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Fundamentalism and Scientism: A Plague on Both Their Houses
There's No Getting Away from "Orthodoxy"!
We should be clear that everyone has his or her own brand of "orthodoxy." G. K. Chesterton once said something like "There are two kinds of people. Those who believe in dogma and know it, and those who believe in dogma and don't know it." We all have a view of the world that we tend to believe both correct and "real." The jaundiced British spy in John le Carré's Absolute Friends sarcastically points to a new orthodoxy—a new grand design for the world.
There's a new Grand Design about in case you haven't noticed, Edward. It's called preemptive naïveté, and it rests on the assumption that everyone in the world would like to live in Dayton, Ohio, under one god, no prizes for guessing whose god that is To believe that God sends you to war, God bends the paths of bullets, decides which of his children will die, or have their legs blown off, or make a hundred million on Wall Street, depending on today's Grand Design.
But there's enough preemptive naïveté to go round. It is found as much on the left as on the right. This, in part, is what puzzles me today—the mixture of rationalism and credulity that characterizes our age. That's not quite right. It's more a mixture of magical thinking combined with a trust in and reliance on technology. Fundamentalists, technologically savvy, love cell phones as much as anyone and use the Internet well for their purposes. And it seems to me that modern secularists are as much fundamentalists in their own way as any Bible thumper, with a blind faith in our rational ability to progress. A. N. Wilson in his book After the Victorians (1901-1953) makes the interesting point that it was the Victorians who were able to live with doubt and it was the weakness of the twentieth century to crave scientific and dogmatic certainly and to believe that "if one could worry at a problem for long enough it would have a single simple solution: Keynesian or Marxist economic theory, Roman Catholic, communist, or fascist doctrine." Wilsons point is a good one. Fundamentalism comes in all sizes and the longing for certainty is as strong on the left as on the right.
You can find both kinds of fundamentalist in the church. They are often called liberals and conservatives.
Sense and Sensibility—Science and Sensibility
Ian McEwan's novels often involve interplay between scientific rationalism and its inadequacy in the face of the unruly emotional life of actual human beings. For example, there are three main characters in Enduring Love: Joe Rose, a science journalist; Jed Parry, an obsessively religious stalker; and the "poetical" Clarissa, Joe's wife, an academic who is researching Keats. They represent the three protagonists in today's drama: the rationalist scientist, the literalist believer, and the woman of poetic sensibility. McEwan, without embracing the irrational, shows the inadequacies of the merely rational. Joe and Jed have one thing in common: they want to believe that everything has a point. But not everything does—some things are simply pointless. Clarissa tells her husband: "You're such a dope. You're so rational sometimes you're like a child...."
For Joe, on the other hand, it's no wonder that religions are spawned as "hopeful acts of propitiation, fending off mad, wild, unpredictable forces." But he's as skeptical about science as he is about religion. He thinks the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudoscientific mind are stories we make up to comfort ourselves. "Anthropology, psychoanalysis—fabulation run riot It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs." Joe raises the disturbing question: Is science a narrative or not? Is science robbing the world of wonder or is the opposite true? Is religion onto something—or is it part of the pathological quest for explanation in a universe that may well be meaningless?
Joe ruminates about recent scientific writing and his wife's reaction to it all.
A few years ago, science book editors could think of nothing but chaos. Now they were banging their desks for every possible slant on neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and genetics. I wasn't complaining—business was good—but Clarissa had generally taken against the whole project. It was rationalism gone berserk. 'It's the new fundamentalism,' she said one evening. 'Twenty years ago you and your friends were all socialists and you blamed the environment on everyone's hard luck. Now you've got us trapped in our genes, and there's a reason for everything!' ... Everything was being stripped down, she said, and in the process some larger meaning was lost.... There was nothing wrong in analyzing the bits, but it was easy to lose sight of the whole. I agreed. The work of synthesis was crucial. Clarissa said I didn't understand her, she was talking about love.
And Jed Parry, the religious "nut" in the novel, represents a different kind of fundamentalism and makes some good points of his own. Jed reads all of Joe's science articles and then writes to him about Joe's views on biblical scholarship.
[The] piece that really shocked me, [was] when you wrote about God Himself ... a literary character, you say, like something out of a novel. You say the best minds in the field are prepared to take an educated guess' at who invented Yahweh, that the evidence points to a woman who was living around 1000 B.C., Bathsheba the Hittite who slept with David. A woman novelist dreamed up God! The best minds would rather die than to presume to know so much.... You write that we know enough about chemistry these days to speculate how life began on earth. Little mineral pools warmed by the sun, chemical bonding, protein chains, amino acids etc. The primal soup. We've flushed God out of this particular story, you said, and now he's being driven to his last redoubt, among the molecules and particles of quantum physics. But it doesn't work, Joe. Describing how the soup is made isn't the same as knowing why it's made, or who the chef is.
There's a lot of wisdom in what Jed writes, but he turns out to be dangerously crazy. "His world was emotion, invention and yearning." But then so is Joe's—less obvious, hidden under the veneer of rationalism.
In the middle, there's Clarissa, the poet, standing between Joe and Jed in the Anglican position! Joe thinks his wife is dead wrong. "Clarissa thought her emotions were an appropriate guide," he says, "that she could feel her way to the truth, when what was needed was information, foresight, and careful calculation." But even Joe realizes that his attempt to impose order on the universe is ridiculous. Information shouldn't be confused with communication. Joe confesses, "This patient activity brought on in me a kind of organizational trance, the administrator's illusion that all the sorrow in the world can be brought to heel with touch typing, a decent laser printer, and a box of paper clips."
Joe sums up the present frustration with our situation:
I felt a familiar disappointment. No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half- shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way. Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We're descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, and with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track: when it didn't suit us, we couldn't agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing. That's why there are divorces, border disputes, and wars, and why this statue of the Virgin Mary weeps blood and that one of Ganesh [the elephant headed god] drinks milk. And that's why metaphysics and science were such courageous enterprises, such startling inventions, bigger than the wheel, bigger than agriculture, human artifacts set right against the grain of human nature. Disinterested truth. But it couldn't save us from ourselves, the ruts were too deep. There could be no private redemption in objectivity.
Metaphysics and science, then, are courageous but doomed attempts at grasping for pure objectivity.
McEwan nails the point about our excessive trust in our rational powers: total objectivity, he insists, especially about ourselves, is a doomed social strategy. In the light of this, Anglican tentativeness before mystery—rooted not in muddle but in awe—is a sign of strength, not weakness. There is, perhaps, one serious flaw: such an approach will never be popular or populist. Mystery doesn't sell well. Certainty does.
It's easy to see what the two fundamentalisms of science (or better, scientism) and religion have in common. While one tries to deny narrative altogether, the other takes a narrative and renders it literal. Both are seduced by the promise of pure objectivity. Both seek strategies to avoid the flawed, hit-and-miss character of human experience and history and live in an uncomplicated world of hard facts. Both tend to believe they have an exclusive hold on moral discernment. I have found in Anglicanism, as I have received it, a sane inconsistency based on deep wisdom.
At the beginning of McEwan's recent "post-9/11" novel Saturday, Henry Perowne, the hero, early one cold February morning contemplates his world as it wakes up to terror. He sees a plane in flames on its destructive way to Heathrow and imagines the worst. He thinks of "a man of sound faith with a bomb in the heel of his shoe" blowing up a plane and the doomed passengers praying to their god. What do they think they're doing?
[He] regards this as a matter of wonder, a human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it [faith] there spring, alongside the unreason and the slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers.
For the characters in this novel—and for us—there's no getting away from the questions religion poses—the basic stuff of why we're here. But what frightens or irritates believer and unbeliever alike is the nonrational or prerational aspect of our understanding of being alive and aware. Human beings, and especially those who are people of faith, find themselves in a subtle and dangerous place between the rational and irrational. And though faith comes before reason, it is not, therefore, unreasonable. The old theological maxim is "faith seeking understanding." That means that rational discourse is important—in fact, vital—but only as a way of understanding something we have already apprehended, not comprehended, by faith. Many of us believe it's worth getting up in the morning and, while we cannot prove it, we can demonstrate that it's reasonable. Sound faith, then, presupposes rational discourse, the ability to share in debate, and to participate in a never-ending conversation about purpose and meaning. Immature faith, on the other hand, is trust in propositions—a kind of magical thinking about words as such and the conviction that we can grasp and package reality. But what everyone's looking for, after all—the natural human response—is a place of light and safety, a secure high ground.
Light and Safety
Are we in a new Dark Ages or are we awaiting the approaching dawn? As we search for that place of light and safety, many of us are looking for "right belief"—orthodoxy—in the face of the failure and bankruptcy of secularism and an increasingly trashy culture. The frustrated person of faith is likely to be someone with a bomb in the heel of his shoe—if not literally then metaphorically. It seems as if more and more people are getting to the point of nonnegotiability even to the point of being addicted to polarization.
One "solution" to bring light to the religious darkness is secular rationalism. The alarmed and often arrogant "rationalist" might be busy making bombs of his own. There are people of deep conviction who are faithful atheists. Consider, for example, Richard Dawkins, who carries his unbelief before him like a banner. A professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, Dawkins is best known for a couple of books —The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. His objection to religious belief is of the Monty Python "What about the Spanish Inquisition?" school: Religion is a bad thing because it devalues human life and breeds violence. Setting religion loose on the world, he contends, is like littering the street with guns, and subscribing to religion is nothing but infantile regression—like believing the earth is flat or in the existence of unicorns. "Religions in general," Dawkins says, "teach people not to think for themselves, but to be satisfied with handed-down, authoritarian, traditional wisdom, never based on evidence."
But believers don't have a monopoly on infantile thinking. Nor are they the only ones who resort to violence. Don't all ideologically driven people—including atheists—tend not to think for themselves? And can we lay violence only at the feet of churchgoers? It has been reckoned that between 85 and 100 million were slaughtered in the last century by "atheists."
Other atheists are less testy and more affable than Dawkins, like Daniel Dennett, who likens religious believers to Dumbo, the little elephant of Disney's 1941 cartoon, who was taunted because of his enormous ears and believed he could fly because of a "magic" feather. He is too young to understand what the laughter is about, but old enough to know that it's aimed at him. Cruelly separated from his mother by the circus, misunderstood and mistreated by the other animals, he's all alone in the world with "no warm trunk to cuddle up to, no one to dry his tears." Fortunately, he's got someone in his corner—Timothy Mouse. With his new friend's help and guidance, Dumbo has the courage to take a leap of faith that turns the taunting into cheers and makes all his dreams soar.
At the heart of the story, though, there's a deception—a useful one, but a deception all the same. Dumbo is being encouraged by his friends the crows to leap off a cliff into the air, proving to himself that he can fly. Dumbo is understandably reluctant. One crow has a bright idea. When Dumbo isn't looking, he plucks a tail feather and hands it to Dumbo, telling him it's magic. Dumbo clutches it in his trunk—believes in the magic, and flies.
For many people, religion functions a bit like that magic feather. It comforts but it doesn't really signify anything. But Dennett himself also believes in a kind of magic. He believes that four and a half billion years ago the planet was lifeless, "and then life emerged" (emphasis mine). Just like that. Perhaps that's materialism's magic feather—the prerational leap of faith that life just happens? Here's the nub of the argument. Is it more reasonable to suppose that life "just happened" or to believe that life has direction and purpose that we can only partially fathom? Neither position can be proved. Each side thinks, however, that its position is more reasonable than the other's.
Professor Dennett urges us to grow up and grow out of religion by trading in mysteries for mechanisms. It's true that we all need to grow up, but I think growing up involves making more and more room for mystery and giving up the magical thinking that somehow mechanisms will save us. There's a distinguished tradition of "learned ignorance" (an intelligent and informed not- knowing) that needs to be revived by the partisans on all sides. We cannot live without stories and myths. Science alone isn't enough. Since the testing and dropping of the atom bomb in 1945, science lost its claim to innocence. There is no such thing as "just research." No one is outside the drama of human striving and suffering.
Telling Our Stories
Our stories are essential to us. Even the assertion that there is no story is a story. As William of Baskerville, Umberto Eco's detective in The Name of the Rose, states, "There was no plot and I discovered it by mistake." C. G. Jung wrote: Anyone "who thinks he can live without myth, or outside it, like one uprooted, has no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet of contemporary human society. This plaything of his reason never grips his vitals."
We all like secure answers to our deepest questions. We all look for assurance with regard to our fears and obsessions. And the answers and assurances, more often than not, come to us in the form of a story or a myth. Even science needs a story. The heart of the narrative takes on many forms and is expressed in such things as homeschooling for some Evangelicals to the revival of the Latin Mass for some Roman Catholics. Behind the home-schooling movement there is a story about a world that has lost its way. For some Roman Catholics, the Latin Mass represents the ordered transcendence of a former age. There is nothing wrong with either. Each story tells us about a place of safety and depth.
Excerpted from Common Prayer on Common Ground by ALAN JONES. Copyright © 2006 Alan Jones. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Part I Fundamentalism and Scientism: A Plague on Both Their Houses
Part II The Anglican Conversation: Caricatures of Anglicanism and Its
Part III The Promise of Anglican Orthodoxy
Part IV Anglicanism's Future? The Clue Is in Our Past
Posted February 18, 2009
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