Some Disjointed Thoughts on Democracy, Plato, and the Christian Roots of Liberalism

Yesterday I was inspired by someone dear to me to write out these thoughts. In a rather uncomfortable disagreement, this person, after I had complained about the direction society was moving (a common aghast of the postgraduate), they simply retorted, “that’s democracy.” My first impulse was to aggressively and disdainfully disagree. But I knew this person had a healthy, I think, ambiguity about their beliefs, in regards to society, politics, and even religion.  So I held my tongue. But the more I thought about this brief, impromptu, and somewhat trite conversation, the more I felt obliged to give it greater scrutiny.

Do we, in fact, live in a democracy? A related question, and perhaps more important, is whether democracy happens to be the best form of government? My interlocutor had made, at least in my mind, some uncomfortable assumptions.

This is the stuff of Philosophy 101. My immediate thoughts, upon reflection (and during a sleepless night), turned to Plato and his Republic. Plato, most of us fondly remember, had proposed that there were at least five forms of government: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Now, it seems clear to me that we most certainly do not live in a democracy. Rather, our system of government, and what seems to me what most nations aspire to, wittingly or unwittingly, is a “multarchy”—a term coined by University of Notre Dame professor of philosophy Gary Gutting. And as Gutting himself put it in an article he published for the New York Times in 2011, America is a “complex interweaving of many forms of government.” That seems to me to be right. Emphatically, then, we do not and never have lived in a pure democracy. In fact, not only does this seem impossible, it also seems undesirable.

According Gutting, our bureaucracy corresponds to Plato’s aristocracy, our military to timocracy, the oligarchy to the super wealthy, and so on. In other words, America’s form of government, in some very particular and peculiar ways, corresponds to all five forms of Plato’s list. What Gutting leaves out in his analysis, however, is that Plato listed these five forms of government in his dialogue in descending order. Thus democracy is just shy of tyranny, and is ultimately a mob-like beast. According to Plato, it is only in an aristocracy, led by the unwilling philosopher-king (a constant theme, I was reminded the other day, in C.L. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, which recently aired on Australian television) that comprises the best form of government. Do we really need any reminders that so-called “democracy” has led to all kinds of atrocities?

But of course other systems of government have as well. But here I am reminded particularly by one of the Founding Fathers of American independence. In a long letter to John Taylor (1753-1824), John Adams (1735-1826) wrote:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.

But suppose for a moment we do indeed live in a democracy, and that such a form of government is just—then it seems to me that we have to assume that people in general are good, and, in turn, that they make good decisions. That seems to me to be utterly false. We are a broken people. Angry, greedy and self-centered, ugly and spiteful, our politicians and polity alike constantly make poor decisions. Thus it seems that any idea of a successful democracy was built on the dream of a morally upright society, or, at least, on the idea of a morally upright governing body.

This has finally led me, curiously enough, to Samuel Moyn’s recent articles on Christianity and liberalism on the Immanent Frame. I have mentioned Moyn in another context, in his biting critique of Jonathan Israel’s radical Enlightenment project. But here, and in several other recent works, Moyn has taken up the task of tracing the origins of modern day conceptions of “human rights.” In an earlier post, Moyn argued that

…the original context of the European embrace of human rights—in which they were linked to the conservative defense of human dignity and attached to the figure of the human person—was in Christianity’s last golden age on the Continent…The ‘death of Christian Europe,’ as one might call it, forced…a complete reinvention of the meaning of the human rights embedded in European identity both formally and really since the war. The only serious thread of persistence was, ironically, in Eastern Europe, and especially in Poland, not coincidentally the main exception of Christian collapse…[in time, however,] Human rights had become a secular doctrine of the left; how that happened is another story.

More recently, Moyn argues that such notions as “human dignity” and “human rights” can be traced to Pope Pius XII in his Christmas Message of 1942. Pius XII’s “Five Points for Ordering Society” begins thus:

1. Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning; should oppose the excessive herding of men, as if they were a mass without a soul; their economic, social, political, intellectual and moral inconsistency; their dearth of solid principles and strong convictions, their surfeit of instinctive sensible excitement and their fickleness.

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

According to Moyn, this formulation (or, perhaps, reformulation) of human rights and dignity was novel for the time. And although he does admit that others have claimed the fundamental Christian origins of human rights (here, e.g., he cites John Witte, Jr. and Nicholas Wolsterstorff), his concern is the “novel communion between Christianity and human rights, on the 1940s and shortly before.”

That’s all well and good. Moyn is certainly entitled to his delimitation. But what struck me most this morning, upon reading Moyn’s piece, was his supposedly radical claim that “without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about…”

To be sure, Moyn’s outlook, as far as I can tell, is entirely secular, in the sense that he is not offering some Christian apologia. Rather, he is simply trying to get the history right. Here his mention of John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (2008) is particularly interesting. Witte argues that “Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America.” This is essentially a counterargument against those who still claim that “human rights” was an offspring of Enlightenment thought (à la mode de Jonathan Israel). This argument is not entirely new. W. Stanford Reid back in 1986 published a short article in Christian History arguing that the Genevan reformer “not only set forth ideas which exercised a powerful influence for democracy in his own day, but also that his ideas had a broad influence on subsequent political thinking in the western world. Although the theological connection which he made between politics and Christianity has largely disappeared, he can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern democracy.”

This emphasis on modern politics in continuity with traditional Christian ideas, and Calvinism in particular, is also seen in other areas of scholarship. Some have argued, for example, that Reformation theology played a particularly important role in the development of modern science. R. Hooykaas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (1972), of course, is an oft-cited example. More recent work by Susan Schreiner in The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Peter Harrison in The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998), Kenneth J. Howell in God’s Two Books: Copernican and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science (2002), L.S. Koetsier in Natural Law and Calvinist Political Theory (2003), and most recently Jason Foster in his essay, “The Ecology of John Calvin,” published in Reformed Perspectives Magazine (2005), also attest to this trend. Even a completely “secular” (or, at least, thought to be completely secular) and obscure concept like “transhumanism” turns out to have roots in the Apostle Paul (!), as Peter Harrison and Joseph Wolyniak have recently pointed out in the latest issue of Notes and Queries.

So where does that leave me? The idea of a pure democracy is, of course, an illusion. It is rooted, like most of our modern concepts, on particularly theological ideas. Plato had rejected democracy because he saw the masses as credulous and uninformed, subject to their emotions and generally blind to critical thought. In short, the masses cannot govern themselves. John Adams seems to have had a little more hope, but not much more. Democracy always ends up committing suicide. His hope, however, if Moyn, Witte, Reid, and others are correct, was rooted in a Christian theology (Calvinist or Thomist, depending on who you ask) of human dignity and rights.

Progress as a Secularized Eschatology

Nineteenth-century Victorian scientific naturalists had a particular conception of scientific and social progress. In his “The Progress of Science 1837-1887” (1887), Thomas Henry Huxley argued that a “revolution” had taken place, both politically and socially, in the modern world. In brief, scientific progress came with the adoption of a naturalistic approach to studying nature. Any other approach would count as an obstacle both to scientific and social progress. Similar sentiments were shared by John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and other scientific naturalists.

Of course the idea of progress was held by other Victorians as well. “We are on the side of progress,” wrote British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. “From the great advances which European society has made, during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.” “History,” he continued, “is full of the signs of this natural progress of society.” From Macaulay, Arnold, Mill, Morley, and Kingsley, to Huxley and Co., the idea of progress became dogma for Victorian intellectuals.

But where did this idea of progress come from, and why was it so pervasive?  From the 1920s onward, several historians have offered strikingly different (and sometimes opposing) answers. J.B. Bury, for example, explained in his The Idea of Progress (1920) that progress was the “animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” But in saying this, Bury also disputed, and dismissed, the connection between the idea of progress and the Christian doctrine of providence. Indeed, the idea of progress presupposed its rejection: “it was not till men felt independence of Providence,” he writes, “that they could organize a theory of Progress…So long as the doctrine of Progress was…in the ascendent, a doctrine of Progress could not arise.” According to Bury, the origin of the idea of progress is found among eighteenth-century philosophes. To make his point, Bury also portrayed the philosophes as characteristically anti-Christian or anti-religious.

Lowith - Meaning in HistoryHowever, other historians saw the idea of progress in terms of the secularization of biblical eschatology. Ernest Lee Tuveson, for instance, argued in his Millennium and Utopia (1949) that “gradually the role of Providence was transferred to ‘natural laws’…Providence was disguised rather than eliminated.” A new kind of Providence emerged, one based on the confidence of the historical process: “This confidence…resulted in part from the transformation of a religious idea—the great millennial expectation…The New Jerusalem in a utopia of mechanistic philosophers; the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers and of the nineteenth-century optimists retained many features of the New Jerusalem.” Others would follow and expand Tuveson’s analysis, including Carl L. Becker, Nicolas Berdyaev, Carl Schmitt, Jacob Taubes, Karl Löwith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Voegelin, among others. It was becoming increasingly clear that the modern idea of progress rested on biblical presuppositions, particularly a secularized eschatological myth of salvation.

A great debate followed after the publication of Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1976). Blumenberg’s book was essentially a reply to Löwith’s Meaning in History (1949). Löwith had argued that modern categories of reason and progress, and modern philosophies of history are secularized vestiges of Judeo-Christian eschatology. In other words, the modern idea of progress only appears to be rational or scientific. Under the surface, it is supported by an eschatological hope and expectation. Löwith traces these religious elements backward, from Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet and Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine and Orosius, all the way to the “biblical” view of history. According to Löwith, “philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and…ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.” Whether religious or irreligious, all narratives of progress are overtly or covertly “eschatological from Isaiah to Marx, form Augustine to Hegel, from Joachim to Schelling.”

Blumenberg - The Legitmacy of the Modern AgeOpposition to Löwith’s thesis came most forcefully from Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg, the idea of progress was no vestige of biblical eschatology. Rather, it was a radical break from it, a Neuzeit. Christian eschatology and modern progressivism, says Blumenberg, do not share any identifiable ideas, nor does the modern idea of progress contain any authentic, original content found in Christianity. In brief, they are diametrically different: “it is…a manifest difference,” he writes, “that an eschatology speaks of an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it, while the idea of progress extrapolates from a structure present in every moment to a future that is immanent in history.” More explicitly, Blumenberg contends that the idea of progress “hopes for the greater security of man in the world,” the here and now, while “eschatology” is “more nearly an aggregate of terror and dread.” Blumenberg concludes that “the dependence of the idea of progress on Christian eschatology” is nil, and therefore “block any transposition of the one into the other.”

So, where does the modern idea of progress come from? Blumenberg offers an alternative genealogy, found in late-medieval theological nominalism, human self-assertion, and astronomy. The nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) pushed knowledge of God beyond the boundaries of human intelligibility or comprehension. Once God essentially “disappeared,” humanity had to assert itself:

deprived by God’s hiddenness of metaphysical guarantees for the world, man constructs for himself a counterworld of elementary rationality and manipulability…Because theology meant to defend God’s absolute interest, it allowed and caused man’s interest in himself and his concern for himself to become absolute.

Representative of this new position, says Blumenberg, is the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From Blumenberg’s view, Bacon turned away from understanding God to understanding man and nature. With Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, we reach man’s full self-assertion. And herein lies Blumenberg’s central argument: this modern self-assertion of reason provided the means for “possible progress” rather than the “necessary progress” of the eschatological view.

But according to a host of scholars, Blumenberg’s critique of Löwith ultimately fails. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, found it unconvincing, if not perplexing. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that “the modern age came into being out of a world in which Christianity was dominant, and therefore its relationship, and particularly that of its early stages, to Christianity is not merely a matter of historical interest.” Pannenberg goes on to observe that key to Blumenberg’s argument depended on the theme of theodicy. Christianity attempted to answer the question of the problem of evil. But according to Blumenberg, Christian theologians failed to provide a satisfactory answer. This, in Pannenberg’s assessment, is where Blumenberg derives his “conception that the modern age originated in opposition to theological absolutism.” In short, the idea of progress takes on “the vanished role of theodicy.”

But according to Pannenberg, Christian theodicy is not that simple. “Christianity came to terms in a decisive way with the evil and wickedness in the world,” Pannenberg argues, “not by removing responsibility for the world from the creator, but by belief in the reconciliation of the world by the God who took upon himself the burden of its guilt and misery and so set men free from it.” In this sense, Pannenberg finds it strange that Blumenberg neglects to mention this central Christian theme. What is more, the “rise of the modern age cannot be understood in the abstract terms of the history of ideas.” Pannenberg points to the Protestant Reformation and the “historical catastrophes which came about in its train,” that it was essential to the emancipation of the modern age. Here, too, Pannenberg is astonished that Blumenberg has ignored the role of the “Reformation in the rise and the self-understanding of the modern age.”

In his own response to Blumenberg, Löwith argued that the modern idea of progress and Christian eschatology are essentially common in “that both live by hope insofar as they conceive of history as proceeding toward final fulfillment which lies in the future.” In short, Blumenberg’s “possible progress” ultimately collapses back into “necessary progress.”

Many historians of science in recent years have argued that early modern science was a religious activity. With some minor modification, Blumenberg’s thesis of modern man’s self-assertion of reason was not a revolutionary turn away from God, but rather the attempt to find better proofs of God’s existence, in the natural world. Self-assertion, in other words, was a religious conception as well. It was a dialogue with God within a new medium, that of science.

“Religion” as a Modern Invention

Upon returning from my trip to England, I was delighted to find Amazon’s trademark smiling boxes waiting for me. I had ordered a number books before my trip, and among them was Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (2013). I first came across Nongbri’s book in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s forthcoming The Territories of Science and Religion (2014). Nongbri’s Before Religion follows a recent trend among historians of religion who have come to question the concept and even usefulness of the term “religion.” According to Nongbri, the “isolation of something called ‘religion’ as a sphere of life ideally separated from politics, economics, and science is not a universal feature of human history.”

Brent Nongbri - Before ReligionNongbri is not the first scholar to draw our attention to the problematic nature of the term “religion.” This he readily admits. He is influenced first and foremost by the remarkable scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who in his The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), traced the development of the term “religion” (religio) in the west, showing how the it has changed meaning over time and how it was inextricably connected with polemics and apologetics. These claims are not without merit. Several studies beside Smith have traced the genesis of the term and have reached similar conclusions.

But Nongbri wants to move beyond Smith’s “reification” thesis. Here is follows Talal Asad’s view that “religion” and “secularization” are two sides of the same coin. That is, religion, according to Asad, is “a modern concept not because it is reified but because it has been linked to its Siamese twin ‘secularism.'” Thus Nongbri wants to address “how we have come to talk about ‘secular’ versus ‘religious.'” Indeed, how—and when—did we first divide the world between the “religious” and the “secular”? In short, Nongbri ventures an origins story. Or, as he puts it, “a diachronic narrative” of selected “representative episodes from a two-thousand-year period.”

Nongbri is also influenced by the work of deconstructionists Tomoko Masuzawa, Russell T. McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and in particular Jonathan Z. Smith and Peter Harrison. Pointing to post-Reformation hostilities, Nongbri maintains that these events “not only brought much bloodshed but also disrupted trade and commerce,” inspiring prominent public figures such as John Locke to argue “that stability in the commonwealth could be achieved not by settling arguments about which kind of Christianity was ‘true,’ but by isolating beliefs about god in a private sphere and elevating loyalty to the legal codes of developing nation-states over loyalties to god.” J.Z. Smith, in his incisive Drudgery Divine (1990), described the “Protestant, apologetic, historiographical project” of the reformers as “Pagano-papism,” which was, in a nutshell, Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics. Harrison’s ‘Religion’ and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (1990) also shows how “religion” was constructed “along essentially rationalistic lines.” Harrison too recognizes that “in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘paganopapism’ played a major role in the rhetoric of sectarian disputes.” Thus such early attempts to understand “religion” were often marred by polemics; they were attempts to show either the “superiority” of Protestantism over and against Catholicism and other Christian sects, or to promote a deistic, “natural” or “rational” religion. Nongbri returns to themes near the end of the book.

For now, Nongbri begins Chapter One, “What do We Mean by ‘Religion,'” with a discussion on the many different definitions of religion. In 1912, professor of psychology James J. Leuba offered more than fifty different definitions of religion. In 1966, anthropologist Clifford Geertz offered a more careful definition of religion as a system of symbols established on conceptions of reality, designed to move and motivate mankind. More recently, historian of religion Bruce Lincoln offered yet another definition of religion in his Holy Terrors (2003) as a “discourse” and “set of practices” within a “community” of believers guided and directed by an “institution.” Nongbri offers his own provocative definition, following the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (as interpreted, however, by Richard Rorty): “religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity. Such a definition [he says] might be seen as crass, simplistic, ethnocentric, Christianocentric, and even a bit flippant; it is all these things, but it is also highly accurate in reflecting the uses of the term in modern languages.” What Nongbri intends by this definition is made clearer by the end of the book.

Nongbri goes on to add three more points. First, religion is understood, in this modern sense, as essentially private or spiritual, and thus immune from the constraints of language and history. Second, this way of understanding religion sees religion as a “genus that contains a variety of species” (as, e.g., in the “World Religions”). According to Nongbri, “The picture of the world as divided among major ‘religions’ offering alternative means to ‘salvation’ or ‘enlightenment’ is thoroughly entrenched in the modern imagination.”And third, in the academic context, religion is either used descriptively or redescriptively. That is, religion is either described from an observer’s point of view, using the classificatory “systems of a group of people being studied,” or it is redescribed, using a classificatory system completely foreign to the group being observed.

The imposition of modern categories of “religious” and “secular” on ancient writings, for example, is the subject of Chapter Two, “Lost in Translation: Inserting ‘Religion’ into Ancient Texts.” Here Nongbri scrutinizes the Latin religio, the Greek thrēskei, and the Arabic dīn, milla, and umma. These terms are often rendered “religion” in modern English translation; however, according to Nongbri, each term had a range of meanings—and none like our modern understanding of religion. “Those aspects of life covered by these terms (social order, law, etc.) fall outside the idealized, private, interior realm associated with the modern concept of religion.” Thus using “religion” to describe the worldview of ancient peoples serves only to mar our understanding of them. In looking at ancient texts from Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian peoples, for instance, Nongbri finds much incongruity with  modern notions of religion. “We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize,” he writes.

In Chapter Three Nongbri traces “Some (Premature) Births of Religion in Antiquity.” Scholars typically find the events of the Maccabean revolt, the writings of Cicero (esp. his On Divination and On the Nature of the Gods) and Eusebius (esp. his Demonstratio evangelica and Praeparatio evangelica), and finally the rise of Islam, as marking the beginning of the concept of “religion.” But Nongbri contends each case. “In each of these cases,” he writes, “the episode that modern authors have identified as ancient ‘religion’ have turned out to involve discourses that ancient authors themselves seem to have understood primarily in ethnic or civic terms.”

Chapter Four examines “Christians and ‘Others’ in the Premodern Era,” that is, examples of Christian interaction with “other religions.” Nongbri first looks at Mani and the Manichaeans, who in fact viewed themselves as “Christians,” and who saw “orthodox” Christianity as “inferior, and even  “hereticial.” Many scholars have seen Mani as “founding a religion,” but according to Nongbri “Mani’s self-understanding” operated entirely “within the sphere of Christian activity.” Indeed, Jesus remained a key figure to Mani and his later followers. Thus neither the orthodox nor Mani and his followers saw Manichaeaism as the foundations of a new “religion.” And in fact neither did orthodox Christians. Mani and the Manichaeans were viewed, from the beginning, as heretics.

Nongbri then turns to John of Damascus and his remarks on Islam. In a tract entitled Peri hairesōn (not unlike Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion), John lists a number of heresies, including what he called the “Ishmaelites.” According to John, Islam was not a new “religion,” but rather a Christian heresy. As Nongbri points out, John in fact was not alone in claiming that Muslims were a erroneous Christian sect.

Finally, Nongbri examines the tale of the Christian saints Barlaam and Ioasaph. This story of Barlaam and Ioasaph was an incredibly popular narrative in the late Middle Ages. According to this legend, Abenner, the father of Ioasaph, wanted to protect his son from the reality of death, disease, old age, and poverty, and therefore built palace in a secluded location. But Ioasaph grew to become a curiously young man, eventually convincing his father to permit him to venture beyond his sheltered palace, only to be shocked to find the ravages of reality. He immediately fell into a great depression. But the devout Christian monk, Barlaam visited Ioasaph at his palace and shared with him the Christian message of the Gospel. The message freed from this depression, and Ioasaph was thus baptized. He would eventually Christianize his portion of the kingdom. The tale of Barlaam and Ioasaph has many close similarities to the legendary biography of Siddhārtha Gautama. Indeed, according to Nongbri, it was a “reworked version of the life of the Buddha,” who was, in a sense, canonized as a Christian saint. “The story of the Buddha,” he writes, “was not seen as part of a story of a separate religion; rather, a late medieval Christian, and an earlier Manichaean Christian or a Muslim, simply absorbed the story of the Buddha  and made it their own.”

From Buddhism to Islam, in short, these traditions were not seen as new “religions,” but, in some sense, as “flawed” Christianity.

In Chapters Five and Six, Nongbri finally provides an account of the development of the modern notion of “religion.” In “Renaissance, Reformation, and Religion in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” he traces the development and consequences of the fragmentation of Christendom as a result of the reform movements. But first Nongbri wants to examine the idea of the vera religio, or “true religion,” among Italian Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance and seventeenth-century English deists. True religion or worship has always existed. Christianity was simply the best example of this vera religio. It follows that “non-Christian thought, even if vastly deficient, might be expected to show at least some qualities of this vera religio.” This was the position of Augustine, Eusebius, Lactantius, and Photius, among others. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the influx of “pagan” wisdom from translations of Greek and Arabic texts, the prisca theologia (“ancient theology”) became the guiding principle of Renaissance thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and, later, Giordano Bruno. The prisca theologia was the practice of finding harmony between Christianity and pagan philosophy, particularly the Platonic, but also the Hermetic, which emerged from the recent translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

In the wake of the reformation, Nongbri claims (citing Harrison), “the fragmentation of Christendom led to a change from an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding.” Once a quest for harmony, Protestant thinkers now saw parallels between pagan and Catholic practices as a corruption of the true, pristine faith of the Scriptures. This polemic of “pagano-papism” was not only used against Catholics but also “appeared in disputes among different groups of Protestants.” According to Nongbri, “this kind of polemic itself contributed to the formation of distinct religions.”

These disputes led to much bloodshed and warfare among vying Protestant sects. English “deists” such as Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury and John Toland renewed the search for an “original religion.” Herbert, for example, found it in his “Common Notions.” But as Nongbri puts it, “by shearing away all the practices of ancient people in his discussions of what was essential and original” in all religions, “Herbert contributed to the growing sense that religion was a matter of beliefs apart from ‘various Rites, Ceremonies, and Sacred Mysteries.'” Religion was thus increasingly seen a “set of beliefs that could be either true or false.”

Before turning to the next chapter, Nongbri wants to further contextualize these ideas by setting them within the political philosophies of Jean Bodin and John Locke. Bodin maintained that state stability depended on the toleration of distinct groups. In his Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, Bodin concluded that “we are unable to command religion because no one can be forced to believe against his will.” Likewise, Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, maintained that “religion ought to be purely a matter of the salvation of the individual.” Any gathering of religious individuals therefore ought to be tolerated by the government, no matter the creed (except the atheists, which Locke excluded, for they interfered with the proper operation of the state). In the end, however, the “isolation of religion as a distinct sphere of life ideally separated from other areas of life allowed for a new kind of mental mapping of Europe and the world.”

In the following chapter, “New Worlds, New Religions, World Religions,” Nongbri seeks to outline the European struggle and reaction to “increasing amounts of information, primarily from the ‘New World,'” which called into question the biblical worldview of reality. He writes, “At the same time that the genus of religion was coming to be thought of as ideally an internal, private, depoliticized entity, interactions with previously unknown peoples were beginning to create new species of individual religions.” In this section Nongbri closely follows J.Z. Smith’s insightful essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998), where he suggests that a “world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it” (my emphasis). In particular, Nongbri traces the origins, construction, and classification of “religion” in India, Africa, and Japan. Here we begin to see emerging the “four grand Religions of the world,” that is, the Pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Mohamedan, which eventually morphed into the modern framework of the modern “World Religions,” first promoted by Cornelis P. Tiele in the nineteenth century. Thus, according to Nongbri, there is “nothing natural or neutral about either the concept of religion or the framework of World Religions.”

Despite all this, Nongbri, in his Conclusion, maintains we should not altogether abandon the category of religion. He says, “I think there is still a place for ‘the study of religion’ in the modern world, provided that those doing the study adopt a self-conscious and critical attitude that has often been lacking.” In other words, something may be a historically construed term, but it does not follow therefore that it is useless. Or, as Paul Hedges recently argues in his article, “Discourse on the Invention of Discourse: Why We Need the Terminology of ‘Religion’ and ‘Religions'” (2014),  “if conventional knowledge is wrong because it is based upon socially constructed terminology, it is unclear why we should prefer another set of ideological socially constructed terminology which seeks to overcome it.” The critique of “religion” by Fitzgerald, McCutcheon, Masuzawa, and others, for instance, simply reintroduces “religion” by other names, whether it be “faith,” “sacred,” or “tradition.” Throughout his own book, moreover, Nongbri uses “religion” without the quotation marks. This suggests that “religion,” with the necessary qualifications, is here to stay. As Nongbri concludes, “if we are going to use religion as a second-order, redescriptive concept, we must always be explicit that we are doing so and avoid giving the impression that religion really was ‘out there,’ ’embedded in’ or ‘diffused in’ the ancient evidence.”

Nongbri’s book is a fine text that synthesizes a great deal of scholarship. It may serve as a useful, quickl reference guide for undergraduates and laypersons alike. However, a point unduly neglected, it seems to me, if one focuses solely on the modern construction of “religion,” is the contribution of Romanticism to the rise of the scientific study of religion (Religionswissenschaft). This was a point emphasized by H.G. Kippenberg in his essay, “Einleitung. Religionswissenschaft und Kulturkritik” (1991). Kippenberg, in brief, argued that the rise of a critical approach—which takes into account historical and cultural differences, but which emphasizes a non-sectarian, non-confessional, and non-reductive attitude—to the study of religion was given impetus by the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. This, it seems to me, was a necessary condition. Ahistorical explanations of religion, as “priest-craft” or infantile “wish-fulfillment” or “neuroses” are not conducive to the particularities of religion, of its long and complex history, or of its doubtless interconnectedness with different social and political contexts.

If Kippenberg’s argument is correct (and I think it is), the question then becomes: what were the origins of the Romantic worldview, and how did it become so crucial for understanding the study of religion?

Building Bridges and Burning Down Myths

Richardson and Wildman - Religion and Science History Method DialogueIn their highly stimulating and engrossing book, W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman’s (eds.) Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue (1996), offer an interdisciplinary approach to “building bridges” between religion and science. The various sections of the book correspond to three major kinds of inquiry: historical studies, methodological analyses, and substantive dialogue. Each section provides essays written by many notable scholars, including John Hedley Brooke, Claude Welch, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, among others.

Beginning in Part 1 with essays on the history of the relationship between religion and science, John Hedley Brooke’s “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment” challenges the assumptions that theology was rebuffed by the emerging epistemology and method of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Indeed, in many ways theology remained resilient, particularly in the form of William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802). Brooke writes, “whether one referred to the exquisite, microscopic structures in living organisms that had so captivated Robert Boyle, the marvellous migratory instincts of birds that so impressed John Ray, or the elegant laws of nature that governed the Newtonian universe, there was a profound sense in which the sciences could reinforce arguments for design, thereby proving their utility against skeptical and atheistic philosophies that were commonly seen as subversive of a stable society.”

But in “meeting their rationalist critics on their own ground,” Brooke observes, “Christian apologists were almost unwittingly sacrificing what was distinctive in their understanding of God.” As Blaise Pascal warned, “those who sought God apart from Christ, who went no further than nature, would fall into atheism or deism.” Brooke cites Michael J. Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987) in support of his claim that “a Christian apologia reduced to the argument from design was easy prey to the alternative metaphysics of Lucretius: was not the appearance of design surely illusory, reflecting the simple fact that defective combinations of matter had not survived?” “Atheism takes its meaning from the particular form of theism it rejects. So to understand the origins of modern atheism it is no good looking at the history of atheism.” Rather, “it is essential to examine the history of theism.” Arguments for a personal God based on impersonal forces of nature became one of the chief reasons for the rise of modern atheism. The take away from Brooke’s essay is that “if the bridged built by physico-theologians eventually collapsed, it was not simply that they were undermined by science. It was rather that a greater burden had been placed on the sciences than they could support.”

In the following essay, “Dispelling Some Myths about the Split Between Theology and Science in the Nineteenth Century,” Claude Welch begins by recalling the popular “warfare” model between science and religion, exemplified by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White. Both authors, Welch claims, were partly responding to Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which included the “error” of “supposing that the Pope ought to reconcile himself ‘with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilization.'” And in both authors, “biblical criticism gets more attention than does evolutionary theory.” For instance, in his concluding chapter of Volume II of his A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, White extols higher criticism as opening “treasures of thought which have been inaccessible to theologians for two thousand years,” and has led to “the conceptions of a vast community in which the fatherhood of God overarches all, and the brotherhood of man permeates all.” According to Welch, White’s comments are “remarkably similar to what many liberal theologians were saying in response to evolutionary theory and to biblical criticism.”

But recent work has demolished the metaphor of warfare as an historical interpretation. If we want real instances of warfare, Welch argues, we need only to observe “Comte’s positivism, or of the emergence of a radical materialistic monism particularly in Germany in the 1850s” found in such writers as Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899), Jacob Moleschott (1822-1893), and Karl Vogt (1817-1895). “These latter three,” writes Welch, “seized upon Darwin to further an anti-Christian agenda they had already developed.” This antagonism is expressed even more fully in the writings of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), “who undertook in the 1860s to convert Germany to Darwinism”; in his hands “Darwinism could become a symbol of antireligion for reasons that had little to do with evolution.”

What was happening in the nineteenth century was the theological accommodation (read: capitulation) to new “scientific” conceptions, particularly in geology and biology. This accommodation took the form of “mediating” theologies, which entailed a spirit of liberal open-mindedness, of tolerance and humility, of devotion to “truth” wherever it might be found. It was also the abandonment of cherished religious notions. Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (1821) argued that the “doctrine of creation has no particular interest in a point of origination,” that “the idea of the Fall has no reference to an event in early history.” What is more, the popular “preoccupation with an afterlife was countered by the emergence of ‘secular societies,'” greatly weakening the idea of Hell and Damnation and Providence.

Thus the foundations had already been set for the reception of Draper and White. “The work of Draper and White…caught the popular mind of the late nineteenth century, not because of the intrinsic soundness of their arguments, but because of the real growing secularization of the European (and American) mind in the nineteenth century…never mind whether religion and science were really in conflict; they were increasingly thought to be in conflict.”

Wesley J. Wildman’s essay, “The Quest for Harmony: An Interpretation of Contemporary Theology and Science,” sees the interaction between science and religion within modernity as exhibiting an awkward tension that is indicative of a deeper cultural crisis, one evolving out of a failure of human beings to converge and unify the spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and social aspects of their being. “A promising starting point,” he says, “is the awareness that the root cause of the problematic character of modern Western culture is a profound confusion, a schizophrenic uncertainty, about how to be in the world.”

The interaction between science and religion is an informative example. The popular narrative, a tale told and retold both in schools and the media, recounts how

Christian theologians have duped the West to protect their own sacred narratives: first, theology insisted that certain things were true of the world; next, science discovered that these beliefs were false; and then, theology resisted this new [or “true”] knowledge, until finally it was forced to give up its false claims about the world, one by one.

This is a popular story. But it also happens to be completely “dissociated from reality.” And yet like most stories and legends, “the symbolic value of the story is the reason it was and is so infamous, rather than its fidelity to facts.”

The last essay in Part 1 comes from Holmes Rolston III, “Science, Religion, and the Future,” who argues that both science and theology are indispensable human institutions: that is, they need each other. While “science seeks to understand the world,”  it needs religion to keep it humane, it “pushes science toward questions of ultimacy, as well as value, and it can keep science from being blinkered, or…religion can keep science deep.”

According to Rolston, recent developments in the sciences offers hope of a more congenial relation with religion. Astrophysics and nuclear physics, for example, are describing a universe “fine-tuned” for stars, planets, life, and mind; evolutionary and molecular biology shows increasing signs of tremendous order in the organization of life: “that order represents something more than physics and chemistry; it is superimposed information.”

For all the advances in our scientific age, problems remain as acute as ever. To solve problems of justice—of overpopulation, overconsumption, and underdistribution—science is necessary; “but science is not sufficient without conscience that shapes and uses to which science is put.” “Science and religion,” Rolston argues, “must face together the impending disaster of today’s trends projected cumulatively into tomorrow: population explosion, dwindling food supply, climate change, soil erosion and drought, deforestation, desertification, declining reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources, toxic wastes, the growing gap between concentrated wealth and increasing poverty, and the militarism, nationalism, and industrialism that seek to keep the systems of exploitation in place.”

This dialogue between religion and science is exemplified in Part 3 of this book, where six case studies seek to demonstrate constructive interactions between science and theology. Noteworthy features of these studies are their wide range of diverse approaches to theological, philosophical, and methodological issues, incorporating what was discussed in earlier chapters. The studies include such topics as “cosmology and creation,” “Chaos theory and divine action,” “quantum complementarity and Christology,” “information theory and revelation,” “molecular biology and human freedom,” and “social genetics and religious ethics.” Written by astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory William R. Stoeger, professor of theology and science Robert John Russell, scientist at the Standford Linear Accelerator Karl Young, professor of mathematical physics John Polkinghorne, professor of philosophy Edward MacKinnon, professor of philosophy of education James E. Loder and associate professor of physics W. Jim Neidhardt, professor of historical and systematic theology Christopher B. Kaiser, Head of Mathmatics John C. Puddefoot, theologian and biochemist Arthuer Peacocke, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology R. David Cole, assistant professor of philosophical theology W. Mark Richardson, professor of anthropology William Irons, and professor of systematic theology Philip Hefner, Part 3 explores the complex interface between science and religion in today’s world.

Part 2 of the book brings us into questions of shared methodologies between theology and science. Constructed as two round discussions involving four perspectives, this set of chapters include arguments from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Nancey Murphy, Mary Gerhart and Allan Melvin Russell, and Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp. Our main concern here is the essay by reformed epistemologist Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theology and Science: Listening to Each other.”

Wolterstorff introduces his essay by noting that the most powerful and profound interpretation of modernity is that of German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist Max Weber (1864-1920). According to Weber, the essence of modernity lies in the emergence of differentiated action spheres in the domain of society and differentiated value spheres in the domain of culture, and then the spread of rationalization within these spheres. “The characteristically modern person is the one who discards both tradition and affect as determiners of action, and instead engages in rational calculation of means and rational appraisal of values before acting.”

How did the modern person come about? He emerged when the world was treated as disenchanted. “Once upon a time,” writes Wolterstorff, “in the days of primitive religion, humanity lived in an ‘enchanted garden’—a magical garden.” No longer. Modern man has “left the magic garden.” A necessary condition of modern man, says Weber, is disenchantment. “This grand sweep, from the enchanted gardens of primitive religion, to the progressively disenchanting world religions, to the disenchanted world of our differentiated modernized societies and cultures, represents the disappearance of religion from the human scene.” Religion, therefore, and according to Weber, is civilization’s irrational remnant from a primitive past.

Wolterstorff argues that Weber reflects “the Enlightenment understanding of science and its relation to religion—an understanding which has come crashing down in the last quarter century.” Enlightenment thinkers perpetuated convictions first set out in the Middle Ages, where scientific knowledge must begin from “what is evident, either to oneself or to someone else, and then proceed to construct deductive arguments.” Science, in other words, is the conclusions of demonstrative arguments.

Thus “before entering the halls of science, we are to shed all our particularities—our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, our particular nationalities—and enter those halls with just our humanity.” This is the foundationalist picture of science. In his Reason within the Bounds of Religion (1976, 1999), Wolterstorff sums up foundationalism in three principles:

(1) A person is warranted in accepting a theory at a certain time if and only if he is then warranted in believing that that theory belongs to genuine science (scientia).
(2) A theory belongs to genuine science if and only if it is justified by some foundational proposition and some human being could know with certitude that it is thus justified.
(3) A proposition is foundational if and only if it is true and some human being could know noninferentially and with certitude that it is true.

Foundationalism presupposes that there are some certitudes which form a foundation upon which a (scientific) theory can be built using methods of inference (demonstration) which are most certainly reliable. According to this view foundational certitudes can be known noninferentially (not inferred from other propositions). That is, these are things that can be known for certain without knowledge of this certainty being derived from something else. That is, the certainty of these things is self-evident.

Foundationalism holds that scientific theory is deducible from the foundation. Deductivism, however, has virtually collapsed because many theories that seemingly warrant acceptance are not deducible from any foundation. Given the untenability of deductivism, some foundationalists have resorted to probabilism. But probabilism assumes an uniformity of nature. The conclusion is only justified if nature is uniform. But it is impossible to say with any certainty that nature is uniform. One might argue that it is probably uniform, but then we are now using an inductive argument to justify the very principle which we need in order to justify an inductive argument. That is, we still lack a justification for induction. Which theory than belongs to genuine science? There are many acceptable theories, but few of them are provable with respect to foundationalism and none of them are probable with respect to foundation. In fact, Wolterstorff argues, there are no foundational propositions, that is, no propositions that we can know noninferentially and with certitude to be true.

Foundationalism has indeed failed, and has “all but disappeared from that part of the academy which is acquainted with developments in philosophy of science.” How are we then to view  science as nonfoundationalist in character?

When it comes to devising and weighing theories in science, Wolterstorff recommends a triple distinction between data, theory, and control beliefs. Data and theory are understood to be self-explanatory. Control beliefs, on the other hand, requires further explanation. “When engaging in science,” Wolterstorff explains, “we operate with certain convictions as to the sorts of theories that we will find acceptable. Control beliefs are of many different sorts. Sometimes they take the form of methodological convictions…sometimes they take the form of ontological convictions.” In other words, control beliefs are those beliefs which the scholar uses in weighing a theory and assessing whether it constitutes an acceptable sort of theory on the matter under consideration. Control beliefs will cause us to reject some theories because they are inconsistent with those beliefs. They will also lead us to devise theories, since we desire to have theories that are consistent with our control beliefs.

In cases of perceived conflict between data, theory, and control beliefs, the conflict is eliminated through a process of “equilibrium,” which is achieved by making revisions in one of the three—if not all of the three. “Most of the deep conflicts between science and religion,” writes Wolterstorff, “occur at the control-belief level.”

Wolterstorff concludes by emphasizing three important points. First, “the Christian faith is such and the theoretical disciplines are such that we must expect conflict—disequilibrium—to emerge repeatedly.”  This is because Christianity and Western theorizing constantly “overlap in their concerns.” The idea that religion and science operate in separate spheres is “just one proposal, and an extremely radical one at that, for the recovery of equilibrium.”

This ongoing struggle may require revisions either to Christian belief (which has been the case) or in how we understand science (which has been the case). The tendency to affirm scientific authority over religious authority in cases of conflict ignores the implicit—and indeed sometimes explicit—control beliefs within scientific theorizing.

And finally, the results of theorizing, and most unambiguously in the social sciences and humanities, are often militated against Christian conviction. But according to Wolterstorff, “theorizing in general is far indeed from being a religiously neutral endeavor.” We cannot leave our particular social locations, our particular genders, our particular religions, our particular races, or our particular nationalities, in the “narthex as we enter the halls of science.” Rather, with different particularities, we shall have to engage in the dialogue of theorizing, aiming for equilibrium as an outcome.

Science and Religion: Some New Historical Perspectives: A Word on Narratives

Having discussed the implications of recent literature that categorizes both “science” and “religion” as nineteenth-century social constructs, the same argument is applied to the scientific revolution by Margaret J. Osler in “Religion and the Changing Historiography of the Scientific Revolution.”

The idea that there was a “Scientific Revolution” between 1500 and 1700 and that this marked a definitive moment of separation between science and religion was, Osler argues, the creation of nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians who read their own secularist aspiration and experiences back into the history of the sciences during a period when they were, in fact, pursued in a climate of diverse, serious, and vibrant theological concern.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), in giving a historical account of the sciences, lauded thinkers of the seventeenth century for their scientific achievements while “scorning what they considered the irrationality and authoritarian attitude of religion.” During the nineteenth century, the ascendency of positivism, promoted by Auguete Comte (1798-1857) and Ernst Mach (1838-1916), predetermined how a retinue of historians of science would view the relationship between science and religion. Comte propounded a two laws. First was the “historical law” in which humanity passed through a theological, metaphysical and then culminating to a “positive” or scientific stage. The second was an “epistemological law,” which classified the sciences in a hierarchy determined by their sequence of arriving at the positive state and their increasing complexity. In all this “religion had to be eschewed before positive science could progress.” Mach rejected all metaphysical claims, arguing that such claims could not be proven empirically. He located the origin of modern science in Galileo. And like Comte, Mach accused religion of stifling the progress of science.

Osler argues that both Comte’s law of stages and Mach’s outline of history “profoundly influenced the formation of the history of science as an academic discipline in the twentieth century.” The other nineteenth-century influence came from American defenders of “secular” education in the sciences, namely John William Draper (1811-1882) and Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918). According to Osler, the “conflict” model of Draper and the “warfare” metaphor of White “dominated discussions of the relationship between science and religion” in the twentieth century.

Both the positivists and the Draper-White thesis influenced the work of, for example, George Sarton (1884-1956), who once wrote that “Auguste Comte must be considered as the founder of the history of science, or at least as the first who had a clear and precise, if not a complete, apprehension of it.” Sarton also referred to White’s warfare metaphor with approval. Other historians, including Edwin Arthur Burtt, Alexandre Koyré, Herbert Butterfield, Richard S. Westfall, and others agreed that the “scientific revolution” was a dramatic break with earlier ways of thinking and that it resulted in a profound change in the concept of nature and, indeed, in the relationship between science and religion. The end result, in short, is that “historians of science in the twentieth century tended to see what they considered a progressive separation of science from religion” and the gradual secularization of modernity.

According to Osler, these historians influenced others, further aggrandizing the unexamined assumptions formulated by the nineteenth-century positivists. In the late twentieth century, however, major challenges to this “classical” or “traditional” narrative emerged. Scholars began arguing that the “entire enterprise of studying the natural world was embedded in a theological framework that emphasized divine creation, design, and providence.” That is, seventeenth-century natural philosophers “believed that the study of the created world provided knowledge of the wisdom and intelligence of the Creator.” Many historians have contributed to what Osler characterizes as a major “sea-change” or “shifting tide,” including P.M. Rattansi, J.E. McGuire, B.J.T. Dobbs, Stephen D. Snobelen, Peter Harrison, and Jan W. Wojcik, only to give a small sample.

In her conclusion Osler asks what caused this sea-change? Osler suggests that the historiography of the scientific revolution of the middle decades of the twentieth century occurred within the optimistic environment of “big science” and “massive government funding.” However, fear of nuclear holocaust, awareness of environmental degradation, the revival of occult practices of New Age spirituality, a new emphasis on social history and feminist studies, and the growth of fundamentalist religion, in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism undermined unqualified faith in science in the late twentieth century. It was in this context, Osler suggests, that historians of science finally began recognizing the complex relationships between science and religion.

Nineteenth-century positivists and twentieth-century historians clearly read their own secularist aspirations and experiences back into the history of the sciences. Frank M. Turner, in the following essay, offers a closer analysis of the “conflict thesis” itself, with reference to its origins in the intellectual and cultural world of the late-nineteenth century.

According to Turner, the relationship of science and religion passed from “fruitful co-operation and modest tension to harsh public conflict, a situation that many observers have since come incorrectly to assume to be a permanent fact of modern cultural life.” Certain transformations occurred in the nineteenth century “within scientific and religious communities and changes in the structure of publication, education, and wider cultural discourse,” which more narrowly circumscribed “science” and “religion,” thus abstracting them from their historical context.

Between 1840 and 1890, Turner tells us, numerous controversies erupted between science and religion. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Spencer’s cosmic evolution narrative, Tyndall’s materialism, anthropological theories of human pre-history and religion, and the rise of textual criticism all issued much debate amongst nineteenth-century thinkers. But we must recognize, Turner warns, that there is no necessary or existential conflict: “modes of idealism, naturphilosophie, natural religion, theism, and ethical progressionism informed the work and personal values of numerous natural philosophers. These metaphysical, theological, and moral factors were not extrinsic to their pursuit of natural knowledge but part and parcel of it and for many scientists…remained so certainly to the end of the nineteenth century, if not well beyond.”

But during the nineteenth century various scientific communities arose  to compete with religious authority, defining “science” within a narrower professional and naturalistic framework. Likewise, social, institutional, devotional, and theological phenomena subsumed under the term “religion” experienced transformation, manifesting liberal, rational, or moderate associations, the rise of “bibliolatry” among evangelical Protestants, an aggressive Roman Catholicism asserting its theological and ecclesiastical authority, and a general hostility between and among Christian groups. “Thus by 1860,” writes Turner, “European churches were engaging with their cultures, asserting their authority, and championing the Bible much more intensely than their forebears had a century earlier.”

However, it is important to note that this hostility was not between “religion and science,” or more precisely Christianity and science; rather, it was between Christianity and materialism or atheism, skeptical rationalism, theological heterodoxy, ecclesiastical irregularity, or attacks by the secular state. This ideas eventually morphed into a new definition of science, for those who pushed for new notions of science also espoused materialistic or atheistic, skeptical rationalistic or theologically heterodox ideas. Harking back to the French Revolution, Turner reminds us that revolutionaries’ anthems for science were often simultaneously coupled with attacks on religion, which undeniably raised nineteenth-century apprehensions that “scientific thought or culture might endanger religion and the social status quo.” “Science could,” Turner suggests, “be socially, politically, and religiously dangerous, especially when it displayed connection or sympathy with French culture.”

Working within a propositional fallacy, many conservative religious figures of the nineteenth century argued that “if ideas bearing the whiff of French materialism, tranformationism, or religious heterodoxy were embraced, published, or advocated, then atheism, immorality, anti-clericalism, and social disruption might (or must) follow.”

From the 1840s to the 1860s, many thinkers abandoned religious and philosophical outlooks when they changed their view on the social status quo, for such outlooks were intimately intertwined with existing political and social structures. As Turner notes, British natural theology provided both a theological and a social theodicy. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-1840), for example, combined “intricate theological explications of nature with arguments supporting the contemporary British social and political status quo.” But these theodicies were fragile indeed, and a younger generation of scientists, discontent or even disgusted with existing boundaries of thought and action, either abandoned or wholly rejected them.

Ironically, by the mid-nineteenth century works began appearing challenging the “morality of the churches, the elitism of the major scientific societies, and the idea that any elite could control the discourse of natural knowledge.” Turner summarizes this development with an extended quote from Martin Fichman’s An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004), worth quoting at length here as well:

as advocates of a specific idea of science professionalization they were committed to constructing a definition of value-neutral and hence ‘objective’ science…The scientific naturalists recognized the professional gains to be had by proclaiming the ideological neutrality of science. Huxley and his camp could claim that they spoke as objective experts, not political or ideological partisans. This strategy involved erecting an epistemological divide between science and politics, ethics, religion, and other cultural forces. It also encouraged a distinction between elite and popular science…Such a strategy was brilliant but disingenuous. The scientific naturalists invoked an ‘ideologically pure’ science that concealed their own varied sociopolitical agenda behind the banner of rigorous professionalism.

New definitions of “science” were merely one side of the equation. The other side were new approaches to religion: “By about 1850 the contours of religious thought had undergone as much reconfiguration as science.” Protestant bibliolatry, with its growing emphasis on a literal reading of scripture, and an increased uncompromising attitude after the publication of Darwin’s Origins resulted in much sharper conflict over science. Roman Catholicism also underwent intellectual transformations that precipitated outright conflict with scientists. Pope Pius IX in 1864, for example, issued the Syllabus of Errors, putting the Roman Catholic Church in direct opposition not only to liberal politics but also science. In turn, the Tractarian Movement, led by John Henry Newman (1801-1890), argued that the authority of the Church should principally direct the faith of Christians, but in so doing he only cast further doubt on the historical authority on the Bible. The German philosophy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, with his emphasis on a “theology of feeling,” provided another context for men of science and others  to question older, traditional modes of religious life. Finally, voices of liberal biblical interpretation looked to advances in the physical sciences to aid them in their efforts to transform the reading of scripture and to challenge ecclesiastical authorities. “Just as the emerging generation of scientists sought to pursue new professional independence in thought and organization,” Turner writes, “various religious groups and theologians sought to establish their own intellectual and institutional independence.”

The medium in which this emerging conflict entered the public sphere were various. First was the unprecedented expansion of journals, scientific publications, religious papers and magazines, and Bible production. The learned periodical, according to Turner, “came to constitute a world of self-referential exchange and debate.” Second, the expansion of education, with the growth of government expenditures fostered conflict as different interest groups fought for resources and institutional authority. Finally, the prosperity and optimism of the mid-nineteenth century made the social dangers stemming from materialism no longer seemed necessary.

Turner thus reminds us that we should not discount the existence of real conflicts between science and religion in the nineteenth century. The fact that a strong public sense of a conflict between science and religion emerged when it did still itself needs to be explained. Particularly important for Turner is an appreciation of the history of religious life and thought during the nineteenth century, the emergence of a new sphere of state education, and the expanding literate sectors of transatlantic intellectual life.

Desecularizing the World

Christianity Judaism Islam Buddhism Hinduism symbolsContinuing the trend from the last post, in this post we will be looking at a different book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (1999), edited by Peter L. Berger. Few scholars have contributed so much to our understanding of religion and modernity as Berger. Beginning in the 1960s, he advanced the argument that the collapse of “the sacred canopy” provided by religion has created a crisis for faith, forcing it into a position of “cognitive bargaining” but ultimately ends up bargaining away religious substance in order to survive in a relentlessly secular and secularizing modern world. These thoughts were first published in his widely popular book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967).

In this more recent book, however, Berger has changed his mind, reproves his earlier thoughts on the subject, and tells us why in the introductory essay. Indeed, what needs explanation, he tells us, is not the continued vitality of religion, a phenomenon that puzzles so many modern intellectuals, but why so many modern intellectuals are puzzled by it! The present collection of essays emerges from a conference sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which includes a leading essay by Berger, along with other expert sociologists George Weigel, David Martin, Jonathan Sacks, Grace Davie, Tu Weiming, and Abdullahi A. an-Na’im.

What needs to be said at the outset is that this book is dated. Most of the essays, moreover, are unremarkable and thus most are not worth detailed exposition. To summarize its contents is a simple task. In the opening essay, Berger refutes the link between secularization and modernity; Weigel writes about Roman Catholicism, telling us that the Catholic Church “has reacquired a certain critical distance from the worlds of power, precisely in order to help those worlds accountable to universal moral norms;” Martin writes about the Evangelical upsurge, assigning its political implications to its individualistic approach and pragmatism; Sacks, who focuses on Jewish identity in the context of post-modernity and secularization, says that Jews live “in a condition of ambivalence about themselves and trauma about their relationship with the world”; while the rest of the world tends toward desecularization, Europe seems to be the exception to the rule, says Davie; in communist China Weiming writes that “as China is well on it sways to becoming an active member of the international society, the political significance of religion will continue to be obvious”; and writing about political Islam, an-Na’im says that the principle of pluralism and the protection of basic human rights, which is and always has been an Islamic imperative, should be followed.

Out of the seven essays, two stand out. Berger’s essay was the keynote lecture of the series, and of course, he is interested in doing more than just describing the current state of play of world politics. Berger begins by musing over the recent interest in the Fundamentalism Project. Sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the MacArthur Foundation, the Project was an international scholarly investigation of conservative religious movements throughout the world. The Project, which began in 1987 and concluded in 1995, was directed by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Why, Berger muses, exert resources to studying religious fundamentalism? The most obvious answer was that because “fundamentalism” is such a strange and hard-to-understand phenomena, the purpose of the Project was to delve into this alien world and make it more understandable.

But understandable to whom? This crucial questions leads Berger to an epiphany: the concern that must have led this Project was based on an upside-down perception of the world, according to which “fundamentalism” is a rare, hard-to-explain thing. But a look either at history or at the contemporary world reveals that what is rare is not the phenomenon itself but the knowledge of it. That is to say, it is this elite group of intellectuals that is a rare, and hard-to-explain thing. “The world today,” writes Berger, “is a furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” Thus the assumption of secularism, and the secularization theory, is both mistaken and false. The key ideas of the theory, traced back to the Enlightenment, is that modernization necessarily leads to religious decline, both in society and in the minds of individuals. It is this key ideas, Berger maintains, that has turned out to be wrong. “To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed: religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism have widely succeeded.”

Turning to the global religious scene, Berger observes that, on the one hand “it is conservative or orthodox or tradtionalist movements that are on the rise almost everywhere,” and, on the other, that “religious movements and institutions that have made great efforts to conform to a perceived modernity are almost everywhere on the decline.” From the remarkable revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the rapidly growing orthodox Jewish groups in Israel and the Diaspora, to the vigorous upsurges of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, “taken together they provide a massive falsification of the idea that modernization and secularization are cognate phenomena.”

While the world today is massively religious, there are, however, two exceptions, one somewhat unclear, the other very clear. The first apparent exception is of course Europe. In Western Europe, if nowhere else, the old secularization theory seems to hold true. There are indeed increased indications in secularization both in expressed belief and personal codes of behavior.  Yet there are a number of recent works, Berger notes, that make this exception deeply problematic. Notably in France, Britain, and even Scandinavia, there is a body of literature indicating strong survivals of religion. What’s more, it seems that there has only been a shift in the institutional location of religion, rather than secularization. That is, there has been a shift away from organized religion, to personal, “spiritual” religious attitudes. Thus Europe as secular is a rather ambiguous assertion, requiring much qualification, detailed and careful analysis.

The other, and definitely clearer, exception to the upsurge in religious movements is the existence of an international subculture composed of people with Western-style higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. “This subculture is the principal carrier of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. Although relatively thin on the ground, they are widely influential, providing the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system.” Berger calls them the a “globalized elite culture,” and the plausibility of secularization theory owes much to this elite subculture, for when they travel they usually touch down in isolated, intellectual circles, i.e. among people much like themselves. But because of this, they easily fall into the misconception that these people reflect the overall society, which is, of course, a mistake.

What are the origins of this new religious upsurge? Berger hints at two possible answers: first, religion provides certainty when so much of our taken-for-granted certainties have been undermined by modernity, or it appeals to people who resent the social influence of that small, cultural elite. But the most satisfying answer, Berger says, and the most historically accurate, is that “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” Thus the so-called “religious upsurge” simply serves to demonstrate continuity in the place of religion in human experience.

What are the prospects of this new religious upsurge? Berger argues that there is no reason to think the world of the twenty-first century will be any less religious than the world of past generations. But it is also true that many of these religious movements are linked to non-religious forces of one sort or another, and thus the future course of the former will be at least partially determined by the course of the latter.

The “new” religious upsurge is, of course, particular, differing in their critique of modernity and secularity. But what most of these religious movements do seem to agree upon is the shallowness of a culture that tries to get along without any transcendent points of reference. “The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity” from time immemorial. The critique of secularity common to all the resurgent movements is that “human existence bereft of transcendence is an impoverished and finally untenable condition.”

The other essay worth noting in the collection is Davie’s “Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?” Davie takes secularization theory quite seriously, and it seems that data proves that in Europe the old secularization thesis hold true. But data, she points out, never explains anything. It is the interpretation of data that explains. The data from Europe, for instance, provides several interpretations, and that some explanations are more nuanced than others. Davie proposes that “might it not be the case that Europeans are not so much less religious than citizens in other parts of the world as differently religious?” Her emphasis.

Davie disentangles various meanings behind the term secularization, specifically as used by Steve Bruce, José Casanova, and Daniele Hervieu-Léger, evaluating them against recent data from the European Values System Study Group (EVSSG), survey findings of 1981 and 1990. In her estimation, it is not so much that there is less religion but that European religion is now expressed differently from how it used to be expressed: hence, Europe is less “secular” than it is “unchurched.” She writes, “while many Europeans have ceased to participate in religious institutions, they have not yet abandoned many of their deep-seated religious inclinations.”

In interpreting the data, Davie finds the approach of French sociologist Hervieu-Léger most promising. Hervieu-Léger argues that modern societies (especially modern European societies) are less religious, not because they are increasingly rational (they are not), but because they are less and less capable of maintaining the memory that lies at the heart of the religious existence. In other words, they are “amnesiac societies.”

While modern societies may well corrode their traditional religious base, they also open spaces that only religion can fill. Hervieu-Léger calls this “utopian” spaces. Modern individuals are encouraged to seek answers, find solutions, and make progress. Such aspirations become an increasingly normative part of human experience. But the image of utopia must always exceed reality, and the more successful the projects of modernity, the greater the mismatch becomes. “Hence the paradox of modernity, which in its historical forms removes the need for the sense of religion, but in its utopian forms must stay in touch with the religious.”

In the end, religion, and churches in Western Europe, still function as a kind of “vicarious memory.” Many Europeans remain grateful rather than resentful of their churches, recognizing that the churches perform a number of tasks on behalf of the population as a whole. One of the most obvious risks of operating vicariously, Davie notes, is the lack of direct contact between the churches and the population. This dramatically leads to a generation-by-generation drop in religious knowledge. Davie concludes that “an ignorance of even the basic understandings of Christian teaching is the norm in modern Europe, especially among young people; it is not a reassuring attribute.”