Post Author: Bill Pratt
A common refrain among secularists is that as science advances, the need for religion continues to diminish, and eventually the need will disappear altogether. After all, the argument goes, the only reason religion exists is to answer questions for which science has yet to provide answers. Once all those questions are answered by science, religion serves no useful purpose.
The problem with this argument is that religion answers questions that science can not, in principle, ever answer. This point was brought home to me again as I was reading, of all things, a best-selling business management book called The Future of Management. The authors, Bill Breen and Gary Hamel, make this case persuasively. They begin their argument by noting that
for more than 300 years, commentators have been predicting the end of religious faith. From Auguste Comte to Richard Dawkins, they have argued that faith must inevitably crumble as scientific certitude grows. Yet faith in a divine presence continues to be one of humanity’s great common denominators. While some societies are more overtly religious than others, the majority of human beings share a belief in the transcendental.
There is no doubt about that last point. I would even say the vast majority of human beings that have ever lived shared a belief in the transcendental. So what is the mistake that Comte and Dawkins are making?
The belief that science will one day displace faith is based on a mistaken assumption that religious belief is principally a set of mystical and misguided conjectures about how the natural world works. As the sunlight of scientific discovery breaks through the black night of ignorance, so the thinking goes, these primitive superstitions will evaporate like the dew beneath the summer sun.
If religion is not primarily about explaining the laws of nature, what is it primarily about?
Religious faith is not chiefly concerned with the what, how, and when of natural phenomena. Rather, it is concerned with the why of existence. And while a few scientists may argue that the question of “why” is unanswerable and therefore not worth pursuing, they haven’t yet convinced the rest of humanity to suspend its search for significance.
Several atheists have made that point on the blog. They say that the “why” questions are uninteresting or are never going to be answered, so why worry about them? But as Breen and Hamel explain, the “rest of humanity” does care about these answers, and religion attempts to provide them. As Breen and Hamel explain, religion’s message is that
you are more than protoplasm, more than artfully yet unintentionally arranged stardust. There is a purpose to your existence. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, two sociologists who’ve studied the human foundations of faith, put it simply: “… religious explanations specify the fundamental meaning of life: how we got here and where we are going (if anywhere).” In other words, they provide answers to the eternal question of “why?”
Has religion proved successful? Yes it has.
History provides countless examples of individuals whose quiet, life-affirming faith elicited virtue, spurred charity, and restored broken lives. Scholars have repeatedly found that religious faith enhances self-esteem, improves physical health, and enlarges the capacity of individuals to cope with the traumas of life. Faith has something to teach us about resilience—not because faith itself has survived, but because faith, to the extent it provides individuals with a sense of meaning, helps make people more resilient. . . . Without a narrative that creates drama and meaning, we are listless and rudderless.
I would go on to add that Christianity, specifically, has done more to give meaning to people’s lives than any other religion. It is a force for good unparalleled in the history of the world. As great as science is, it is not even worthy to hold Christianity’s sandals.