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Verschenen in: Henri A. Krop, Arie L. Molendijk, Hent De Vries (eds.), Post-Theism. Reframing the Judeo-Christian Religion.

Leuven, Peeters, 2000, p. 319-328.

The Future of an Illusion

Herman De Dijn K.U.Leuven

1. Introduction

A scientistic argument against religion seems difficult to eradicate even though it has never really succeeded in convincing religious people, let alone religious scientists and intellectuals1. My position is that such an assault on religion has misunderstood the transformation that religion has undergone in modern times, and failed to see or wilfully overlooked the complexity of the phenomenon of religion. In fact, scientism has the same image of religion as the religious fundamentalists that it tries to oppose. I will not attempt here a direct refutation of the scientistic critique. While such a refutation is certainly possible2, I would find it as uninteresting as the original argumentation itself. Rather, I would like to contribute in a different way to better mutual understanding by way of a discussion of the deeper issues at stake. To this end, I will need to introduce historical, cultural and philosophical elements into the discussion.

2. Religion and science: a radical difference

In a pre-modern society no distinction exists between religion, science, art, philosophy, etc. These are all modern distinctions, the result of the process of differentiation unique to the emergence of a modern society. It was inevitable that this differentiation initially gave rise to all sorts of misunderstandings between the various new functions, for instance between science and religion. It sometimes took a long time before one domain was able to accept the specificity of other domains. This is understandable, especially in a culture where, viewed retrospectively, science emerged from a domain the religious that originally included all other domains (and that, for this reason, cannot really be called religious in the strictly modern sense). Apparently some people are nostalgic for a holistic situation, i.e., one where a single domain encompasses all others. For fundamentalists, that domain is religion; for scientistic thinkers, it is science. Fundamentalism is not an ancient phenomenon; it is hyper-modern. From a dissatisfaction with the complexity of modern life with its many distinct functions and domains, fundamentalists want a new unity. Of course this cannot be a return to the premodern symbiosis: there is no way back. It can only involve the dominance of one domain over all the rest. On this view, religion is conceived as a kind of super-scientific knowledge, one which at the same time provides the basis for an absolutely certain control of ones life. Fundamentalists are actually inverted scientistic thinkers. Real knowledge is not science, but a super-science; real control over life is not based on

An example of such an argument can be seen in: Mahner & Bunge 1996 and Gosselin 1995. See authors such as: Swinburne 1993 and Wolterstorff 1984.

science and technology, but on a regulation of life guided by superhuman knowledge and practices3. I have in a previous work given a detailed elaboration of my standpoint on the fundamental distinction between religion and science: they are so utterly different that they simply cannot come into conflict with each other4. This is not to say that they cannot influence each other to some degree, yet they do this not in the way two rival theories influence each other, but for example in the way science and art interact. It should give us pause for thought that so many believers, including countless scientists, have no problem with scientific discoveries; indeed, they make an enormous contribution to them. Likewise, many believers seem to have nothing to fear from bible criticism; quite to the contrary, they were themselves the ones who initiated it and continue more than ever to pursue it. How could this be possible if science and biblical criticism so flagrantly contradicted faith, as the defenders of scientism claim? From at least the time of Pascal right up until today, sophisticated ideas have been put forward about the relationship between science and religion5. Naturally, not all believers recognize themselves in these ideas. This does not necessarily mean, however, that their experience belies these philosophical ideas about religion. Scientistic thinkers can do good scientific work even though their philosophical ideas about science may be wrong or outdated. Religion, according to Wittgenstein, is not primarily about seeking or finding the laws governing reality, nor is it even about seeking the truth about the universe or the origin of the cosmos. Religion is first of all about a certain way of life where one is prepared to confront not only ones own limitations or finitude, but also that of others, and of everything we value. This confrontation occurs by way of stories, practices and ideas which have guided other people: the sacred stories, rites, prayers, meditations that have come down to us. They reveal a certain kind of truth. Not a scientific truth, but a truth that concerns my own life: what the meaning of my existence is, how I should respond personally to happiness or misfortune, sickness and death, good and evil, etc. This confrontation requires something other than increasingly intensive scientific research; it demands certain attitudes, appropriate ways of responding in short, a proper way of living. Obviously it is not the scientists or the people with the highest IQ who are best acquainted with the good way to live a life. It is often simple people who possess the most wisdom and who have mastered the art of living. The way in which religion is related to science can be compared with the way in which happiness (or unhappiness) is related to scientific knowledge. What happiness or meaningfulness consist of cannot be discovered in textbooks or through scientific research. The answer to this question can only be found within a happy or meaningful life6. Similarly, for the religious person, the answer to the question about the ultimate meaning of life can only be found within the religious life itself. There is an Oriental proverb which says: no insight without the folding of hands. There are various ways of demonstrating how different science and religion are. I will briefly mention two such ways7. One could refer to the strikingly different way in which facts play a role in these two practices. Whenever the facts stubbornly contradict a scientific hypothesis or theory, the scientist must give up on his idea or at least thoroughly revise it so that it agrees once more with the facts. In the area of religion, it is somewhat different, even when the religion is one in which historical elements play an important role. Here, it is not known in advance which facts are the crucial ones. This means that all kinds of facts can be ignored, without this having important repercussions. Some facts those concerning the resurrection for instance are clearly not just There is sometimes a mixture of scientism and fundamentalism as seems to be the case with the Scientology movement. 4 See in particular chapters 1 and 2 of De Dijn 1994. 5 For an excellent contemporary view, see Lbbe 1986. 6 Cf. Wittgenstein 1980: 27e: The solution to a problem that you see in life is to live in such a way that makes everything problematic disappear. 7 For additional aspects of the problem, see the reference in note 4.

ordinary facts, such that the meaning given to them within the faith can differ depending on whether the believers live in a pre-modern or a modern culture, or depending on the individuals intellectual background. Even the negation of facts regarded as crucial does not per se mean the end of the religion: it is possible to see the facts as ultimately not so relevant. This is not so different from what occurs in other, non-scientific practices, for instance in the domain of the family. Biological descent plays an important role in family relations. Yet it does not automatically follow that the negation of this ancestry (for example by the discovery of genetic differences or that the babies were switched at birth) must signify the end of the relationship. Normally such a discovery will not bring about the end of a relationship, but rather a transformation of it. The reporting of facts also functions differently in science and religion. Faith can be closely connected to the testimony of other believers transmitted through time, possibly going all the way back to an eyewitness account of certain facts. However, the way in which this testimony plays a role in faith cannot be compared to the way in which facts are reported in science, nor to eyewitness accounts in legal matters. In the latter, ideals such as non-involvement, neutral accuracy and so on are central. Testimony in the area of religion should be compared rather to testimony regarding a persons character or moral qualities. Facts play an important part in these areas, but they must be interpreted in light of a sensitivity to, or an insight into the whole in which they play a role (character, morality, etc.). As Hitchcock makes clear in many of his films, the belief that someone is to be trusted refers to certain facts, but taken on their own, or considered merely objectively, these facts are never sufficient to establish trust. The very same facts that would not undermine trust for one person, might stoke the flames of distrust for someone else. The meaning of the facts within a judgement about character or morality cannot be determined apart from trust (or distrust). The same holds for the relation between facts (and an account of these facts) and faith: only for a believer are certain facts (and testimony) extraordinarily relevant; for non-believers they are mere historical facts whose confirmation or denial has no further importance. The fact that science and religion differ so strongly implies that they cannot come into direct conflict with each other. Contrary to what is so commonly thought, newly discovered, scientifically established facts or new scientific ideas cannot contradict religious ideas in the way that they can be opposed to earlier scientific ideas.

3. Religion and scientism

It is not science as such that is antagonistic to religion. In itself, science is primarily interested in scientific explanation and technological application. It is only certain philosophers who believe that the presence of science in a culture is irreconcilable with the continuing existence of religion in that culture. If they were consistent, they would also have to combat other non-scientific ideas and beliefs. The generalized attempt to eradicate not just religion but all non-scientific ideas and beliefs from everyday life and thought, and to replace them with scientifically justified ways of thinking and acting, can be called scientism. It is not only religious ideas that must disappear; other categories of the everyday lifeworld such as self, soul, idea, person, etc., are on this view equally mere fictions of the human imagination. Only brains and brain processes really exist. This materialistic view must then result in an attack on any belief in the existence of such fictions. In their actions, materialists can only be guided by what really exists, and they must constantly adjust their moral principles to new scientific ideas. This is an example of scientistic Enlightenment thinking, one that argues for the domination of all thought and action by science. Fortunately there exists another strain of Enlightenment thinking, one running from David Hume to Ludwig Wittgenstein8, that is opposed to scientism. According to

But also present, for example, in the thought of Strawson 1985.

these thinkers, human life is fundamentally determined by non-scientific fictions or categories such as the idea of the self, or the idea that other people are unique persons or selves, distinct from other sorts of beings such as animals, plants, lifeless things (distinctions that are not made scientifically). Likewise, people believe spontaneously that categories such as attractive/unattractive, beautiful/ugly, good/bad, and so on, are indispensable even though they cannot be made on scientific grounds and are not susceptible to scientific refutation. All these categories, along with the related ideas and beliefs, belong to the repertoire of images and ways of thinking that make us what we are: cultural beings. If we were to give up these ideas which is actually impossible we would no longer be able to function normally. Those who see themselves or others not as persons but as complicated machines or organisms would not be considered extremely advanced, but simply inhuman. Of course, a scientific study of human cultural behaviour is possible, for example a study of the erotic attraction between men and women. But such a study cannot lead to more scientifically justified erotic relations. The categories of man and woman, or masculinity and femininity, are not in the first place scientific categories, but categories deriving from the everyday lifeworld. Scientifically speaking, they are pure constructs of the imagination, even varying slightly according to time and place. Suppose that we would have a scientific materialistic explanation for the ideas and practices connected with eroticism. Let us say that eroticism, to make a long story short, arises in a certain sort of brain belonging to beings who live in certain sorts of social relations. Can there be any sense in thinking that we would now be better off giving up our prescientific ideas or categories? Can we simply take our belief in ourselves and others as men and women, and reformulate it in scientific terms? Do we now have to treat one another as we really are, i.e., as bodies guided by certain sorts of brains? Should we constantly adapt our erotic relations to new scientific ideas? Who would not admit that this is utter nonsense? In a certain episode from his film All you ever wanted to know about sex, Woody Allen shows with his unique brand of humour what really underlies sexual attraction: the surface phenomena, which we spontaneously describe as excitement, seduction, falling in love, etc., are really the result of the underlying activity of homunculi (in scientific terms: brain processes, hormones, genes, or combinations thereof). This view from below the surface of our conscious activity produces a momentary effect of shock, disenchantment, or laughter. But we then very quickly fall back into precisely the behaviour and interpretations that had been unmasked. Suppose now that someone, after seeing the film, thinks that we should be honest with ourselves and remain aware that other processes are at work underneath our sexual or erotic practices, and that we should adapt our practices in light of this new insight. Such a person would not have understood the film, and would not have drawn the right conclusions from it. There are limits to what can be done with scientific ideas and scientific rationality in our real, everyday lives9. Scientistic arguments in favour of a radical reform of the everyday lifeworld and its ideas and practices testify perhaps to a certain kind of consistency, but it is a consistency that comes across as unreasonable and even inhumane. What has just been said about the relationship between science and eroticism is also true mutatis mutandis of the relationship between science and religion: religion also belongs to the domain of everyday life and its surface phenomena. As we have seen, religion has everything to do with what, from a materialistic point of view, can only be fictions: the ultimate meaning of ones own life, ones self and that of other people around us. Religion has everything to do with questions that, from a materialistic point of view, are not serious questions: why do the innocent suffer, is it possible that luck and goodness are totally separate, etc. Religion does not necessarily have the perfect response to all such questions, but it can help us to live with them to some extent.

4. Science and education


Cf. Strawson 1974.

We are now better prepared to tackle our final topic. How should we understand the idea that education must rest on scientific knowledge? Would this really eradicate religion? In the first place, it is highly doubtful that the dissemination of scientific ideas is responsible for the decline of religion. Religion seems to be more alive than ever. If there is decline and this is almost exclusively in Western Europe then it seems to have much more to do with the disruption of traditions and forms of society than with the spread of science or the scientists missionary zeal. But let us return to the question of the relation between science and education. Let us take as an example the importance of science to sexual education10. If this means that, at a certain age, young people should become acquainted with some of the basic facts of life, then practically everyone nowadays will be in agreement. This is nothing other than an argument for including a number of relevant scientific concepts and insights within a broad-based education which is itself the primary aim. The contribution of science is then necessarily limited, selective and, from a strictly scientific viewpoint, inevitably rather rudimentary. What it is necessary to know within the sexual education of young people in todays society is not determined by science alone, but by a communitys sexual morals, in confrontation with all sorts of problems that are only related in part to scientific concepts and techniques. To assume otherwise would mean that sexual education is to be dominated excessively by scientific learning, and that it should in fact be understood as a sort of scientific education in itself. It is possible, however, to make a case for a scientistic ideal: science must teach us to take a different view of sexuality and to make this practice more rational. If this is what is meant by an education based on scientific concepts, then one can hardly be in agreement with it. As Einstein and many others have said, science teaches us what is, not what ought to be; it teaches us how things fit together, not what objectives we should be aiming at. Neither biology nor even sociobiology can tell us how we should experience sexuality in a human way, nor how young people might be educated into such a human way of interacting. Neither biology nor sociobiology can show us the limits of what is ethically permitted or prohibited (pedophilia for example). Whoever thinks that morality, including sexual morality, can be derived from science thinks like the religious fundamentalist who derives morality from the way in which God has conceived and created human nature. The idea that science can lead to a more rational attitude regarding sexuality and sexual education (which is a part of moral education) is in fact a dangerous idea. It comes down to this: that one is prepared to put deep human relations at stake for the sake of provisional ideas. By their very nature, scientific ideas are hypothetical, criticizable and always open to improvement. Yet scientistic thinkers are still prepared to employ these ideas in eradicating or at least radically reforming the fictions of everyday life and the practices related to them. History shows us what sort of misery scientistic utopias can inflict on the delicate fabric of relations between men and women, parents and children, etc11. The mentality of scientism is actually not so different from the mentality present in sects. In the deep-rooted belief that one is in possession of divine knowledge, one is willing and able to consider all normal human relations to be insignificant or all too imperfect. A totalitarian attitude can be cultivated on a fundamentalist as well as on a scientistic basis. Hard-line orthodoxy can be found in all categories of people, from religious believers to unbelievers. According to the scientistic point of view, authenticity can only exist in the life of a scientist who is always open to self-correction. Yet even the slightest familiarity with scientific circles is sufficient to cause serious doubt that scientists are any more authentic human beings than non-scientists. On the contrary, there are probably few people who
10 11

The example is taken from Mahner & Bunge (see note 1). On totalitarianism as closely related to modern science, see Arendt 1962 and Bauman 1989.

are so vulnerable to vanity. In everyday life, one can hardly say that scientists are made better or more cultivated by virtue of their scientific work. In any case, self-knowledge and the ability to make a balanced judgement are certainly not the exclusive prerogative of scientists, let alone philosophers of science. The way in which scientistically minded thinkers react to such a thoroughly human phenomenon as religion i.e., with crude generalizations and factual inaccuracies does not evidence a balanced, unprejudiced approach. To simply equate prayer with a most unsuitable means of changing the world is incredibly one-sided, and testifies either to brute ignorance or to simple tendentiousness. Similarly, to claim that a humanistic morality can only emerge under the impulse of Enlightenment philosophers, while such a morality is historically unthinkable without the development of Christianity, is also testimony to the one-sided approach that contrasts sharply with the virtues being preached. In fact, one reads in history what one wants to read: precisely what the believer is accused of doing in his reading of the Bible.

5. Conclusion

It is true that religion has been the cause of all manner of horrors in the course of human history: nothing human is foreign to religion. But one could just as easily say the same about science. Is it merely a coincidence that so many of our contemporaries regard science (and technology) with suspicion? One could object, of course, that this is not the fault of science itself, but of the people who practice science and abuse it. Why could the same not be said about religion in its pure form? It seems that human practices never yield only positive results, but is that any reason to give them up altogether? Do we really have any choice in the matter? The family is a human institution that sometimes brings about horrible things. Should we then go and abolish the family and replace it with state upbringing under the guidance of scientifically trained pedagogues (like in Brave New World)? At its best, religion can help people come to terms with the uncontrollability in life, which does not imply that the religious person should not oppose injustice or injury, with the risk that this, in turn, will produce unwanted side-effects. In general, one could follow the philosopher H. Lbbe and say that religion can help people to respond in a more or less appropriate way to the vicissitudes of life, both the fortunate and the unfortunate: with thankfulness to whom it may concern12 for what happiness we may find, rather than in the anthropocentric illusion that we have only ourselves to thank, and seeking consolation in ritual and prayer when disaster or evil befalls us despite all our efforts and precautions. Such thankfulness, strength and consolation are not connected to quasi- or pseudo-scientific ideas that would be inaccessible to the uninitiated. Rather, they are attitudes and relations also regarding reality as a whole which are connected primarily with religious practices, with a religious way of living. An undifferentiated aversion to religion in general, if it has any effect at all, will primarily lead to the further decline of the institutionalized religions. This would occur at a time when these religions, certainly in the West, are clearly contributing to the cohesion of society and to public morality13 without wanting to usurp the place of politics. The result of a further decline of institutionalized religions can only be that other forms of religiosity, of a more sectarian nature, will begin to spread. They will be sects that attract the most vulnerable people and demand total commitment, thus taking advantage of the situation. The struggle in the 21st century will not be between science and religion: that is already long outdated. Rather, it will be a struggle between, on the one hand, inhumane outgrowths of both science and religion (scientism and fundamentalism) and, on the other hand, those groups or individuals who will resist these outgrowths, whether
12 13

Nabokov 1982: 110. A recent study has shown that adherence to the Catholic religion in Flanders formed an obstacle to increasing the number of votes for extreme right-wing parties. Cf. De Witte et. al. 1996.

from a religious or a non-religious background. The policy being proposed by certain scientistic thinkers, prohibiting religious education of whatever sort, is intolerant and inhumane, and it borders on the sort of fanaticism that they claim to oppose14.


Arendt, Hannah 1962 The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: Allen and Unwin.

Bauman, Zygmunt 1989 Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity Press.

De Dijn, Herman 1994 Kan kennis troosten? Over de kloof tussen weten en leven, Kapellen-Kampen: Pelckmans-Kok Agora.

De Witte, Hans et. al. (eds.) 1995 Hoe racisme en rechts-extremisme bestrijden? Leuven-Brussel: Hiva-K.U.Leuven & Centrum voor Sociologie-V.U.B.

Gosseling, Mia 1996 Wetenschap en geloof. Eeuwig onverzoenlijk, Antwerpen-Boom: Hadewijch.

Lbbe, Hermann 1986 Religion nach der Aufklrung, Graz-Wien-Kln: Styria.

Mahner, M. & Bunge, M. 1997 Is Religious Education Compatible with Science Education?, in: Science and Education 5: 101-123.

Nabokov, Vladimir 1982 Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (reprint).

Strawson, Peter

This article has been translated by Dale Kidd from a slightly different version in Dutch, published in: Mores. Pedagogisch tijdschrift voor morele problemen 42 (1997), p. 391-399.

1974 Freedom and Resentment, in: Strawson, Freedom and Resentment and other Essays, London: Methuen, 1-25. 1985 Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, New York: Columbia University Press.

Swinburne, Richard 1993 The Coherence of Theism, Oxford: Clarendon Press (revised edition).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1980 Culture and Value (ed. by G.H.von Wright in collaboration with Heiki Nyman; trans. by Peter Winch), Oxford: Blackwell.

Wolterstorff, N. 1983 Reason within the Bounds of Religion, Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.

Biographical information Herman De Dijn ( 1943) is professor of Modern Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Louvain. He is also a member of the Belgian Academy of Arts and Sciences. His international publications are mainly about Spinoza (e.g., Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom, West Lafayette IN: Purdue University Press, 1996). His publications in Dutch are mainly about the philosophy of culture (e.g., Hoe overleven we de vrijheid? Kampen-Kapellen: Kok Agora-Pelckmans, 1997, third edition).