The rise of natural science, that is,
a rational and experimental approach to
the things of the world, has produced
an ongoing debate with religion. This
started with Galileo and Newton, neither
of whom would have entered into the debate
as it came to be in the years of the radical
Enlightenment. Essentially, this debate
is about whether the world contains "spirit",
a non-material reality that, paradoxically,
can interact with the material. In all
religious traditions this reality is personal.
While "the force" of Star War
fame has its appeal, it will never be
the centre of religious activity.
There are two issues here; the materiality
of the world and the origin of ideas about
spirit that continue to persist. It has
become increasingly obvious that the materialist
approach has won the day.
The world is composed of matter only.
Scientists of all kinds go about their
work without the hypothesis of spirit.
Certainly there are scientists who try
very hard to find evidence of divine agency
in the world. These men and women are
rarely biologists because the theory of
evolution has displaced any idea of purpose.
They are often physicists/cosmologists
who delve into the origins of the universe;
that is, they share a common preoccupation
with much religion, the origin of all
things. The common concern is aided by
the emergence of cosmological theories
that postulate a definite beginning in
So the quest for divine agency, while
being driven from most people's lives
by the experience of senseless suffering
and from the scientists theories by the
lack of evidence, is driven back to the
big bang. This is truly the end result
of "god of the gaps" theology
and one wonders what impact this god,
who may or may not have been involved
in the initial expansion of the universe,
has for human lives. We have arrived at
a modern Deism.
The second issue is raised by the continuation
in popular consciousness and the larger
part of the church, of ideas about divine
agency. One explanation is that of cultural
persistence. The Judeo/Christian tradition
obviously has, at its heart, the idea
of divine agency. But this does not explain
its persistence in the culture and that
most religions of the world have a similar
Evolutionary psychologists like Pascal
Boyer, Dan Sperber and Justin Barrett
are beginning to provide an explanation
as to why certain religious ideas, specifically,
the personal nature of "spirit"
persist in cultures worldwide. These explanations
have to do with the evolved structure
of the brain and how this translates to
the kind of concept that is attractive
to the mind. That is, there are certain
concepts that our minds easily entertain.
Much like language acquisition, the mind
automatically receives certain concepts
more readily than others.
Since Chomsky's work in the late 60s
linguists generally acknowledge that the
brain has innate structures that aid the
acquisition of language. More recent work
by evolutionary psychologists indicates
that it is not only language that is facilitated
by innate brain structures. Indeed it
seems that these structures are responsible
for all cognition, including the elaboration
of religious ideation. This work explains
why supernatural realities are always
imagined to be personal because the brain
is specifically structured to deal with
the personal. In other words, evolution
has provided us with specific adaptations
that are unconscious, mandatory and fast
and respond when we are dealing with others.
These adaptations are intimately involved
in religious ideation: that is why "the
force" will never be a key religious
It would seem from the above that the
outlook for religious thought is doomed,
both on the basis of the materialism of
the world and on an increasingly satisfying
explanation of its the evolutionary/cognitive
origins. I will argue in this column that
this is not the end of theology but its
liberation from superstitious thought
and false foundations and the beginning
of a theology that is recognised as being
When we critically examine the Judeo/Christian
tradition we find pointers that affirm
that God is not contained by the concepts
of supernatural agency, even though much
of the tradition would lead us to believe
so. I will further contend that orthodox
theology has at its base the concepts
that will lead us to a theology that will
again capture the minds of men and women.
Central to these conceptions is the doctrine
of the Trinity, a doctrine that subverts
both the materialist and the evolutionary/cognitive
reduction of theology. I will contend
that the Judeo/Christian tradition is
critical of what may be termed "nativist"
religion, that is, the religion that our
minds would automatically produce. This
critique may be found in the prophets,
in Old Testament narrative and in the
ministry of Jesus. It seems that the gospel
is not about being saved for the afterlife
but being saved from automatic religious
thinking that is so injurious to our lives.
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