Modern Myths: Science vs. Religion

“Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos is so threatening.” This is the subheading to a recent article on the controversy over Neil de Grasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, which began airing earlier this year on Fox. Alternet‘s Adam Lee examines the public outcry of many fundamentalist Christians over the show’s portrayal of the history of the universe; as the show is hosted by an astrophysicist and focused on the scientific exploration of outer space, it is unsurprising that the creation stories related in Genesis are not discussed. For those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture, of course, this is a thrown glove, an invitation to ideological combat. Lee, however, sees the issue in much broader terms: for him, this debate between scientists and fundamentalists is really the manifestation of a much deeper and absolute tension between science and religion on the whole.

Massive volumes have been penned on the idea that science and religion are locked in existential combat, and I have neither the space nor the expertise to go into detail here. A Google search or perusing of Wikipedia’s article on the subject can provide a better introduction to the scholarly debate on this narrative than I ever could. The short summary of what I think you will find in those investigations is this: the idea that religion as such and science as such are locked in some unavoidable ideological war is, simply put, a myth–in the full meaning of that word. It is not only mythical in that this narrative is untrue in many respects (i.e. many scientists are religious, many believers are fully accepting of science, and historically, a vast amount of scientific discovery has been achieved by people who were deeply religious and spiritual) but also in the more pernicious sense: this narrative is mythical in that it forms the backbone of a polemical stance that thinkers committed to a certain vision of modernity employ to discredit their opponents and give the impression that readers and listeners must pick a side in this great battle between progress and knowledge, on the one hand, and ignorant superstition, on the other.

But here, in the small space of a single blog post, I want to focus in on one particular claim that Lee makes–let’s return to his subtitle: “Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos” is so threatening.” Many readers will likely find this claim barely worth mentioning, because the assumptions behind it are largely accepted as obviously true. The uncontroversial nature of this claim only drives home how successfully the “conflict thesis” has been accepted in contemporary thought, for the claim is, theologically and biblically, simply untrue. What Lee is describing here–the idea that humanity is ontologically located at the center of reality–can be called anthropocentrism, an idea which is actually closely tied to Enlightenment humanism–not biblical religion. The assumption of human importance in the universe is the bedrock for social contract theory Liberalism and the application of scientific knowledge to the development of industrialism through technology, all tied up in the modern assumption of historical “progress” towards brighter and better futures. But this view is simply not central to Jewish or Christian religious thought. Somehow, however, many people today–even highly intelligent and well-educated people–seem to think that Abrahamic theology is tied deeply to an anthropocentric vision of reality.

This modern confusion is more complex than a simple historical and philosophical misattribution, though. Anthropcentrism’s consequences are meted out to various ideologies in a specific and ideologically-guided way. What we tend to see as the good aspects and achievements of an anthropocentric culture are attributed to science, technology, and liberal democracy, while the bad aspects or failures of anthropocentrism are attributed to religion or traditional culture. Thus, vaccines, air-conditioning, airplanes, computers, and the moon landings are all proof of the glories of scientific living, while the atom bomb, global warming, and the indignities of modern life are attributable to reactionary, unenlightened religious or tribal thought.

But the problem isn’t just that there is ideological cherry-picking here, there is also a mass of unexamined and baseless claims. There are few, if any, sections of the Bible that lend themselves to an anthropocentric reading. It is true that Jewish and Christian Scripture broadly claim that human life is purposeful and inherently meaningful–that God, the creator of all that is somehow cares for us–but humans are by no means placed at the center of creation. Indeed, the Bible is a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, text. God, not humanity, is at the center of the biblical universe, and it is only in relation to God that humanity can “cash in” its potential, so to speak. Far from being concerned only or primarily with the immediate material concerns of human beings, the Bible stresses that only in consciousness of and service to the Reality that transcends immanent being can humanity understand its true identity. Human life is recognized as fleeting and, in immanent and material terms, almost trite:

Consider, for example, Psalm 103: 14-17 (note that I have left all gendered pronouns referring to God in place; the reader should not take this as my approval of such pronouns. All quotes are from the English Standard Version):

For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Humanity is “dust” and “grass”, formless and fleeting: it is only by God’s continual creating and sustaining act that humans exist, and it is only in God’s loving act that we can have any hope. This same theme is present throughout the Bible; consider Isaiah 29:15-16:

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Here again, any sense of human autonomy from the Ground of Being and Becoming from which it sprang is quashed–only through understanding of the meaning of existence, which is objectively determined apart from humanity, can the particular human harmonize themselves with the reality in which they live. Again, humans are not the center here, but rather a periphery offered meaning and importance precisely to the degree that they conform themselves to the Center, which gives them being in the first place. The writer of deutero-Isaiah continues this theme and even the same metaphor in Isaiah 45:9:

“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Job also takes up this theme of human impermanence and seeming unimportance, even demanding that God leave him alone to enjoy what little passing pleasure he might:

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.

This lament, the opening of chapter 14, is later met with God’s reproval in the closing chapters, which maintain humanity’s determined and circumscribed existence while maintaining both God’s transcendent Otherness and sovereignty. Again, there is little room for a hubristic, anthropocentric reading here.

The Christian New Testament leans heavily on these images, continuing the insistence that the meaning–and indeed salvation–of humanity can come only via the human’s willingness to recognize and follow God, not on any human action itself. Thus James warns his comrades:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Here, even the rich person who seems in control of his or her life, with independent means and social power, is revealed as limited and contingent: the process of becoming will roll over them just as surely as it will over any other particular being in the world; death comes for all life. Similarly, the first letter of Peter directly quotes the lines from Psalm 103 above. And we have only skimmed the surface of this theme’s presence throughout Scripture: a number of other Psalms (e.g. 22, 90, 92) as well as Ecclesiastes explore the theme in greater breadth. But let’s not get carried away with quoting the text–I hope the point has been made.

This, of course, does not mean that religious people are often not anthropocentric in their thinking–but it does suggest, and I would say decisively so, that the source of this anthropocentrism is not their religiosity, but indeed the humanism that informs modern social thought. And here lies the interesting yet often unexplored tension within modern life. For it is modern social thought–social contract Liberalism in the Locke/Rousseau vein–that collides headlong with the scientific determinism of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially the Behaviorism of say, Skinner. The idea that human beings are largely determined and powerless in an often hostile universe is not at all threatening to a biblical view of the world–as we saw above, the Bible itself repeatedly asserts this very fact! It is humanism that finds this view of the world unacceptable and oppressive, for it suggests that humans, despite all our inventive cleverness and power, are ultimately unable to liberate ourselves from our material constraints. This would suggest that it is the largely unspoken yet ubiquitous classical Liberal view of humanity that, contradictorily, leads fundamentalist Christians to so vociferously reject scientific claims that seem to challenge an anthropocentric view of the universe, whether this is the Big Bang or evolutionary theory.

This will likely strike many readers as an odd claim, but, as counterintuitive as it is, I think its a much more accurate reading than the credulous pigeon-holing that Lee employs in his Alternet article. Fundamentalism, after all, is a religious movement that came about precisely to counter the rise of a robust Science in the 19th century; though its roots can be seen in resistance to early historical critical work on the Bible, it is not until geology and then biology undermined traditional readings of the creation stories that a full-throated ‘fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene. But this reaction already shows a major shift in the reading of Scripture, for creation stories that had meant to point to the mystery of creation had been bent–under the guiding rubric of humanism–to instead provide a firm basis for absolute human knowledge of the physical world. It is easy to forget that the basis for Evangelical and fundamentalist theology was and is (primarily) the Swiss Reformation–led by John Calvin, himself an avowed humanist. It was humanism that led to the idea that the Bible could be simply and directly translated–freeing the laity to interpret the text on their own, without ecclesiastical guidance (or interference, depending on one’s view). Although this certainly gave lay Christians more direct access to the Bible, it also meant that this highly diverse and ancient text was divorced from the cultural, philosophical, and hermeneutical context in which it was written–leading easily to a literalistic mode of reading in which the vast majority of the significance of the text is lost. This is, I think, precisely how the theocentric Bible can come to be read in a highly subjective, self-indulgent anthropocentric mode.

Thus, the real conflict here is not between religion and science, but between humanism and science. This seems paradoxical, precisely because we are so used to thinking of science as both the product of and servant to the humanist project: and again, medical, transportation, and information technology breakthroughs fit this narrative well. The last 2 centuries have been witness to an incredible surge in human knowledge, and that knowledge has led to human manipulation of the material environment in ways that have expanded human lifespan and quality of life (at least for those lucky enough to live in “developed” nations and of sufficient class status). This is an obvious historical fact. But of course, this same knowledge has also had its dark ramifications–not only in the development of military technology and the various negative “side effects” of industrialized society (pollution, rising levels of obesity, displacement of traditional culture, etc.) but also in the increased recognition of human beings as more object than subject. The Cartesian/Kantian view of human personhood as based in transcendental reason has collapsed. Humans now are immanent things, objects of science. This has resulted in massive medical breakthroughs–for only as a physical object can the human body be studied and healed scientifically–but it has also raised profound and unsettling questions: for can an object have intrinsic ethical value? When a person was understood as an immaterial soul, the separation of value and fact was not fatal to the maintenance of ethical realism. But if a person is no more than a body, how is a robust ethics to be maintained?

Herein lies the collision of what we might call “early” and “late” modernity: Locke, Rousseau, Descartes and even Kant inhabited a world of transcendent souls animating material bodies. Since the 19th century, this view of humanity has been challenged to the point of obsolescence: yet it remains the basis of our social thought. This philosophical view is necessary so long as we want to maintain modern liberal values of freedom and human rights, as well as the sense of human dignity, because there is no scientific basis for such claims. One cannot show, empirically, the existence of human rights. Nietzsche recognized that the collapse of transcendence meant the end of the old ethics just as much as it challenged old religious views of Divinity; Heidegger too saw the implications for classical Liberalism–and post-structuralist and postmodern thought has continued to drive home these conclusions. Yet, modern society remains caught in the limbo between humanist social thought and scientific determinism. It seems to me that the resistance to evolutionary thought and an “old” universe is as much about salvaging a sense of meaning to human existence–any meaning, religious or otherwise–as it is about defending a particular religious position. Fundamentalist Christians strike me more as the humanist canaries in the coal mine, rather than real countercultural traditionalists. And of course, they are far from the only people frightened by the conclusions of modern science and its manifestation in technology; lamentations of consumerism, the banality of industrialism, and the “disenchanted” nature of modern self-consciousness are common, especially among the artistic Left. What is perhaps unique about fundamentalists, however, is a recognition, even if it is pre-critical, that there is no “going back”–once one accepts the scientific view of the world, the realm of value and meaning seems forever lost.

I am not suggesting that we side with the fundamentalists in their angry, anti-intellectual assault. I am, however, suggesting 2 things that I think Lee–and many others–have missed. First off, fundamentalist angst is primarily humanist, not religious. Secondly, they aren’t wrong for sounding the alarm–their outbursts point to a central contradiction in modern life, the gap between our social/ethical and scientific/technological endeavors. The haughty cultured dismissal of fundamentalist fear only proves the uncritical complacency of many pundits and commentators. In the final analysis, if we are going to affirm science and ethical realism, we will need a new synthesis, a new way forward, that is not dependent on the transcendental individualism of humanistic classical Liberalism. The alternative to developing such a new way forward can only be the ethical relativism that post-structuralism and postmodernity promise. I would argue that such a synthesis can actually only come by reaffirming the theocentric view we briefly touched on above–but that’s a topic needing its own post.