The ‘Newmenous’: what Dawkins and science are missing out on

It has lately been suggested, by an author who I both know as a friend and deeply respect for his lucid and powerful insight, that the decline of religion is an opportunity for the flourishing of a scientific worldview, which was so presented as to be our noblest alternative to despair. I would hardly do my friend the gross disservice of thinking that he actually believed in the contents of his article, but nevertheless I feel it is in need of some critical emendation. To Nietzsche’s madman exclaiming the death of God, he proposes, simply, that it is no matter, for science can do all that religion does, and all the better, too. There are, I think, some more elementary and fundamental errors latent in the piece, such as an implicit adherence to the conflict theses between religion and science, and an optimistic, almost dialectical view of progressive secularisation. It is not my purpose here to catalogue points of disagreement between myself and my friend, but to provide a critical alternative to his suggestion.

As a person with no religious affiliation or belief myself, I am writing this not to provide an artillery of apologetics; as a Theology student I’ve simply found it impossible to have as naively dismissive a view of religion as my friend. Though it is not my intention to harangue Materials Science students for their ignorance in other disciplines, it would be to the great benefit of my friend and anyone interested in the subject-matter to appeal first to experts in the field, so as to refine any spontaneous opinions which have not yet been sharpened by the “tooth of disputation”. It is an unfortunate and incongruous situation in which people feel free to opine, quite strongly, in matters pertaining to religion without any education in the field—where, quite sensibly, should I write a loud and passionate piece on chemistry (about which I know nothing) I would be rightly chastised for even undertaking such an enterprise in the first place on account of my untutored mind. This is not, of course, to say that I am at all qualified to arbitrate on the subject, for if my education has taught me anything so far it lies in the discovery of a vacuum of personal ignorance which only ever widens.

He presents a strikingly unoriginal analysis of religion, and I think his (likely unwitting) patching-together of Feuerbach, Freud, and Nietzsche is shamefully spoiled by its admixture with a positivistic scientism to fill all the gaps. Religion is psychologised away as being an emotional crutch, a myopic, self-gratifying worldview, which is the product of an ignorant and pre-scientific reflection on the world and our place in it. Religion is made out to be an infantilised project which accordingly belongs in the infancy of human history; to continue to cling to it is symptomatic of our inability as a culture to ‘grow up’, as it were, into scientific maturity. On this account, religion presents us with a shrunken worldview, a “small aperture” through which we see “a poorer, smaller and less diverse universe than we actually inhabit”. This, of course, is only true if we take the highly reductive and, at points, flagrantly false (to the point of theological illiteracy) understanding of religion which he provides. Christianity, for instance, is described as having a lower-case ‘g’ ‘god’ who is some projected celestial father invoked both as an explanation for things before we had science and as some fictitious comforter for our grief and despair. Religion is, quite the contrary, a defiance against being shrunken down— the act of faith is a rebellion against the suggestion that what we see is all that there is, that we are merely apes with delusions of grandeur, and so on. Christianity, for example, is not the comfortable, pocket-size belief system he presents, but the daring claim that God himself died out of love for each and every one of us; that a bloodied, muddied man on the cross is the supreme instance of perfection. Those who does not shudder at this are insensible, and those who does not treat it seriously, but reduce it and wave it away, do themselves a great disservice.

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He seems to treat of religion as no more than a set of propositions, a list of prescribed beliefs, which (at least ideally) ought to affect behaviour in proportion to the strength of their adherence. Since religion is in error, then, it is good that its untruth be replaced, as it were, with the clarity and rigour of scientific truth. However, to even suggest that religion can be adequately replaced by science is to say that there is at least some domain of human knowledge, the human experience, and some human impulse, which religion (attempts to) satisfy, and which science can as well. Questions about purpose, meaning, beauty, goodness, and so on, are, by their very nature, those which fall completely outside a scientific purview. Science is our best method of finding out what is – what the world is, how it works, and so on –but it cannot hope to furnish any evaluative conclusions about what is. If we knew all the scientific facts in the world, every single detail of every minute part of the universe, this would in no way give us an answer to what makes life meaningful, or what beauty or goodness is.

It is an unfortunate accident that scientific hubris has generated the popularisation of the very peculiar view – which has next to no support among ethicists – that science can by itself account for morality. As any first-year PPEist could tell my friend, it is famously difficult to derive an ought, that is, a moral obligation, from an is, or what is the case. The assessment of the development of morality or (question-beggingly ‘moral behaviour’), though a fascinating and fruitful enterprise, in no way provides for any actual conclusions about what is good, right, and so on. If we grant that it can be observed that altruistic behaviour, for instance, is evolutionarily advantageous, this in no way entails that altruistic behaviour is good or right – merely that it is evolutionarily advantageous. To say that it does do this is to equate the ethical notion of goodness to being evolutionarily advantageous, which is no longer a scientific claim, but an ethical, philosophical proposition expressing the relation between evaluative concepts and descriptive ones. Dawkins’ case for morality already presupposes the truth of some non-scientific, brute assertion of ethical fact that “It is good for agents to act in the ways prescribed by memetic evolution” or something of the sort. It is not my intention to lecture on meta-ethics, but the tremendous issues my friend’s suggestion is plagued with should serve to introduce some hesitancy into its adoption.

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My friend is wholly correct in saying that religion is no prerequisite for wonder and the experience and recognition of the beautiful, but I must admit the arousal of some bile in my throat when I read that we can “endeavour to see the true beauty and mystery of our lives through the clear lens of science.” How it is, exactly, that science can direct us towards the beautiful or generate the mystical is a question that he thankfully leaves unanswered, for to venture an attempt here would be to swiftly meet a dead end. It goes without saying that the object of scientific inquiry – the natural world – is beautiful, from the composition of basic units of matter to the most expansive galaxies. That this is the case is evident to anyone with eyes to see; but why it is the case, or how we respond to the beautiful, are questions which science completely fails to answer. We cannot pathologise aesthetic sentiment, and we cannot make cut-and-dry formulae for the production and detection of the beautiful. Our sense of the transcendent when beholding the beautiful is something which does, and quite reasonably should, provoke a religious impulse, one which, as it were, wishes to peer behind the curtain of the world to there find its meaning.

As to those questions which concern why we are here, and what our purpose is, science finds itself likewise incapacitated. It can, with ever-increasing detail and accuracy, tell us how it is that our existence came to be, and what the conditions for our existence are, what our biological drives are, and so on. This is, for the larger existential questions, entirely irrelevant, and I would wager even positively unhelpful. To the person plagued with a sense of purposelessness, despairing of existence, reminding them that they evolved a certain way and that they are equipped with a libidinal economy geared towards reproduction and self-preservation does literally nothing by means of actually remedying their cares. They want to know what the good life is, or, what makes life good, and how they can achieve it. Religious systems give robust and suasive answers which has brought so much vitality to humanity that to simply pretend we could do fine with science alone belies a tremendously stunted capacity for introspection.

In the end, I must and will firmly maintain that religion is perennial, and only religion, or something like it, can replace religion. A Weltanschauung which equips us with a table of values and an account of meaningfulness and purpose is indispensable, and whether we choose to fill this need with Islam, Catholicism, dialectical materialism, Camusian absurdism, or something else belongs wholly to us – but choose we must. And, unfortunately, science is not on the menu.