Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Religion and Science (again)

On an examination for one of the History courses I teach, I have asked this question for a while now:

Evaluate the following statement using historical evidence:
In 2007 the McGill University philosopher, Charles Taylor noted this: “... why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” 

Many students have sophisticated thoughts on this cultural sea change in the West, but most attribute the change to 'science', and underlaying this, to the ability of science to answer questions about life in a more satisfying fashion than can religion.  This was the conclusion of the very first essay I wrote, back when I was 13 years old.  The older I get, however, the less satisfied I am by this answer although I have never rejected it entirely.  At this point in time, this idea raises another question for me:  are people in general more interested, or more affected, or need more, explanations to material phenomena than they wonder or worry about answers to the question 'why'?  One student opined a few years back that 'why' is used to ask, 'why does water boil?' and other such concerns.  I answered that this was really asking 'how?', not 'why?'.  'Why' implies purpose, not mechanical function. I got closer to the difference between naturalists (atheists) and supernaturalists (I was going to put 'theist' here, but that omits Buddhists who may be atheists, but are believers in a supernatural mode of existence), when I watched the debate between Richard Dawkins and  Rowan Williams at Oxford some time ago.  Prof. Dawkins stated that the origins of, well, everything had no purpose - that it was a colossal, cosmic accident that started the ball of everything rolling.

From this, I take that the true difference between believers and non-believers is this point called 'purpose'.  For a true materialist there is no existential question 'why' as there is only an original accident. 'Why' is a meaningless question, unless used as a stand-in for 'how'.  For the believer, an existential 'why'  is the only question and for them has an answer.

To get back to my students and the examination question, looking at this issue from the point of view of an existential why and of the impact of scientific thought, both answer why religion as practiced for most of Western history has seemed to collapse in recent decades, and also answer why most people still claim to believe in God.  Only those who either do not ever think about an existential why fall into the truly secular. materialist group and the majority have lurking somewhere in their minds a churning worry about this 'why'.

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