Finding Our Way Through The Great God Debate

“The way that can be spoken of. Is not the constant way; The name that can be named. Is not the constant name.”

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

Over the last decade a heated debate broke onto the American scene. The intellectual conflict between the religious and those who came to be called “the New Atheists” did indeed, I think, bring something new into American society that had not existed before- the open conflict between what, at least at the top tier of researchers, is a largely secular scientific establishment, or better those who presumed to speak for them, and the traditionally religious. What emerged on the publishing scene and bestseller lists were not the kinds of “soft-core” atheism espoused by previous science popularizers such as the late and much beloved Carl Sagan, but harsh, in your face atheist suchs as the Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and another late figure, Christopher Hitchens.

On the one hand there was nothing “new” about the New Atheists. Science in the popular imagination had for sometime been used as a bridge away from religion. I need only look at myself. What really undermined my belief in the Catholicism in which I was raised were books like Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, and Cosmos, or to a lesser extent Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time, even a theologically sounding book like Paul Davies God and the New Physics did nothing to shore up my belief in a personal God and the philosophically difficult or troubling ideas such as “virgin birth”, “incarnation”, “transubstantiation” or “papal infallibility” under which I was raised.

What I think makes the New Atheists of the 2000s truly new is that many science popularizers have lost the kind of cool indifference, or even openness to reaching out and explaining science in terms of religious concepts that was found in someone like Carl Sagan. Indeed, their confrontationalist stance is part of their shtick and a sure way to sell books in the same way titles like the Tao of Physics sold like hotcakes in the archaic Age of Disco.

For example, compare the soft, even if New Agey style of Sagan  to the kind of anti-religious screeds given by one of the New Atheist “four horsemen”, Richard Dawkins, in which he asks fellow atheists to “mock” and “ridicule” people’s religious  beliefs. Sagan sees religion as existing along a continuum with science, an attempt to answer life’s great questions. Science may be right, but religion stems from the same deep human instinct to ask questions and understand, whereas Dawkins seems to see only a dangerously pernicious stupidity.

It impossible to tease out who fired the first shot in the new conflict between atheists and the religious, but shots were fired. In 2004, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith hit the bookstores, a book I can still remember paging through at a Barnes N’ Noble when there were such things and thinking how shocking it was in tone. That was followed by Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion along with his documentary about religion with the less than live-and-let-live  title- The Root of All Evil? -followed by Hitchens’ book  God is Not Great, among others.

What had happened between the easy going atheism of the late Carl Sagan and the militant atheism of Harris’ The End of Faith was the tragedy of 9/11 which acted as an accelerant on a trend that had been emerging at the very least since Dawkins’ Virus of the Mind published way back in 1993. People who once made the argument that religion was evil or that signaled out any specific religion as barbaric would have before 9/11 been labeled as intolerant or racists.  Instead, in 2005 they were published in the liberal Huffington Post. Here is Harris:

It is time we admitted that we are not at war with “terrorism”; we are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.

One of the most humanistic figures in recent memory, and whose loss is thus even more to our detriment than the loss of either the poetic Sagan or the gadfly Hitchens tried early on to prevent this conflict from ever breaking out. Stephen Jay Gould as far back as 1997 tried to minimize the friction between science and religion with his idea of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA). If you read one link I have ever posted please read this humane and conciliatory essay.  The argument Gold makes in his essay is that there is no natural conflict between science and religion. Both religion and science possess their own separate domains: science deals with what is- the nature of the natural world, whereas religion deals with the question of meaning.

Science does not deal with moral questions because the study of nature is unable to yield meaning or morality on a human scale:

As a moral position (and therefore not as a deduction from my knowledge of nature’s factuality), I prefer the “cold bath” theory that nature can be truly “cruel” and “indifferent”—in the utterly inappropriate terms of our ethical discourse—because nature was not constructed as our eventual abode, didn’t know we were coming (we are, after all, interlopers of the latest geological microsecond), and doesn’t give a damn about us (speaking metaphorically). I regard such a position as liberating, not depressing, because we then become free to conduct moral discourse—and nothing could be more important—in our own terms, spared from the delusion that we might read moral truth passively from nature’s factuality.

Gould later turned his NOMA essay into a book- The Rocks of Ages in which he made an extensive argument that the current debate between science and religion is really a false one that emerges largely from great deal of misunderstanding on both sides.

The real crux of any dispute between science and religion, Gould thinks, are issues of what constitutes the intellectual domain of each endeavor. Science answers questions regarding the nature of the world, but should not attempt to provide answers for questions of meaning or ethics. Whereas religion if properly oriented should concern itself with exactly these human level meaning and ethical concerns. The debate between science and religion was not only unnecessary, but the total victory of one domain over the other would, for Gould, result in a diminishment of depth and complexity that emerges as a product of our humanity.

The New Atheists did not heed Gould’s prescient and humanistic advice. Indeed, he was already in conflict with some who would become its most vociferous figures- namely Dawkins and E.O. Wilson- even before the religion vs. science debate broke fully onto the scene. This was a consequence of Gould pushing back against what he saw as a dangerous trend towards reductionism of those applying genetics and evolutionary principles to human nature. The debate between Gould and Dawkins even itself inspired a book, the 2001, Dawkins vs. Gould published a year before Gould’s death from cancer.

Yet, for how much I respect Gould, and am attracted to his idea of NOMA, I do not find his argument to be without deep flaws. One of inadequacies of Gould’s Rocks of Ages is that it makes the case the that the conflict between science and religion is merely a matter of dispute the majority of us, the scientifically inclined along with the traditionally religious, against marginal groups such as creationists, and their equally fanatical atheists antagonists. The problem, however, may be deeper than Gould lets on.

Rocks of Ages begins with the story of the Catholic Church’s teaching on evolution as an example of NOMA in action.  That story begins with Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, which declared that the theory of evolution, if  it was eventually proven definitively true by science, would not be in direct contradiction to Church teaching.  This was followed up (almost 50 years later, at the Church’s usual geriatric speed) by Pope John Paul II’s 1996 declaration that the theory of evolution was now firmly established  as a scientific fact, and that Church theology would have to adjust to this truth. Thus, in Gould’s eyes, the Church had respected NOMA by eventually deferring to science on the question of evolution whatever challenges evolution might pose to traditional Catholic theology.

Yet, the same Pope Pius XII who grudgingly accepted that evolution might be true, one year later used the scientific discovery of the Big Bang to argue, not for a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis which hadn’t been held by the Church since Augustine, but for evidence of the more ephemeral concept of a creator that was the underlying “truth” pointed to in Genesis:

Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator.

Hence, creation took place in time.

Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!

Pius XII was certainly violating the spirit if not the letter on NOMA here. Preserving the requisite scientific skepticism in regard to evolution until all the facts were in, largely because it posed challenges to Catholic theology, while jumping almost immediately on a scientific discovery that seemed to lend support for some of the core ideas of the Church- a creator God and creation ex nihilo.

This seeming inclination of the religious to ask for science to keep its hands off when it comes to challenging it claims, while embracing science the minute it seems to offer proof of some religious conviction, is precisely the argument Richard Dawkins makes against NOMA, I think rightly, in his The God Delusion, and for how much I otherwise disagree with Dawkins and detest his abusive and condescending style, I think he is right in his claim that NOMA only comes into play for many of the religious when science is being used to challenge their beliefs, and not when science seems to lend plausibility to its stories and metaphysics. Dawkins and his many of his fellow atheists, however, think this is a cultural problem, namely that the culture is being distorted by the “virus” of religion. I disagree. Instead, what we have is a serious theological problem on our hands, and some good questions to ask might be: what exactly is this problem? Was this always the case? And in light of this where might the solution lie?

In 2009, Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun, popular religious scholar, and what is less know one time vocal atheist, threw her hat into the ring in defense of religion. The Case for God which was Armstrong’s rejoinder to the New Atheists is a remarkable book .
At least one explanation of theological problems we have is that a book like the Bible, when taken literally, is clearly absurd in light of modern science. We know that the earth was not created in 6 days, that there was no primordial pair of first parents, that the world was not destroyed by flood, and we have no proof of miracles understood now as the suspension of the laws of nature through which God acts in the world.  

The critique against religion by the New Atheists assumes a literal understanding either of scripture or the divine figures behind its stories. Armstrong’s The Case for God sets out to show that this literalism is a modern invention. Whatever the case with the laity, among Christian religious scholars before the modern era, the Bible was never read as a statement of scientific or historical fact. This, no doubt, is part of the reason its many contradictions and omissions where one story of an event is directly at odds with a different version of the exact same.

The way in which medieval Christian scholars were taught to read the Bible gives us an indication of what this meant. They were taught to read first for the literal meaning and once they understood move to the next level to discover the moral meaning of a text. Only once they had grasped this moral meaning would they attempt to grapple with the true, spiritual meaning of a text. Exegesis thus resembles the movement of the spirit away from the earth and the body above into the transcendent.

The Christian tradition in its pre-modern form, for Armstrong then, was not attempting to provide a proto-scientific version of the world that our own science has shown to be primitive and false, and the divine order which it pointed to was not one of some big bearded guy in clouds, but understood as the source and background of  a mysterious cosmic order which the human mind was incapable of fully understanding.

The New Atheists often conflate religion with bad and primitive science we should have long outgrown: “Why was that man’s barn destroyed by a lightning bolt?” “ As punishment from God. “How can we save our crops from drought?” “Perform a rain dance for the spirits?” It must therefore be incredibly frustrating to the New Atheists for people to cling to such an outdated science. But, according to Armstrong religion has never primarily been about offering up explanations for the natural world.

Armstrong thinks the best way to understand religion is as akin to art or music or poetry and not as proto-science. Religion is about practice not about belief and its truths are only accessible for those engaged in such practices. One learns what being a Christian by imitating Jesus: forgiving those who hurt you, caring for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, viewing suffering as redemptive or “carrying your cross”. Similar statements can be made for the world’s other religions as well though the kinds of actions one will pursue will be very different. This is, as Stephen Prothero points out in his God is not One, because the world’s diverse faith have defined the problem of the human condition quite differently and therefore have come up with quite distinct solutions. (More on that in part two.)

How then did we become so confused regarding what religion is really about? Armstrong traces how Biblical literalism arose in tandem with the scientific revolution and when you think about it this makes a lot of sense. Descartes, who helped usher in modern mathematics wrote a “proof” for God. The giant of them all, Newton, was a Biblical literalists and thought his theory of gravity proved the existence of the Christian God. Whereas the older theology had adopted a spirit of humility regarding human knowledge, the new science that emerged in the 16th century was bold in its claims that a new way had been discovered which would lead to a full understanding of the world- including the God who it was assumed had created it. It shouldn’t be surprising that Christians, perhaps especially the new Protestants, who sought to return to the true meaning of the faith through a complete knowledge of scripture, would think that God and the Bible could be proved in the same way the new scientific truths were being proved.


God thus became a “fact” like other facts and Westerners began the road to doubt and religious schizophrenia as the world science revealed showed no trace of the Christian God -or any other God(s) – amid the cold, indifferent and self-organizing natural order science revealed. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker if God was a hypothetical builder of clocks there is no need for the hypothesis now that we know how a clock can build itself.

Armstrong,thus, provides us with a good grasp of why Gould’s NOMA might have trouble gaining traction. Our understanding of God or the divine has become horribly mixed up with the history of science itself, with the idea that God would be “proven”
an assumption that helped launch the scientific revolution. Instead, what science has done in relation to this early modern idea of God as celestial mechanic and architect of the natural world, is push this idea of God into an ever shrinking “gap” of knowledge where science (for the moment) lacked a reasonable natural explanation of events. The gap into which the modern concept of God got itself jammed after Darwin’s theory of natural selection proved sufficient to explain the complexity of life eventually became the time before the Big Bang. A hole Pope Pius XII eagerly jumped into given that it seemed to match up so closely with Church theology. Combining his 1950-51 encyclicals he seemed to be saying “We’ll give you the origin of life, but we’ll gladly take the creation of the Universe”!

This was never a good strategy.

Next time I’ll try to show how this religious crisis actually might provide an opportunity for new ways of approaching age old religious questions and open up new avenues of  pursuing transcendence- a possibility that might prove particularly relevant for the community that goes under the label, transhumanist.

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6 comments on “Finding Our Way Through The Great God Debate

  1. James Cross says:

    “Religion is about practice not about belief and its truths are only accessible for those engaged in such practices.”

    I know you are stating Armstrong’s idea (not sure if they coincide with yours) but I think the boundary between practice and belief is hard to make. We practice because we believe and the truths we learn are because we practice. People do not usually take up Buddhism or Christianity just to try it out and then later believe. They take up religion either from habit and culture or because something in the tenets or beliefs of the religion attract them As one invests time and psychic energy in the religion it becomes increasingly more difficult to question it or leave it. Belief is charged with invested psychic energy that becomes associated with childhood memories, traumatic experiences, and the final fear of death. I might add that Dawkins and the others are just as invested in their beliefs despite their protestations that they are only looking for scientific truth.

    Can we have religion based purely on practice without belief? Perhaps so. Maybe that is the direction you are going with your next post. I tried to tackle the same issue in my Julian Huxley post where I tried to foresee some future religion based on science and consciousness exploration.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi James,

      In many ways I agree with Armstrong that religious truth constitutes a completely different form of truth than the one found in science. In science you see the truth based on the physical evidence presented and whatever emotional connection you have to an idea that has been disproven SHOULD give way to the evidence. In religion the “evidence” is located precisely in this emotional connection which is made real by practice. The evidence for a religious truth is that you FEEL it while engaged in practice and thus presenting physical evidence against such an emotional truth often has little effect on the believer other than to make them defensive.

      I think a lot of people, perhaps the majority, can exist in this cognitive dissonance where the world of science gives them one version of reality and religion a wholly different and often contradictory one. In my own case I have great difficulty with this dissonance and wish their would be some effort, perhaps within traditional religion itself, but more likely and in my view fruitfully from new ways to approach these questions that bridges that gap. I suppose in a similar way to your Huxley post. That will be the part 2 of this piece.

      On a wholly different subject: I didn’t hear back from you regarding the discussion groups. Still interested? Are the topics not to your liking? You have a lot of interesting things to say and I would love it if you were still willing to participate.

    • Rick Searle says:

      James, your comment meshed with Toby’s so I responded to them both in one gulp in re to his.

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  3. […] posts well known, I am far from being an anti-religious person. Religion to me is one of the more wondrous inventions and discoveries we human beings have come up with, but religion, understood in this creationist sense seems to me a […]

  4. […] as it was a work of popular science, Krauss’ book was mostly an atheist weapon in what I called “The Great God Debate” which, to my lights, was about attacking a version of God as a cosmic engineer that was born no […]

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