Is Religion Outdated in the Twenty-First Century?


Religion isn’t outdated simply because some people claim that we can only know what the natural sciences tell us. Philosophy and theology are the next steps in our search for truth about nature, human nature, and God.

The annual meeting in January of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, brought together an elite group of world leaders to consider the “state of the world” and to offer various strategies for improvement.

This year participants could listen to Henry Kissinger, George Soros, or any number of prime ministers, heads of state, and economic and political theorists offer their visions of contemporary society, politics, and economics—and much more, including developments in the neurosciences and technology.

Often taken as oracular pronouncements, perhaps reminiscent of the knowledge and advice dispensed by the Greek gods from Mt. Olympus, the insights offered at this Alpine mountain gathering are eagerly awaited and then dispensed through television, print media, and the internet.

Among the roughly 3,000 participants, a growing number are what the WEF calls “faith leaders.” Some of them are part of its newly established “Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith,” one of about eighty Global Agenda Councils formed to address “the most pressing issues and opportunities of our time and . . . provide new thinking and solutions.”

Though it is important to have religious leaders present at any meeting about the “state of the world,” this year there was an open forum titled “Is Religion Outdated in the 21st Century?” Other forums addressed religious issues, such as “The Moral Economy: From the Social Contract to Social Covenant,” “Religion and Politics,” and “Beliefs That Bond,” but the panel on religion’s relevance drew the most attention, at least from many in the press.

Indeed, it was the singular performance of one of the panelists, Lawrence Krauss, the American theoretical physicist and self-identified anti-theist, which made the event quite lively. Krauss is the author of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing (which I reviewed for Public Discourse) and is well-known for his strident attacks on religious belief.

Others on the panel included a Buddhist monk from Thailand, a Catholic monk from Great Britain, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt (head of the Conference of European Rabbis), Sister Carol Keehan (head of the US Catholic Health Association), and a young Israeli woman, whose primary interest was in “spiritual entrepreneurship.” The moderator was the editor of a major newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia.

A premise of the session was that despite (or perhaps because of) their ancient lineage, religions “are the slowest to respond to modern issues such as drugs, homosexuality, and family relationships.” Subsidiary questions in the forum’s announcement were: “Are we becoming a multi-faith society or one where many have no faith at all? How are religious institutions helping to instill tolerance and values in society? How can we reconcile the trends in society's evolution with religious beliefs? How can we foster freedom of speech and at the same time religious freedom?” The forum’s title and framing made clear the organizers’ vision of what was to be discussed.

All but one of the panelists were prepared to discuss religion’s positive role in personal and social life, despite historical and contemporary examples of religion’s being used for bad purposes. Krauss, however, was unapologetic in his opening remarks. Of course religion is outdated, he said. Yes, there are more than four billion people in the world who identify as religious, but very few, at least in the “first world” (Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia), accept their religions’ doctrines as true.

As an example, Krauss cited the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which affirms that the bread and wine in the Mass become the body and blood of Christ. No one, he said, not even a Catholic, really believes such nonsense. Krauss did not deny the importance of religion: It is as important as nuclear weapons, he said, since both exist and need to be taken seriously, but it would be better for the world if neither existed.

He was not even willing to grant that sacred religious texts contain some timeless wisdom. These texts (especially the Bible), he said, are the products of ignorant Bronze or Iron Age peasants who did not know that the earth orbited the sun. Lacking good science, and hence an adequate knowledge of the real world, these authors are not trustworthy guides to the good life.

Krauss responded with brio to his co-panelists’ somewhat feeble challenges. Whereas the others would raise the utility of religious belief, Krauss was ready to strike at its truth, calling it fundamentally false. He identified religion’s place in the “state of the world” as a cancer that needs to be excised, though he did not suggest how that might be accomplished, given its extensive and deep foundations in human nature and history.

Such foundations are amply described in Robert Bellah’s recent masterful study, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Bellah finds considerable value in the religious expressions of those whom Krauss would identify as “ignorant peasants.” Bellah celebrates the “axial age,” the first millennium BC in ancient Israel, Greece, India, and China, in which a cultural effervescence led to new developments in religion, ethics, and the understanding of the natural world.

As the only non-believer on the panel, Krauss dominated the discussion, since he challenged any positive analysis of religion offered by the others. He defended reason and science from what might be the encroachments of religious belief. He does not believe in God, he said, any more than he thinks that a tea kettle is orbiting Jupiter, because there is no evidence of either. But he did say that if someone showed him evidence that God exists, he would be ready to consider it.

That concession would have been a perfect opportunity to question what constitutes evidence for Krauss.

If one thinks that the natural sciences offer the only access to reality, then only what serves as evidence for the natural sciences—that which is subject to sense experience, laboratory experiments, and mathematical measurement—can inform judgments about reality. It is difficult to see how art, music, and literature, for example, could help us understand the world since they would at best be only pieces of evidence as to how human beings express themselves, but not ways to come to know what is true. Philosophy and theology, of course, would have to be dismissed as the worshipping of false idols.

It does not seem to bother thinkers such as Krauss that it is a philosophical judgment to decide what kind of evidence is permissible for making conclusions about the world. The needless narrowing of reason’s jurisdiction to the empirical domain impoverishes the human quest for knowledge, since, in an a priori judgment, it simply excludes the possibility of knowledge outside the natural sciences.

It also excludes, of course, the role of faith in discovering what is true about nature, human nature, and God. The claim that faith, especially Christian faith, has an intelligible content must be dismissed since any evidence used in support of this claim does not qualify, in Krauss’s terms, as evidence at all—except, perhaps, as evidence of folly.

The discussion of religion at Davos showed how easy it is to confuse sociological, philosophical, and theological analyses—or perhaps to conflate them, and fail to realize their distinctions. What does “outdated” mean? Most of the panelists took it to mean “irrelevant.” Krauss took “relevant” to mean “important” and admitted that religion was “important” although false. But, to his credit, Krauss was not shy in asking tough questions about the nature of things.

The World Economic Forum seems to give precedence to social scientific analyses, with some studies in ethics (e.g., how we should approach issues such as global warming and rapid technological change). To discuss strategies for addressing economic, political, and social crises requires a good understanding of these crises and their causes. But it also requires good philosophy, and, one might even add, good theology.

In either case, there are first principles to be discovered, first principles about nature and human nature, from which sound arguments can proceed. Despite the richness and variety of offerings at Davos, the approach seemed almost exclusively utilitarian. To discuss the utility of religion is a fine undertaking, but, as Krauss’s interventions showed, there are more fundamental topics that need attention. It would be especially useful for WEF organizers to include more sessions on the philosophical and theological foundations for any discussion of the “state of the world.” After all, a crucial, perhaps the crucial fact about the “state of the world” is that it is created. The recognition that the world is created does not enter into the proper principles, procedures, and conclusions of the sciences, which have their own autonomy.  It ought, however, to inform the wider judgments we make about the world and how we should act.

When challenged to admit that science deals with questions of “how,” whereas religion deals with questions of “why,” and that we need both sets of questions, Krauss simply rejected the distinction. He asserted that all so-called “why” questions are really only “how” questions. To ask why the universe exists, an ultimate “why” question, is for Krauss nothing more than to ask how the universe came into existence.

He argued that experiments being performed elsewhere in Switzerland, at the Large Hadron Collider, will disclose infinitely more about the origin of the universe than religion could. His views are reminiscent of pre-Socratic materialists (and their successors) who considered the world only in terms of its material components, perhaps supplemented by the laws that describe their interaction.

Sulak Sivaraksa, the Buddhist monk from Thailand on the panel, called for humility in the face of what the world presents to us, criticizing at least implicitly what he perceived as the arrogance of thinking that science provides all the answers we need. Krauss said that science encourages that very humility. The universe disclosed by contemporary science engenders in us a true humility both with respect to what we do not yet know and our insignificance compared to the vastness of life on the planet and our non-privileged position in a nearly infinite universe.

The beauty of the natural order is for Krauss a constant source of wonder and awe, surely, for him, more than anything religion can offer. The wonder and awe Krauss finds in nature are rooted in the way things are, not in the fictions of religious belief. Such a claim is not new. We might think of the great epic poem by Lucretius, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), which celebrates the materialism of Epicurus.

Lucretius tells us that all things, even the gods, are made of atoms. The debate in the ancient world is not so different from the one Krauss urges on us. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor, writes in his Meditations that when confronted by the vicissitudes of daily life—and they were many for an emperor—one should consider the alternatives afresh: either providence or atoms.

Order and purpose, or chaos and chance in the universe; these are the alternatives Marcus Aurelius entertains. We might not agree with the Stoic philosophy that Marcus Aurelius employs to defend providence, but he does show us why philosophy is crucial to answering the question.

Krauss is correct in describing the wonder and awe that the universe causes in us. But unfortunately, this is where he ends his story. Aristotle reminds us that philosophy begins with wonder and leads to greater knowledge. Philosophy begins where Krauss seems to end.

Reason opens up possibilities for us to consider well beyond those grasped by our sense experience and the natural sciences. Theology extends the domain of knowledge even further. The rarefied air at Davos may produce a kind of intellectual vertigo that overlooks these truths.

William Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and Theology at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.


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