The Limits of Religion and Other Things

11 03 2013

This past weekend Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, visited Charleston, S.C. as a guest of the Secular Humanist Society.  This was an exciting opportunity for several reasons.  First, the event was free.  The organizers are to be applauded for this.  Second, it is not everyday that a world famous scientist visits your hometown.  Third, and finally, Dawkins is also a world famous atheist.  As a personal rule, if I can sit at the feet of someone who purports to submit Christianity to critique then I want to avail myself of this.  In terms of the new atheists’ objections to Christianity, I’ve found they have a legitimate moral critique of Christianity on several fronts that is good for the church to hear.  However, I’ve found their rational critiques of Christianity to come up short and actually end up strengthening my faith rather than weakening it.  So all in all, I regularly read the new atheists and was quite happy to have one come to town.  Unfortunately, the auditorium was too small and the fire marshal turned me away at the door.

I was fortunate enough to have dinner with some attendees who shared with me the content of the discussion as they heard it.  One predictable component of the discussion was the incompatibility of science and religion.  I can’t respond to what was said at the event, but I can respond to this supposed incompatibility.  The aim is nothing exhaustive, just a few thoughts to get your mental gears spinning.

The Limits of Religion:

While I do not wish to limit myself to Christianity, but rather to religion in general, I am after all a Christian and must begin somewhere.  Article VI, of the 39 ARticles of Religion states that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”  This is an exceptionally simple statement regarding the purpose of Holy Scripture.  The purpose of the Holy Scriptures, according to the Anglican 39 Articles, is to set forth those things necessary for salvation.  That is its purview.  We can maintain that Scripture does speak into life beyond salvation, such as matters of history or practical wisdom from ancient times, but there are many things that are simply beyond the scope of scripture.

To pick an obvious example, Holy Scripture has very little to say regarding germline mutations in PTEN and their relationship to PTEN hamartoma tumor syndrome.  This is not to say that Scripture has nothing to say, but that it says very little.  Scripture (whether you believe it or not) does say that God created a world, that the world was good, but something has gone horribly wrong.  These principles can be applied generally to the above perhaps to lend meaning to disease.  But these principals cannot be applied specifically to determine treatment for a disease.  Here religion is limited and must depend upon scientific disciplines if it wants to make progress.  Religion, on its own, does not have the ability to comment specifically about germline mutations, the Planck constant, Bernoulli’s principle, or anything else of that nature.

The Limits of Science

Science on the other hand does have the ability to comment on the above with great specificity and for this we should be grateful.  But an oft overlooked fact is that science does not have the ability to comment on the above absolutely, but rather only in terms of probability.  What I mean by this is that phenomena can be observed, repeatability noted, and a hypothesis generated.  To offer a very simple illustration, I can see that the sun comes up today.  I observe the same tomorrow.  Therefore I can hypothesize that it will do so the next day.  But what am I really saying?  What I cannot say is that the sun will come up tomorrow.  I can only say that the sun will probably come up tomorrow.

The above is what the late Peter Lipton (former department head of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge) described as a “matter of weighing evidence and judging probability, not proof” (Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation pg 5).  Science, when based upon induction (which the natural sciences are)  is limited in that it can only tell us what is probablebut it cannot tell us definitively what is.  Here we see the limitations of definitive pronouncements upon not just a range of natural phenomena, but a limitation to make any definitive pronouncements upon any natural phenomena.

The last sentence is a bit of a doozy and may require a little unpacking.  Surely we can make some definitive pronouncements upon some natural phenomena can’t we?  Well let’s give it a shot.  If I take my coffee mug and slide it off my desk it will fall.  I can do the same to the mason jar (full of water! not moonshine!) and slide it off.  The same happens.  Surely the same will happen again?  Most likely if not surely, the same will happen again.  There are a range of questions to ask from here, but let’s just cut to the chase.  I’m less interested in how you know that the coffee mug will fall, than how you  know that there was a coffee mug at all.  In other words, if I were to conduct such an experiment, how could I prove to you or to myself that I was not dreaming or worse in a coma?  How can I prove that the natural phenomena I’m observing is not an illusion or wicked delusion worked by a powerful Cartesian evil demon?  The unfortunate answer to the above questions is that there is no way you can prove that the natural phenomena you observe everyday are real.

Crossing Boundaries

When you and I engage the world as if it were real, we are doing so based upon the presupposition that it is real.  But this presupposition is groundless, that is, it is an act of faith.  Faith then is the first move required to observe, measure, and predict the behavior of natural phenomena because in order to do so, one must believe that such phenomena exist and will behave in an ordered way that can determine probability.  But there is no rational reason to believe that such phenomena exist outside of our own imagination.  To believe that they do is an act of faith.  Thus both the religionist, and the atheist, make their first moves based upon faith.

The difference between the religionist and the atheist is that the religionist is honest about this move whereas the atheist simply assumes it.  At the point of assumption, the atheist has crossed the boundary from science into religion, or science into philosophy.  Most of the time, he doesn’t even realize it’s happened.

This is not the only point where the atheist is likely to crossover into other territory unwittingly.  Take the moral zeal for truth of the new atheists.  If you are familiar with them, you will know that these people are admirably passionate for the truth.  Now my question is this: why are some passionate for the truth, others ambivalent, and yet still others enemies of the truth?  Consider the following from Richard Dawkins:

Genes swarm in hugh colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. (Dawkins, The Selfish Gene pg 21)

According to the above, I am a “gigantic lumbering robot” that is manipulated by “remote control” by my genes.  This may be true, but if it is, upon what basis can we attribute moral worth to being passionate for the truth?  After all, if I am passionate for the truth am I not merely having a chemical reaction caused by my genes?  If I’m ambivalent, or an enemy of the truth, am I not simply having a chemical reaction?  I suppose one might say, “ah, but some reactions are better for the species that others.”  Granted, but as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, our ability or passion to discern what is true is not absolutely necessary for our progress as a species.  He writes:

from a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable.  God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge.  But from a naturalist point of view the thought that our cognitive faculties are reliable (produce a preponderance of true beliefs) would be at best a naïve hope.  The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology.  In fact  he’d have to hold that it is is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.  It’s as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.  If this is so, the naturalist has a defeater for the natural assumption that his cognitive faculties are reliable (Plantinga, Books and Culture March 2007).

That’s a fairly heavy paragraph, that may be best served by an illustration (served up by Plantinga).  If I were to bump into a tiger and discern that this was an animal dangerous to my existence, I would run and therefore (hopefully!) survive.  But perhaps I bump into a tiger, and his stripes communicate to me that a race is about to begin between me and the tiger so I begin to run.  The outcome is the same, though one is based upon the truth (as far as we know) and one is based upon a lie (as far as we know).  Either way, the need to survive is served by the outcome of running.  So, “truth” is not necessary for the survival of the species.

If one follows the logic of the above, then being passionate for the truth is an illogical emotional response.  But the new atheists do get quite passionate, particularly in regards to religion.  When they do, they’re crossing boundaries from reason into faith.  In other words, they have no rational basis according to their worldview to get upset.

The Need for Something More

If you want to be passionate about the truth, you need to be able to say that (a) there is such a thing as objective truth to be passionate about and (b) that our response to truth is something more than a chemical reaction.  On both counts, we need to go beyond the realm of what can be proven scientifically and have therefore crossed into the religious/philosophical.  There will be many who are unwilling to make this leap, but in order to be consistent these same people need to very carefully re-evaluate their language, emotions, and behaviors to make sure that they are consistent with the strict materialistic worldview they’ve adopted.  But this is very hard to do, as Dawkins demonstrated this past weekend when he made reference to his “soul.”  You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy…but according to his worldview you should.

Our  inability to jettison language and behaviors that can only be justified through a religious world view I take to be an indicator that religion is natural to humans, because humans were made to be religious creatures.  As Augustine pointed out long ago, God made us for himself and we are restless until we find our rest in him.  This is by no means a winning argument (or even a good one!)  just an observation.  Christianity makes sense of human longing in such a way that the longing has significance and is not reduced to mere chemical reactions.  The problem with atheism is that it cannot intellectually give significance to human longing but neither can it emotionally discard the need to have that longing validated.  In this dilemma is a testimony in microcosm that something more is needed to make sense of the human condition than meets the eye.

All religions suppose that there is more to life than meets the eye.  Christianity’s unique advantage is that this “more” wants to be known.  The “more than meets the eye” took on human flesh, lived amongst us, died amongst us, and rose again amongst us.  The last point about the resurrection is particularly important.  Christianity teaches that this event did not happen in secret, but in public and can therefore be investigated.  Whether this investigation turns up a resurrected Son of God can be debated.  But it turns out that at the end of the day, while Christianity is certainly about faith, it is about more than faith.  After all, a man come back from the dead is a rare, but nevertheless an observable phenomena.



2 responses

12 03 2013


Very thoughtful and helpful.

Here’s an oft-quoted excerpt from a NY Review of Books ( by evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin who very honestly capitulates the faith position of the atheistic scientist:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

19 03 2013
The Limits of Religion and Other Things | Treading Grain

[…]  Read the rest. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: