On the Persistence of Religion

Bible truck, Salvation Mountain, southern California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all

–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus

Recently I received an angry note about the persistence of religion in the modern world as proof of the world’s ongoing irrationality in response to some of my comments in my lately published article “The Metaphysics of Revolution”.

I found the response interesting on many levels.

Firstly, the level of anger.

The emotional quality of some atheists’ responses to religion remind me of the worst characteristics of religious fanatics: intolerance, hatred, invective, and a blind desire for collective uniformity.

Why all the rancor if reason is on your side?

Calmly make your argument (as many indeed do such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) and let that be your most potent, deliberative weapon.

After all, I thought emotional appeals are for religious people?

Clearly, for some, personal history and psychological trauma have a defining role to play in their world-view regarding religion (and other matters as well).

Full disclosure, here. I do not consider myself a religious person, but am sympathetic to those who profess religious inclinations so long as they do not impinge on other people’s freedoms and beliefs. You can believe in whom you want to but don’t tell me to whom I should bow down to.

With that said, I think the persistence of religion is, contrary to its vociferous detractors, at its a base a mildly rational one. What do I mean by that?

Well, it might all boil down to a frequent childhood question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Modern physicists will tell you that it has something to do with a “negative quantum vacuum” and “an infinity of parallel multiple universes”. Ok, sounds cool. But at the same time, if true, it is a concept that can only be fully grasped by a handful of people on the planet. Which curious fact sets them up as a kind of a new class of priests interestingly enough. They possess the ultimate truths which they proclaim in relatively easy to understand images for the general public. At the very least, this goes against the trend of the democratization of religion in the Western tradition (at least since the advent of Protestantism)

So we have a new naturalistic priesthood who can offer us scientific explanations that do not require any type of metaphysics. Fine and good. Yet, however, the very nature of science is expansive and ever changing, so what is believed today might very well not be believed tomorrow. Furthermore, what we believe in science can only be as good as what we can in some way perceive and test and convincingly confirm. Is it not therefore conceivable, scientifically, that a myriad of unknown unknowns have existed during the vast time since the supposed big bang? Unknowns that, if known, would lead to vastly different ultimate explanations than the ones we entertain currently? The recent discovery of “dark matter” and “dark energy” might be a relevant case in point. Furthermore, since we cannot go back 12 billion years to the beginning of time and space can we ever really be sure that the events which our current models describe took place as we think they did. We will, probably, never be able to perform that experiment (My apologies to CERN).

Thus, there are many naturalistic reasons that may give us pause as to the ultimate knowability of all that is. Science can and will explain many things, but in the end and by scientific necessity will all its theorizing about ultimate origins only serve as a possible, and forever necessarily partial explanation for all that is? And I can hear a true scientist say to that: It’s as good as you’ll ever get, live with it!

The problem is, of course, that the human being (for good and for evil) is endowed with a fertile imagination and (if he or she is lucky) a rich emotive life. The universe and ourselves seem to cast for many a mystical aura. This, of course, can be explained away by evolutionary psychology. But the logical reasoning behind it cannot be dismissed so easily. For as was just argued, science may forever be doomed to offer only theoretical explanations for fundamental questions. In other words, the child’s question of why there is something rather than nothing may forever be out of definitive, scientific reach. This scientific predicament leaves the door open to dreaming. Human dreaming about divinity, epiphany, and mystical teleology of all kinds. Yes this is certainly unscientific, but it fulfills a human need to answer childlike questions. And while we could soberly and severely say with Wittgenstein that: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent; such a resolution to the problem will not do for the vast majority of mankind. Man abhors silence. He will hear the universe speak, even if the output is insoluble riddles.

And perhaps most importantly, science cannot offer us values, reasons to live. Only religion and philosophy can do that. And yes science can help to enlighten both but it can never make of its facts and experiments a universe of value, beauty, and love; indeed by its very nature and practice it is not allowed to speak the words “good” and “evil”. It is thus both the morally creative faculty of humankind tied to its aptitude for wondrous imagination that I think will guarantee the survival of religion, or at least the religious instinct, for sometime to come.


Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany.