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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., 32.00

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Doug Sikkema

The New Scientism

Still fighting the phantom war.

It's a curious irony that the champions of scientism are some of the most vocal advocates of change and progress yet they so rarely change or progress. They've said almost nothing new in over a century. Reading Eric Dietrich's Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd read this before. I'm not sure if it was Dennett or Dawkins, Huxley or H. G. Wells, or some concoction of all of them, but reading Dietrich's latest gave me a strong dose of déjà vu.

In itself, this is not a reason to fault Dietrich. Such consistency might even, more charitably, be construed as a virtue. He is working from a particular tradition. The problem, as has been noted by members inside and outside the scientific community, is that this particular tradition is intellectually flabby, historically oblivious, and grossly reductionist. And Dietrich does almost—almost—nothing to buck these trends.

Like most of his predecessors, particularly the new atheists to whom he's largely indebted (just read the footnotes!), Dietrich makes much of the "war" that supposedly exists between science and religion. But rather than work out an argument that might lead him to victory, Dietrich takes a clever shortcut: simply declaring it on the first page. The preface notes:

This book is about the war between science and religion: about how science has won this war so thoroughly that it can explain why religion will not go away, why there are people who choose God over science.

If this sounds absurd, that's because it is. Really, a "religious" person could make the same case on the same grounds simply by inverting the key terms. But again, Dietrich's logical gymnastics are not the biggest problem with the "war-between-science-and-religion" mantra of late modernity to which he is so intent on marching. The real problem is that there is no war because there are no real warriors.

The much touted sides, "religion" and "science," are, to borrow a phrase from T. S. Eliot, phantoms in a phantom war. And sure, phantoms can induce real panic and fear—and they have on either "side"—but they signify no thing particular enough with which to do something constructive, or destructive for that matter. They are crude instruments fit only for crude work.

It's likely we all know people who rely on such broad terms. People who like or detest "food" or "music" or "art." But unless they're very small children or imbeciles, we don't take such statements too seriously without probing for particulars: Are we talking about ratatouille or raisin bread; KISS or Kendrick Lamar; Renoir, Rodin, or Rockwell? More to the point: Are we talking about evolution, or mapping the human genome, or in vitro fertilization, or dark matter? And are we talking with a Scientologist, a Wiccan, a Jesuit, or an Orthodox Jew? Such distinctions elude Dietrich, and the fact that fairly reputable academic publishers persist in allowing critical work that requires surgical precision to be done with such lexical wrecking balls as "science" and "religion" continues to baffle a century on.

But let's take Dietrich at his words, however vague, just for now. If you unravel the argumentative thread of Excellent Beauty, it reads as follows: A) All religions require belief in some transcendent reality; B) Since science can't prove the existence of a "transcendent reality" this is really no reality; C) Therefore, the religious should embrace a strict materialism, the reality that science reveals there to be; D) However, since the material world still contains some inexplicable mysteries—the "excellent beauties"—we must acknowledge that even science has limits; E) Accepting these limits and unknowns will temper both science and religion, ushering in a utopian new science (religion?) that will give all the wonder and worship and community of traditional religion without all the nasty genocide and bigotry and hubris.

For Dietrich, such a move is a win-win: we can throw out the dirty bathwater of religion without losing the spotless baby of our scientifically inquiring humanity.

But the second link in Dietrich's chain of reasoning—the one on which his whole argument hangs—is the weakest. Why should any religion believe that the light of scientific inquiry is penetrating enough, or of the right order and kind, to properly explain the mysterious beliefs of the world's various religions? This is a question Dietrich never asks and so never has to answer. Rather, he wonders: "If we're so confident in religion, why don't we have our most robust scientific methods confirm its ontological claims?"

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.

In Charles Taylor's account of our secular age, the disenchanted world is one that is locked within an immanent frame, the realm of strict materialism that Dietrich champions. Yet what marks the secular age in Taylor's accounting is a vague yet insistent longing for something more, something transcendent that the immanent frame can't fully provide. And no matter how hard people within it search for something that might help make sense of the frontiers beyond the senses and beyond death, the strictly natural world seems to communicate a resounding indifference.

The gospel Dietrich brings is that the real mysteries exist within the immanent frame. They are the most viable replacements for the transcendent because, unlike the gods (God) of other religions, "These mysteries are real … and they are trying to tell us something." But just as Dietrich's language of a "human blueprint" seems to pull the rug out from beneath him, so does this language of a universe that communicates to us. How is he suddenly entitled to smuggle in notions of design and communication in the natural world?

One can't help but imagine that Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Descartes, Pascal, Rowan Williams, and a host of orthodox Christians would pronounce a collective "amen" at Dietrich's assertion that the mysteries of the natural world all "point" to (at a minimum) some supernatural "something" responsible for it all, even as they noted that he was thereby contradicting his own premises. As if he were half-aware of the contradiction, Dietrich adds that these "mysteries" reveal something rather chilling: "The excellent beauties challenge the idea that the universe in which we live is a place for humans"—that is, a place designed for us. And while it seems that perhaps Dietrich's "new" science is opening up pathways to a much older "religion" or, as he frames it, a less divisive and violent religion, there is almost nothing in his account of these natural mysteries that will form us into better people, provide a grounding of morality, give us hope in a broken world, and turn us away from the nihilistic reality a strict physicalism entails. If the final knowledge these mysteries usher us into is a reminder that this earth is not our home, we no longer have a religion we would die for; we don't even have one we could live for.

Doug Sikkema is a senior researcher for Cardus and managing editor of Comment magazine. This review appeared in a slightly different from in Convivium.

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