• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Without God

In his celebrated 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, titled “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted that a day would come when America would end what he called “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.” His prediction came true in the twentieth century, and in no area of learning more so than in science. This surely would have pleased Emerson. When he listed his heroes he would generally include Copernicus and Galileo and Newton along with Socrates and Jesus and Swedenborg. But I think that Emerson would have had mixed feelings about one consequence of the advance of science here and abroad—that it has led to a widespread weakening of religious belief.1

Emerson was hardly orthodox—according to Herman Melville, he felt “that had he lived in those days when the world was made, he might have offered some valuable suggestions”—but he was for a while a Unitarian minister, and he usually found it possible to speak favorably of the Almighty. Emerson grieved over what he saw in his own time as a weakening of belief, as opposed to mere piety and churchgoing, in America and even more so in England, though I can’t say that he attributed it to the advance of science.

The idea of a conflict between science and religion has a long pedigree. According to Edward Gibbon, it was the view of the Byzantine church that “the study of nature was the surest symptom of an unbelieving mind.” Perhaps the best-known portrayal of this conflict is a book published in 1896 by Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, with the titleA History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.

In recent times there has been a reaction against talk of warfare between science and religion. White’s “conflict thesis” was attacked in a 1986 paper by Bruce Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, both well-known historians of science, who pointed out many flaws in White’s scholarship. The Templeton Foundation offers a large prize to those who argue that there is no conflict between science and religion. Some scientists take this line because they want to protect science education from religious fundamentalists. Stephen Jay Gould argued that there could be no conflict between science and religion, because science deals only with facts and religion only with values. This certainly was not the view held in the past by most adherents of religion, and it is a sign of the decay of belief in the supernatural that many today who call themselves religious would agree with Gould.

Let’s grant that science and religion are not incompatible—there are after all some (though not many) excellent scientists, like Charles Townes and Francis Collins, who have strong religious beliefs. Still, I think that between science and religion there is, if not an incompatibility, at least what the philosopher Susan Haack has called a tension, that has been gradually weakening serious religious belief, especially in the West, where science has been most advanced. Here I would like to trace out some of the sources of this tension, and then offer a few remarks about the very difficult question raised by the consequent decline of belief, the question of how it will be possible to live without God.

1.

I do not think that the tension between science and religion is primarily a result of contradictions between scientific discoveries and specific religious doctrines. This is what chiefly concerned White, but I think he was looking in the wrong direction. Galileo remarked in his famous letter to Grand Duchess Christina that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes,” and this was not just his opinion; he was quoting a prince of the Church, Cardinal Baronius, the Vatican librarian. Contradictions between scripture and scientific knowledge have occurred again and again, and have generally been accommodated by the more enlightened among the religious. For instance, there are verses in both the Old and New Testament that seem to show that the earth is flat, and as noted by Copernicus (quoted by Galileo in the same letter to Christina) these verses led some early Church fathers like Lactantius to reject the Greek understanding that the earth is a sphere, but educated Christians long before the voyages of Columbus and Magellan had come to accept the spherical shape of the earth. Dante found the interior of the spherical earth a convenient place to store sinners.

What was briefly a serious issue in the early Church has today become a parody. The astrophysicist Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas, in a fight with zealots who wanted equal time for creationism in the Kansas public schools, founded an organization called FLAT (Families for Learning Accurate Theories). His society parodied creationists by demanding equal time for flat earth geography, arguing that children should be exposed to both sides of the controversy over the shape of the earth.

But if the direct conflict between scientific knowledge and specific religious beliefs has not been so important in itself, there are at least four sources of tension between science and religion that have been important.

The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected. It is no accident that the advent of widespread atheism and agnosticism among the educated in the eighteenth century followed hard upon the birth of modern science in the previous century.

From the beginning, the explanatory power of science worried those who valued religion. Plato was so horrified at the attempt of Democritus and Leucippus to explain nature in terms of atoms without reference to the gods (even though they did not get very far with this) that in Book Ten of the Laws he urged five years of solitary confinement for those who deny that the gods exist or that they care about humans, with death to follow if the prisoner is not reformed. Isaac Newton, offended by the naturalism of Descartes, also rejected the idea that the world could be explained without God. He argued for instance in a letter to Richard Bentley that no explanation but God could be given for the distinction we observe between bright matter, the sun and stars, and dark matter, like the earth. This is ironic, because of course it was Newton and not Descartes who was right about the laws of motion. No one did more than Newton to make it possible to work out thoroughly nontheistic explanations of what we see in the sky, but Newton himself was not in this sense a Newtonian.

Of course, not everything has been explained, nor will it ever be. The important thing is that we have not observed anything that seems to require supernatural intervention for its explanation. There are some today who cling to the remaining gaps in our understanding (such as our ignorance about the origin of life) as evidence for God. But as time passes and more and more of these gaps are filled in, their position gives an impression of people desperately holding on to outmoded opinions.

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, “The theory that it’s all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

Most important so far has been the discovery by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that humans arose from earlier animals through natural selection acting on random heritable variations, with no need for a divine plan to explain the advent of humanity. This discovery led some, including Darwin, to lose their faith. It’s not surprising that of all the discoveries of science, this is the one that continues most to disturb religious conservatives. I can imagine how disturbed they will feel in the future, when at last scientists learn how to understand human behavior in terms of the chemistry and physics of the brain, and nothing is left that needs to be explained by our having an immaterial soul.

Note that I refer here tobehavior, not consciousness. Something purely subjective, like how we feel when we see the color red or discover a physical theory, seems so different from the objective world described by science that it is difficult to see how they can ever come together. As Colin McGinn has said in these pages:

The problem is how to integrate the conscious mind with the physical brain—how to reveal a unity beneath this apparent diversity. That problem is very hard, and I do not believe anyone has any good ideas about how to solve it.2

On the other hand, both brain activity and behavior (including what we say about our feelings) are in the same world of objective phenomena, and I know of no intrinsic obstacle to their being integrated in a scientific theory, though it is clearly not going to be easy. This does not mean that we can or should forget about consciousness, and like B.F. Skinner with his pigeons concern ourselves only with behavior. We know, as well as we know anything, that our behavior is partly governed by our consciousness, so understanding behavior will necessarily require working out a detailed correspondence between the objective and subjective. This may not tell us how one arises from the other, but at least it will confirm that there is nothing supernatural about the mind.

Some nonscientists seize on certain developments in modern physics that suggest the unpredictability of natural phenomena, such as the advent of quantum mechanics or chaos theory, as signs of a turn away from determinism, of the sort that would make an opening for divine intervention or an incorporeal soul. These theories have forced us to refine our view of determinism, but not I think in any way that has implications for human life.

  1. 1

    This essay is based on the Phi Beta Kappa Oration given at Harvard University on June 3, 2008, and draws briefly on some of my other lectures and reviews.

  2. 2

    Can We Ever Understand Consciousness?,”The New York Review, June 10, 1999.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print