at the top of the pyramid at the moment, but let’s not get too cocky. Before the Enlightenment, the Islamic Golden Age made Christian Europe look pretty primitive. And before that, you’ve got paper, gunpowder, printing, etc. from China. I’m sure you can think of other examples. I don’t see anything about Christianity particularly laudable that made Europe unique in a positive way for science.

I’d be more impressed with Christian’s support for science if we got anything of a technical or scientific nature out of the Bible.

“he has made a covenant with creation to play by his own rules in order that we may know him better by studying his fingerprints on creation, which is a reflection of him”

Is this theology or science? That is: do you have evidence of this or is this just what you believe?

“Science and reason are made possible because suddenly it occurs to me that I can learn something about God by studying nature”

How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it? That is, how can we tell that your statement is correct?

Dr. Greg:  Thanks for those thoughts.  We’re off to a good start.  Just to clarify, I’m just paraphrasing Stark’s argument, not asserting anything original.   That said, the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science which is simply not supported by the history of science.  It certainly could have happened the way you said, but it didn’t.  Unless I’m misunderstanding you, you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions–and more importantly, develop a system of sustained,scientific thought- in the first place?   I agreed with you in my original post that different cultures rooted in different religious traditions besides Christianity made discrete, scientific discoveries, but the scientific method, itself–the vey process that makes sustained scientific inquiry possible–was invented by Christians (Francis Bacon and William of Occam were both Franciscan friars) and promoted by Christians  (the majority of the scientific disciplines, from genetics to stratigraphy were founded by priests).  Why?  Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions, not the other way around.  History shows this to be true.     On a side note, One thing you and I are going to have in common is that I don’t care much for what “some Christians say.”   Lots of people say plenty of idiotic things but that doesn’t make their views representative of anything, or for that matter, accurate.  As a Catholic Christian, I’ll be arguing from that dataset.   I appreciated your comments.  Thank you for the opportunity to kick these ideas around with you.

Bob:  “the problem that I have with your argument is that you’re presupposing a naturalistic, atheistic origin of science”

Not by my understanding of the word “presuppose.” That’s certainly where the evidence points, but I’m open to contrary evidence.

“you seem to be missing the basic question which is how does it dawn on someone to ask scientific questions”   Actually, I’m missing why this points to Christianity.

“Why? Because Christian epistemology believes as I described above and the naturalistic view you champion is dependent upon those presuppositions”

You need to answer the last question in my previous comment: How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?

Dr. Greg: Bob, you’ll probably think this is ironic, but I can’t answer the question because you’re asking me to indulge in a fantasy.  Answering , “How would this world look different if there *weren’t* a god behind it?”  is irrelevant because the historical record does not support the idea that science evolves in an atheistic context. I’m concerned with facts here; the actual history of science.   Science can certainly be done with an atheistic mindset, of course it can, but only if that atheist accepts–unwittingly–the Christian cosmological mindset that asserts that the universe is orderly in the first place.   The idea that the universe is orderly is not supported merely by experience.  Mere observation would lead most objective people to believe that the universe is chaotic and unknowable, and that’s exactly what pre-Christian history shows.  The idea that the universe is orderly and possible to study in a systematic way is an idea rooted in Christian revelation.  Not mere reason.


I’ll post more as/if it develops.

Is Atheism a Religion?

Dan Fincke, who  has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham and hosts the Patheos Atheist blog (way to go,  Catholic higher ed.) , Camels with Hammers, asks the question, “Is atheism a religion?”

Psychologists of Religion might have something to say about this question.  I would suggest that the answer hinges on the definition of “faith,” “belief,” and “religion.”

Although religious people tend to think of faith as necessarily transcendent, psychologists of religion like James Fowler, have defined faith in more secular terms.  Fowler’s definition is a little…complex, but the short version is that faith is a universal human experience that exists whether you’re a believer or not and drives the human person to search for deeper meaning.   In that sense, Atheism, as a system of thought intended to help a person make sense of it all, is almost certainly an expression of this very human, non-transcendent, understanding of faith.

Likewise, psychologists of religion would say that belief is the organization of faith (that more vague, but intensely human quest for deeper meaning) into credal statements about “the way things are.”   Atheism certainly makes certain credal statements about the way, life, the universe, and everything works, so it would appear to be a belief system as well.

But is it a religion?  Well, that question could go either way.  Psychologists of religion would say that religion is a collection of people who share the same beliefs (as defined above) and have created rituals and structures and gatherings to celebrate and advance those beliefs.  In that light, I would say that there are some “religious atheists” and some not.

Non-religious atheists, like non-religious Christians,  are those who have little interest in promoting their faith and beliefs (as defined above) unless asked/provoked.  They are satisfied with their personal beliefs and have no great desire to gather together with like-minded believers or to advance their belief system.  They have figured out “what things mean” to them, and that’s that.

Religious atheists are a different breed though.  By the above definition, religious atheists are the ones who have a need to meet with other atheists at certain times and certain places.  They long to share their holy (unholy? a-holy?) books written by atheist high priests who develop and advance the atheist creed of “how things are.”  They go to atheist tent revivals with leading atheist prophets like Dawkins, or Chris Hitchens (ahem, God rest his soul) so that they can refresh and recharge their a-theistically spiritual batteries.  They evangelize others, usually without being asked because they want a fellowship of like-minded believers.  They create rituals with these believers that bind them together and advance their belief system.  These are most-certainly religious atheists by the most rigorous, secular definition of the term religion.  Let me offer another illustration.

I have a psychologist acquaintance who is a prominent, mega best-selling author.  He is an atheist.  He has very little patience for religious people.  He tolerates me because we share a lot of other interests but he is confirmed in his atheism.  He is the son of a punitive Lutheran pastor who held court in a prominent pulpit and drummed a gospel that positive stank of brimstone into him at home and at Church.  He hates church. Hates his dad.  Hates what it all stands for.

And yet, I often marvel at how much like his dad he turned out.  He has a weekly group that meets to study and discuss his teachings.  Not a therapy group, btw.  Just a bunch of people who meet at his house weekly because they like the way he thinks and speaks.  How much like a church service it is.  Every week without fail. Same evening.  The meeting begins at the same time.  They have a reading and a sermon.  They share how it relates to their lives.  They break for refreshments.  They depart confident that they will be back next week to repeat the ritual.  In between he goes on tour to promote his gospel to admiring disciples.

He hates when I point this out.  His distaste for his father blinds him to just how religious he is.  The difference is that his religion is him, so that makes it OK.

The point is that even though atheists don’t like to admit it, by the secular definition of the term, a lot of atheists are very religious indeed.  The question, I think, is not whether atheism is a religion, but whether atheists are religious.  I believe that from a purely secular standpoint, the answer is, “yes.”


Losing My Religion–Should Anyone Care? The Social & Psychological Benefits of Religious Faith

Religion gets a lot of bad PR these days. Some of it is certainly deserved. Much, I would argue, is not. But all of that begs the question, “Does religion provide any objective purpose for the psychological health of the person and the good of society?”

Benefits of Religious Faith: All in Your Head?

It’s an important question, especially as more and more people jettison religious faith in favor of more subjective, personal, spiritualities. According to the Pew Research Center, the rate of 18-29 year olds jettisoning religion has doubled from 8% to 16% over the last 10 years.

If religion is merely a personal affectation–something done in private for one’s own pleasure–then throwing it over for a more self-styled spirituality–or nothing at all–just makes sense. But what if religion offers more specific and robust benefits to psychological health and the health of society than personal spirituality? What if there are objective benefits to following a specific creed, participating in specific rituals, and actively associating and worshipping with a particular group on a regular basis?

Does the person and society as a whole lose something if it jettisons, specifically, religious faith?

A Question of Science, Not Faith.

I want to be clear that these questions go beyond both the truth claims of any particular religion and the issue of whether religion is personally meaningful or not. The question of any objective benefit of religion to the person or society is really one of social science–psychology, anthropology, and sociology, especially. Obviously, religious people subjectively think that religion is useful, but why? Perhaps they’re just deluded. Psychologists going all the way back to Freud have argued that possibility. Does it really all just come down to religion giving people a warm-fuzzy feeling inside? And why should non-religious people care about religion at all?

Freedom and Dignity

It would be easy to say that religion concerns itself with “the big questions.” But the truth is, no one needs religion to (with apologies to Douglas Adams) contemplate life, the universe, and everything. Almost everyone is fully capable of asking those questions without a creed, rituals, or a group to support them.

But I would argue that what a person and society does need religious faith for is to proclaim and protect the dignity of the human person and the value of authentic freedom. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have correctly noted that you don’t really need religion to be moral or good. But even a casual look at the data seems to suggest that as religiosity of a particular society decreases, human rights abuses increase.

As a society actively (like in communist countries) or passively (as in the consumerist West) stamps out religion (and I’m not just speaking of Judeo-Christian faiths, but virtually all religious faiths) two things happen: First, society begins to see people as things. Second, people begin to see themselves as things. And when people become depersonalized, “thing-ified” if you will, psychosocial health suffers to the point of non-existence.

Reason Without Faith is Nihilism

People are capable of great feats of reason on their own, but without religion, people struggle with significance. There’s an old saying that goes, “Some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” That’s reason without faith. Without faith, people too easily begin to think of themselves and each other as things, as merely means to a particular end. Every person has a price. But no one is valued.

Religion: ”Meet Needs AND Respect the Person”

Human beings tend to be pragmatic by nature and we stink at delaying gratification. We see a need and we want to fill that need in the quickest way possible. Unfortunately, the quickest way to fill a need usually involves treating people (others and ourselves) as things. When I’m hurting, the last thing I’m prone to care about is human dignity and freedom. I just want to meet my need. Now. By any means possible. What’s the quickest way to meet a sexual need? Porn or prostitution. What’s the quickest way to win a domestic argument? Treat my spouse like a punching bag. What’s the quickest way to meet an economic need? Treat workers like slaves. What’s the quickest way to achieve a political goal? Treat people like cattle to be hearded instead of citizens deserving of respect.

And though these may be the quickest means to meet particular ends, they are hardly means that respect the dignity and worth of the human person. The thing is, it is difficult to object to these practices on reason alone. All reason can tell us is that people are bags of meat. Reason can tell us that consciousness exists, but it can’t tell us the significance of that fact. Reason can tell us that, generally speaking, it’s better for me to treat others with respect–unless I can get away with doing otherwise. If I have the power to shield myself from the consequences of my actions, why shouldn’t I treat people as things if it would benefit me? It simply isn’t reasonable to think otherwise.

Likewise, because they are personal, individual spiritualites tend not to stand up well to social pressure. Individual spiritualities thrive where religions have made it safe for them to grow. But when religous faith is stamped out, mere pragmatism–the organized thing-ification of persons–kills spirituality altogether.

The more a person is treated, or treats themselves as a thing, the more they break down. The cost of porn? Sexual addiction, depression, lost work hours, broken marriages and families. The cost of prostitution and sexual trafficking? Post-traumatic stress, depression, addiction. The cost of domestic violence? Depression, suicide, anxiety, addiction, broken marriages and families, and an increase in all manner of psychosocial disorders in children. The cost of inhumane working conditions? Depression, suicide, anxiety. The cost of political oppression? All of the above.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

When mainstream religious faith is in conflict with a particular society as a whole, or with particular groups within a society, it is almost always because a religious faith is asserting that a particular means by which a person or society is attempting to satisfy a particular need runs contrary to the dignity or freedom of the human person.

Whatever you think of the nature of their respective creeds, Christianity, Buddhism, Falun Gang, are all mercilessly persecuted in China because they assert that persons must be more than cogs in the system. Whatever you think of their particular claims, progressive Christianity came under attack during the civil rights movement just as traditional Christianity is now under legislative attack in the US because it asserts that certain efficient means of solving social problems are beneath the dignity of the human person. In every case, it is organized, religious faith–much more than even individualized spiritualities which, because they are personal, tend to be easily subverted by outside pressures–that has the power to inspire people to realize that they are worth more than others (and even they, themselves) say they are. It is religious faith that consistently asserts, as point of revelation as opposed to mere reason, that people must be treated as persons, not things.

Moreover, it is organized religious faiths, more than personal spiritualities, that have the organizational power to demand social change and encourage personal growth and change in a manner that is respectful of the person and the groups those persons participate in (family, work, society).

So, whether you are a believer or not, the next time religious faith stands in opposition to a pet solution you favor, stop and consider whether your impulse is driven by a pragmatism that has not considered the dignity and worth of the people around you. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, the life you save may be your own.