Myths about Science and Religion – That Modern Science has Secularized Western Culture (Final)

My last review of Galileo goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion comes from the pioneering historian of science, John Hedley Brooke, who wrote an entry on the myth that modern science has secularized western culture.

Once upon a time, social scientists commonly asserted that scientific progress has been the principal cause of secularization. There is some truth in this assertion. The content of scientific theories has sometimes clashed with conventional readings of sacred texts. This was true, for example, in explanations of the earth’s motion in Galileo’s day and of evolutionary accounts of human origins in Darwin’s. Moreover, the introduction of Western education, philosophy, and technology in nineteenth-century India had consequences described by some as a “massive and thoroughgoing secularization.”

But this claim ultimately “belongs to a category of obviously true propositions that, on closer examination, turn out to be largely false.” Brooke correctly points out that many social scientists now reject what was once known as a “secularization thesis.” Second, whereas some science-based technologies may have replaced or distracted from religious life, others have definitely facilitated religious observance; for example, in some Jewish and Muslim communities smartphone apps are used to measure fasting times, Sabbat or Ramadan.

Brooke also wants to make a distinction between “secularization of science and secularization by science.” Although religious language had largely disappeared from technical scientific literature by the end of the nineteenth century, it does not follow that religious beliefs were no longer to be found among scientists. Indeed, scientists with religious convictions have often found confirmation of their faith in the beauty and elegance of the mechanisms of the natural world. Brooke points to seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler and, more recently, former director of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, who sees his work as the unraveling of a God-given code.

Many more examples are available. But all the evidence suggests, writes Brooke, that “scientific theories have usually been susceptible to both theistic and naturalistic readings.” Brooke gives the example of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. For Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s theory made it possible “to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But Brooke reminds us that we shouldn’t forget some of Darwin’s earliest sympathizers in Britain were Christian clergyman such as Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple.

A central point Brooke wants to make is that instead of seeing science as intrinsically and inextricably secular, it is more correct to see it as neutral with respect to questions concerning God’s existence. This was the position taken by, for example, Thomas Henry Huxley, who saw science as neither Christian nor anti-Christian but “extra-Christian,” meaning that it had a scope and autonomy independent of religious interests. Darwin’s own agnosticism, moreover, derived not from his scientific discoveries  but a strong reaction against evangelical Christian preaching on heaven and hell.

The central problem with this myth then, according to Brooke, consists in the view that science, more than any other factor, is the sole agent of secularization.

Numerous sociological studies have demonstrated that conversions to unbelief are often associated with the change from conservative to radical politics, with religion being rejected as part of established, privileged society. What’s more, historical research, such as higher criticism of the Bible, more than scientific research, proved far more subversive and fatal to conservative belief, as “biblical writers came to be seen not as timeless authorities but as unreliable products of their own culture.”

All these factors leads Brooke to conclude that it is “wiser to look to long-term changes in social structure and to changes in religion itself if one wishes to understand the momentum of secularity.” Indeed, in modern times, the expansion of secularism can be correlated with social, political, and economic transformations having little direct connection with science. Brooke points to social and geographical mobility; growth in capitalism, commerce, and consumerism; secular values promoted in the sphere of education and by the media; and the growth of national solidarity and ideology of political parties have all attempted to replace traditional religious beliefs in one way or another. Because different countries and cultures have experienced the tension between secular and religious values in contrasting ways, “there is no one, universal process of secularization that can be ascribed to science or to any other factor.”

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