Friday, August 19, 2011

The Age of Reason?

The BBC 4 radio program, Beyond Belief, is a weekly discussion of religious issues, approached, as most things BBC, from varied and usually interesting and thoughtful perspectives.  The August 15 program addressed the impact of globalism on religion. 

Each of the three guests on the program declared him or herself 'on the fence' with respect to the effect of globalization on religion.  Modernity and 'scientism' were supposed to bring secularization, and spread by globalization, but this hasn't been the effect.  Religion shows no signs of going away or even morphing very substantially.  In fact, it seems to be thriving around the world.  Evangelism, Islam, Pentecostal religions are on the march.

Yes, one of the guests said, it's on the march, and globalization leads to opportunities for communication and dialog, but it also leads to fundamentalist certainty, where different religions don't want dialog.  This is a common phenomenon, perhaps the standard one, through the ages.  Another of the guests pointed out that this isn't only true of religion, but could be a phenomenon of the globalized world in general.  Everyone wants to be 'the answer'. It is also true of pure materialists and anti-religious views such as Marxism.  It's human.

Said the same guest, the last 200 years have been hard on religion; the French revolution, American Revolution, the rise of nationalism, which has meant the fracturing of the Catholic Church, and its losing land, schools, influence, etc., whole religious systems attacked by fascism and communism, religious systems attacked by scientism, and imperialism.  This, he said, has left religious communities with deep suspicion of any organization that says it's going to make the world better, since the last 200 years have seen organizations trying to wipe out religions in order to make the world better.  Of course, it's hard to argue that religion has done the job, either.

Science has systematically eaten away at the empirical claims of sacred texts (like 6-day Genesis, Noah's Ark, Red Sea parting, Jonah surviving the whale's gut, 6000 year old earth).  Literalist interpretations should by now have been thoroughly undermined by such a march of basically undoubtable materialist success.  Any breach in any aspect of a sacred text--including acknowledging that the text could be metaphoric rather than literal--opens the gates of doubts of any other aspect of the Revealed Truth.  If this part isn't true after all, then how do we know that other part is true?  That is one of the reason why the literalists don't want to open the door to such options.

The persistence, and even expansion of fundamentalistic religion in the supposed Age of Reason is a puzzle in a way.  (Among other things, it brings us science doubters, like Rick Perry, serious candidate for the presidency of the United States.)  One might expect that the march of factual de-confirmation of received texts would, in a rationalist world,  have also undermined the other ideas in the texts concerning principles of faith, morals, and even the basic belief that some sort of 'God' is out there--or caused at the very least a retreat to a more generic deism (God exists, and started it all, but doesn't intervene in personalized ways in our lives).  A lot of what has occurred by the tilt back towards fundamentalism belies our belief that we're either rational or empirically driven.

But what if you think of it from a Darwinian perspective, in which the only thing that matters in any existential way is surviving to reproduce?  From this perspective, it doesn't make any difference what we believe, as long as, as a society, we're identifiable, trustworthy, etc., behaving and conforming predictably and so on, attributes which many religious systems encourage in one way or another, but so does culture generally.  'Rational' just means having a  reason for things.  Fundamentalists certainly have such reasons, even if most scientists don't agree with their particular accepted truths.  Indeed, in this sense, science becomes just another set of answers to the profound questions of life, another fundamentalist certainty, no more or less 'valid', in terms of making it through life, than any other set of answers.

That this is true is supported by the predictability of persons' responses to new events.  When someone makes a pronouncement or a major event happens, people interpret it in light of their accepted social, political, religious, or theoretical beliefs.  We are rarely swayed from such beliefs by new 'facts'--we either say we don't believe the new facts, we ignore them, or we re-interpret them.   Even scientists have political and social, not to mention scientific-theoretical, commitments that lead them (us) to do that.  Rationality does not mean seeing the world 'objectively' in the usual sense of that term.

There are fundamentalists in science, who adhere unquestioningly to dogma -- including those who refuse to allow the questioning of any aspects of evolution.  Sometimes, in fact, they acknowledge that but say they do that to combat anti-evolution fundamentalists who will mis-use or mis-state any such questioning within science--a strange reason for a scientist to color or ignore facts!  But, as we've written many times here on MT,  there's no legitimate place for dogma in science, and that's where it should differ from religion. Unlike religion, science is or should be about questioning, challenging, pushing accepted wisdom.

But that clearly the age of systematic empiricism doesn't mean that other kinds of belief become unsustainable--either that no one can sustain such beliefs, or that beliefs contrary to facts can't sustain successful human lives.

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