Natural religion and un-natural science

I was recently re-reading a book I reviewed a little while ago for The Expository Times – Robert N. McCauley’s Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (OUP, 2011). It has a highly original thesis, and has had an influence on the way I think about the science-religion question, so I thought it worthwhile to post the review here (lightly edited).

I’ve never read a defence of religion quite like this one, which also turns out to be a defence of science, and a re-definition of both. McCauley’s thesis – building on recent research in cognitive science – is quite simple to explain, but it has wide implications for Science and Religion as a field. His main point is that religion has nothing to fear from science. Not because there’s definitely a God (or gods), nor because any of the claims religion makes in its various guises of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc are objectively true – McCauley steadfastly avoids all of these kinds of questions – but because it reflects deep-seated ways in which human cognition develops at an early age. To put it bluntly, it’s easy for humans to be religious, because it’s built into the way we think; it comes naturally. Children readily acquire religious beliefs from an early age (by primary school age), frequently construe the world around them in teleological terms, and take an active interest in discerning true from false beliefs. Children soon appreciate the difference between various kinds of hidden/hypothetical agent (e.g. belief in God versus belief in the Tooth Fairy).

Science, on the other hand, is an extremely un-natural activity. Not only does it require decades of highly-specialised training to attain mastery, but it demands the development of cognitive processes which humans find inherently difficult and counter-intuitive. This trouble is exacerbated by the ever-increasing specialisation of science, along with its ever-increasing need for big funds and institutional goodwill, so that it can keep pushing-back the frontiers. Science doesn’t pose a threat to religion: it’s just too fragile. As McCauley explains, ‘science is costly, difficult, and rare whereas religion is cheap, easy, and inevitable’ (p.251).

For those who are wearied by the relentless (and high-profile) onslaught of certain sceptical scientists against religion, this conclusion may bring much-needed comfort. But that would be premature. For McCauley does much to investigate exactly what we mean when we speak of ‘religion’, as well as what we mean of ‘science’. And for those of us who are sold to institutional religion in all its creedal, scriptural and theological sophistication, McCauley has some not entirely heartening news. Because it’s not this kind of religion which is so resilient to attack from science, and so natural to human beings, but more a kind of ‘folk’ spirituality learned in early years. Left to their own devices, many believers will abandon theologically-refined and counter-intuitive doctrines, such as the idea that God exists one-in-three-and-three-in-one, and go back to beliefs where God thinks and acts like they do. This means that religion might be robust, but theology is rather like science: fragile, cryptic and all-too precarious. ‘Theology is one of the few academic undertakings that can result in formulations that are very nearly as distant from and as obscure to humans’ common understandings of the world as the most esoteric theoretical proposals of science are’ (p.212).

If McCauley is right, then the science-religion field has a lot to learn. Quite simply, our debates about how to characterise the debate are dealing with too restrictive and too arcane ideas of ‘science’ and of ‘religion’. Of course, there’s a sense in which this is obvious on semantic grounds alone – in reality ‘science’, like ‘religion’, is such a sprawling set of activities and approaches as to be almost impossible to define and categorise in any general way, ‘Science and Religion’ even less so. But McCauley suggests that we also take into account the very different ways that these activities are understood and operate on cognitive grounds. This is a useful point, and one which should be taken with all due consideration when we try to set up ‘science’ and ‘religion’ against each other.

On the other hand, I have a nagging doubt about some of McCauley’s characterisations. For one thing, by ‘science’, McCauley appears to mean something rather like particle physics – ultra-expensive and ultra-abstract. But it’s not clear to me that many of the biological sciences, for instance, would be considered in this vein, either by practitioners, politicians or the public. In connection, it’s important to his argument that science should be juxtaposed against technology, in something of the way that theology is juxtaposed against religion. Thus McCauley sets up science (new and rare) against technology (old and ubiquitous), and theology (new and rare) against popular religion (old and ubiquitous). I can see the logic, and it is all very tidy. But I am not convinced that this respects the very complex and subtle considerations at play in defining these terms pragmatically and realistically. I would certainly not want to draw such sharp lines between science and technology, nor religion and theology. And while I agree that some aspects of religion come naturally from an early age (e.g. intercessory prayer), others don’t (e.g. meditation). Likewise, while I accept that science requires an enormous degree of specialisation and education, there are aspects to its worldview which can appear childishly naive and unsophisticated to those active in the humanities. McCauley therefore seems insufficiently nuanced to me in his categorisations, and too sweeping.

But I can’t help thinking that he’s onto something.

3 thoughts on “Natural religion and un-natural science

  1. These claims about religious belief seem reminiscent of Emile Durkheim’s claims in his Elementary forms of Religious Life, in which he suggests God is society and that religious belief is a form of socialisation, enabling us to fit into society and to become useful members of it. Clearly, like this author, Durkheim is more concerned with folk beliefs (almost by definition). I suppose one way of proceeding from here would be to try to work out the relationship(s) between such folk beliefs and systematic theology. I assume that these remain closer than “common sense” views of the natural world and how it works, and the views of the natural world held by physicists. I hope so, anyway.

  2. Hi Brethren,

    Science is natural as it studies the natural laws of tit-for-tat whilst Christianity is Supernatural, above the Nature and its natural laws. So, Miracles fall under Supernatural that only the people of spirit can understand.

    You need to study the shadow natural in order to study Supernatural, the Real.

  3. Christianity has held a wide diversity of positions down the ages regarding the relationship between the natural world and the supernatural, but has generally resisted tendencies to downplay the natural in favour of the supernatural, or to say that the ‘spiritual’ is somehow more ‘real’ than the.material. Certainly, science can be seen as compatible with the Christian doctrine of creation, that the natural world is contingent upon God as Creator, and was originally pronounced as ‘very good’ by God (Gen.1:31). From that point of view, Christianity has always taken a very active interest in science, since both pronounce on the same material reality.

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