In his essay “Gods,” the British philosopher John Wisdom relates a parable of two men who return to a neglected garden only to find it filled with a combination of weeds and thriving plants. One of the men claims, due to the existence of the thriving plant-life, that a gardener must be responsible for tending the garden and he subsequently sets off with his buddy to see if there is any evidence that might support such a claim. After realizing that there has never been any tangible evidence for the existence of a gardener, the two men examine the contents of the garden more closely.
Wisdom writes, “Sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work.” Oddly enough, both men see the same set of facts, and both men know what happens to gardens that go untended. One, however, still persists in believing in a gardener (there is after all evidence of thriving plants) while the other stands firm in rejecting such a claim (how else can the neglected aspects of the garden be explained?). Wisdom then writes, “At this stage, in this context, the gardener hypothesis has ceased to be experimental, the difference between one who accepts and one who rejects it is now not a matter of the one expecting something the other does not expect.”
This, Wisdom argues, is how religious belief functions. Most believers do not depend on science or a scientific description of the natural world to formulate their belief in a loving God; rather belief is something that most religious folk already possess when they view the world described by science. The order of belief generally moves from belief in God to beliefs about the world and rarely (if ever) from beliefs about the world to the formation of a belief in God. This means that any supposed dispute between religious believers and atheists doesn’t really depend on any dispute science, but rather depends on how believers and atheists interpret the importance of scientific facts. The supposed science/religion debate is in fact a fantasy, science has nothing at all to say for or against religious belief, it is rather the believer and atheist who animate the facts of science with words and meanings that support what they already believe.
In my new book Kneeing at the Altar of Science: The Mistaken Path of Contemporary Religious Scientism (Pickwick Publications, 2012), I attempt to show how a certain type of mistaken appeal to science is not simply the error of atheists like Richard Dawkins and his New Atheist pals, but has also crept into the heart of Christian theology. My argument is simply that in attempting too bolster the academic acceptance of religious belief by dressing it up in the clothing of science (much like people dress their dogs in costumes at Halloween), some theologians distort, usually beyond recognition, the meaning of religious language. In what appears to be a theology arising out of a certain amount of fear and trepidation that science will make religious beliefs look paltry, impotent, and irrelevant, these theologians try (unsuccessfully I argue) to make religion look more scientific. Their motivations, however, may go deeper, displaying a tendency for certainty that haunts us all.
The philosopher Herbert Feigl wrote, “The quest for absolute certainty is an immature, if not infantile, trait of thinking.” Feigl may have been pointing out the fact that what we often take as absolutely certain often turns out to be neither absolute nor certain. Science, however, at least on the surface, seems to offer us a certain amount of certainty. If the physics is calculated correctly, the rocket reaches Mars; if the correct antibiotic is administered the sick patient gets well; if the airplanes engines force the steel tube forward at the proper velocity, then the plane (thankfully!) stays airborne.
But the certainty that science offers does have its limits, not because science is defective, but because it is essentially limited, operating best within a specific domain: the empirical world. Science has little to say about the possibility of humans spending eternity with God, or telling us what the meaning of existence is as a whole, or explaining why there exists a universe rather than nothing at all. These questions seem better suited for a religious response. Yet, with the removal of such questions from the domain of science we enter the world were certitude is fleeting, doubts are prevalent, and anxiety is often persistent. This is not because religion is defective; rather, religious certainty (if there is such a thing) is different than what we find in science.
Our reasons for forming religious beliefs are numerous and diverse. We may come to believe because we fear death, or because our parents believed, or because we simply cannot help believing when standing in the presence of nature. These reasons, however, should not be deemed paltry simply because they are not scientific.
If our choice is entering the world of “objective uncertainty” (to use Kierkegaard’s term) or distorting religious belief by turning it into a sad imitation of scientific certitude, we ought to opt for the former. To opt for the latter is to long for a certitude that is unreal and unavailable. It is to act like the adult who so longs to for the certainty and protection of their childhood that they smother their own children by denying them freedom and autonomy. But while this quest for certainty may feel better, it leaves us with a faith that is immature (and often irrelevant). The science and religion debate may rage on, but its persistence may be more a reflection on human psychology than philosophical necessity.
Robert Bolger has a Phd from Claremont Graduate University and a M.A. from Union Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife Lara and dog Annie near Seattle, Washington.