11.6 Science, Technology, and Religion in the Twentieth Century

The hold on all aspects of Western society of the nineteenth century secularist thinking models (humanism, rationalism, empiricism, materialism, progress, and evolution) continued to grow in the twentieth as the influence of religion declined. For instance, the doctrine of the separation of church and state began in the United States as a way to protect churches from state interference and to prevent the establishment of state religion. In this century, this doctrine has also been used to eliminate from public life and action all mention of Christian ideas. A case in point was a lower court decision in 2002 declaring that the words "under God" in the American pledge of allegiance were unconstitutional. Although Europeans could not point to any law enshrining this doctrine (most have state churches) the same situation existed there as much as fifty years earlier.

A similar self-censorship, was nearly complete in academic publications early in the century. By the 1980s, it had been successfully extended to politics, public bodies, music and art, public prayer, books, the media, entertainment, and schools. One could grow up in both Europe and North America without ever hearing or seeing religious themes or ideas or having them positively referred to by any figure in authority. It became possible to read newspapers and magazines and watch television entertainment without seeing much mention of religion or religious ideas, except in paid-for programs, promotions, and advertisements, or as negative stereotypes in programming. Likewise, popular fiction seldom mentioned religion except negatively. Religious ideas had largely been relegated to their own publications, radio and television stations, and book publishers. They were not to be seen in public, unless there was a scandal of some kind, and then they were very public indeed.

The assumption of both the media and of intellectuals in general was that religion had been relegated to the scrap heap of superstition and had no more relevance for the present or the future. Television, movies, and school textbooks came to be so thoroughly sanitized of religion that no one from outside Western culture would ever guess from them that even a tiny percentage of their audience even believed in God, much less was devoted to Him. Many publications would no longer accept paid advertising from religious groups, even on social or political issues. Voluntary school prayer groups were forbidden, and religion was virtually banned from public life, the courts being enlisted to enforce these prohibitions and enshrine them into law.

Meanwhile, churches and their people had refined and redefined the ways in which their doctrines related to the physical world, in order to remain rational and consistent. In general, this involved a pulling back from the older practice of incorporating views of the physical world into doctrine, except to assert that God was the ultimate source of all creation. The realm of Western religion came to be morals and relationships alone, and the assertion by academics of the moral neutrality of technique was accepted and used to justify the noninvolvement, especially by conservative Christians, in science or technology. However, since technique was the chief concern of life in the industrial age, this withdrawal increasingly implied that religion had less and less to do with the everyday activities of ordinary citizens. Even for those who wanted to go beyond nominalism, there came to be little of relevance to be found in the churches, and it became easier to compartmentalize life into the sacred on one day of the week and the secular for the rest of it, or to ignore religion altogether.

The tendencies of late machine-age people to be very narrow specialists and to pick and choose only fragments of the culture outside their specialities were also applied to religion. So was the tendency to view ideas as commodities. The result was an increasing fragmentation of religion itself, as people become shoppers in the delicatessen of religious ideas. Thus, people might regard themselves as associated with a church, but would select what doctrines they wanted and rejected the rest. For instance, many Catholics will accept church teachings on some theological and moral issues, but will reject that authority on an issue like birth control. Likewise, many Protestants will say they believe in the Bible's guidance but will actually follow the daily horoscope (Babylonian religion forbidden in the Old Testament).

The same trend can also be seen in the tendency to form religious organizations independent of any church body, as well as in the rise of theologies, such as the modern charismatic movement, that have themselves become fragments of the menu selected by members of many traditional churches. The result is that people attend the church of their choice a few times a year (Easter, Christmas) and to buy its commercial services for rites of passage such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Otherwise, what was a day of worship is incorporated into the rest of the week, and make shopping, lawn mowing and golf into more relevant Sunday activities than church attendance. Alternatively, they require their churches to diversify and to offer a larger menu of theological choices so that they can remain within them, even if they do not agree with their church's traditional beliefs. Yet another approach is to incorporate diverse ideas and activities into Church itself, transforming worship either into entertainment or a series of self-improvement seminars. One effect of these trends has been to produce mega-churches that can entertain masses of impersonal and uncommitted attendees.

Even the use of technology and techniques by the churches of North America has contributed to its separation from life, rather than promoting bonds, for such use has tended to make them over in the image of the world their original doctrines purported to be trying to change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the plight of some television evangelists who rose to media stardom on a wave of adulation through the early 1980s and suffered such scandalous falls afterward. Most began as apparently legitimate and sincere preachers of a message, but the very nature of the media they used replaced that message by the same kind of personality cult it tends to generate for all its stars. The magnitude of their success destroyed the authenticity of their message by building in them the first of the seven deadly sins, pride--and the least Christian of all loves--that of money.

For others, the shift in message was of a different type--first accommodating within their gospel the success philosophy, which is a different kind of materialism, and then allowing that in turn to replace the Christian message altogether. These writers and television personalities encourage their audience to make material prosperity their principal goal and deliver this message with a Christian-like vocabulary, declaring that God owes His followers health, wealth, success, and prompt delivery upon demand. Of course, such a god is neither transcendent nor master of anything, but the creation and servant of those making the demands--an appropriate deity for the self-centred.

Thus, some segments of Western Christianity distanced their religion from life to the point of meaninglessness, while others became assimilated to a materialistic culture to the point of indistinguishability. Both of these trends may have buried the historic Christian message and made it irrelevant to modern society. By the late 1960s, popular philosophers, some purporting still to be Christians, could well proclaim that "God is dead." It is interesting to observe in this connection that in both compartmentalization and assimilation there was a search for sophistication or "relevance," in a trendy sense of the latter word. Both were historically regarded as heretical, but now together represented the mainstream of Western Christendom. In particular, the philosophy that equated success with a blessing bestowed by God on the deserving righteous and material failure with His judgement on the unrighteous was entirely at variance with both modern and historical interests of the majority--the poor and oppressed. These had always flocked to Christianity, not to find a way out of their problems and into material prosperity, but to find a way to transcend and to live through them. This "gospel of sophistication" was the same one that Western Christians scorned as "worldliness" a few generations before, and the change demonstrates the redefinition of religion in the 1980s better than anything else could.

The process of mutual withdrawal by science and religion into non-overlapping spheres or magesteria is known as secularization. Among social scientists it became an axiom that in any scientific and technical society, secularization would inevitably proceed to the point of extinguishing all remaining traces of religious expression. Christianity was held to be particularly vulnerable because its very rationality accelerated the process. Up to a point, this assumption appeared to be correct, for as long as the machine age's materialism persisted, religion fought a rear guard action, nominalism increased, and churches continued to become either refugees from culture or assimilated by it. Churches that accepted secularization gradually became unable to refute anything science affirmed, and afraid to affirm anything scientists denied or doubted. The more doctrinally conservative groups retreated almost entirely from the intellectual world between 1850 and 1950, abandoning both education and technique and abdicating a role in or responsibility for defending their faith in the open marketplace of ideas. There, an optimistic and confident science reigned supreme and unchallenged in the Western world for decades, reaching its peak in the 1950s. However, the spiritual leadership provided by nineteenth century scientific paradigms eventually faltered somewhat, for several reasons.

First, the optimism of humanism was shaken by two world wars, a devastating arms race, and numerous famines and other local political crises that demonstrated the practical failure of the idea humans could be autonomous from any external and absolute moral standards. It began to appear that autonomy was a myth, for it led not to freedom but to either anarchy or the arbitrariness of totalitarianism. Too many such tyrants had become mass murderers. The very emphasis on the individual that had fragmented religion led people to question the validity of the notion of collective and statistical man--summarized, probed, and laid out rationally with all the parts on the table and open to view. The old ideas that mind might be more than the brain began to gnaw away at humanist assumptions, and the failure of paradise to arrive on schedule to suggest that perhaps it ought after all to be looked for outside humanity or even outside the physical world.

Second, these same failures also led to a re-examination of rationalism and empiricism as intellectual absolutes. A variety of people came to wonder whether the scientific technique really did not have all the answers, to question its ability to find them all, and to suspect that its practitioners might not even know what the most important questions were. A certain amount of technological cynicism developed among ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, Gφdel's work on logical systems, Einstein's on relativity, Heisenberg's on the uncertainty principle, and indeed the whole unsettling field of quantum mechanics had seriously eroded late nineteenth-century scientific community confidence in the absolute authority and completeness of their own work. There was a growing realization (in physics at least) that the best understandings of the universe were indeed models or abstractions, and that ultimate reality was far more elusive than had once been thought.

Third, materialism too came to be questioned, as more people began to react to the impersonality of the machine age and to the dehumanization of the individual. Through the 1960s and 1970s, there came to be a much greater emphasis on the individual and on the rights of minorities. This emphasis was reflected in a shift in government spending priorities from the military and technological into social programs. Perhaps the benevolent state could bring salvation even if people could not save themselves by their own efforts. Meanwhile, the idea of the melting pot for American culture--assimilation to the traditional majority--was abandoned, and the best society came to be seen as multicultural. The structure of big business also began to change. Large firms tried to become (or be seen as) social leaders and relate to people as well as to products, and many new companies were set up as unstructured entrepreneurships.

The 1980s saw the emergence of a new materialism, based on economic pragmatism. Everyone was seen as a potential entrepreneur out to become better off, either economically or spiritually. Personal satisfaction and individual self-realization to the maximum of human potential became important and a vague supernaturalism was attached to these new materialisms that partially contradicted the old materialism. The spiritual and transcendental came back into vogue, with many new religions being founded, and both Christianity and Islam began a new period of rapid missionary-style expansion, particularly in emerging industrial nations. In North America, however, new age mysticism rose to challenge and compete with the rational faiths of both Christianity and scientism. It filled a void; it was new; and it was vague enough to require no commitment or make any demands on its followers' life-style--one could design one's own religion, and even be one's own god.

Fourth, the notion of inevitable progress was also set back badly by the political, military and economic "accidents" of the twentieth century--so much so that even the greatly accelerated pace of the scientific revolution after 1945 could not convince people to trust progress as they previously had. Some of them were now prepared to march against it or even lay down in front of the bulldozers and stop it. Opposition to nuclear technology, for example, eventually became sufficiently widespread at the grass-roots level to force both governments and corporations to cut back or cancel many programs in this area. Environmental groups also became influential in the battle against the inevitability of progress, and their cause had by the 1980s become not only respectable, but positively chic. Many of the same people became protesters against globalization by the turn of the millennium, apparently fearing that individual freedoms would disappear into the maw of international corporate greed. The political and philosophical ecology had changed; evolutionary-style progress was no longer a god, nor even inevitable; it was perhaps incorrect.

There can be little doubt that the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents set back progress in nuclear power technology by years, if not permanently. Even though nuclear fusion (an entirely different technology) might have been safer and cheaper than other energy forms, such plants may never become a commercial reality because of political and emotional considerations. This nucleophobia leads to extraordinary extremes--Western nations may spend millions of times as much per life saved in nuclear safety as they do in their relief to the Third World or on disease control and prevention, for example. But, famine, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood, fire, and the like can all be attributed to the acts of the impersonal nature-god. When people die because of technology, the wounds appear self-inflicted; they are acts of a god created by man, and are intolerable where the others are not. Paradoxically, the family automobile is perceived as a god of a lower order of technology, more familiar, less powerful, and less emotionally threatening than nuclear energy, even though it destroys legions of lives each year. In addition, acid rain attributed to industrial pollution is slowly poisoning lakes and rivers, killing trees, and dissolving the clay feet of the god of progress. Its fall is not one easily acknowledged; this shrine may be badly eroded, but it still receives much homage.

Fifth, the only recently elevated god of the secular and benevolent state that could itself bring about a socialist utopia on Earth also became discredited. Not only did the Soviet Union and its client states all fall utterly, but there came to be an increasing sense in the West that there were limits to the extent of control that the state should have over individuals' lives, and limits to the percentage of income that could be extracted to ensure a social safety net. Confidence in government, only recently risen to unprecedented heights, fell to corresponding lows, and the new millennium's beginning finds the average citizen of most Western countries indifferent to, cynical about, or hostile to the state, and distrustful of its leaders.

That is, the political version of evolutionary natural selection has collapsed, because "survival of the fittest" has come to be seen as a dangerous social doctrine, and because historical evidence is against it. Neither the Nazi superman, the Marxist strongman, or the liberal humanist man has proven to be better, much less to be the end of history, as their proponents supposed. Note that there was never a logical connection between biological natural selection and survival of the fittest in the social and political sense when these ideas were on the ascendancy, and there is still no connection when one of them becomes discredited. However, the connection, once made in some minds, is hard to disown.

Sixth, as seen in the last section, evolution itself came under renewed attack from a completely unexpected quarter--scientists who were also conservative Christians. Rather than accommodate two world views by compartmentalizing life, or by mythologizing or re-interpreting the Bible, they chose to believe it and attack the conclusions of scientists, attempting to use science to do so.

There is a tendency among intellectuals to write off this renewed challenge to the accepted doctrine as irrelevant, incompetent, and insignificant. It is none of these, for it strikes at the very heart of the central issue--not creation versus evolution, but rather what ought to be the proper sphere of influence of science and religion. Can scientists really insist the evolution of the universe, of life, and of humankind, as they model them, constitute the ultimate historical reality? The new breed of creationists say they cannot, and so offer creation as an alternate model, with or without the Biblical account, and with or without physical evidence. Both this new challenge, and the necessity to make periodic changes to evolutionary models despite having previously taught them as ultimate fact causes a credibility problem, one that will be compounded when the big bang model for the origin of matter is eventually dramatically revised or discarded.

For these reasons, it is gradually becoming more obvious that progress and evolution are both abstractions or models and not ultimate reality. That is, scientism is losing the emotional and religious-like following it has had at both points. Thus, if the rationalism of the Christian faith was eventually to contribute to its secularization, the same can be said to some extent for the rationalism of scientism. Science and technique are useful for developing the means of describing and using resources implicit in the physical world, but the descriptions and techniques so generated are neither final answers nor ultimate reality, and may therefore be legitimately competed with on those grounds.

The absolutism of recent scientism could in the end be as troubling to itself as was the absolutism of the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century. If it cannot learn to question its own most basic philosophic foundations by applying its methodology as a meta-technique to itself, it could find itself swept aside and replaced by new gods. This outcome is not one that humanity can afford, for whatever its failings, science cannot be dispensed with altogether, or lived without for very long, and neither materialists nor Christians would be very comfortable in an anti-rational world.

At the same time that doctrines of scientism have come under challenged, the information age has begun, and its models are replacing those of the machine age. Although there are new machines, new techniques, and new kinds of progress at the heart of this change, the magnitude of the break with the past ensures that peoples' basic assumptions and beliefs will be up for grabs for some time. Just as politics, economics, corporations, and society are being redefined from the collection of fragments they have become, so are beliefs, world views, epistemological systems, and religions. As the scientific and industrial revolutions progressed, Christianity seemed to lose its vigour and go into decline. Likewise, as the new civilization dawns and the basic cultural premises settle into new patterns, the religious aspects of those cultures will also undergo transformation. What will the gods of the information age be? Computers themselves? The Metalibrary? The dominant monopoly providing software and hardware?

Religious change has already begun. Some churches with roots in pre-industrial revolution days have retreated into a genteel intellectualism, abandoning both experiential and relational aspects of their source. They have suffered sharp declines in membership, and these appear to be accelerating. Not only are they having increasing difficulty holding onto existing members, but also their missionary emphasis has all but vanished, cutting off the flow of new blood and causing substantial increases in the average age of their memberships. Like all other organizations perceived as lacking fresh and vital contact to the current culture and its models, they cannot survive on old glories when the culture changes a second time. Nor might they survive on their new-found sophistication, however culturally accommodating this may be, for by itself, this is too insubstantial, and the less erudite readily observe that the god-emperor of sophistication not only has no clothes, but is the enemy of piety. Such churches become like hunter-gatherers in an industrial society--irrelevant and all but invisible.

Even the most vibrant and rapidly growing churches are barely holding their own relative to the total North American population, and they are doing this chiefly through migration, birth and marriage, not by bringing in previously unchurched people. Moreover, the process of fragmentation and the delicatessanizing of religious beliefs and practices has become advanced even in the growing churches, and it is unclear how much of their growth represents renewed commitment to conventional orthodoxy or how much is due to doctrinal diversification and insubstantial cultural accommodation. In short, religion in the West is rapidly becoming as much form as substance, and what growth is observed may well be illusory.

But the set of beliefs about God and about moral absolutes--the transcendent things that one calls religion--appears to be a necessary part of the experience of being human in any culture, by the example of historical record if by nothing else. If this need is not met (in the West) by traditional Christian denominations, and if the answers provided by a century of scientism are no longer an entirely adequate substitute, it becomes reasonable to ask what will fill their role in the next culture. For, even if all the old gods are fragmented beyond repair, religion will still exist. People will still seek a meaning for being, a foundation for knowledge, an understanding for experience, and a basis for human and other relationships, and they will want all these integrated into a comprehensive belief system by which to live.

In the next chapter, the possibilities for a revival of the human spirit and of religion will be considered, and contenders for leadership roles will be examined.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises