Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fixation on Secularism?

Post 44--: August 30 2011

Tim's Complaint

Tim is a good friend of mine and a long-time lecturer in theology. Under most other circumstances, what with his doctorate and many years of experience, he should have attained professorial status. As it is, he is teaching in a theological college in Nigeria that does not have provision for such rankings, though its academic level is fully equal to that of Nigeria’s public universities, if not higher. Tim recently commented to me that I seem to have a fixation on secularism. According to him, whenever I write, it is about something related to secularism. Whenever I open my mouth, the term “secularism” or some derivative comes out. A slight exaggeration, Tim, but only slight!

Complaint Accepted

Yes, I am deeply concerned about secularism. Putting his comment in a broader context and as I myself once remarked in a seminary chapel speech, we Kuyperian Calvinists seem to find a secularist or dualist behind every tree. Tim is thus not far off the mark. No matter what I write about or in what context, whether an entire 8-volume 2700+- page series on Christian-Muslim relations, magazine article, blog or public lecture, I just about always bring in the topic of secularism and often identify it as the main or basic culprit of whatever problem I may be writing or speaking about. And now you have this whole new blog with “secular” in its very name!

How This Works Out in Practice

Of course, I could counter Tim’s remark with the observation that, no matter what he writes or lectures about, it is almost sure to be about theology. It is not that Tim knows nothing but theology or I nothing but secularism, but Tim, for reasons of his own, has decided to specialize in theology, while I have picked on secularism as a major issue in many social problems that I write about. I may write an article or a blog without a singular overt reference to secularism, but you may find it lurking just around the corner—and usually seen from a negative perspective.I usually write about the general negatives or refer you to other discussions of mine on the subject in past or future posts.

Pre-Emption No. 1

But before I proceed with that, I want to pre-empt a couple of questions or objections to my negative stance towards secularism. I am not suggesting that all secularists are (potentially) bad or evil people, except in the general sense of being members of a fallen human race, of a race of creatures that somewhere in early distant history broke its covenant with God and since then is partially crippled in spirit, mind and body and thus potentially capable of every kind of evil. Even the generally humanistically inclined columnists in the Vancouver Sun, the people with whom I often respond to in my blogs, in response to the recent Vancouver hockey riots and to the Norwegian home-grown terrorist attack, are admitting that, given the right circumstances or stimuli, most of us, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or secular, can turn vicious, violent and downright evil. You don’t have to look far for examples; history is full of them.

My Secular Friends

But most of us also have the potential for good, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or secular. Though I regret their secularism, I have some very good secular friends for whom I have the highest respect and in whose company I delight. They are the finest humanists you can possibly find: decent, kind, compassionate, cultured, tolerant and a whole lot more positives. But as much as I appreciate them and delight in their company, there is always a deep chasm between us that we have agreed to acknowledge and accept. This covenant makes for challenging discussions of which we seldom tire. I thank them for this unique opportunity of rich human experience and sharing. Thus, when in these blogs and other writings I strongly disagree with secularism and its adherents and, not infrequently, become somewhat harsh, let these friends remember that, though they adhere to the worldview I attack repeatedly, I am also aware that not all secularists are proud and antagonistic to the worldview I represent in these blogs. One of them has often referred to me as an exceptionally tolerant Christian, but not quite. My tolerance is not so exceptional; it is typical of many Kuyperian Christians with our strong sense of pluralism. And from what they tell me about the reaction of their fellow Humanists to our joint project, I deduct that these friends are exceptional among their peers.

The second pre-emption will be featured in Post 45.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Scientific Explanations of Religion

Post 43--:

Wired for Religion
I have a promise to keep: to deal with scientific explanations of religion. Remember Anderson Thompson and Clare Aukofer (A&T), co-authors of the book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith from the last post?
A&T summarize for us attempts by scientists to unravel religion’s “DNA.” Backed by empirical evidence, scientists “have produced robust theories…that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to ‘no heaven… no hell…and no religion too.” The mechanisms within us that support faith developed over the ages. Scientists have identified around “20 hardwired, evolved ‘adaptation’ as the building blocks of religion.” They go on to argue that “the better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion.” “We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.”

Now, going by what I wrote in the previous post, we have good reason to be skeptical about the ideas A&T have about religion. Please review them, if you’re vague. That should put you on your guard with respect to this scientific stuff as well. If they misunderstand the inside of religion, how will they understand the “outside” of it?

Children's Altruism
OK, so, for the sake of argument, let us grant that those various scientists have indeed uncovered some significant physical, psychological and other factors within us that support our religious lives. Not being a specialist in any of these areas, I would be the last to argue with the veracity of their findings, which real scientists always regard as tentative and open to correction or even rejection. However, when they tell us with all the assurance in the world that science has demonstrated with “a wealth of research” children’s “capacity for altruism” and that “we are born altruists, who then have to learn strategic self-interest,” I do begin to wonder about the value of non-scientific, pre-scientific or anecdotal knowledge. I am well into my 70s and member of a large international clan. My parents both had many siblings—in the 10-12 range; I am one out of ten. Between my wife and myself, we can count something like 70+ nieces and nephews, never mind the size of the next generations. So, through the decades I have seen many children grow up in my own nuclear family as well as in the larger clan. My decades of non-scientific anecdotal observation and experience is that babies are concerned mainly if not only for themselves and that as they grow up, especially in the family context with other children, over the years they learn to become less egocentric and more altruistic, a process that takes them into young adulthood before it somewhat matures. I have experienced myself slowly becoming less egocentric and more altruistic as a life-long process and I am very conscious of the fact that I have not yet arrived, not even with a strong dose of my Christian faith encouraging me along this path.

Science and Adherents of Religion
Be that as it may, T&A are thus arguing that we are hardwired to be religious. In other words, that it is natural for us to be religious. In a way this seems a case of rediscovering the wheel, except that this time around it is supported by secular scientists. Non-secular scientists have long recognized this along with philosophers and theologians, while there is nothing in science itself to deny it. In response to debates around the 9/11 horror, Leonard Stern wrote in 2008 that “religiosity is hard-wired into the human condition” and that the secularist expectation—and hope-- shared by T&A, that religion is going to disappear and be replaced by reason has proven totally unreal. Stern also noted that the alleged hostility between religion and reason has little basis in fact, since the percentage of highly educated adherents is striking. For example, leaving the Christian majority religion aside, a quarter of US Buddhists have post-graduate degrees; Jews, 35%; Hindus, 48% (“Religion Isn’t Going Away, but It Needs Examination,” Vancouver Sun, March 25, 2008, p. A11). I will resist the urge to present you with an extensive bibliography of published writers who affirm the human hard-wiredness of religion, of belief systems, of faith, of worldviews and satisfy that urge by referring you to Volume 5, Part 2, of my series Studies in Christian-Muslim Relations (See Islamica page in my < www.SocialTheology. Com > or type in < Jan H Boer > on < www.lulu.com >. It is especially the Kuyperian Christian school of thought, including its numerous scientist adherents, that has affirmed this view for nearly a century and a half.

Twisted Logic
What I find very strange and twisted logic is the assumption that if science can prove that we are hardwired by nature to be religious, then religion is proven false! This is absolutely absurd! If, as Christianity and Islam both affirm, the human race is created to be religious, then one should not be surprised if science found physical evidence supporting this. On what basis would such scientific hunches prove their opposite?! It is the same logical distortion applied to miracles: If you have a scientific explanation for an event interpreted as a miracle, then it cannot be a miracle! There is a decided antithesis between this kind of “science” and Christianity. Behind this strange “science” of A&T is an ardent anti-religion attitude shared by many secularists who just hope that religion will go away and not constantly call them to account. And then there is a deeper layer that consists of a dichotomy or dualism between religion and the world, including science, between the spiritual and the physical, that has been central to the major western secular worldview for centuries and, in fact, constitutes the western “common sense.” Few scientists, not being inclined to philosophy and other abstract ways of reasoning, are aware of this dualism. Why waste time on “common sense?” Again, at this point I can only refer you for details here to that same series and that same < lulu.com >, Volume 5, Chapter 5, especially pp. 151-157. One day I will devote a post or two to this subject.

A sneak preview: next post will deal with my alleged fixation on secularism.