Continuing last Monday’s Musing (http://inewp.com/?p=5268) here are six more areas in which our developing “hard” sciences replaced or marginalized religion in Western cultures (the first four have strong family resemblances):
7. Symbols and metaphors were replaced by scientific literalisms and facts. If scientists had nothing more exact than symbols and metaphors, they could never build a bridge, a rocket, or make reliable diagnoses and prescriptions. An unfortunate but probably unavoidable side-effect of the scientific culture is that it has made us all much more literalistic, where an aphorism like “A fact is what you get when you stop thinking” could broaden and deepen our discussions and visions.
8. Beliefs became intellectual. Unfortunately, the stories that could connect our intellectual beliefs by weaving an adequate mythology haven’t yet evolved far enough. The stories of evolution, the 19th and 20th century myth of Progress, or the emerging stories of cosmology and Deep Time aren’t warming many hearts or helping many see life in more integrated and nuanced ways.
I’m reminded of the picture of Atlas holding up the world. That image wasn’t created to answer the question “What’s holding up the world?” It was meant to let us feel that this world in which we live, love, hope, achieve and die rests on “shoulders” not only strong, but also friendly. Our modern sciences do the first part better than the second.
9. Wisdom was replaced by Knowledge. Or, more poetically, warm knowledge was replaced by cold, hard facts. Even in the Middle Ages, theologians knew the difference. They wrote often of the categorical distinction between sapientia and scientia.
“Sapientia” is the Latin word for wisdom, as in our self-flattering species name, homo sapiens. “Scientia” is the Latin word for knowledge. At its best, our sciences embody a spirit of inquiry helping us to strengthen the “shoulders” for future generations. At its worst — and what is understood by the majority of non-scientists — our “scientia” means millions more facts than any of us could ever understand.
10. God was replaced by Science as the authority on who we are and how we relate to the larger world around us. People have always ascribed human qualities to Yahweh, the God of the Bible. We say things like “God says,” “God tells us” or “God loves us,” as though God were a humanoid who could speak, know or love. But now, in our newspapers and on television, we hear people saying “Science says” and “Science tells us” — though, tellingly, never “Science loves us.”
There is no such thing as “Science” spelled with a capital “S.” In the same way, “God” isn’t the name of a Fellow. Both Judaism and Islam are clear about this: Christians, less so. There are many sciences, and many scientists, as there are many religions and theologians. Scientists and theologians say things, and don’t always agree. But when we construct a sentence that begins with the words “God says” or “Science says,” we have created a humanoid fiction, an imaginary Atlas.
11. The scientific method has largely replaced the “revelatory” method. Some examples of people using this latter method include the Pope speaking ex cathedra, evangelical preachers claiming God has revealed something to them that is binding on others, the Mormon teaching that everyone can receive trustworthy revelations from God, and the funny but real bumper stickers that say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The scientific method – when it’s followed – doesn’t care who or what “said” it, only whether doubters can verify it for themselves through empirical, repeatable experiments.
Another way of putting this is to say that the “revelatory method” posits a kind of imaginary alpha figure (usually an alpha male), while the scientific method is more democratic and secular, at least within each science’s accepted paradigms and assumptions.
12. This leads to the last of these twelve ways in which religion lost much of its authority for growing numbers of people: The birth of agnosticism and apatheism. It shows itself in the ironic coincidence of two historical events taking place in 1869-1870.
A. The first was Vatican I. We’ve heard of “Vatican II,” the liberalizing of the Catholic Church that took place from 1962-1965 under Pope John XXIII. But we seldom hear anything about the first Vatican Council: Vatican I. It occurred from 1869-1870, when Pope Pius IX declared that if a Pope ever spoke ex cathedra, as he was doing, then his pronouncements were binding matters of faith for Catholics. It would be risky for a Pope to try this however, since if time showed their pronouncement to be wrong or foolish, the pretense of papal infallibility would be over.
The only Pope since 1870 who has spoken ex cathedra was Pope Pius XII who, in 1950, proclaimed the physical, bodily “assumption” of Jesus’ mother Mary up into Heaven. Joseph Campbell, the historian of world religious myths, pointed out that the bodily assumption of anyone was only coherent in the scientific picture of the world before Copernicus and Galileo shattered the ancient “three-story universe.” As Campbell put it, even if we assume that both Jesus and Mary “rose” up to heaven, and granted that they may have traveled at the speed of light, by now — 2,000 years later — they would be only 1/13th of the way to the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
And what, he asked, would they do when they got there?
B. The second thing going on in 1869-1870 was Thomas Henry Huxley’s coining (1869) then publishing (1870) the new word “agnostic.” Huxley’s new word was made up of Greek word parts, and expressed the new spirit of the times, as more and more people were becoming comfortable saying they didn’t accept the assertions of the churches, and just didn’t know whether or not there might be a God. Unspoken, but far more destructive to traditional religion, was the fact that they also didn’t care.
In the 20th century, as I’ll explore next week, religion lost even more important functions, both to new sciences, and to developing elements in our secular culture.