Can Science eliminate Religious Faith?

July 27, 2010

Naturalists are not impressed by reasons offered for believing in anything supernatural. Naturalism’s disdain for the supernatural basically appeals to a methodological thesis that could be termed the Principle of Insufficient Reason : where there is not enough rational justification for a belief, one should be skeptical instead (this is the basis for atheism). Naturalism’s skepticism towards religion’s views is grounded on this methodological principle of rationality.

However, skepticism towards religion’s views is one thing, while skepticism towards religious belief is quite another. Even if nothing supernatural really exists, the existence of religious beliefs is spectacularly unaffected. This disappoints naturalists and all others who endorse the Principle of Insufficient Reason, since religious believers can evidently maintain conviction despite the non-existence of their object of faith. Are religious believers just that willfully irrational?

Naturalists have to come to terms with the fact that the existence of religious belief, and the believers who holds such beliefs, stubbornly remain part of the natural world. Science can helpfully explain matters going on within nature, including human beliefs. But an even greater prize awaits. Can science’s knowledge itself be directly brought to bear against not just religious belief, but also the supernatural object of religious belief? Some naturalists are sounding highly optimistic about this victory. This philosopher is not one of them, because the struggle is far more complex than many suppose.

Here then is a clarification, much needed nowadays, about the chances of success here. Perhaps scientific knowledge of nature and humanity, by itself, is not enough to eliminate either faith or the object of faith.  Naturalizing religious beliefs is not the same as showing that only nature exists.

Example: The Psycho/sociological explanation of faith. If beliefs are essentially psycho-sociological phenomena, best understood by a scientific examination of human psychology and sociology, then we can naturally understand religious belief like any other kind of belief. Let’s formulate a typical argument, seen in aggressive naturalistic attempts to eliminate both faith and the object of faith.

1. Religious faith in the supernatural frequently satisfies some important and universal psycho/sociological needs of humans.

2. Humans naturally tend to prioritize and protect things which satisfy their important psycho/sociological needs.

3. Hence, humans naturally tend to prioritize and protect religious faith.

4. This explanation of the strength and near-universality of faith is entirely naturalistic.


5. Nothing supernatural is needed to explain the psycho/sociological basis of faith.

And therefore,

6. It is unreasonable for anyone to have religious faith in the supernatural.

This argument would, it seems, supply a complete victory for naturalism over religion and gods. However, a psycho/sociological counter-defense of religious faith is easily constructed, from that argument’s own naturalistic premises. Here is an example (which you have probably already heard) of the way that religious defenders reply:

1. Humans naturally prioritize and protect religious faith because it satisfies major psycho/sociological needs.

2. Unless religious faith often damages other vital human needs, it is naturally reasonable to prioritize and protect it.

3. Hence, religious faith is typically and frequently reasonable (and where it isn’t, religion should be modified).

4. The naturalist is unreasonable to demand the entire surrender of religious faith in the supernatural.


5. Many of those who have religious faith are holding reasonable beliefs in the supernatural.

Well, that is not a desirable conclusion for the naturalist. What went wrong? The naturalist must short-circuit this religious response somehow. (By the way, if you are tempted to say instead that religion mostly has only harmfuly damaging consequences for believers, it becomes difficult to naturalistically explain religious belief, since religion would have weeded itself out long ago -- but that is a discussion point for another time.)

When dealing with naturalizing arguments of this sort, extra premises are needed somewhere. To prevent religious faith in the supernatural from appearing to be naturally reasonable, there are basically two argumentative options, A or B.

(A) Humans should not want to satisfy these major psycho/sociological needs that justify faith. We need to artificially build and promote a non-religious culture that produces different adults who simply don’t have such psychological/social needs. If these needs prove to be mostly genetic, this new secular culture will have to overcome nature too in addition to religions. If these needs prove to be primarily from culture, then this new secular culture need only outwit and outlast religious cultures. WE MUST OVERCOME NATURE.

Alternatively, (B) Humans should satisfy these major psycho/sociological needs using natural substitutes. We need a non-religious culture that offers purely naturalistic alternatives which are equally or even more satisfying. WE MUST SUPPLEMENT NATURE.

On some other occasion we can examine these two options. Either way, the point made here is simply that nature’s processes by themselves cannot prove the unreasonableness of a religious belief. Reasonableness remains a stubbornly normative matter, and science must be supplemented. By “overcoming nature” and “supplementing nature” we are not talking about using supernaturalism or anything religious to overcome or supplement nature. But we are now talking about philosophical matters, over and above science.

Naturalists must be very cautious about leaping from a verdict that religious beliefs are entirely natural in order to reach a farther conclusion that such a natural belief cannot be about anything supernaturally real. When dealing with arguments of this sort about "naturalizing" religious beliefs, bridging those logical gaps requires additional normative judgments, to the effect that secular beliefs should be promoted. And so they should -- but naturalists must explicit about their supplemental premises.