Does science lead to secularism?

Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article “Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume “that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.”

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to “the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.”

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

1: Religious beliefs fundamental to science?

He argues religious beliefs are fundamental to “scientific practice and understanding of the world.” Rejecting the “strident and noisy opinions of Hedley, Tyndall or Draper” (which he blames for the idea that there is a conflict between science and religion) he falls back on Faraday’s religious beliefs. “That God had written the laws of nature into the universe at the time of the creation, in such a way that they could be discovered.”

Religious apologists have been chauvinistically pushing that explanation for science recently. It parallels their claims to morality and is just as fallacious. Humanity realised the rational nature of reality through its own observation and experience. And it is only human to attempt to understand and discover.

Scientists who were Christian may have in the past given the sort of justification for science that James refers to. But that justification enabled them to move away from revelation to deriving evidence and ideas from reality without first discarding their religion. They initially converted their god into a retired engineer by recognising a rational, understandable reality. The first step along the road to disposing of any scientific need for gods at all.

2: Secularisation is social, not individual

James demands a standard of evidence for his straw man – “it would be required to show that there were a large number of individuals who abandoned Christianity because of science.” And he argues there a few examples.

This is no doubt true – but the decline of Christianity (and growth of secularism – not necessarily the same thing*) is part of social evolution. Changes occur over generations and social groups. It is far too simple to analyse abrupt changes in the beliefs of individuals.

3: Secularisation of science is inevitable

He concludes that science did not cause society to become more secular. Rather “the causality of events is reversed . . . science became secular because society became secular, not the other way around.”

Again, far too simple – in fact devoid of any evidence or logic.

Scientific practice and epistemology is thoroughly secular today. Scientists themselves hold a range of different religious beliefs, but their working epistemology is secular. No revelations from “holy” scripture are used in scientific research. No gods have a role in scientific theory, hypotheses or speculations.

Evolution of the modern scientific approach has been the driving force in this secularisation of science, not society.

And let’s face it. Most societies are far less secular than science. Religion often has connections with the state, or demands and receives special privileges from the state. This is true even in a very secular society like New Zealand’s.

4: Theologians to blame?

Finally, James attributes the decline of Christianity, not to science, but to religion itself!“Theologians in part must shoulder the responsibility for the rise of secularisation through their own attitude and behaviour.” Liberal biblical interpretations within Christianity had provoked a “violent reaction from both the catholic and evangelical wings of the Church of England  . . . . throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and indeed down to today, with the misogynist row over women bishops, contributed, in my view, far more to the decline of Christianity and the creation of a secular society, than ever science did.”

So, having disposed of the straw man – that science caused secularisation of society – James has lumped for yet another simple solution – religion is itself to blame. But he himself suggested that simple explanations (like his straw man) are far too naïve. I at least agree with that.

Secularisation of society and science inevitable

Sure, the inevitable conservatism of theology and religious morality has turned many people off. But it also attracts many people. Judgementalism is a human intuition (and a vice). But there will have been many reasons for secularisation. The behaviour of the church and conservatism of theology are just one reason.

Inevitably science and technology has played a role. The myths and superstition of religion are far less attractive as we have obtained better knowledge. But science and technology has dramatically influenced society in material ways. Our mobility and communication has been radically improved. We are now exposed to many cultures and peoples we were previously ignorant of. We have far more avenues of entertainment and socialisation than we used to – not only physically but electronically.

All this has reduced the once important social and moral roles of religion. There have been a number of material and spiritual factors but secularisation of society has been inevitable.

Secularisation of science was also inevitable. But this was driven mostly by development of scientific principles and practices. By philosophical and epistemological evolution. In spite of, and independent of, religious beliefs of practitioners. And assisted by, but not dependent on, the secularisation of society in general.

*I am using “secular,” “secularism,” etc. here with the dictionary meaning of “to transfer something from a religious to a nonreligious use, or from control by a religious body to control by the state or a lay body.” A religious believer can participate in secular civil activity or scientific research without discarding their beliefs. I do not use the words in the sense of atheism, as some people do.

Thanks to James Hannam (@DrJamesHannam) for publicising the London Library Magazine article.

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23 responses to “Does science lead to secularism?

  1. Excellent post Ken, I really enjoyed this one.

    I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

    This is completely true. When I write about religion/science I most certainly have an agenda: to poke fun at the ridiculous. I know it’s perhaps not the most productive way of getting a point across but I feel there would be a lot less ‘ridiculous’ around if it were ridiculed more often.

    I think your post is pretty much spot on.

    Secularisation of science was also inevitable.

    It cannot be any other way. It is not possible to learn anything constructive through revelation (if it was, I’m pretty sure the Bible and other holy texts would have been pretty awesome science manuals) and so the removal of revelation (and religion) is a requirement for progress.

    Science FTW!


  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thank you, Ken, for leading me to read Frank James’s article. I know Frank, and his work, well, but it was good to read something aimed at a non-specialist audience. I must correct your idea that the article is agenda-driven (beyond the agenda of sharing insights from academic history of science with a wider readership), and I think that his piece offers more evidence for his analysis than you do for yours. If you want further evidence, you could begin by reading the several volumes of Faraday’s correspondence that Frank has edited.

    You have written elsewhere that you know little about the history of theolology, so I really don’t see that you are in a position to critique the points made here about the enormously complicated world of Victorian religion. Far, far more book were published on religion, on the debates about the establishment church, about Catholic emancipation, about religious or secular education, about missionary work, about the enormous range of different non-conformist sects etc etc than was published about science. If we are looking at the secularisation of society, en-mass, then it took place outside the world of science.

    As for your points:
    1. Frank James is quite right that the scientific naturalists – Huxley, Tyndall et al – were a noisy, though extremely influential, minority. The idea that science revealed God’s laws and Creation was far more common, especially in texts, speeches or lectures aimed at a wider public. Take a look, for example, at the presidents’ addresses at the British Association for the Advancemnt of Science, right into the 20th century – look too at the Sunday sermon preached during the week-long BAAS meetings. Tyndall’s BAAS Belfast Address is remarkable and memorable for its anti-religious rhetoric, because it was so unusual. To suggest that men of science turned God into a “retired engineer” profoundly misrepresents the theology, philosophy and science of most 19th-century men of science.

    2. I think FJ would agree with this: he is, precisely, talking about gradual social change.

    3. The idea that secularisation of educational institutions, government etc – came before secularisation of science would seem to be fairly well borne out by considering the chronology of events like the foundation of the secular University of London, the Test Acts and Catholic Emancipation as compared to the long, long surivial of natural theology within the rhetoric of men of science and science popularisers.

    4. FJ does not suggest a single cause, merely that theologians must bear “part of the blame”. Again, if yu were familiar with Victorian theological debates, you would understand how valid this point is. To write, as you then do, of “the inevitable conservatism of theology” shows you don’t know much about the reforming spirit of Essays and Reviews.

    There is nothing inevitable in history, even secularisation. How do you explain the continuance of religious and superstitious belief despite the clear successes of science and technology today?


  3. @Rebehah possibly one would point to the decline of religion (with the exception of an increase of Islam due to migration) in Europe I would imagine.


  4. Rebekah Higgitt

    @onefuriousllama Indeed, but I presume that you’d agree that science and technology are pretty visible all over the world. In accounting for the different levels of secularism in different parts of the world, science would not appear to be the chief causal factor.


  5. @Rebekah not having hard data to back up my opinion right now… I think the decline in religion in Europe can be attributed to an increase in the level of education and standard of living which can be attributed to science.

    Why this is not the same for America (besides for Americans being generally otherwise) is the tenacity with which they fight secularisation. It also seems that recently Americans have been fighting increasingly hard to reduce the science education their children receive which, to me at least, points to the fact that the fundamentalists believe that scientific education is a threat to religion.

    The third world is a different story altogether again. The simple lack of education and a terrible standard of living leaves the population wide open to religious ideology.

    Perhaps I my thoughts are too simplistic; why do you think religion is still around in the face of clear scientific success and progress?


  6. Rebekah, in my criticism of James’s article I mainly aim to bring out the idea that science is itself inevitably secular and point out that James had made a claim that this is caused by the secularization of society. He ignored completely the epistemological nature of science and how this has driven its secularization. Personally, I think anyone today who tries to push the myth that science is based on Christian theology, and ignores completely the nature of scientific process, is driven by an agenda, of one sort or another.

    The nature of Faraday’s beliefs, or his correspondence, is clearly irrelevant to my points. I have no disagreement with James on that – so can’t see the relevance of your advice on that.

    I agree – I have no specific interest in theology – and my article did not discuss theology at all. Not at all. Why is it that some people think this charge (of non-expertise in theology) can be used to cover all situations (remind you of anyone), such as the philosophy of science? Very arrogant attitude from theology, isn’t it?

    You miss completely my point about the words ‘strident and noisy”. These words are very indicative of an emotional agenda. Just consider how often they, together with words like “militant” are used to describe than lovely gentleman Richard Dawkins! I have experimented in describing some harsh theological commenters as “strident” and “militant” – you should have seen how quickly they took extreme offense. And that, after all, is the purpose of using those words, isn’t it. Not rational discussion of viewpoints.

    You say – “If we are looking at the secularisation of society, en-mass, then it took place outside the world of science.” – the exact point I made (and I gave a number of factors driving it). So you agree!

    James probably would agree that change is social, not individual – that is why he should not have used that argument as a test.

    I have developed the argument of “the inevitable conservatism of theology” elsewhere. You have taken it superficially. I am really getting back to the epistemologies. A reliance on scripture and revelation constantly causes theologians to argue for an outdated morality. Consequently, theological-based morality lags behind. And history shows that again and again, despite some examples of people who advance a secular morality with a religious justification.

    You ask “How do you explain the continuance of religious and superstitious belief despite the clear successes of science and technology today?” Again, I have often discussed that. Humans are not a rational species, more a rationalising one. We did not evolve to do science. Science is a completely unnatural way of thinking and working. And it only works, and is so successful, because it is a social activity (involving individuals checking on, disagreeing with, etc., the ideas of others). And it tests itself against reality (Galileo had some important comments on that).

    That is why even practicing scientists, whose day-to-day working processes are completely secular, will have quite emotional and irrational ideas and beliefs in the rest of their life. That is why each Soyuz launch (a scientific process and endeavour) is accompanied by a number of superstitions – an orthodox blessing, planting a tree, signing a door, urinating against the wheels of the bus.

    Our scientific understanding of human nature and the cognitive process surely tells us that it is perfectly natural that religions and superstitions will continue to exists, in one for or another, for a long time – despite the obvious success of science.

    My general comment, though Rebekah, is that you seem to have drawn the wrong interpretations from my article. And either misunderstood, or ignored completely, the inevitable epistemological driving force in the secularisation of science. That was the whole point of my article. It was not about history or theology at all.


  7. @onefuriousllama – there has been some interesting work correlating various social factors with religiosity. The US is an outlier on many of these. However, one common conclusion is that this may be partly explained by the lower social security in the US compared with Europe. The particular history of immigration, and the seperation between church and state in the US, have also been suggested as explanations.

    I think the reasons will be pretty complex, but the liberation of women and the provision of education would drive improvements in the third world. it would help satisfy some basic human rights. And, I think, inevitably, will also help to reduce the influence of superstition and religion.


  8. Forgive me. You discuss an article by an historian of science, about a certain period of history, in relation to a number of theological debates – I can’t think why I thought historical or theological points might be relevant to the discussion.

    I now see that your personal interpretation of epistemology is the only thing that interests you, so I shall cease interfering.


  9. Although, Rebekah, I firmly believe an understanding of the philosophy of science and its role in the scientific revolution certainly helps in understanding, and interpreting, the actual history.


  10. Man I love being completely out of my depth in a discussion. Must suck for you guys heh.


  11. For once I agree with you Ken. I think the distinction you make at the end… “A religious believer can participate in secular civil activity or scientific research without discarding their beliefs. I do not use the words in the sense of atheism, as some people do.”… is an important one… and “religious believer” could be changed to “holder of a particular philosophy” to make it a broader and more useful statement.

    When I was doing my science degrees, and later working, my religious beliefs or otherwise were entirely irrelevant to my work. “Science” works – and it comes up with useful solutions to problems… WHY it works is not really a question that bothers most scientists on a day to day basis. To insist that the only explanation for it working is to adopt a theistic framework or an atheistic framework is an interesting discussion for philosophers but largely irrelevant to most people getting on with their job. Same as any other job. I have worked as a fruit picker.. and perhaps only a theistic explanation explains the existence of the fruit.. perhaps only a materialist explanation… but when I am picking fruit? Irrelevant to my actions. Scientists are just like any other profession in this way.


  12. The scientific method is inherently opposed to magical thinking (i.e. positing supernatural causes for events). Scientists are trained to look for natural explanations of everything.

    I think that you could be a religious scientist, but it seems that it would be difficult. Like an IRS worker evading taxes, maybe?


  13. I have never met a scientist who tries to find supernatural causes for things… I hate to shout “strawman” because it is such an over used expression but here I think it is justified?


  14. Gordon Hide

    Yes, it would be nice to believe that the drift to secularism was an inevitable result of better education and scientific understanding, but it ain’t so – (with apologies to Mark Twain).

    It appears that neither the article author nor the comment authors have read the work of Phil Zuckerman. Essentially Phil’s studies link the growing secularism of society with the growth of social democracy. It seems that once you remove anxiety over the future from people’s concern they are less inclined to seek the “comfort blanket” of religion.

    Key anxieties in societies which are not social democracies are access to good quality health care irrespective of income and financial security in unemployment and old age.

    Basically the state can provide the “comforts” of religion without the baggage of irrational belief, antiquated morality or the personal commitment of time and trouble.

    Phil’s ideas do what most others don’t. They explain the difference in religiosity between the US and the rest of the western democratic world.


  15. @Gordon Well put. Have you got a link to something in particular by Phil Zuckerman that is a good read?


  16. Being poorer doesn’t always equal being more religious. Looking at the demographics of my own metro area, evangelical Christians tend to be richer – the richer and more upper-middle-class areas are also the most religious, and have the highest amount of megachurches and such.

    I’d say it depends on the individual denomination. The non-denominational “megachurch” Christians, the kind you’d think of when talking about Rick Warren and Focus on the Family, tend to be more well off in my experience. In fact, smugness and ignorance of the suffering of less fortunate people is something that I’ve found bothersome about Christianity in the past.


  17. Megachurches tend to be RUN by the well off… but their targets *ahem* sorry parishioners tend to be not well off but wishing to be so (think a pyramid scheme). This fits with Gordon’s idea…


  18. Mythic Sushi – the research deals with countries and societies rather than individuals. It is a charactersitic of soceites with low levels of social security that they have poor people as well as rich people – and the idoelogies justifying their postions.


  19. onefuriousllama – Phil Zuckerman’s bpp Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment came out last year.

    Have a search for articles on the interent. For example his oped with Gregory Paul Why Do Americans Still Dislike Atheists?.

    Paul himself has published some itneresting research – eg:
    Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies

    And somewhere there is a video of his presentation at the Stockholm Conference where he updates that work.

    His website is Science and Religion.


  20. @Ken cheers for that, I’ll add those to my ever increasing list of books to read. I might not get through them all before I retire and perhaps not even after. I am 30 years away from retiring.


  21. Gordon Hide

    Mythic Sushi – Anxiety about the future in the US is not confined or even most prevalent amongst the poor. The large middle class, one of the US’ greatest achievements, sees what happens to their fellows when they lose their jobs. In the US the balance between employer and employee gives little protection to employees.


  22. Pingback: Secular democracy and its critics | Open Parachute

  23. Pingback: Religious theology of secularism | Open Parachute

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