This is the second of three posts on ‘religion’. The first describes how seventeenth century thinkers developed ‘religion’ as a new concept: a self-contained feature of society, a private matter to do with beliefs about God and life after death but completely separate from public and this-worldly matters. This post describes how nineteenth century ideas excluded this self-contained phenomenon from the whole physical universe.
Did we evolve out of animals, or were we directly created by God on the sixth day of creation, the day after animals were created? Is the universe 13.7 billion years old, or 6018 years old? We have inherited two conflicting belief systems, a religious one and a scientific one. People either choose between the two, or live with the contradiction. As far as we know no other society in the history of the world was ever so stupid, until they were influenced by modern western ideas.
Instead other societies had an integrated understanding of reality. There was no dividing line between the religious and the non-religious. People had different beliefs about gods, angels, demons, fairies and all sorts of invisible agents; but whatever they believed about them was part of their overall understanding of how the world operates. It wasn’t separated off.
Traditionally all societies believed they were surrounded by forces: forces which had created the world, kept it going, made sunshine and rain, birth and death, fertility and drought. They had specific words for specific forces, and general words for all the forces. When modern westerners translate these words into English, they have to decide whether to use a religious word like ‘god’ or a non-religious word, but in the original language the word might cross the boundaries.
In the seventeenth century some people believed that by studying the forces of nature, people would get a complete understanding of them, in order to control them. This meant a revolutionary change to the relationship: instead of nature setting limits to what we can do, we would decide for ourselves what we wanted to do, and force nature to provide.
The idea was at its most popular and ambitious in the nineteenth century. Atheists had dispensed with God, but they had not yet discovered indeterminacy. It seemed that the universe was a gigantic machine that just happened to be there chugging away predictably. Everything was governed by the laws of nature. Eventually, they thought, scientists would establish the complete set of laws of nature. Once that was done, in theory if a mega-computer knew the precise state of the universe at any one point in time, it could then predict the entire future of the universe.
What made the idea attractive was the hope of control. We will be able to improve it – which makes sense if you think the existence of the universe is pure accident. Looking back we can see the whole idea was hopelessly flawed. It treats the human mind as a detached observer looking down on the universe and seeing everything that’s going on. But where does the human mind come from? According to the theory the human mind must be part of that unthinking determined mechanistic universe, just a slight adaptation of chimpanzee mind. In that case we have absolutely no reason to suppose we are capable of understanding how the universe works.
Nevertheless for a while it was very popular. Toys for the boys: all the things we will be able to do! If this programme of control was to work, everything in the universe would have to be observable, measurable and predictable. On principle there must not be anything in the universe outside the scope of modern science. If there were angels or gods, or if prayers somehow made things happen, they would mess up the theory. The fact that they had already been separated off as a self-contained feature of society called ‘religion’ proved helpful. The next step was to separate ‘religion’ from the whole physical universe.
It was possible to affirm religion while insisting that it is quite separate from the physical universe. It only concerns the spiritual realm: prayer, worship and life after death. It is nothing to do with life here on earth. Many nineteenth century church leaders reacted against scientific atheism by claiming exactly this. Never mind the physical world, never mind social problems, starvation, war, illness: the thing that matters to you as a Christian is how you relate to God. Evangelicals express it in terms of obeying the rules in the Bible. This is why so many opponents of gay and lesbian partnerships are simply not interested in how much suffering they are imposing on others. Catholics emphasise the grace given in the sacraments, a real blessing to be affirmed without seeking any physical evidence. The same idea is expressed when politicians are quick to denounce church leaders for ‘interfering’ in politics or economics; they presuppose that religious leaders, in role, only engage with the other-worldly.
Inevitably, the long-term result of this other-worldliness is that religion becomes pointless. If it is only about God and life after death, people who have no interest in these things have no use for it. Given the nature of religion-in-its-box, there is absolutely no hard observable evidence that there is any truth in religion at all. So we get the arguments that religion is unscientific myth, does no observable good, and harms people by promoting unscientific lies. Such is the case made by many of the ‘new atheists’ today.
Ironically, the ‘religion’ that these atheists are criticising is an artificial concept largely created by an earlier generation of atheists, albeit with much help from reactionary Catholics and Evangelicals. While it was seventeenth century political thought that first turned religion into a self-contained social phenomenon, it was nineteenth century anti-religious campaigners, like Thomas Huxley, who systematically separated it from all things physical, producing the account of religion with which we are familiar today.
Since then, endless attempts have been made to define religion. A well-known theological account is Otto’s sense of the numinous. William James defined religion as:
The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
In 1912 James Leuba, a psychologist, listed over 50 different definitions. They are still being produced. None has proved satisfactory. Nongbri argues:
Because of the pervasive use of the word ‘religion’ in the cultures of the modern Western world…, we already intuitively know what ‘religion’ is before we even try to define it: religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity.
Other societies do not seem to have had a concept of ‘religion’ until communication with modern westerners made it necessary. Nongbri cites a couple of books, written in 2005 and 2007 respectively:
One indicator of the problematic nature of the category ‘religion’ in Chinese history is the absence of any premodern word that unambiguously denotes the category.
Extant pre-Columbian Mesoamerican inscriptions do not contain words which can be rendered as ‘religion’.
In any case, when the new atheists denounce this other-worldly ‘religion’ they are out of date with their science. They are still in the nineteenth century world: a limited universe, a finite set of laws of nature, every event determined by cause and effect, while the human mind somehow stands outside it and is supremely capable of knowing everything. Since Einstein’s time the pendulum has swung the other way. The current consensus is that the universe is far too complex for the human mind ever to get a complete account of it. We know that some things work regularly, according to laws of nature, but we shall never find out whether everything does. Scientists no longer think we are competent to control the way the world works; on the contrary they are shouting at the tops of their voices that our very survival depends on precise conditions of the planet, we mess them up at our peril, and would governments please hurry up and pay attention!
In a way this means that the ancients and medievals were right after all. We were wrong to separate the spiritual from the physical. The physical universe has lots of regular processes which we can manipulate to make machines, but it also has lots more processes which we don’t know about. When people claim to experience, or perceive, things of which science knows nothing, scientists can no longer reject them as impossible.
By separating religion from science, have we given science and technology too much of a free hand to do whatever they can? Do we need a closer relationship between what science says we can do and what our religious and spiritual values say we ought to do?
 Nongbri, Before Religion, Yale University Press, 2013, p. 130.
 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1902, p. 31.
 Nongbri, Before Religion, pp. 16-17.
 Nongbri, Before Religion, p. 18.