Chapter 3


Keeping Religion in its Place

“When all is said and done, science is about things and theology is about words.” -Freeman Dyson

  • Most believers learn to compartmentalize their lives, absorbing the reigning secular assumptions in their field of study, while maintaining a devotional life on the side in their private time.
  • In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explains Christian Smith, there was a drive to professionalize all fields–which meant in practice throwing off a Christian worldview and cultivating a secular approach that was touted as scientific and value-free. The process was nothing less than a “secular revolution,” Smith says. This “secular revolution” affected every part of American culture–not only higher education but also the public schools, politics, psychology, and the media. In each of these areas, Christianity was privatized as “sectarian,” while secular philosophies like materialism and naturalism were put forth as “objective” and “neutral,” and therefore the only perspectives suitable for the public sphere. Of course, they were nothing of the sort. There is nothing neutral about the claim that the only way to get at truth is to deny God’s existence.
  • The credo of the Enlightenment was autonomy. Overthrow all external authority, and discover truth by reason alone! Impressed by the stunning successes of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment enthroned science as the sole source of genuine knowledge. Claiming to “liberate” the lower story from the upper story, it insisted that nature was the sole reality, and scientific reason the sole path to truth. Whatever was not susceptible to scientific study was pronounced an illusion. Though reason was touted as philosophically neutral, in reality it began to be identified with scientific materialism.
  • Scientific materialism, with its vision of a mechanistic universe, was unattractive to many people, and it galvanized a reaction known as the Romantic movement. For religion was not only the casualty of scientific materialism masquerading as natural reason. Morality and the arts came under attack as well–after all, things like moral ideals and beauty and creativity are not subject to scientific investigation either.
  • Romanticism rejected the philosophy of materialism in favor of the philosophy of idealism, which says that ultimate reality is not material, but mental or spiritual–usually capitalized as Mind or Spirit or the Absolute.
  • Romanticism made a fatal concession: It largely conceded the study of nature to mechanistic science, and sought only to carve out a parallel arena for the arts and humanities. Thus scientific materialism continued to reign unchallenged in the lower story, while Romantic idealism was limited to the upper story, leaving the dualistic schema intact.
  • The Enlightenment and its intellectual heirs were given jurisdiction over the lower story, where we deal with knowledge that is rational, objective, and scientific–the public sphere. Romanticism and its heirs were given jurisdiction over the upper story, where we deal with religion, morality, and the humanities–the private sphere.
  • Descartes’ famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” was intended as a religious affirmation: Since thought is a spiritual activity, he had proved the existence of the human spirit. But in one of the ironies of history, the enduring impact of Descartes’ philosophy was precisely the opposite of what he had intended. Mind was cast into the upper story, where it was reduced to a shadowy substance totally irrelevant to the material world known by science–a kind of ghost only tenuously connected to the physical body.
  • During religious wars of the sixteenth century, Christians actually fought and killed one another over religious differences–and the fierce conflicts led many to conclude that universal truths were simply not knowable in religion. The route to unity lay not in religion but in science. This conviction gave rise to philosophies like positivism and scientific materialism, which grant science a monopoly on knowledge (downstairs) while consigning everything else to merely private belief and cultural tradition (upstairs).
  • Kant actually spend most of his life writing on science rather than philosophy, developing the first completely naturalistic account of the origin of the solar system (the nebular hypothesis). Kant turned to philosophy as a tool for defending Newtonian physics from skepticism. In the process, he recast the upper and lower stories in terms of nature versus freedom. Nature (The Newtonian World Machine) was the lower story, while Freedom (The Autonomous Self) was the upper story. Nature was no longer the Aristotelian nature of Thomas Aquinas; it now meant the deterministic machine of Newtonian physics.  Freedom or autonomy–defining autonomy as literally being subject only to laws imposed on oneself by oneself, his ideal was to be influenced by nothing but one’s own moral will.
  • It’s crucial to realize that the two sides in Kant’s dichotomy were not just independent but outright contradictory. For if nature really is the deterministic machine of Newtonian physics, then how is freedom possible? Even Kant admitted that this was a paradox (an “antimony”) that he never succeeded in resolving.
  • In short, in Kant’s dichotomy, the lower story is what we know; the upper story is what we can’t help believing.
  • In the end, Kant threw up his hands and simply insisted that regardless of what science says, we must act “as if” we were free. But that little phrase gives away the store: It implies that we know better, that we’re tricking ourselves and that moral freedom is little more than a useful fiction. In Kant’s formulation, says philosopher Colin Brown, freedom, God, and immortality “look suspiciously like pieces of wishful thinking.”
  • Another way to describe Kant’s dichotomy is to say that the lower story became the realm of publicly verifiable facts while the upper story became the realm of socially constructed values.
  • The divide between fact and value was clinched in the late nineteenth century by the rise of Darwinism. Though Kant and others had speculated on a naturalistic origin of the universe, the picture was not complete until Darwin offered a plausible naturalistic mechanism for the origin of life. He provided the missing puzzle piece that rendered naturalism a complete and comprehensive philosophy.
  • Before Darwin it was certainly possible to be an atheist, but not an intellectually satisfied one–because you could not have a complete, comprehensive worldview. Darwin filled in the final gap in a naturalistic picture of the universe. The lower story was now seamless and self-contained.  As a result, the upper story was now completely cut off from any connection to the realm of history, science, and reason. After all, if evolutionary forces produced the human mind, then things like religion and morality are no longer transcendent truths. They are merely ideas that appear in the human mind when it has evolved to a certain level of complexity–products of human subjectivity. We create our own morality and meaning through our choices.
  • The message of science, Steven Pinker writes, is that the human mind is nothing more than a data-processing machine, a complex computational device. At the same time, he goes on to say, the very possibility of morality depends on the idea that we are more than machines–that we are capable of making free, uncoerced, undetermined choices.
  • The postmodern dilemma can be summed up by saying that ethics depends on the reality of something that materialistic science has declared to be unreal.
  • As a scientist, Pinker accepts a materialistic, mechanistic model of human nature: “The mechanistic stance allows us to understand what makes us tick and how we fit into the physical universe.” (That’s his lower story.)  But when he takes off his lab coat and goes home, he reverts to the traditional language of moral responsibility: “When those discussions wind down for the day, we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings.”  (That’s his upper story.)  This is not just a divided field of truth, it’s an out-and-out contradiction–one that Pinker finds no way to resolve. He simply holds both sides of the contradiction at the same time: “A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent, depending on the purposes of the discussion.” Or, as he also puts it, depending on whether we are playing the “science game” or the “ethics game.”
  • Francis Schaeffer: modern thinkers often make a “leap of faith” from the lower story to the upper story. Intellectually they embrace scientific naturalism; that’s their professional ideology. But this philosophy does not fit their real-life experience, so they take a leap of faith to the upper story where they affirm a set of contradictory ideas like moral freedom and human dignity–even though these things have no basis within their own intellectual system.
  • Either you try to be consistent with evolutionary naturalism in the lower story–in which case you have to deny the existence of consciousness and free will. Or else you can affirm their existence even though they have no basis within your intellectual system–which is sheer mysticism. An irrational leap.
  • This is the tragedy of the postmodern age: The things that matter most in life–freedom and dignity, meaning and significance–have been reduced to nothing but useful fictions.  Wishful thinking.  Irrational mysticism.
  • Since the Enlightenment, the fact realm has steadily expanded its territory into the value realm until there is little or no content left there. It has been reduced to empty words that merely express our irrational wishes and fantasies, with no basis in reality as defined by scientific naturalism. Using graphic terms, Schaeffer warns that the lower story “eats up” the upper story, dissolving away all traditional concepts of morality and meaning.
  • When a person’s worldview is too “small”, there will always be some element in human nature that fails to fit the paradigm.
  • Adherents to scientific naturalism freely acknowledge that in ordinary life they have to switch to a different paradigm.  That ought to tell them something. After all, the purpose of a worldview is to explain the world– and if it fails to explain some part of the world then there’s something wrong with that worldview. “Although man may say that he is no more than a machine”, Shaeffer writes, “his whole life denies it.”
  • In evangelism, our task is to bring people face to face with this contradiction–between what a person says he believes and what his whole life is telling him. The gospel then becomes good news indeed: The doctrine that we are created in the image of God gives a solid foundation for human freedom and moral significance.  We do not have to resort to an irrational upper-story leap. Given the starting point of a personal God, our own personhood is completely explicable. It no longer “sticks out of the garbage can.” The Christian worldview provides a firm basis for the highest human ideals.
  • It’s so important that we do not put Christianity in the upper story–because then we will have nothing to offer to people trapped in the two-story dichotomy.We will be offering just one more irrational upper-story experience–“true for me” but not universally, objectively true. We have to insist on presenting Christianity as a comprehensive, unified worldview that addresses all of life and reality. It is not just religious truth but total truth.
  • Scientific naturalism rules out the objective existence of conscious will; but in ordinary experience we can’t get along without it. And so it is tossed into the upper story with other useful fictions.
  • The crucial flaw in liberal theology is that it adopts the two-layer concept of truth. It accepts a naturalistic account of science and history in the lower story, while relegating theology to the upper story where it is reduced to personal, noncognitive experience.  This explains why liberal theologians insist that Scripture is full of mistakes. After all, naturalistic science and history have decreed that miracles and other supernatural events are impossible.
  • Liberalism typically ends up borrowing an interpretative framework from some other source–from existentialism (neo-orthodoxy) or Marxism (liberation theology) or feminism (feminist theology) or process thought (process theology) or postmodernism.  Christian categories are then reinterpreted in terms of this external conceptual framework.
  • Liberalism rips Christianity from its roots in historical fact and casts it into the upper story, where it is demoted to subjective, contentless symbols and metaphors. It then becomes, in practice, little more than spiritualized window dressing for some other, more substantial system of thought.
  • Today people are less likely to talk about religion at all, preferring the term spirituality. The magazine American Demographics noted that five words are rapidly becoming the mantra of the new millennium: “I’m into spirituality, not religion.” Religion has come to refer to the public realm of institutions, denominations, official doctrines, and formal rituals–while spirituality is associated with the private realm of personal experience.  The concept of spirituality has come to mean an experience devoid of doctrinal content and detached from any testable historical claims–something that belongs strictly in the upper story.
  • Isn’t it interesting that even the realm of faith itself has now been divided between public and private? And since spirituality is firmly located in the private realm of personal experience, many people find something suspect about the very notion of public religious institutions and official religious doctrines. This pervasive sense that faith is by definition individual and subjective may be the prime reason for the loss of credibility on the part of religious institutions in our day.
  • Christians must find ways to make it clear that we are making claims about reality, not merely our subjective experience.
  • Christians do not promote values, because we hold that Christianity is objectively true, not merely our private preference. Nor do we teach facts in the modern sense, because that term means “value-free” science–free from any religious framework. What Christianity offers is a unified, integrated truth that stands in complete contrast to the two-level concept of truth in the secular world.
  • Traditional evangelism addresses a person’s moral “lostness,” which can be an effective method when that person is aware of standing guilty before a holy God. But today many people do not believe in a transcendent moral standard; if you speak about guilt, they think you’re talking about a psychological problem that requires therapy, not about true moral guild that requires forgiveness.  Yet there is a metaphysical “lostness” that we can address. The tragedy of the two-story split is that the things that matter most in life–like dignity, freedom, personal identity, and ultimate purpose–have been cast into the upper story, with no grounding in accepted definitions of knowledge. We must never treat the divided concept of truth as merely academic; it produces an inner division between what people think they know (that we are merely machines in a deterministic universe) and what they desperately want to believe (that our lives have purpose and meaning).
  • C.S. realized that Christianity rests on historical events that are confirmable by empirical evidence, and that at the same time express the most firmable by empirical evidence, and that at the same time express the most exalted spiritual meanings. There is no division into contradictory, opposing levels of truth–and therefor no division in a person’s inner life either. Christianity fulfills both our reason and our spiritual yearnings. We can offer the world a unified truth that is intellectually satisfying, while at the same time it meets our deepest hunger for beauty and meaning.

This post contains quoted and paraphrased passages of Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey.

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