3 Comments

Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article ’Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume ’that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.’

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to ’the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.’

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

1: Religious beliefs fundamental to science?

He argues religious beliefs are fundamental to ’scientific practice and understanding of the world.’ Rejecting the ’strident and noisy opinions of Hedley, Tyndall or Draper’ (which he blames for the idea that there is a conflict between science and religion) he falls back on Faraday’s religious beliefs. ’That God had written the laws of nature into the universe at the time of the creation, in such a way that they could be discovered.’

Religious apologists have been chauvinistically pushing that explanation for science recently. It parallels their claims to morality and is just as fallacious. Humanity realised the rational nature of reality through its own observation and experience. And it is only human to attempt to understand and discover.

Scientists who were Christian may have in the past given the sort of justification for science that James refers to. But that justification enabled them to move away from revelation to deriving evidence and ideas from reality without first discarding their religion. They initially converted their god into a retired engineer by recognising a rational, understandable reality. The first step along the road to disposing of any scientific need for gods at all.

2: Secularisation is social, not individual

James demands a standard of evidence for his straw man – ’it would be required to show that there were a large number of individuals who abandoned Christianity because of science.’ And he argues there a few examples.

This is no doubt true — but the decline of Christianity (and growth of secularism — not necessarily the same thing*) is part of social evolution. Changes occur over generations and social groups. It is far too simple to analyse abrupt changes in the beliefs of individuals.

3: Secularisation of science is inevitable

He concludes that science did not cause society to become more secular. Rather ’the causality of events is reversed . . . science became secular because society became secular, not the other way around.’

Again, far too simple — in fact devoid of any evidence or logic.

Scientific practice and epistemology is thoroughly secular today. Scientists themselves hold a range of different religious beliefs, but their working epistemology is secular. No revelations from ’holy’ scripture are used in scientific research. No gods have a role in scientific theory, hypotheses or speculations.

Evolution of the modern scientific approach has been the driving force in this secularisation of science, not society.

And let’s face it. Most societies are far less secular than science. Religion often has connections with the state, or demands and receives special privileges from the state. This is true even in a very secular society like New Zealand’s.

4: Theologians to blame?

Finally, James attributes the decline of Christianity, not to science, but to religion itself!’Theologians in part must shoulder the responsibility for the rise of secularisation through their own attitude and behaviour.’ Liberal biblical interpretations within Christianity had provoked a ’violent reaction from both the catholic and evangelical wings of the Church of England  . . . . throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and indeed down to today, with the misogynist row over women bishops, contributed, in my view, far more to the decline of Christianity and the creation of a secular society, than ever science did.’

So, having disposed of the straw man — that science caused secularisation of society — James has lumped for yet another simple solution — religion is itself to blame. But he himself suggested that simple explanations (like his straw man) are far too naïve. I at least agree with that.

Secularisation of society and science inevitable

Sure, the inevitable conservatism of theology and religious morality has turned many people off. But it also attracts many people. Judgementalism is a human intuition (and a vice). But there will have been many reasons for secularisation. The behaviour of the church and conservatism of theology are just one reason.

Inevitably science and technology has played a role. The myths and superstition of religion are far less attractive as we have obtained better knowledge. But science and technology has dramatically influenced society in material ways. Our mobility and communication has been radically improved. We are now exposed to many cultures and peoples we were previously ignorant of. We have far more avenues of entertainment and socialisation than we used to — not only physically but electronically.

All this has reduced the once important social and moral roles of religion. There have been a number of material and spiritual factors but secularisation of society has been inevitable.

Secularisation of science was also inevitable. But this was driven mostly by development of scientific principles and practices. By philosophical and epistemological evolution. In spite of, and independent of, religious beliefs of practitioners. And assisted by, but not dependent on, the secularisation of society in general.


*I am using “secular,” “secularism,” etc. here with the dictionary meaning of “to transfer something from a religious to a nonreligious use, or from control by a religious body to control by the state or a lay body.” A religious believer can participate in secular civil activity or scientific research without discarding their beliefs. I do not use the words in the sense of atheism, as some people do.

Thanks to James Hannam (@DrJamesHannam) for publicising the London Library Magazine article.

Similar articles