“Once more I come to the edge of all I know. And believing nothing believe in this:”
—Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss:
Meditations of a Modern Believer
It’s a curious irony that the champions of scientism are some of the most vocal advocates of change and progress, yet they so rarely change or progress. They’ve said almost nothing new in over a century. And it’s why after reading Eric Dietrich’s Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, I couldn’t shake the uncanny feeling that I’d read this before. I’m not sure if it was Dennett or Dawkins, Huxley or H.G. Wells, or some concoction of all of them, but reading Dietrich’s latest was like déjà vu.
But this is not a reason to fault Dietrich. Such consistency might even, more charitably, be construed as a virtue. He is working from a particular tradition. The problem, as has been noted by members inside and outside of the scientific community – from New Atheist Robinson to agnostic physicists such as Gleiser – is that this tradition of scientism is intellectually flabby, historically oblivious and grossly reductionist. And Dietrich does almost – almost – nothing to buck these trends.
Like most of his predecessors, particularly the new atheists to whom he’s largely indebted (just read the footnotes!), Dietrich makes much of the “war” that supposedly exists between science and religion. But rather than work out an argument that might lead him to victory, Dietrich takes a clever shortcut, declaring it on the first page. The preface notes:
“This book is about the war between science and religion: about how science has won this war so thoroughly that it can explain why religion will not go away, why there are people who choose God over science.”
If this sounds absurd, that’s because it is. Really, a religious person could make the same case on the same grounds simply by inverting the key terms. But again, Dietrich’s logical gymnastics are not the biggest problem with the “war between science and religion” mantra of late modernity to which he is so intent on marching. The real problem is that there is no war because there are no real warriors.
The much touted sides, “religion” and “science,” are, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, phantoms in a phantom war. And sure, phantoms can induce real panic and fear – and they have on either side – but they signify nothing particular enough with which to do something constructive, or destructive for that matter. They are crude instruments only good for crude work.
It’s likely we all know people who rely on such broad terms. People who like or detest food or music or art. But unless they’re very small children or imbeciles, we don’t take such statements too seriously without probing for particulars: Are we talking about ratatouille or raisin bread; KISS or Kendrick Lamar; Renoir, Rodin or Rockwell? More to the point: Are we talking about evolution or mapping the human genome or in vitro fertilization or dark matter? And are we talking with a Scientologist, a Wiccan, a Jesuit or a Jew? Such distinctions elude Dietrich, and the fact that fairly reputable academic publishers continue to allow critical work that requires surgical precision to be done with such lexical wrecking balls as “science” and “religion” continues to baffle a century on.
But let’s take Dietrich at his words, however vague, just for now. If you unravel the argumentative thread of Excellent Beauty, it reads as follows: A) All religions require belief in some transcendent reality; B) Since science can’t prove the existence of a “transcendent reality,” this is really no reality; C) Therefore, the religious should embrace a strict materialism, the reality that science reveals there to be; D) However, since the material world still contains some inexplicable mysteries – the “excellent beauties” – we must embrace that even science has limits; E) Accepting these limits and unknowns will temper both science and religion, ushering in a utopian new science (religion?) that will give all the wonder and worship and community of traditional religion without all the nasty genocide and bigotry and hubris.
For Dietrich, such a move is a win-win: we can throw out the dirty bathwater of religion without losing the spotless baby of our scientifically inquiring humanity.
But the second link in Dietrich’s chain of reasoning – the one on which his whole argument hangs – is the weakest. Why should anyone believe that the light of scientific inquiry is penetrating enough, or of the right order and kind, to properly explain the mysterious beliefs of the world’s various religions? This is a question Dietrich never asks and so never has to answer. Rather, he wonders, “If we’re so confident in religion, why don’t we have our most robust scientific methods confirm its ontological claims?”
That the “ontological claims” of religion – not to mention the claims of art, music or even love – might be unquantifiable by even the most robust of scientific methods never unsettles Dietrich. And for someone who has pre-emptively declared science victorious at the outset, the ham-fisted treatment of religion that follows this claim is not only tiring, frustrating and even somewhat infuriating but also quite predictable.
For Dietrich, all religions depend on a belief in the transcendent: “No religion on planet Earth, not one, embraces physicalism [or strict materialism]. This is just one of many places where science and religion clash.” Religion refuses to embrace the notion that the material world is all that there is and so depends upon a willed ignorance of the facts.
For Dietrich, “the most important fact is that there is not one single indisputable bit of evidence in support of any spiritual or religious belief whatsoever.” I won’t speak to other religions, but as a Christian, to make such a statement is, for one thing, to deny the numerous sources that affirm the historicity – the fact – of Christ’s life, death and his appearance to many after his death. You’d also have to deny myriads of first-hand testimonies from those who have experienced miracles, epiphanies and haunting moments that border on the mystical.
Yet Dietrich insists that the supernatural longings of religion are really quite flatly natural. Why? Because he says so: “Humans are religious because our ancestors who were religious reproduced more successfully than our ancestors who weren’t. This is the only explanation that works and is satisfying.” But that’s not really satisfying, is it? How does a religion, at least the one I know best, gain success at reproducing when it champions humility and weakness, and makes a high virtue of laying down life for another? Is all this talk of self-sacrifice, honesty, peace and long-suffering an attempt to “work with the grain” of the created order, or is it a covert attempt to get laid? Dietrich opts for the latter.