Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Vox Popoli: EXCERPT: Do We Need God to Be Good?

Dr. Hallpike considers the evidence in a chapter on humanism. Available in ebook and audiobook.

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no super-natural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.
- From the British Humanist Association website

Far from having been around ‘throughout recorded history’, the scientific method only developed with Galileo and his contemporaries; the ideas of the ancient atomists were forgotten for many centuries until revived by seventeenth-century chemists, and the general idea that ‘religion’ and ‘science’ have always been locked in conflict is simplistic and unhistorical. Religious thought has many strands; some of these have clearly been hostile to the scientific study of nature, but others have been much more favourable and we must also distinguish the personal faith of individuals from ‘religion’ in the form of official Churches, or equivalent bodies.

Religious explanations of nature are most obviously irrational and anti-scientific when they simply appeal to the will of a deity. For example, ‘Why does water expand when it freezes?’ ‘Because that is God’s will.’ No sense can be made of statements like this, which simply ‘explain’ one unknown by another. Religious traditions that emphasise the omnipotence of God at the expense of His rationality are clearly liable to fall into this category.

Some Indian thinkers, especially the Buddhists, thought that the picture of the physical world given by our senses is an illusion, maya, so that studying it could only be a waste of time. This profound devaluation of the whole of material existence, by comparison with the spiritual, could produce in any religion what Joseph Needham has called a ‘holy ignorance’ that stifled all intellectual enquiry into nature. Some took the view that even if the physical world is not an illusion, by comparison with eternity it is trivial and not worth serious attention. A more hostile view of the study of nature was that trying to understand its mysteries was not just idle curiosity that led to the sin of pride, but positively impious: ‘To pry into the mysteries of nature that God chose not to reveal…was to transgress the boundary of legitimate intellectual inquiry, to challenge God’s majesty, and to enter into the territory of forbidden knowledge.’

Even if there was religious interest in nature, as in the early Middle Ages, this might only consist in finding symbolic references to the divine. For example, The pelican, which was believed to nourish its young with its own blood, was the analogue of Christ who feeds mankind with his own blood. In such a world there was no thought of hiding behind a clump of reeds actually to observe the habits of a pelican. There would have been no point in it. Once one had grasped the spiritual meaning of the pelican, one lost interest in individual pelicans.

There has also been a tendency for religious leaders to regard secular explanations of the natural world as a challenge to their own intellectual authority. This raises the distinction between religion as the personal faith of individual believers, and religion as a social institution. Until well into the nineteenth century European scientists themselves were mostly believing Christians who saw nothing incompatible between science and religion; indeed, they regarded the Book of Nature as well as the Bible as God’s handiwork. The struggles that occurred were not so much between science and religion as between scientists and the authority of the Church.

On the other hand, there were a number of reasons why religion could foster serious scientific enquiry. In the first place the study of the heavenly bodies and the calendar was an integral aspect of religion from very early times, and this astrology laid the essential foundations of Greek astronomy, the first of the exact sciences. More generally, ancient religions were very interested in how the cosmos was formed by the gods. How things began, the emergence of the first humans, and so on, are standard themes in the myths of tribal societies and the ancient literate civilisations. These creation myths were therefore important sources from which the earliest rational speculation about the nature of things could develop, as we can see in the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

But undoubtedly the most important stimulus here came from those notions discussed in the previous chapter, of Logos, Br√°hman, or Tao, with the whole idea that the universe makes sense at some deep level, and that it is governed by a unified body of rational laws given by a Supreme Being. This has been an essential belief for the development of natural science, and unless the Greeks, in particular, had been convinced of this they would never have persevered in the serious investigations of nature that they did, and the same is true of medieval and Renaissance science. It was through St. Augustine in particular that the ideas of ‘laws of nature’, that could be applied to the workings of the heavenly bodies, and to natural processes on earth, passed into Western thought, and provided the idea that the mind of God could be discovered in the book of nature as well as in the scriptures.

Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, for example, were firmly in this tradition. As Joseph Needham says, ‘…historically the question remains whether natural science could ever have reached its present stage of development without passing through a “theological stage”’, that is, of a rational Creator giving laws to the natural world as well as to Man, and which Man could understand. The ancient idea that the scientific study of the natural world is to study the mind of God remained an extremely important motivation for genuinely scientific studies until well into the nineteenth century, and still survives.

But given the importance that Humanists ascribe to science, and the revolutionary claims of modern biology about the nature of Man, it is quite striking that the only interest they seem to have in biology is using it to attack religion, not to reflect on what it has to say about Man. Yet if one takes the claims of evolutionary biologists seriously, especially their denial of consciousness and free will, it is hard to see how the very idea of human agency and moral responsibility could survive at all. Although Humanists prefer to ignore these issues, in the words of Francis Crick, ‘tomorrow’s science is going to knock their culture right out from under them’, and they need to come to terms with the obvious incompatibility between their liberal Western values and a genuinely Darwinian view of Man.