What Can We Believe In?

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” This quote from the eighteenth-century philosophe Voltaire sums up the Enlightenment argument against religion. The Protestant Reformation in Europe resulted in an era of bloody and destructive religious warfare. Beginning in the seventeenth century many educated people concluded that the problem was not one church or the other, but religion itself. Religion, by its very nature, does not rely on what we consider “reason” for its claim to validity. Who can believe rationally in a worldview that spurns reason (ghosts impregnating teenagers, defiance of physical laws, resurrection from the dead)? And, consequently but even worse, convinced millions of people over decades to brutally murder their fellows over issues of minute dogma.

The Enlightenment project was a reaction to all this. The Enlightenment philosophes sought to rescue knowledge from the superstitious shackles of religion. In effect, they set out to redefine Truth, and the ways that Truth could be known. Prior to this period, what was true was what the Bible said, or, more precisely, what certain religious leaders said the Bible said. Since the Wars of the Reformation demonstrated that the Bible could be made to say just about anything, the philosophes rejected the Bible and religion as a basis for truth, and instead settled on science.

Concurrent with the Religious Wars was the Scientific Revolution. Those engaged in scientific research were able to show that real truth could be obtained by scientific investigation and explained using mathematical formulae. They were successful in convincing that scientific evidence was unassailable. And since the way one came to know scientific truth was by the exercise of the mind – reason – the West entered the “Age of Reason.” Subsequently in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, every field of endeavor was re-oriented to a foundation in science. What began as a means of explaining the structure of the universe and the nature of the physical and biological world became the basis for understanding every aspect of life. Is it not telling that every proposed method of arranging society to meet the challenges of industrialization appeals to science: scientific Marxism, Positivism, Social Darwinism?

The great enemy of science, it was thought by many, was religious superstition. Raising science to the level of godhood (during the French Revolution the Cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the “Temple of Reason”) was supposed to allow mankind to move forward without being dogged by fantasy and delusion. But today we are witnessing a remarkable phenomenon: science itself has become religion.

Here’s what I mean. In any number of social debates from climate change to vaccinations to sexual orientation each side on the debate tries to bolster its arguments by appeal to scientific research, or to scientific experts. But the problem is that each side can appeal to science, because each side can find scientists who will confirm whatever their political position is. So in the end, science is not used as a means to validate truth, it is used as a means to validate belief. What is that but religion?

So here’s the dilemma. If we can’t believe in God because it’s unscientific, and we can’t believe in science because it’s religious, what can we believe in?

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