This post is written largely as a reflection on our times. Yesterday I had the honour of addressing the European Society for the Philosophy of Religion in a plenary session. I was glad to learn that one can believe in God without believing in religion — which is basically my own position. I gained a renewed respect for theologians who are very alive to theirs being quite literally a ‘science of God’ and not simply a science of religious experience, whatever the source.
I am a self-declared ‘secular humanist’. I am also a ‘theist’ in the sense that I believe that God is an entity worthy of sustained inquiry, whose existence would effectively rationalize how humans have conducted themselves over the past couple of millennia, if not more. Here I am alluding to the Abrahamic belief that humans are created in the image and likeness of God, which has led to ideas that we might get into the mind of God (a la physics) or even play God (a la biology). But this general line of thought has nothing to do with ‘religion’ in the conventional institutionalised sense. In this respect, my belief in God should be treated as a theoretical commitment, or ‘hypothesis’, subject to scientific investigation. For this reason, I believe that theology should be counted as a ‘science’ in the proper sense, Wissenschaft.
My empirically considered view – of course, subject to revision – is that we act as if we are on the road to merging with, if not outright becoming, just such a deity. Although it is still fashionable to follow Voltaire’s derisory portrayal of theodicy (i.e. the justification of divine agency in human terms) in Candide, as a matter of fact our species has followed the advice of Dr Pangloss and treated even the worst of human atrocities – say, the Nazi genocide of Jews – as learning experiences from which we come out stronger. After all, research into genetics could have been stopped altogether, if our overriding concern were to prevent any version of racism from arising in the future. But in fact such a precautionary policy was not adopted. Instead particular individuals were punished for documented atrocities – but the science was left unscathed.
The history of genetics research in the second half of the 20th century and beyond has vindicated such a restrained approach toward dealing with mass human error on the scale perpetrated by the Nazis. But wherein does this wisdom lie? The answer is complicated. After all, the constraints imposed by what academics routinely experience as ‘institutional review boards’ were products of the ‘never again’ mentality generated in the wake of the discovery of the atrocities that the Nazis committed in the name of medical research. To be sure, they have hobbled the progress of science in ways that astute commentators have already noticed. Nevertheless, these constraints have functioned more as an irritation than a discouragement. We are still on the road to divinity — and movements like ‘transhumanism’ represent very adventurous, and perhaps even adolescent, steps in that direction.
Given all of the above, there is no natural place for either atheism or religion in my sense of ‘secular humanism’. Atheism doesn’t make sense because the chequered history of humanity reveals us to be a being who is primarily focussed not in the here and now but in some much greater expanse of space and time, on behalf of which we have been willing to undergo considerable risks and sacrifices along the way. More importantly, the strategy seems to have worked. But at the same time, the strategy leaves no obvious place for ‘religion’, understood as a specific set of dogmas and rituals. The sense of ‘faith’ that is relevant to secular humanism is that, whatever we do, we remain in contact with the source of all being. But the bottom line is that what goes on in a lab is more likely to provide a secure route to this ontological connectedness than what goes on in a church.