“Intelligent, scientifically trained people no longer believe (or can no longer believe) in God.”
Like any other prejudice, this one works in conjunction with others. Not only is truth systemic, but so is error. False ideas are logically connected, support each other, and form a seemingly coherent whole that we call a concept. The fact that a concept is false is no longer of great importance because it satisfies people’s need for a unified picture of the world, giving them a sense of certainty and reality. “Intelligent people do not believe in God” or “Scientifically trained people cannot believe in God” are related to several prejudices: “Science can give us an absolutely objective knowledge of the world”, “The light of reason will penetrate all corners of the world, leaving no unenlightened corner where superstition can flourish”, or “There is an irreducible contradiction between science and religion.”
The arrogance of human reason and the denial of…God
The prejudices mentioned above have permeated European culture for the last two centuries, dating back to the Age of Enlightenment. Under the influence of the great Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, etc.), who exalted the power of human reason over social transformation and historical progress, the French revolutionaries took things to the point of absurdity: they created the cult of the “Goddess of reason.” They made human reason the deity of their secularised society. In a procession with religious overtones, they embodied it in a naked dancer of loose morals, whom they enthroned and worshipped in Notre Dame Cathedral. This ritual was imitated throughout France, where citizens felt enlightened by the Déesse de la Raison. The cult of reason was proclaimed “the only true worship.”
The enthusiasm with which people embraced this new cult can be explained by a thirst for reason and healthy thinking, which had been marginalised by the “dark millennium.” According to the well-known “law of the pendulum,” people distanced themselves from one error by embracing the diametrically opposed error. As a result, along with the dirty water, many threw out of the basin the baby as well, the very one that needed to be washed and kept: along with the irrational dogmatism of the Church and the irrational abuses of the Inquisition, which resulted in tens of millions of victims, they also rejected faith in God. By abandoning an apostate version of religion, people also abandoned God.
With Galileo and Newton, knowledge of nature per se—that is, by its own laws alone—became the ideal of cognitive rationality.
The absence of transcendence in scientific explanation was no longer seen as a deficiency or a sign of spiritual degradation, but as a virtue. When Napoleon Bonaparte asked Laplace why there was no reference to God in his book Celestial Mechanics, Laplace replied, “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse!” (“Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis!”). Laplace’s words are the expression of the new paradigm that has become the dominant paradigm in the knowledge of nature and society.
Yet Laplace’s answer also tells us something else: consciously or not, modern scientists have tried to take the place of God. All modern science promises an absolutely objective truth—in other words, if not absolute from the point of view of the comprehensibility of the world, at least from the point of view of objectivity. As far as comprehensibility is concerned, modern scientists have assumed that the limits of knowledge are only temporary; that they will be overcome one by one with the passage of time, and that knowledge is nothing more than mankind’s asymptotic approach to absolute truth. We know that “asymptotic” means “infinite,” we know that science will never reach absolute truth, but the absolute remains an ideal to be attained, the landmark of true knowledge, just as the North Star is a landmark for sailors lost on the oceans of the world. Never within reach, always there!
One of the most typical representatives of this paradigm was the German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943), the promoter of the idea of the axiomatisation of mathematics, who dreamed of a unified axiomatisation of all sciences. Hilbert imposed the idea that only the theoretical construction that allows an integral vision of the object to be known can be recognised as scientific (rational) knowledge—something that is only possible in mathematics. Nevertheless, he raised this demand to the level of a prerequisite for any rational attitude. David Hilbert’s programme was truly mad: the unification of all mathematics on a single axiomatic foundation! He also inspired the physicalist programme of unification of science (Carnap), which fed on the illusion that all knowledge could be unified in a single true theory. This “Hilbertian optimism,” completely unrealistic, would also contaminate philosophy. If Hilbert believed that in mathematics “there is no ignorabimus,” Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” You have to ask yourself, like Napoleon: What role does God play in all this?
The limitations of science are not conjunctural and transient, but principled and insurmountable
In the first half of the 20th century, the first signs of the limits that inevitably affect any “scientific” approach began to appear. In 1927, Werner Heisenberg realised that in subatomic physics it was not possible to observe the behaviour of a micro-particle without taking into account the position of the observer. The subject of knowledge, which modern science dreamed of eliminating from the explanatory picture, thus became a variable in the equation. The ideal of the absolute objectivity of scientific knowledge also proved to be illusory.
A new “betrayer” of science’s ideal of omniscience was to follow, this time not in the fortress of physics but in that of mathematics: Kurt Gödel. In 1931, Gödel developed his famous theorem proving the principled limits of any formalisation. In principle, Gödel’s theorem asserts that if we fully formalise a system of sentences, this system will become self-contradictory (it will fatally contain a sentence A and a sentence ~A which negates the first). The philosophical implication of this theorem, also called the “incompleteness theorem,” is the principled impossibility of complete formalisation, which at the time was a death blow to Hilbertian-style axiomatisation programs in science.
I have cited only two episodes in scientific knowledge in which human reason has been shown to have intrinsic limitations that are part of its very nature: the uncertainty principle discovered by Werner Heisenberg, and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. It is worth noting that the evidence came not from religion, art or common sense, which have always been reluctant to accept the expansionist claims of science, but from the very heart of the most rigorous scientific disciplines: physics and mathematics.
Therefore, the very development of science has led to the conclusion that if people rely solely on their reason, they are powerless to comprehend the world. Voltaire’s childish optimism was disproved not only by empirical history but also by theoretical knowledge. François-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) believed that within 100 years rational education would make everyone realise that God was a superstition; more than 200 years have passed and people still believe in God. Among those who believe are scientists, who are considered the most rational of people. This means that there is no principled opposition between faith and reason, or between faith and science.
Human reason is neither universal, nor evenly distributed, nor the same in all people
Had it not been for the Enlightenment’s redefinition of the individual as a “rational being,” the arrogance of reason would not have spread so rapidly. René Descartes, a graduate of a Jesuit college, continued to glorify God, but he also glorified human reason, which, according to him in his Discourse on Method (1637), “is by nature equal in all men” and “is complete in each individual”; Rousseau’s “noble savage” is inherently good, free and…rational. These were some promising ideas at a time when myths such as “blue blood” or “providential mission” legitimised an unjust social structure. But they weren’t true.
Historical and everyday experience in every country and in every age shows us that people are not equally endowed with reason, nor do they use it to the same extent. Moreover, everyone can see that a child’s reason and moral conscience develop over time, as he or she matures, which is why the child does not have the right to vote until adolescence. Poor upbringing can also mean that the child fails in this process of refining innate predispositions to be rational and to act consciously.
It is now generally accepted that human beings are not entirely rational in their thinking, but are influenced, without being aware of it, by non-rational elements. Some are irrational, others are rational, but people are not aware of them. People do many things without knowing why, and often try to justify them by unconsciously inventing “reasons,” something Karl Popper called “ad hoc reasoning.”
Recent research has shown that there is not just one type of reason, but that there are different rationalities, which differ from culture to culture. To believe that all people are endowed with the same kind of rationality is an expression of ethnocentrism—often manifested as Eurocentrism: all people think, or should think, like Europeans.
In Babylonian Cosmology and Alchemy, Mircea Eliade argues against the Eurocentrism often manifested by science historians, as well as against positivism, the epistemology on which modern European science is based: “…this understanding of ‘natural science’ is a recent conquest of the human spirit. It is neither absolute nor universal. We mean to say that there have been other ‘natural sciences’ that were not based on the criterion of quantity and measurement. Many historical cultures have developed a ‘natural science’ that has only incidental links with the concepts of European science. If we start from the premise that the whole set of values given to nature by non-European cultures is superstition, and if we are mainly interested in those fragments that happen to coincide with our set of scientific (i.e. experimentally justified) truths, we make a grave error of historical optics.”
Even more radical positions have been formulated along the same lines. Léopold Sédar Senghor, for example, after speaking of “elements of science” present in traditional African cultures—a science based on “the participation of the subject in the object”—questions the value of the ultimate goal of knowledge that Europeans ascribe to objective knowledge: “We have great respect for this ultra-rationalist concept of generic activity and the ultimate goal of humanity, even if this concept were atheistic. But we do not share it.” Senghor, who values “mutually enriching cooperation,” sees artistic creation (in the broadest sense) as a model for “humanity’s generic activity.”
Science and religion are compatible and complementary
As we have already seen, the advocates of the “scientific” approach to reality remain prisoners of a narrow view of “science” and “scientificity,” which leads them to anathematise many forms of knowledge, excommunicating them from the fortress of objective knowledge. For example, mystical knowledge cannot be part of the “canonical form of knowledge,” even though it plays a fundamental role in all the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism), which propose self-knowledge as an ideal, replacing so-called “objective knowledge” defined in terms of (Western) European culture.
The last prejudice that underlies the one we are analysing in this article is the belief that there is an irreducible contradiction between science and religion. Nothing could be more absurd for anyone who has understood that the sciences each deal with a particular area of reality, while religions offer general concepts of the world. How can there be a contradiction between two things that are not on the same level of generality?
A religion is not opposed to science, but to a philosophy that proposes a different picture of the world, a different Weltanschauung (worldview). The propaganda apparatuses of the communist regimes knew this, since they spoke of “materialist-scientific education” as a weapon against religion. They knew that science was a source of “proofs and arguments” on the narrow plane of the sciences, which were used for the purpose of propagating to the masses a materialistic view of the world, according to which reason is not at the origin of the world, but is a late product of the evolution of the material world. This represents the height of absurdity: the same propaganda machines preached the “irreducible opposition between science and religion.” But the ways of atheism are very twisted!
Unfortunately, these simplistic ideas, spread by people who lack a thorough scientific and philosophical education, have penetrated the masses and remained in the collective mind. They have contributed to the emergence of people who are as ignorant of science as they are of religion.
Christian believers know that in the end, the truth will triumph; not the truth of scholars, but the truth of the One who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
In the end, those who have boasted of their knowledge and justified themselves by human reason will say: “Just and true are your ways, King of the nations” (Revelation 15:3).
Dumitru Borţun argues against the prejudiced idea that people with higher education and/or intelligence can no longer have religious faith.