In previous articles, we’ve explored conflict, independence, synthesis, and dialogue models in science and religion studies. Since I’m a historian, or at any rate studying to become one, it would be remiss for me to not mention a fifth model, not discussed by Barbour, but squarely in the mainstream of historical scholarship. This is the complexity thesis: that the richness and variety of the historical evidence precludes any neat generalizations, but requires attention to the particularities of each situation.
This might seem like the mere negation of knowledge, and hence philosophically uninteresting. The burden of my argument will be to show that this isn’t the case, that a historical approach unties some knots that might otherwise stay tied, and leads to some realizations that might otherwise stay hidden. Indeed, I would like to suggest that just as science does not proceed by speculation in the abstract but by investigation into empirical, concrete realities, so too philosophy should seek empirical foundations. Understood in this light, the question becomes not “what are science and religion, and how do they interact?” but “who thought what, when, about topics we call scientific or religious, and why did they think it?” This is in some ways a more modest question, since it isn’t going to yield a general thesis, but it’s also a more careful question, because it refers us to particular bodies of evidence, from which empirically grounded inferences can be drawn. I’d also like to suggest that what it gives up in breadth, it recovers in depth. A thesis about science and religion at some particular time (ours, for instance) is going to provide a more practical, accurate kind of guidance than a grand, speculative theory that is supposed to apply in all situations.
Consider, for instance, American fundamentalism. I’m talking about scientism, of course—the aggressive, moralizing, polemical, Daniel Dennett-and-Sam Harris variety, which not only asserts the value of scientific methods, but their exclusive value. Advocates of scientism deny that meaningful claims to truth or knowledge are to be found in any other way, and hence anywhere other than the natural sciences and disciplines that imitate their characteristic methods. Other groups of researchers, like philosophers or historians or literary critics, could become scientific if they adopted these methods, but they don’t because they are blinkered and retrogressive, according to advocates of scientism. Similarly, moral and political questions, in so much as they are meaningful, have answers that only science can provide, or has provided. There are, in short, no real ambiguities in the world, according to this way of looking at things. The basic issues are crystal clear, and do not require an intellectual so much as a moral response. To be an advocate of scientism is to be moral and progressive; to oppose it is to be immoral and retrogressive. Things are pretty cut and dried.
You might think that advocates of scientism sound a lot like another set of fundamentalists: a certain species of American Protestant who holds that the Bible is the line-by-line, word-by-word, divinely given autograph of the Almighty; that, in consequence, it is possessed of an infallible authority; and that it speaks with perfect clarity on all the most important questions. When knowledge-claims arise from any other area of research or inquiry, the first thing one has to do, according to this version of fundamentalism, is to check it against the Bible. If it is congruent with or reinforces what the Bible says, then it can be accepted; if not, it is wrong, and this can be known beforehand, independent of any additional inquiry. Things are, again, pretty cut and dried. The basic issues, for fundamentalist Protestants no less than for advocates of scientism, are moral, not intellectual.
Well, I’m hardly the first person to observe a certain similarity in the mental disposition and rhetorical style of the advocates of these dueling fundamentalisms. But is that as far as the similarities go? Do they just sound similar, or is it just convenient to paint them both as extremists? Or do they have something more in common, and if so, what is it? Here I would like to extrapolate on, and develop a bit, an argument offered by historian of science Lawrence M. Principe.* I believe it is a good example of what the complexity thesis has to offer.
It is a commonplace that religious fundamentalism is motivated by the search for certainty in an ever-changing world. With so few fixed points of reference for people to hold on to, they naturally hold on to the ones they have even more tenaciously—hence fundamentalism. That’s why the Bible has been invested with so much authority by certain strains of American Protestantism. It’s not simply that the Bible is supposed to be the sole guide to matters of faith and morals, that’s the principle of Sola Scriptura, advocated by the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century. Modern inerrancy doctrine (plenary inspiration) asserts much more than that, as we’ve seen. After all, a person could believe in Sola Scriptura without taking the additional view that the Bible is infallible on all topics simultaneously. They might hold that the Bible is infallible on certain topics, specify what those topics are, and treat the others as matters of indifference (adiaphora).
While conflict theorists like to assert that the “infallible only on certain topics” view is a retreat from historic Christianity, one forced on theologians by the advance of science, this is not really true. It’s actually the plenary inspiration view that is the recent development, and the more moderate Sola Scriptura view that is the historically mainstream position. The reason for the harder line on inerrancy taken by fundamentalist Protestants has to do with the social and economic upheavals of the late-Victorian era, a period that historians sometimes refer to as the “Second Industrial Revolution,” or the “Gilded and Progressive eras.” People who were dislocated from the stable life of the town and farm, and thrust into the constant struggle and anxiety of city life; who were exposed to the simultaneous and corrosive forces of the “higher criticism” of the Bible and of Darwinian biology; and who have felt, with considerable justification, that their autonomy was under threat from “the tyranny of experts,” did not respond by retreating from an inerrancy view of Scripture, as the conflict theorists often assert, but by asserting that inerrancy in an extreme and novel way. Ministers and theologians, no less than the laity, can have their own reasons for asserting a strong version of the inerrancy thesis. Not that there’s necessarily anything intentionally dishonest about it, but explicit reasons are one thing, and implicit motivations are another. The increasingly secular society that has taken shape over the last century is one in which the prestige of ministers and theologians has been in decline, as more and more areas of society (especially education) where their views were once sought and respected have become indifferent or hostile to them instead. This has, again, generated a perception of being under threat, and hence a motivation to fight back, at least among some ministers and theologians.
American Protestant fundamentalism is, in short, a modern response to social conditions—not, as its advocates and detractors alike often claim, the sole guardian of the historic and orthodox Protestant faith. It is interesting to observe that a similar development took place within Catholicism at this time. The modern doctrine of papal infallibility was declared at the Vatican I council, which met in 1869–70, at about the same time that the plenary inspiration view of Biblical authority was gaining ground in American Protestantism, and, arguably, in response to similar pressures.
The progress creed of scientism requires that old, superstitious ways of thinking retreat, and hence lose their influence, as science, education, prosperity, and freedom advance.
Well, according to advocates of scientism, this is all just the death throes of an irrational and outmoded superstition, which is finally, and thankfully, on its way out. Admittedly, one doesn’t hear this argument quite as often as one used to, since the continued power and relevance of Protestant fundamentalism is difficult to miss in the contemporary United States. Indeed, the laughter has been choking in the throats of some of the more energetic critics of Protestantism lately. Still, the progress creed of scientism requires that old, superstitious ways of thinking retreat, and hence lose their influence, as science, education, prosperity, and freedom advance. Since religion is the dark to science’s light, when the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it, that darkness can’t help but dissipate. So if the darkness is still there, that can only mean the light isn’t shining strongly enough—in other words, it can only mean that we need more education.
Although the theory of education that equates it with moral and civic progress has come under a great deal of criticism in recent years, most of it well-deserved, there is a sense in which, with respect to this particular conflict, it’s probably true. At any rate, it’s held to be true by advocates of both Protestant fundamentalism and scientism. They agree, in other words, that teaching evolution undermines Biblical authority, and hence Christianity. For Protestant fundamentalists, this is an excellent reason to not teach it; for advocates of scientism, it is rather the point of teaching it. But both assume that basically the same thing will happen if Christian children are taught evolution—namely, large numbers of them will stop being Christian. In a sense, the advocates of scientism have a “home-court advantage” in this struggle; the Constitution permits teaching science in state-run schools, and forbids the teaching of Protestantism or the Bible, so what they need to do is preserve the status quo, by keeping evolution in and prayer (etc.) out. It is not difficult for them to present themselves as defending public institutions from outside aggressors who are bent on imposing their views on everybody else, and there’s a sense in which that’s true. Why should Muslim, Hindu, or atheist children be denied an education in science for the sake of Protestant fundamentalist sensibilities? In another sense, however, the issue is just as much their ability to impose atheism on other people’s children, since, according to the theory that both sides accept, evolution leads to atheism, and teaching evolution is at the heart of the contest. It’s not at all clear that it is ethically right to appropriate other people’s money in order to teach their children things to which they are profoundly opposed, or that such a heavy-handed approach can be maintained indefinitely in a democratic society.
At any rate, so far the courts have consistently upheld the teaching of evolution, and forbidden prayer and other trappings of religion, so that has been to the benefit of the advocates of scientism. But their ability to preserve that “home court advantage” depends critically on their ability to compel other people’s children to attend educational institutions where they can exert and maintain influence, through the courts, as against movements for local, democratic, tax-payer control. If children aren’t sitting at desks in state-run schools, state employees will have a harder time teaching them things that their parents don’t want them to be taught, or doing it in a way that they don’t approve of. And while there may be laws that uphold the teaching of evolution and the expulsion of religion from state-run institutions, there are no laws that compel children who have alternative means of education to receive it at alternative institutions. Hence the rise of an alternative education system, such as private religious schools, charter schools, and home-schooling movements, where parents who want their religious views to be held close and evolution kept at a distance, can exert that influence more directly. Here American law is much more favorable to Protestant fundamentalists, since a freedom consistent with public safety is rather the point of American law, and their approach to education, however much secular people disapprove of it, poses no immediate, obvious danger.
But the rise of this parallel education system adds a new dimension to the political contest. The religious interests of Protestant fundamentalists begins to converge with those of the business people who sell education materials or run private schools, with the interests of upper-class Americans who may have all sorts of reasons, not necessarily religious, for wanting to send their children to private schools, and with small-government conservatives who, though they might not have any particular stake in the evolution controversy, are always looking for a way to curb “government overreach,” as they call it. The emergence of this parallel education system generates, in short, a new kind of momentum, and it leads the people who participate in it to wonder why they should have to pay for two educations, public and private, when they’re only using, and only want to use, one of them. What I mean is that they are still taxed to maintain state-run schools, notwithstanding the benefits go to other people’s children, and, understandably, they aren’t happy about it. This in turn imperils the viability of the state-run education system, whose funding and leadership is determined, ultimately, by elections. It also allows the grievances of Protestant fundamentalist to be rolled into a larger critique of science, and of the state, which we observe in controversies over climate change, gender and equality issues, and the “anti-free speech” culture of American universities.
Although the conflict is damaging to both Protestantism and to science, the real loser, of course, is the public, which is presented with a false dichotomy between dueling fundamentalisms, and is thereby discouraged from honest, open, constructive dialogue with more reasonable representatives of both communities.
To sum up, this particular corner of the “culture wars” is creating enormous spill-over effects, and it is by no means obvious that the advocates of scientism are going to have the last laugh. A large fraction of the American scientific community are state employees, and a large fraction of American science is funded by the state. An anti-government, anti-science narrative threatens the prestige, autonomy, and sense of purpose of scientists themselves, and does so right on their home turf, the universities. Perhaps their situation sounds familiar. Earlier in this discussion, I argued that Protestant fundamentalism has its roots in social and economic anxiety of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” when people who once felt secure in their social position were faced with new and grave uncertainties. They responded, not by retreating from their prior belief in the importance of the Bible, but by asserting it in a new and even more uncompromising form. Scientists, too, are feeling the pressure of an anxious present and an uncertain future, and, like an earlier generation of American Protestants, have responded, not by retreating from, but by restating in dogmatic form, their prior commitments—in this case to scientific practices and conclusions. Just like their American Protestant counterparts who claimed to represent the historic and orthodox form of the Protestant faith, modern advocates of scientism claim to speak for the entire enterprise of science, but really only represent a certain subset of that community. And, just like Protestant fundamentalists, they have their critics from within the community they claim to represent, which worries that their blustery rhetoric and paper-thin arguments may bring their entire enterprise into disrepute. It is no accident that Protestant fundamentalism and scientism look so much alike, sound so much alike, think so much alike, notwithstanding the very different sources of authority to which they appeal. That similarity is rooted in their similar sociological origin, hence they really can be understood as “two sides of the same coin,” so to speak. Although this conflict is damaging to both Protestantism and to science, the real loser, of course, is the public, which is presented with a false dichotomy between dueling fundamentalisms, and is thereby discouraged from honest, open, constructive dialogue with more reasonable representatives of both communities.
Are we justified in drawing any larger conclusions about science and religion from this episode? Certainly the enmity between these groups is real, not merely apparent, and that provides material for advocates of the conflict model. In other cases, however, (as we saw in the dialogue model) quite different relationships have pertained. And in future articles I hope to show further examples of the irreducible richness of explanations that are located in particular times and places, and how the sheer diversity of these particular instances undercuts any efforts at a grand, unified framework. According to the historicist philosophy that underwrites the complexity thesis, this particularity is not a result of undue modesty on the part of the researcher, but of the actual state of affairs—namely, that what exists is not grand, a priori categories like “science” or “religion,” but particular people with particular ideas in particular times and places. Like us, they struggle to make sense of a confused and confusing world, often contradict themselves, defy efforts at reduction, and are always capable of surprising us, if we are prepared to set aside our expectations and listen to what they have to say.
*Lawrence M Principe is a historian of chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. His lecture entitled “Scientism and the Religion of Science” was given in March of 2013 at the Wheatley Institute of Brigham Young University. The argument I’ve made in this article is inspired by Dr. Principe’s, but is not an attempt at duplication.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.