#religion | The Science of Belief: Against reductionist approaches to religion

For millennia, religion and science were the indistinguishable: simultaneously natural and supernatural inquiries into human existence and the Universe itself. Wendy van Zyl

In the context of a perceived dichotomy between religion and science, religion’s continuing presence in the modern world seems strange to many, the implication being that, as scientific knowledge increases, so should atheism. Modern science has expanded humanity’s horizons beyond anything dreamt of before. At one time, humanity was unaware of anything smaller than a dust mote or larger than the Sun and the vault of heaven, but we are now bounded by atoms at one end and the multi-galactic universe at the other. Science has revealed the laws that govern nature, the properties of matter, and even, tentatively, the origins of human consciousness and intellect. Why, then, does religion persist? Why does 84% of the global population and 45% of scientists in the UK, Germany, and France possess some form of religious or spiritual belief? What does religion provide that science cannot?

Perhaps what is most important to note – and which is thankfully becoming more accepted in public discourse – is the absence of innate antagonism between religion and science. The most famous example of supposed disagreement is of course Darwin’s theory of evolution. Whilst there were some who were opposed to evolutionary science on religious grounds, contemporary reception of Darwin’s idea was nuanced. When considering modern theological scholarship, it is clear that reactions against Darwin were more a case of shock than of innate incompatibility between his theory and religion. For example, Arthur Peacocke, a theologian and biochemist, links the trend of organisms of increasing complexity evolving over time to the idea of imago dei, in that the existence of “self-conscious persons capable of relating to God” (from his Biological Evolution – a Positive Theological Appraisal) can be considered an evolutionary inevitability and an intention of God. And this is only one particular Christian theologian’s response to the issue; the full scope of religion contains numerous beliefs that in no way go against evolutionary science or science in general.

“At the theological level, religion has something that science lacks: metaphysics.”

Indeed, when considering the work of theologians like Spinoza, it is clear that religious belief does not necessarily even need recourse to the “supernatural” in the colloquial sense. The laws of nature – including evolution – can be seen as divine, that nature itself can be divine. Spinoza’s definition of God shows with great elegance how the laws of nature are supreme, opening the way for a symbiosis with science beyond that available in arguments put forth by scholars like Peacocke. In this sense, science can even be seen as religious. The ideal relation of science to religion and religion to science is perhaps expressed by a quotation of Einstein (who described his view of God as Spinozan): “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.

Whilst it can be argued that religion is not innately in conflict with science – and even that the two are better together – it would be misguided to view religion from a purely scientific point of view. It would be tempting to explain away religious belief in terms of psychology, or to consider the material conditions that determine what beliefs are held by which people. These are valid routes of inquiry, but if someone were to trace, say, a belief in gravity to the psychological and material causes of having that belief, wouldn’t they be rather missing the point? It is equally the case for religion. To conclude that all religious belief is simply the result of causality, at least in terms of the individual’s experience of belief, would be overly simplistic. More would be gained from considering a religious person’s reasons for belief and the content of that belief, than the causes of their belief. Whilst it may be the case that for many people, their religion stems entirely from emotion or culture, it would be hasty to see religious belief only as caused rather than chosen, just as the attribution of belief in the scientific method to the circumstances of one’s upbringing would miss the value of the scientific method.

“The secret of religion’s success is its unparalleled ability to couch truth claims in emotive terms.”

The fact of religion’s potential for coexistence with science does not, however, explain its persistence. At the theological level, religion has something that science lacks: metaphysics. At its core, religion is a metaphysical truth claim. Either implicit in the beliefs of the practitioner or explicit in the arguments of the theologian is an engagement with what is above the world. When a Christian says that God is creator ex nihilo, that is a comment on something beyond the scope of science. If science is the study of the universe, it is limited to the universe; religion, on the other hand, is orientated around concepts that are prior to the physical universe.

It is clear that religion is not innately incompatible with science, and that it answers or seeks to answer questions beyond the scope of science, and, whilst this accounts for much of its presence in the world, there is another dimension. To see religion as purely emotional is overly reductionist; to see it as purely intellectual is also too reductionist. For example, in the Śākta tradition within Hinduism, the description of reality being Mahādevī, the Great Goddess, is, for some devotees, a metaphorical one. The divine universe is the Goddess because a conceptualisation in terms of femininity highlights physical and metaphysical truths in a way that can be understood emotionally. The secret of religion’s success is its unparalleled ability to couch truth claims in emotive terms. This is not a case of truth claims being built on the back of emotion, but of emotion stemming from truth claims.

Religion exists in a scientific world not as something vestigial and purely emotional, not as something in innate opposition to science, not even as an emotive gloss of science, but as a worldview that coheres human experience and knowledge. It is probably clear at this stage that I am religious, and, yes, it must be admitted that there are numerous atheistic worldviews that purport to supply their followers with meaning in both the doctrinal and the emotional sense. But it seems to me that no reaction to the wonder revealed by modern scientific efforts is more appropriate than a feeling of religious awe; and that that no worldview can match the scope of religion in its ability to reconcile scientific, emotional, and metaphysical strands into one holistic system.

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