Have you ever stepped into a revolving door and had it unceremoniously slam into your behind? Or tried to cut a slice of cheese with a double-edged knife and ended up with a slice of thumb, instead? (I know, the cheese should’ve been the first clue it was a bad idea.) Or decided it would be a fun idea to see how far you can throw a three-meter-long tree branch only to have the far end spin up and clip you on your chin after its first arc? Well, maybe I was just an accident-prone kid, or a slow learner, but all these things have happened to me. Luckily, they taught me a lesson, the essence of which being described by G.I. Gurdjieff when he said: “every stick has two ends. If you don’t have a good idea of the material you’re handling, the ‘other end’ can wind up smacking you with unanticipated results. I’ve got the bruises and scars to remind me.”
Just like the knives, sticks and revolving doors of my youth, there are many other things that have the ability to ‘cut both ways’: actions, ideas, even the mind itself is a double-edged sword. In this article I’ll be discussing some of the ways this principle has cropped up in our collective history of ideas. Specifically, I want to write about the so-called conflict between science and religion and how it has affected the way we see and interact with the world – the attitude we take towards nature, the cosmos, and ourselves. I think it’s an important idea to ponder. Like a government censor at a national newspaper, a worldview determines what we value and therefore what we see; and what we see influences how we respond to the data we take in. It’s the grand focuser of attention, like Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron, directing its gaze on the world around us (only not quite as nasty, in most cases). But like every self-defeating fantasy-novel baddie, science and religion have both ended up shooting themselves in the foot, losing sight of their original aim and purpose.
Ivory Towers to the Rescue
But first, a little background is in order. If we’re talking about ideas, we need to understand a bit about the mind itself, where ideas work their magic. And the best way to get there is by taking a peep at those tumultuous times called the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. According to the guys and gals who tell us when stuff happened, commonly known as historians these days, old men with a Bible in one hand and a billy club (or other temporally correct bludgeoning device) in the other had been telling people what to think about history, philosophy, geology, anatomy, and pretty much all the other -ories, -ophies, -omies, and -ogies for several hundreds of years – for one fourth of the history of the universe, in fact, according to the bludgeoners’ calculations. Of course, they used the former for the ideas and the latter to beat those ideas into the heads of the people, although it may very well have been the other way ’round. But along came a trend that was to prove disastrous, or ‘Heaven’-sent, depending on your naturally nurtured perspective. That was a time when those who would today be considered nerds and poindexters were consistently sticking it to the man: the Renaissance.
Of course, some, like Galileo Galilei, who was put under house arrest and forced to recant his heretical ideas, and Giordano Bruno, who was burned alive after years of forced imprisonment, got supremely stuck in return. But in the minds of thinkers like the late Bertrand Russell, science eventually won the fight over superstition, brutality and perversion. Faced with the utter absurdity of Church dogma – the universe was only several thousand years old and created out of nothing, God set the planets and Sun in stable orbits around a stationary Earth, Moses wrote the Old Testament, Adam and Eve were the first humans, comets were ‘sublunary’ bodies, bad weather was caused by bad women, mental disorders were demonic possession, species were created one by one by God and magically placed on the Earth – it was really like shooting fish in a barrel. After toppling the first domino, the rest followed suit and nowadays we really know the way things work. Right?
© Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office. This painting from the 19th century depicts Italian scientist Galileo at the Vatican in Rome in the 17th century.
What these radical dudes did was introduce a completely novel idea. Instead of saying, ‘Things should be this way, because [insert authoritative sounding name here] says so,’ they exclaimed, ‘This is the way things are, because this is what we have observed.’ Hard facts won over the logical castles of pure reason. For example, Aristotle had said that the speed of a falling object is proportional to its weight. Galileo, who must have got a kick from alienating his peers, poked fun at them by dropping big and small lumps of lead from the top of the leaning tower of Pisa as they were walking to their daily lectures. The lumps reached the ground at the same time, of course, but the ‘esteemed’ professors would then shuffle off to teach impressionable future professors that the speed of a falling object is proportional to its weight. After all, then as today, ‘science’ was all about ‘building on the already established theories’, not consigning them to the dustbin when they proved to be incorrect. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So how does this relate to the mind? It’s pretty simple and has to do with something called dogmatism, which Manitoban psychologist Bob Altemeyer and his colleague Bruce Hunsberger define as “relatively unchangeable, unjustified certainty.” It’s the degree to which you will not change your mind, even when presented with evidence that would make doing so seem a no-brainer. With some humans the opposite seems the case, and despite the evidence of the senses and direct experimentation, they pull a literal no-brainer: they don’t think.
So, after centuries of demonstrably dumb ideas, along came guys like Galileo, Bruno, Lyell, Darwin, et al., and hey, their ideas seemed to make sense, even if that meant provoking consternation from those who preferred the comfort of certainty in traditional dogma. Before, people had derived meaning from a world where Mr. God set the world in motion, popped in once in a while to give his only son a hard time or inspire some king to utterly destroy his enemies, and only let his creatures contact him through his appointed secretaries, kind of like a mythical CEO of the Divine Cosmos Corporation. But now, they could rest assured living in a world where all future events were entirely determined by the physical actions preceding them, where free will and consciousness didn’t exist, where humans were seen as generally selfish individuals in a dog-eat-dog world of ‘survival of the fittest’, and where meaning, value, and morality had no scientific justification. God never existed, and all was right with the world.
The Church fathers had tried their best to be logical. The Bible was the word of God, God’s word was infallibly true, and God said the Earth was immoveable. Therefore, Galileo was wrong, plain and simple. Makes sense, right? Only, their preconceived notions were completely bogus and accepting the results of experiments proving that one or more of their premises might be wrong was a bitter pill to swallow. If the Bible wasn’t the word of God, what might that say about the Church’s claim to dominion, the validity of their authority and power, the efficacy of their ‘salvation’ business? Instead of admitting defeat, they hung on till the bitter end. But science ‘won the day’, leading us to the present, where the ‘rational’ philosophies and theologies, with their conclusions about reality derived logically from ‘authoritative’ but unproven premises, have been replaced by ‘naturalism’. According to this school of thought, conclusions about reality are derived by observing reality, that is, the physical world. No supernatural data must enter the equation. Simply look and see. It’s the scientific method, baby. The world operates according to physical laws, which can only be observed by the senses and tested with reason and experiment. And to believe God can override these laws, or even to believe in God in the first place, is first-class folly. ‘Because God told me so’ no longer cuts it as a be-all-end-all of conversation stoppers. Let’s borrow a term from philosopher, theologian, and ‘dangerous conspiracy thinker’ David Ray Griffin and call it naturalism-sam (i.e. sensationist-atheist-materialist naturalism).
Richard Dawkins – a latter day scientific ‘inquisitor’
But let’s not view our enlightened Renaissance heroes through rose-made-of-Godless-matter-knowable-only-via-the-senses-tinted glasses – many of them believed their ideas were wholly resonant with their religious views. ‘God’ wrote two books, after all: the book of Nature, and the Scripture. If we wanted to know about nature, the best way was to look at nature and discern its laws. If we wanted to know about morality and living a life of God, a perusal of his Holy Text would suffice. That was Galileo’s belief. Darwin, too, came from a theistic background, seeing the forms of Nature written in the pages in God’s book. However, he soon switched camps to ‘agnosticism’ after concluding that these forms must have come about by natural processes and after observing the manifest horrors of nature. (Witness the ichneumon wasp, which injects its larvae into a host caterpillar which is later eaten alive from within. What kind of loving God would write that into his book?)
Despite the fact that our scientist heroes of yore were unabashed God-lovers, naturalism-sam is the current academic worldview: a reaction against the dogmatism and inadequacies of the religious teachings. Remember those dominoes – if the natural world is knowable only via the senses, if physical laws and processes are seen to account for more and more of what was previously considered ‘miraculous’, and if the claims of the Bible fail one after the other, it’s no great leap to conclude that all of religion is bunk and there is no place for God in the ever-closing gaps of current knowledge. (‘God in the gaps’ was theologian Henry Drummond’s term for those who saw God’s influence not in knowledge itself, but in the gaps of knowledge. Before the theory of evolution, God was responsible for the creation of species, then for just mankind, then just human ‘souls’, then for the presence of altruism, and so on. The ‘gap’ of God’s influence gets smaller and smaller as we learn more about natural processes. If Galileo were alive today, he would no doubt have the dubious distinction of being subject to the scorn and un-Holy Wrath of someone like Richard Dawkins, our own modern day ‘Thomas Huxley’, who was affectionately referred to as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ in his time for his vociferous defense of evolution and attack against all things ‘spritualist’.
Stuck in the Middle
But is ‘sam’ really all he’s cracked up to be? Consider this. In the early 2000s, having realized that a ton of studies had been done on religious people but none on the decided nonbelievers, the aforementioned psychologists Altemeyer and Hunsberger conducted an unprecedented study. They set out to get into the minds of atheists. What do you suppose they found? Contrary to the expectations of true believers – those who consistently test highest on the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) scale, i.e. the most dogmatic, zealous, conservative, ethnocentric humans on the planet – the atheists were not amoral sinners plotting to convert the world to atheism and lead us all into abject Godlessness. In fact, they were remarkably un-zealous, with very little desire to force their ‘beliefs’ on anyone else. They simply couldn’t reconcile their minds to beliefs they found contrary to reason and scientific evidence and so chose atheism as an alternative. But they defied expectations in other ways, too.
Contrary to the experimenters’ predictions, the atheists tested fairly high on the scale of dogmatism (albeit still far below the high-RWAs). In other words, atheism was their story and they were sticking to it! They couldn’t even conceive of anything that might change their minds about the way they saw the world. (Agnostics on the other hand were more open to new data either way.) Remember that stick? Well, here’s where the other end makes an appearance. The atheists proved to be pretty smart, indeed. They could see the contradictions in religion fairly early on in life. But the rigidity of their conviction and skepticism seemed to have the effect of making them more like their believing neighbors than they anticipated. Both sides had mighty trouble admitting they just might be wrong.
So what’s the deal here? Are the atheists right or aren’t they? Well, in my opinion, both yes and no. Things aren’t that cut-and-dried (there’s that stick again). You see, in 2009 another group of people with impressive letters behind their names (Peter Krummenacher, Christine Mohr, Helene Haker, and Peter Brugger) published a study called “Dopamine, Paranormal Belief, and the Detection of Meaningful Stimuli.” These guys and gals found that while ‘believers’ in the paranormal tended to commit more ‘Type I’ errors (they saw patterns or ‘signal’ in what was just noise), skeptics did the opposite, committing more ‘Type II’ errors (they discarded actual signals as being just ‘noise’). Think about that. The skeptics were essentially blind to important signals. This is a key point, so let’s take a look at it in excruciating detail. (Just kidding, this’ll be fun.)
Let’s take a hypothetical group of extremely stereotyped individuals. First, we have Jenny, a fundamentalist ‘Raelian’ eagerly awaiting the return of the Elohim in their fancy UFOs to judge mankind. Next is Suzy, an undergrad student studying twentieth century poetry who is really not sure what to believe. The world fascinates her, and she’s always trying to learn more about its varied peoples and cultures. Third is Bill. He’s a guy with posters of James Randi and Seth Shostak pinned to his dormitory wall and who enjoys posting acerbic rejoinders to all the gullible idiots that crop up on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.
One sunny day on campus, while Suzy is reading a copy of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces on a bench in the shade of a large oak tree, a crowd of students starts to gather. ‘Check it out! What is that thing?’ she hears. Looking over, she sees the students shielding their eyes and pointing to a region of the sky that just happens to be within view of Bill’s window, out of which he is gazing while trying to think of something witty to write to yet another annoying 911 ‘truther’ trying to tell him that Flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon. Jenny, who just happens to be in the crowd, exclaims, ‘OMG! [Yep, she’s one of those annoying people who verbalize Internet acronyms.] A UFO!’ She would know – she’s seen hundreds of them, many of which bore a remarkable resemblance to airplanes, helicopters, flocks of geese, the moon, Venus, and the reflection of her bedside lamp in her bedroom window. Suzy is intrigued, but perplexed. She has seen a few odd things in the sky that she could not explain. True, a quick investigation on her part turned up a plausible explanation for one or two of them, but the object she sees now is truly weird. Three orange, glowing orbs hovering and circling over the old Philosophy faculty building. Bill, of course, can think of a hundred explanations, not one of which entails anything weird or ‘paranormal’. After a quick scoff and some sudden inspiration, he’s back on his computer typing his foolproof counterargument. The orbs shoot off into space at an incredible speed.
© Bob Altemeyer
Of course, in this story, Bill’s the atheist, Jenny’s the fundie, and Suzy’s the agnostic. Jenny makes so many Type I errors, it’s a surprise she’s able to tie her shoelaces in the morning without seeing a pattern in them. Bill’s the opposite, disregarding something truly unusual and unexplained as simply noise. Suzy, however, has the advantage. While she may make some errors in judgment, she’s willing to admit when she’s wrong and that she doesn’t have all the answers. She knows how her mind works, that her emotions and preconceived ideas can cloud her judgment and thus make it easier to find comfort in absolute certainty. But she’s more interested in the truth, whatever it may be, than avoiding the tension of balancing the ‘stick’ of her mind. She has an open yet critical mind, and she never misses a signal.
Bill, Suzy, and Jenny encapsulate the options on the ‘idea market’ today. While the majority are somewhere between Suzy and Jenny (between 60 and 80% of North Americans believe in God in one shape or another), the Bills have the upper hand when it comes to who is writing the textbooks. But there’s a hidden history behind the apparent victory of uncle naturalism-sam, as I’m sure you’re guessing by now. Its villains? Bad thinking and bad leadership (AKA politics). Let’s start with bad thinking, which we’ve already touched on.
“When all the logical consequences of an innovation are presented simultaneously, the shock to habits is so great that men tend to reject the whole…”
– Bertrand Russell
Most people commit an error in thinking at least once in their life called the ‘genus-species fallacy’, otherwise known as judging a sixteen-year-old male by his delinquent second cousin. Just because one form of an idea is wrong, even obviously so, does not mean that all variations of it are wrong. Take evolution. In its early years, there was a conflict between the views of Darwin and Lamarck (and later the Soviet Lysenko), who thought that ‘acquired characteristics’ could be passed on to further generations through heredity, an idea which was widely rejected and ridiculed for decades after. But to dismiss both because of the faults of one – Lamarck – would’ve just been silly. And even then, the recent development of the science of epigenetics (heritable changes to DNA from environmental influences) has given the poorly developed idea of Lamarck some retro-credibility.
The point is that science operates this way. Observations are made, data is gathered, hypotheses are formed, and then there is trial-and-error experimentation to verify or refute those hypotheses and form theories. It can be a long process, especially when our powers of observation aren’t as great as we would like. That means that until we have those abilities, scientists need to keep an open and sharp mind. The truth is not always apparent or obvious. The fact that the Earth orbits the Sun and that germs exist did not suddenly become true only after we had the tools to make the necessary observations – the telescope and microscope, respectively. These things were always true; it was just that our new powers of observation had the ability to turn hypotheses into knowledge – true and justified belief. The problem comes when you stop the process, thinking you’ve got the whole hog when you’ve only got a slice of bacon. That’s when belief becomes dogmatic and the specter of certainty rears its unwieldy head. It may be true, but it also may be only one piece of the puzzle, and new discoveries can cast it in a totally new light. And ‘crazy-sounding’ ideas may just turn out to be correct!
Our solar system’s planets always revolved around the sun, even when no one believed it
On the other hand, allegedly ‘refuted’ ideas can come back to haunt you, as was the case with Lamarck. This happens so often in science that it’s a wonder scientists don’t factor it into their equations. The early (religious) geologists were catastrophists. They thought the world was very young and that our varied and stratified geology was solely the result of massive ‘Biblical’ cataclysms. Then, along came Charles Lyell who saw gradual changes over long periods of time – uniformitarianism – as the more reasonable explanation. He was right, at least in part and compared to the Church catastrophists (but he, too, fell back on God as necessary for providing the first push). And after that, uniformitarianism held sway, and anyone trying to rock the boat (e.g. Immanuel Velikovsky) was roundly picked to death in the theater of ‘scientific’ debate. But by denying catastrophe completely, scientists committed the genus-species fallacy, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And the other end of the stick ended up smacking them. Nowadays there has been a resurgence of interest in catastrophism and it is widely recognized as playing a hand in the developmental history of our planet, while the uniformitarians of old are grumbling in their graves (along with some in the more backwater regions of the scientific community).
If we equate ‘religion’ with dogmatism (after all, that was its chief feature for centuries, claiming absolute knowledge and forbidding new ideas) and ‘science’ with discovery (an attempt to understand reality and discern its laws by open enquiry, observation and experimentation), then the conflict we see is really one of two attitudes towards reality. But is dogmatism an essential feature of religion, or are we again committing the genus-species fallacy? Have we been smacked unknowingly by the big stick of ‘religious’ dogmatism? I think so. The resistance that free-thinking individuals encountered in the past was not so much a property of ‘religion’ as it was the desperate need to keep the propaganda machine in motion. What this means is simply that ‘science’ itself, when it loses touch with its original aim and attitude, has the ability to become a ‘religion’ – a dogmatic system of authority with its own priestly class enforcing the ideas of the orthodoxy. After all, science presents itself as essentially authoritative – fact-based, reliable, consensual. Scientists do the work so we don’t have to. But when a bad idea takes root, the results can be disastrous. We take it as true, simply because scientists tell us so. Inadequate, outdated theories can stagnate scientific progress and new ideas can be rejected almost as soon as they are uttered from the lips of some naïve idealist who still believes in the myth of true science. It’s here that both science and religion offer some great advice: things are not as they seem. That’s where politics enters the picture.
Political Perks and Pathological Perps
Politics is all about maintaining the status quo. Kings like their cushy chairs, after all, and all the benefits that go along with them. It’s no wonder they try to keep them. There’s more to it than that, of course. Politicians are nominally tasked with governing: maintaining social order and making sure things run smoothly. As such, they need to give the impression they’re competently doing so. Whether or not that’s actually the case, if something comes along to throw that ability into question, it could mean the end of that government. If that’s the case, measures must be taken to show the government really is ‘in control’. Either the danger is downplayed (‘reports of x have been greatly exaggerated’), denied (‘nothing to see here, folks’), or, if it is benign, hyped to the max so that the politicians can play ‘white hats’ and save the day (‘based on top secret intelligence, a dangerous, freedom-hating sleeper cell of terrorists was neutralized today’). It’s all a game, really, a fiction played out in the theater of public opinion. And as regular readers of the Dot Connector know, it’s a game that can get ugly.
Kings like their cushy chairs
The same status-quo principle applies to the industries and institutions that operate in any given society. After some new discovery or innovation, jobs are created, which become careers, which amass into what may become a global industry. Time, money, resources, manpower, and entire livelihoods are invested in the success and longevity of the operation. But what happens when the basis of said industry is thrown into question? Not only would all those workers lose their jobs, the major shareholders would stop making obscene amounts of money, and that’s a horrible thing. Take the nuclear industry, or the oil industry, or the pharmaceutical industry, or the banking system. The list is endless. By sheer momentum they have moved themselves into positions where it’s easier to just let them stay than get rid of them, kind of like your freeloader hippie cousin who just ‘needs a place to crash for a few nights’. Soon he’s inhabiting the living room, eating your food and using your toothbrush. It doesn’t make any sense, really, but that’s the way it is.
Take the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. If anything, it should tell us that going nuclear was a huge mistake. A natural disaster that cuts power to a plant (or six), disabling the cooling systems and resulting in large-scale failures and meltdowns, should be reason enough to shut down any and all plants where this is even a remote possibility. That’s not to mention the problems of radiation, nuclear waste, and the slow-but-steady poisoning of our entire planet by continuing to use this ‘technology’. But it’s all about profits now, not possible problems in the future. After all, millions are invested, financially and emotionally, in keeping the beast afloat. Same goes for the pollution from the oil industry (and hiccups like the BP ‘spill’ in the Gulf of Mexico), brain- and body-killing pharmaceuticals, the myth of paper money, ‘credit’, and a ‘fractional reserve’ banking system. And the same went for the ‘salvation’ business of Church authorities wedded to political rule in the 1500s.
The reaction of the ‘authorities’ of the time is no different from the reaction of the present ‘authorities’ to ideas that question their thoroughly entrenched positions. Whistleblowers are punished, if not murdered. Dissenting scientists are ridiculed and blackballed. Just take the example of Velikovsky, alluded to above. Here was a guy saying the heavens are not the stable, ordered system that astronomers believed them to be. By doing so, he not only questioned the foundations of then-current scientific belief. He destroyed the credibility of governments founded on the notion that they had the ability to ‘protect us’ and assure a future of peaceful, comfortable prosperity. Remember, real threats must be denied or downplayed, and that is exactly what NASA has been doing since their medieval crusade against Velikovsky in the 1950s. Not only that, but many of the astronomical ideas of today (which are plain wrong, according to James McCanney and many others) were actually created in reaction to Velikovsky’s radical catastrophism, and NASA employees are still bound by strict non-disclosure agreements from letting the public know of any potentially panic-inducing threat they discover.
© Immanuel Velikosky
Velikovsky’s World’s in Collision – not appreciated by NASA
What a mess! But can we see a pattern in all the examples so far? It seems that, at any given time in history, there is an authoritative, orthodox set of ideas – a paradigm – that is accepted as ‘God-given’, whether literally or in spirit. This paradigm, which includes ideas about the nature of reality, authority, humanity’s place in the cosmos and our relation to ‘God’, is specifically designed to cater to and justify the rule of an elite group. Inevitably, some free thinker, disgusted with the brutality, dogmatism and inadequacy of this paradigm comes along to disturb the peace. This thinker’s ideas are then either completely rejected, after which it’s business as usual, or a new paradigm develops. But it’s never really that simple. I haven’t seen one example of a complete sea change in paradigms in my studies of history. Some great ideas always fall by the wayside, and leftovers of bygone eras always sneak through the cracks. This was the case when it came time for naturalism-sam to displace the old order.
Hidden History, Forgotten Philosophy
So where did our ‘modern’ scientific mindset originally come from, if the enlightenment ‘radicals’ themselves believed in God? From religion itself, it turns out. Let me be clear, I’m not talking about the scientific method, per se. That seems to me to have been a true innovation, and a welcome one. It is one of the best methods we have for understanding our reality, and we need it now more than ever if we are to get out of the mess we are in, with the world going to hell in a hand basket as a result of god-awful religions and the scientific innovations that are building the roads by which we’ll get there. No, I’m talking about the assumptions about reality behind the method. As David Ray Griffin (2007, p. 16) writes: “insofar as [the enlightenment] is regarded as a movement involving naturalism, rationalism, and empiricism, it is often portrayed as if it involved an emphasis upon reason, nature, and empiricism in general, rather than reason based upon nature and experience understood in highly specific ways.” These ‘highly specific ways’ were assumptions born of the philosophical/theological arguments of the time. Unfortunately, science ended up ‘borrowing’ some of religion’s most philosophically incoherent and politically motivated ideas in the process.
Griffin describes this history in chapter two of his book, Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy. His argument is really good and there’s no way I can do it justice in this limited space, so I recommend readers to check it out for all the details. The first point he makes is that there was actually a third option on the scene when it came to understanding reality: the Neoplatonic-magical-spiritualist movement (also known as Hermeticism). In fact, the most zealous attacks were directed at it, even though it supported the enlightenment thinkers with its stress upon the importance of both experimentation and mathematics. So why was it attacked so vehemently? If the word ‘politics’ popped into your mind, you’re right. Griffin writes: “This answer, in a nutshell, is that the legal-mechanical view won the battle of the worldviews because it seemed to support the social-political-economic status quo and thereby the interests of the wealthy and the powerful, whereas the worldview of the Neoplatonic-magical-spiritualist traditions seemed to threaten those interests.” (p. 19)
The Magician displaying the Hermetic concept of ‘as above, so below’.
Hermeticists were the ‘terrorists’, ‘anarchists’, and ‘enemy combatants’ of their time, trying to ‘turn the world upside down’, at least in the eyes of their detractors (in other words, Hermeticists like Paracelsus supported peasant uprisings). Griffin quotes Morris Berman: “The popular impression that communism, libertinism, heresy, and Hermeticism were part of some vast conspiracy is amply documented in the numerous statements made on the subject by clergymen” (p. 19). But while the billy clubs did their job when it came to stifling dissent, so did the Bible. Hermeticism had some peculiar features that marked it for destruction of the type only theological polemic can achieve, namely, its followers’ views on “the relation of God to the world, the possibility of influence at a distance, and the relation between God’s ‘two books’ (Nature and Scripture)” (p. 17), as well as the notions of ‘self-moving matter’ and nonsensory perception. You see, the Hermeticists viewed nature as animistic. God was understood as present in the world, and the world in God, each necessitating and presupposing the other. Humans, as a part of the world, were thus a part of God, having direct access to the source of life, movement, experience, consciousness, and values. But such a ‘vulgar’ error of ‘confusing God and the world’ and ‘deifying nature’ threatened both the belief in a ‘transcendent God’ and an ‘immortal soul’.
If matter was ‘self-moving’, it might be self-organizing, not needing a Great God to give things a push in the right direction. If matter decayed after death, and was self-moving, what would that say about the ‘immortal’ soul, which the authorities deemed to be self-moving? Might it also decompose? Not a pretty thought! And if God wasn’t the great and omnipotent ‘Law-giver’, creating the world out of nothing and exercising absolute dominion over it, what would that say about His divine choice to arbitrarily give the ‘keys to the kingdom’ to one religious institution and not another? If a God which is immanent in creation could be directly experienced by humanity, what would that imply about the self-professed authority of the ‘ecclesiastical hierarchy’? “Given the almost universal assumption that the authority of the government depended upon the support of the church with its power over people’s extramundane [afterlife] status, we can understand why this worldview was threatening to those who favored stability in terms of the social-political-economic status quo. What would prevent rebellion if the church were no longer regarded as having such power?” (p. 20)
The status quo needed a worldview where God was wholly separate, essentially different from Nature, absolutely transcendent, and available only through the mediation of the Church and its Holy Secretaries. Isaac Newton summed it up with his view, writing that God “governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; … Deity is the dominion of God not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants” (p. 18). This type of ‘Deism’ meant that God’s two books were not to be studied in terms of each other, as the Hermeticists did, but completely separated. Like Stalin’s little helper, erasing all mention of an enemy from the history books, the materialists scrubbed philosophy of any link between God and the world. This necessitated a physical-only view of the world, leaving God in his sterile Heavenly realm, free from ever getting too close to the dirty plebs outside his castle walls. Materialism was developed by deists as a way of justifying their own dominant position. I find it the height of irony that this little maneuver hoisted religion on its own petard. Its own mechanical-physical philosophy, designed to keep ‘God’ in a ‘safe’ place, ensuring the Church’s complete control, ended up destroying them, because today, church attendance is dismal the world over. And the materialistic science that won the fight is really nothing more than centuries-old political propaganda, designed to keep people in their place: as slaves. What a turn of events, eh?
‘Occam’s razor’, the principle that no more than the necessary assumptions should be used in explaining something, is often used as a defense of ‘skepticism’ or ‘reductionism’. Guys like ‘Bill’ use it as a conversation stopper whenever such topics as UFOs, government conspiracies, or extra-sensory perception come up. There’s always a ‘simpler’ explanation that doesn’t require ‘new and extraneous laws’, which means laws they don’t accept as valid within the domain of Uncle ‘sam’. But this razor cuts both ways. A worldview (a set of assumptions) can be entirely self-consistent within its own self-defined limits, but it can still be totally wrong if it only works when it ignores evidence that doesn’t fit. Just because a thing is simpler, does not mean it is true. ‘Extraneous’ laws may well be fundamental laws.
Ask yourself: are these things desirable? Coherence of beliefs or hypotheses, lack of contradiction, open-mindedness. What about these? Contradictory, incoherent beliefs or hypotheses, close-mindedness, dogmatic certainty. If you answered no to the first group and yes to the second, forgive me if I question your sanity. If you answered the opposite, congratulations, you’re human. The point is, for some reason we live our lives on the assumption that these things are important. We’re indignant when we catch someone in a lie, loathe to admit we believed something false, always trying to ‘make sense’ of the chaos we see around us. This principle of non-contradiction, as well as the very tendency to think one thing ‘better’ than the other, is one of what Griffin calls ‘hard-core common sense’ beliefs. They’re the things we can’t help but presuppose in life, even in the act of verbally denying them. For example, by saying, ‘There is no such thing as truth,’ I am presupposing the truth of that statement. By saying, ‘I cannot logically argue that you exist,’ I am presupposing your existence by directing my words to you. By saying, ‘I do not exist,’ I am presupposing my own existence by making reference to myself. By saying, ‘Nothing is better or contains more value than anything else’, I am presupposing the superiority of this view to one that would state the opposite. We can’t help but presuppose that we exist, that the world is ‘real’, that we experience, make value judgments and believe in truth, among many others, despite the fact that materialism cannot account for them, and actually argues against them. But to do otherwise is self-contradictory, and violates the first rule of ‘rational’ thought. Materialism is anti-rational at its very foundation!
Materialism also runs into the same problems that haunted the Deists. If the Universe had a beginning (the mythical ‘Big Bang’), what existed before it? How did it come about? Why does something exist, and not nothing? If matter is strictly material, how can we account for the existence of consciousness? A billion times nothing is still nothing, after all, so how could unconscious matter suddenly become conscious? What is the origin and nature of consciousness? To view it as an ’emergent’ phenomenon or a mere byproduct of firing synapses explains nothing and amounts to little more than ‘padding’ the equation to make it give the expected answer. My point is, sensationist-atheist-materialist naturalism cannot and does not account for the whole of our experience. Followed to its logical roots, it always reveals itself to be inadequate, incoherent, and self-defeating. It’s a logical castle in the sky that only makes sense as long as it’s ‘up there’ in the rarefied regions of pure speculation and not ‘down here’. As Griffin shows, quoting the words of its most ‘authoritative’ defenders, this type of naturalism cannot account for the existence of conscious experience, truth, or objective morality, and it regards nature as containing no intrinsic value, all leading to the crises we see plaguing the planet and humanity today. If we really want to apply Occam’s razor to any given thing, we need a coherent, adequate philosophy in which to place it, one that accounts for all of our hard-core common sense ideas. I think Griffin’s philosophy, based on that of Alfred Whitehead and anticipated by William James, goes a long way to doing just that.
I think that religion’s original aim was to understand the essential nature of reality: consciousness, purpose, and being. But like scientists before the invention of telescopes or microscopes, we lacked the tools and methods to adequately deal with these questions for which we sought answers. Of course, dogmatism soon reared its ugly head, as it always does when people who value domination over truth achieve positions of power. Religion, which had simply been a way of understanding and living according to principles grounded in reality, became a weapon, a tool of mass oppression and the stifling of free thought. As Bertrand Russell observed, there is a not-so-odd correlation between religion and misogyny, brutality, and perversion. But that says more about those who wrote the books and occupied the thrones (i.e., psychopaths) than it does about the questions of religion. To confuse religion with pathological dogmatism and the myth of ‘truth’-as-determined-by-authority is an error.
No, religion need not be a system of control, just as science need not be one either. In their pure forms they seek the same thing: truth. And just in case you’re getting worried, no, a sound worldview need not reject the discoveries of modern science; only its root assumptions need to be questioned and revised. As Griffin writes, “a true account of the nature of reality would involve a species of evolutionism, a species of theism, and a species of mind-brain interactionism.” (p. viii) According to this philosophy, “experience and thereby spontaneity, intrinsic value, and internal relations go all the way down to the most primitive units of nature.” (p. 12) The world is to God as the body is to mind (psyche, or soul, in Greek). As soul of the world, divinity can best be described as Divine Cosmic Mind. It’s a tough leap to make for those raised on the bread of scientific materialism. All I can do is recommend you check out some of the sources below, especially David Ray Griffin and William Chittick. You may just find yourself re-enchanted by this awesome and terrible world we inhabit.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006) by Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer.
Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) by Bertrand Russell.
Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) by Thomas Dixon.
Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2007) by William C. Chittick.
Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007) by David Ray Griffin.