On Religion: Speeches to Its’ Cultured Despisers was a witty and influential book by Freidrich Schleiermacher, first published in 1799. Considered a sort of Ur-text for modern Protestant theology, Speeches tried to save religion from the sneers of thinkers who prided themselves on their Enlightenment views. If you were ever a college student, you were probably a Cultured Despiser too.
There is a way, though, in which they never quite move on. Today’s Cultured Despisers are the proponents of Scientism: the belief that science conquers all and renders the humanities and religion superfluous. We’ve been through Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom I otherwise liked a lot) and we now have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist/linguist, who likes to think that what he does is “hard” science as opposed to the mushy thinking of lesser disciplines.
Pinker has been in the news increasingly because of his TED Talks and his theory, really, that the world is getting better and better. We are the most “civilized” we have ever been. Not surprisingly, such a rosy evolution is due to Science and, in particular, the triumph of Science over Religion. In Pinker’s words, “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken.” (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).
While the notion that human beings are becoming ever less violent is a happy one, it seems belied by the facts of history. It was last taken seriously as part of the pre-WWI belief in the inevitable triumph of progress. Remember Emile Coue: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better?” While I suspect that a theory of inexorable human progress is at least arguably un-Christian, the greater concern is Pinker’s mistaken assumption that religious fundamentalism is a justifiable stand-in for religion in general.* What is true, rather, is that science and religion both depend upon metaphor for intelligibility.
My real beef with Pinker is his belief that religion (contra science) is a closed system which cannot take in new discoveries or information. Just as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the truth ought be accepted from whatever source it comes, so have Christian theologians argued that “the religion of the incarnation” cannot be hostile to new knowledge because truth is always an ally. One of the earliest modern examples of this is the Anglican Lux Mundi (“Light of the World”), a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians in the late 1880s.
It simply strikes me as a silly (and banal) argument to be having. Experiences of faith and awe do not fit neatly into categories or “non-overlapping criteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould once described science and religion. The truth is that virtually nothing worth describing can be described without interpretation and metaphor. Not love. Not grief. Not freedom. Not art. Not poetry. Not music. Not physics. Not really.
When what we see exceeds our ability to explain (whether it’s redemption or the multiverse), we none of us give up our belief in ultimate intelligibility. We continue on, probing, in expectation that the belief will be justified. And that, regardless of which category we are overlapping, is called faith.
* The errors of fundamentalism ought not be mistaken for the errors of religion. See Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013.