Religion For Atheists

It is an interesting fact of history that the scientific revolution occurred in a society dominated by the Christian religion. What makes the fact most interesting is that this revolution did not occur in opposition to religion, or as a countervailing reaction to it, but rather was generally in sympathy with prevailing religious beliefs.

Historians continue to debate whether there was something about the Christian religion that helped create a society within which the scientific revolution could occur. Perhaps the scientific revolution occurred in spite of Christianity, rather than because of it, but the question remains why nothing similar occurred in Asia, Africa or the Islamic world.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the scientific revolution occurred within a rational, yet religious environment. Religion informed science in ways that contemporary scientists would consider unacceptable (for good reasons).

Over time, of course, science divorced itself from religion.  Religion and science sometimes came into conflict, although perhaps not as often as is generally believed. For some, religion came be seen as anti-intellectual (a reputation it unfortunately often deserves) and for others science came to be seen as a threat to religious faith. But while there are still people who insist that scientific answers must be found within religious doctrines, orthodoxy and sacred writings, those views are generally only held within the fundamentalist fringe. Likewise there are those who contend that science has completely displaced religion, which must be properly seen as nothing more than primitive superstition. This view is also generally rejected, in favor of an understanding of the world that leaves room for both science and religion.

As modernity eventually began to blossom into error, producing its own counterparts to religious atrocities of the past (genocide, industrialism, hyper-individualism, environmental degradation, etc.), a move toward postmodernism arose. Postmodern thinking is suspicious of any metanarrative or claim to absolute truth. Thus postmoderns are as suspicious of a claim that all certainty and truth can be found in science as they would be of a claim that all certainty and truth can be found in religion. Interestingly, as more is learned of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the scientific concepts of emergence, the more it seems that there is an inherent uncertainty and freedom in the universe that is not compatible with scientific reductionism as the modernists would have understood it. Postmodern culture is increasingly receptive to the existence of mystery, wonder, and natural uncertainty. Theoretical physicists increasingly speak a language that sounds more like mysticism than modernist science.

I recently listened to an episode of the podcast “On Being”, featuring philosopher Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists. Krista Tippett’s introduction to the episode is worth quoting in full:

“Religion for Atheists” — that’s Alain de Botton’s prescription for people who don’t believe, but may respect and miss experiences of faith. This cradle-atheist is dissatisfied with popular dismissals of religion, and he’s giving voice to a new way. He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing. And he feels that secular society has emptied public spaces of religious messaging, only to fill them with commercial proselytizing that may impoverish us morally.  And so Alain de Botton has created something called “The School of Life,” where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty and wisdom.

I find it fascinating that de Botton has recognized that there is value and merit in religious thinking, even for those who have no religious faith. Although the episode makes no mention of postmodernism, it seems to me that this is a representative expression of it.

As tempting as it sometimes may be to dismiss grandiose scientific claims in favor of more traditional “unscientific” explanations (as the mad farmer, in one of his grumpier moments, does with spunk HERE), or to dismiss religious claims entirely, merely because they are deemed unprovable, maybe our culture is heading toward a safe area where physics and metaphysics can comfortably co-exist.  Certainly scientific inquiry is here to stay, and we’ll all profit from it.  I for one hope that there will always be room for religious inquiry in our culture as well.  As de Botton seems to agree, it is a baby that shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater.

This post has been brought to you by Dragon Naturally Speaking.  Hoping that it will help me get my thesis finished, I installed it and dictated nearly all this post with it, with amazingly few errors.  When I first tried using it about 15 years ago, it didn’t understand Virginian at all. My son and I howled with laughter at the nonsense it would spit out when I spoke into it.  I’d been told it was much better now and I see that indeed it is.

These days handwriting has been rendered largely obsolete.  Maybe typing will someday join it in history’s dustbin.


2 comments on “Religion For Atheists

  1. El Guapo says:

    I think there is value for non-religious-ists in the moral messages of religion.
    Despite it seeming like many of the deliverers of that message are hypocrites.

    One thing to note, much of the math and science of the Greeks were held and developed by the eastern Muslim world while Europe and western Christianity passed through the dark ages.


    • Bill says:

      Welcome back Senor!

      This guy’s story was fascinating. He was raised in Switzerland, the son of a wealthy Jewish banker. His parents were passionately atheists and he grew up believing religion was only for foolish and stupid people. But as an adult he found that he really enjoyed and appreciated religious architecture, music and art. And he came to realize that although he’d been taught that everything he needed to know was taught in schools, the really big things in life that his culture just assumed people knew instinctively (like how to live, how to confront mortality, how to behave in relation to others), were the traditional areas of religious teaching. He concluded that the absence of this kind of teaching and community impoverished society (even though he remained and remains an unbeliever). I like his line, “the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” Even though I study theology, and am a believer, I’m not much of a fan of religion. It seems to me that there is a lot of merit, though, to his thinking on this.

      You make a good point about the Islamic preservation of knowledge during the dark ages. Astronomy and math were highly developed in that culture as well (“algebra”, for example, is an Arabic word). But scientific inquiry never developed much within the culture, which many blame on religion (as Eastern religion is blamed for the failure of science to blossom there). The scientific revolution ultimately may just be once of those fertile moments in history which is too complex for any simple explanation. I just find it interesting, in light of the religion vs. science narrative.

      thanks for commenting


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