Religion, Science, and the Sacred

While the New Atheism claims to reject religion, it can actually be understood as an attempt to replace religion’s critical functions, as these thinkers understand them. There is a tradition within the sociology of religion that theorizes religion in terms similar to the New Atheists’ approach. As a contemporary example, the influential sociologist Rodney Stark offers this definition: “Religion consists of explanations of existence (or ultimate meaning) based on supernatural assumptions and including statements about the nature of the supernatural, which may specify methods or procedures for exchanging with the supernatural” (2007, 46). Note here the emphasis on religion as “explanation” involving recourse to “supernatural assumptions”, which is precisely the same definition employed by the New Atheists. Daniel Dennett, for instance, defines religions as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought” (2006, 9), and Richard Dawkins (2006) views religion as a pre-scientific explanation of nature (i.e. the “God Hypothesis”). Not coincidentally given their shared commitment to evolutionism, these authors articulate the same idea expressed by Herbert Spencer, who said that “[r]eligions that are diametrically opposite in their dogmas agree in tacitly recognizing that the world, with all it contains and all that surrounds it, is a mystery seeking an explanation” (quoted in Durkheim 1995, 22).

Other thinkers have described religion as a “cultural system” that produces meaning and order. This tradition was pioneered by Max Weber, who saw religion as “a repository of fundamental cultural meanings through which both individuals and collectivities are able to interpret their conditions of existence, to construct identity for themselves and to attempt to impose order on their environment” (Beckford 1989, 6). Weber was a primary influence on Peter Berger’s theory of religion, as established in his classic work, The Sacred Canopy (1967). Berger’s theory is particularly useful because it allows us to understand ostensibly secular forms of belief that bear “religious” characteristics. Berger conceived of religion in terms of “nomos” and “cosmization”, and begins with the assumption that humans are possessed of an instinctual craving for meaning and are “congenitally compelled to impose a meaningful order upon reality” (1967, 22). This craving is satisfied through the social construction of a meaningful order, or “nomos”, which is imposed upon the experiences of individuals. This “nomization” is, in fact, the most important function of society. At the point where the established nomos achieves a taken-for-granted status, its meanings converge with the fundamental meanings of the universe, and “nomos” comes to appear to be coextensive with “cosmos” (Berger 1967, 24). In other words, the socially constructed ordering of human experience appears to reflect a natural and universal order, though it is actually a projection of the human order or “nomos” to all of reality. Religion is simply what we call this process of “cosmization” of the “nomos” of the socially constructed world, and it “implies that human order is projected into the totality of being. Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant” (1967, 28). A crucial addition to complete this definition is the notion of the sacred, which lends this process of cosmization an ultimate authority. Bringing in the sacred, we arrive at this definition: “Religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. Put differently, religion is cosmization in a sacred mode. By sacred is meant here a quality of mysterious and awesome power, other than man and yet related to him, which is believed to reside in certain objects of experience” (Berger 1967, 25).

Berger’s conception of religion does not make reference to the supernatural, only to a distinction between sacred and secular forms of cos- mization. What we call religions are sacred forms of cosmization, but there are secular versions, the most important of which, Berger argues, is modern science (1967, 27). While traditional religious cosmization of the social world refers to the sacred characteristics of the universe, in contemporary society “this archaic cosmization of the social world is likely to take the form of ‘scientific’ propositions about the nature of men rather than the nature of the universe” (Berger 1967, 25). That is, scientific cosmization deals with human nature, not metaphysics. An example of secular cosmization as described by Berger is social Darwinism, which posits a vision of human nature and a natural social order modeled after the universal law that regulates the operations of life, evolution by natural selection. But evolutionism and science more broadly, with its naturalistic view of the origins of life and the place of humans in the cosmos, is a secular form of cosmization according to Berger’s definition.1

The “secular”—rather than “sacred”—designation is a common dividing line between religion and non-religion. It constituted the foundation of Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion, which is as follows: “[a] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (1995, 44). Durkheim makes no mention of gods or even of the supernatural in his definition. Durkheim’s view of religion as an “eminently social thing” (1995, 9) suggests that what is really essential to it is not specific kinds of beliefs, which vary widely, but rather rituals that foster an experience of transcendence through collective acts that in a very real sense make the individual part of something greater than himself: society. The things that are sacred—that is, “set apart and forbidden”—are not important in themselves, but simply the objects through which the collective is represented. What is important is the social process by which certain objects or symbols are sacralized through collective action (i.e. rites), with their sacred character being derived only from the fact that such character is granted by a collective imbued with powers that the individual does not possess.

Durkheim predicted that religion would gradually give way to science: “As soon as the authority of science is established, science must be reckoned with [...]. From then on, faith no longer holds the same sway as in the past over the system of representations that can continue to be called religious” (Durkheim 1995, 433). He was careful to note, however, that while science might erode the system of representations that constitute religious beliefs, the moral foundations of social life are essentially religious and must remain so. That is, while science has clearly taken precedence as a source of knowledge of the physical world, “moral life still remains forbidden”—that is, sacred, and thus the province of religion—though he seems somewhat uncertain on this point, suggesting that it is “foreseeable that this last barrier will give way in the end, and that science will establish itself as mistress, even in this preserve” (Durkheim 1995, 432). Indeed, a major project of the atheist movement is precisely to break down this last barrier by challenging the notion that one cannot be good without divine moral guidance (e.g. Epstein 2009), and further, using evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience to challenge the notion that morality is derived from religion at all (Harris 2010). Durkheim, on the contrary, insists on one domain where science cannot assume religion’s role: “insofar as religion is action and insofar as it is a means of making men live, science cannot possibly take its place” (1995, 432).

This view was challenged by Durkheim’s sociological antecedent, Auguste Comte, who considered religion to be a slowly disappearing relic of a prior stage of social development, while recognizing that people needed an alternative to “fill their need for commitment to something larger than themselves” (Olson 2008, 52). Like Durkheim, he recognized the power of the collective effervescence experienced through religious practice and sought to translate it into secular and scientific terms. He did this by establishing nothing less than a new religion based on his positivist philosophy and Enlightenment humanism. He called it the Religion of Humanity, and it serves as a useful example of a process of sacralizing a science-based “nomos” grounded in an eschatological narrative of human progress—the same process found at work in the New Atheism.

Comte’s Law of Three Stages posits that human progress proceeds from a theological stage to a metaphysical one, finally culminating in a “positive” or science-based society. This is a process of transitioning from a self-understanding based on supernatural beings and forces to one based on empirical observation and natural causes (Olson 2008). While Comte viewed the dawn of the positive period of history (which is also the final period, as determined by secular scientific eschatology) as a welcome end to theological and supernatural understandings of the world, he also recognized, like Durkheim, that scientific knowledge alone could not secure the foundations of morality and social order. Like Hume before him, and unlike Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, Comte did not believe that science could define the good; rather, it was an instrument to be wielded in the service of the good. In a fashion similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s (1999) view of religion and science as “non-overlapping mag- isteria”, Comte considered science to be the source of knowledge, while religion governed the province of morality, and he “regarded much of the content of religious ideas and sentiments as outdated and obstructive to progress, whereas the social functions of religious institutions were considered essential for the more or less harmonious integration of societies” (Beckford 1989, 4). Here the relationship between Comte and Durkheim is clear, with both believing that science had replaced religion as a way of understanding the world, and yet “the socially and culturally integrative functions of religion, myth, and ritual still had to be fulfilled if social stability were to be preserved” (Beckford 1989, 6). Given that science was an instrument with no intrinsic moral compass or integrative function, Comte (like Durkheim) believed that the positive period of history presented a danger, that of moral and social decay. He thus founded the Religion of Humanity to guard against social disintegration and satisfy people’s needs for emotional experience without sacrificing their rationality (Olson 2008, 79).

While “secular” in the sense that there was no reference to the supernatural, Comte’s Religion of Humanity reflected many aspects of traditional religions, particularly in its hierarchical structure, with a “priesthood” modeled after the Catholic Church and Comte himself functioning as “High Priest” (Collins 2007, 19). This hierarchical authority structure reflected Comte’s belief that religion must eliminate uncertainty by emphasizing subordination to an external higher power that is beyond questioning. The specific higher power that members of Comte’s religion would be expected to recognize was “nothing but the entire physical and social universe, the character of which is known through the positive sciences”, and he thus “brought the objects of religious veneration out of the supernatural and metaphysical domains and into the domain of nature” (Olson 2008, 82). In other words, Nature was the sacred object of the Religion of Humanity. Science, by extension, was itself placed within the realm of the sacred, since it is the means by which we understand and act on this sacred object. Comte also made rituals an important feature of his religion; they included daily prayer, commemoration, and idealization of the dead, 81 annual festivals to be celebrated, nine personal “sacraments” and, as a symbolic gesture, he insisted that all churches should face Paris, the source of their doctrines (Olson 2008, 84). These were all intended to cement the social bonds at risk of erosion in the positive society, fostering a sense of belonging and transcendence without betraying the scientific rationalism propelling us toward the positive society.

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