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Materialism and religion

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

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 time.


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 concern.

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 concept.

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 cultural/literary.

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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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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