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Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World
Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World
Eric Dietrich
Columbia University Press, 2015
208 pp., $30.00

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Doug Sikkema


The New Scientism

Still fighting the phantom war.

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That the "ontological claims" of religion—not to mention the claims of art, music, or even love—might be unquantifiable by even the most robust of scientific methods never unsettles Dietrich; after all, he's pre-emptively declared "science" victorious at the outset.

For Dietrich, all religions depend on a belief in the transcendent: "No religion on planet Earth, not one, embraces physicalism [or strict materialism]. This is just one of many places where science and religion clash." Religion refuses to embrace the notion that the material world is all that there is and so depends upon a willed ignorance of the facts.

Moreover, "the most important fact is that there is not one single indisputable bit of evidence in support of any spiritual or religious belief whatsoever." I won't speak to other religions, but as a Christian, to make such a statement is, for one thing, to deny the numerous sources that affirm the historicity—the fact—of Christ's life, death, and his appearance to many after his death. You'd also have to deny myriads of first-hand testimonies from those who have experienced miracles, epiphanies, and haunting moments that border on the mystical.

Yet Dietrich insists that the supernatural longings of religion are really quite flatly natural. Why? Because he says so: "Humans are religious because our ancestors who were religious reproduced more successfully than our ancestors who weren't. This is the only explanation that works and is satisfying." But that's not really satisfying, is it? How does a religion, at least the one I know best, gain success at reproducing when it champions humility, weakness, and makes a high virtue of laying down life for another? Is all this talk of self-sacrifice, honesty, peace, long-suffering an attempt to "work with the grain" of the created order, or is it a covert attempt to get laid? Dietrich opts for the latter.

And he does so because he is an evolutionist ad absurdum:

Our deepest convictions that the universe is more than it appears, that it brims with the supernatural and mystical, that it is ruled by a transcendent being beyond the laws of physics and indeed beyond the laws of all science… these very convictions are themselves completely natural, completely determined by the laws of nature—evolution to be precise. We see walking trees because we are an African ape that evolved—specifically we evolved big brains.

That God is not the source but merely the product of our "Big Brains" begs the difficult question as to which mythos is easier to swallow. Just who made whom in whose image?

Although he relies so heavily on the history of evolutionary change to make sense of how we got to wherever it is we are, Dietrich exhibits almost no knowledge of or interest in the past. For Dietrich, what is is all that matters, and what was only matters in that it led to what is. This ahistorical bent helps explain how Dietrich can make such pronouncements as: "We had to figure out that racism was wrong; we had to figure out that sexism was wrong. No deity told us. And then we had to figure out how to try to hold racism and sexism at bay." But contrary to this perversion of evolutionary logic, there is nothing so inevitable or deterministic in the world of human relations. Just because something is never means it had to be. So the "we" who "figured out" this moral code is important, and what they based it on is even more important. Again, some particulars would help, but Dietrich gives none.

Yet for all the critiques Dietrich levels at "religion"—the cruel gods who bring sickness and war, seem indifferent to rape and murder, and capriciously punish a generally "good" humanity—he makes a rather unpredictable turn near the end of the book: "We cannot rid ourselves of religion: it is in our genes, our human blueprint. But perhaps we can direct some of our religious attitudes and sentiments toward something real, something that might produce a kind of transcendence that is free and available to all: the mysteries." These mysteries are our consciousness, infinity, and the uniqueness of the particular. Each of these is a natural phenomenon that cannot, in Dietrich's estimation, ever be grasped by the human intellect. This should move us to wonder and worship. This new science is a lot like a new religion.

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