The Rapprochement of Science and Religion in the Post Secular World

Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
– John Paul II

Our times seem to be marked by posts — post-modern, post-Christian, post-Liberal, and even post-secular. 

The concept of post-secularism is more commonly used in Europe than currently in the US. The term is contentious, with many scholars finding it too vague to be useful, while others simply deny that we are in a post-secular culture. However, I tend to agree that Western culture, the US included, is now in a post-secular phase. 

Post-secularism refers to a range of theories regarding the persistence or resurgence of religious beliefs or practices in the present. Jürgen Habermas is widely credited for popularizing the term, to refer to current times in which the idea of a completely secularized modernity is perceived as failing and, at times, morally unsuccessful. In order to achieve cultural health, new peaceful dialogue and tolerant coexistence between the spheres of religion and reason must be sought. 

In several essays and book-length works, Habermas concludes that the height of secularization was experienced after the Second World War and that the shift to a post-secular direction is now underway. It’s also important to note that Habermas is himself, not religious.

According to Habermas, the secular age has shown itself incapable of living out its vision of a public square without religious influence or input, and will eventually yield to a post-secular culture in which secularism and religion find rapprochement and learn to tolerate and even appreciate each other. He sees this unavoidable transition that is now underway. 

Habermas acknowledges the decline of Christianity in Western culture, but like many evolutionary theorists is convinced that the religious impulse is inherent in humans and that the forces of Christianity are too deeply embedded and formative of Western culture to completely eradicate.

The secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground. Therefore, we face a different question: How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society, and what must those who are religiously minded and and those who are secularly minded reciprocally expect from one another to ensure that social relations remain civil and that intellectual, political, and cultural collaboration remains.

In his Notes on a Post-Secular Society, Habermas concludes that cultural and human progress in the post-secular, post-Christian, post-religious age requires a rapprochement between religion and secularism. 

Habermas argues that to engage in this dialogue, two conditions must be met: religion must accept the authority of secular reason as the fallible results of the sciences and the universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality; and conversely, secular reason must not set itself up as the judge concerning truths reached through religious reasoning and experience.

Both sides — religion and science — each from their viewpoint, must accept an interpretation of the relation between religious thinking and scientific-secular knowledge that enables them to live together in a self-reflective manner. Religion benefits from the forces of secularism (Enlightenment, science, and reason), and secularism benefits from the collective religious wisdom, now being revised and updated, concerning the meaning of human life, morality, and human wholeness.

While Christianity and other religions are certainly in decline and transition, most likely won’t disappear, nor will religion in general. There’s growing consensus that Western culture is now moving beyond simple notions of secularism into a post-secular period where religious influences, albeit somewhat diminished, will not be eradicated. In a sense, we are beginning to learn how to use religion as a personal and communal tool for meaning and interpretation within the context of secular culture.

Evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and sociology are increasingly concluding that human beings are inherently religious. Granted, religion is carefully and strictly defined. Still, the insights show human nature and the human mind is inclined toward narrative and meaning and respond deeply and powerfully to ritual and symbols.

The intellectual and cultural systems of secularism — liberalism, and naturalism predominantly — while having benefited Western culture abundantly, lack the normative abilities on their own to produce a unitive social ethos. Rather, these systems tend to fragment society, reinforcing individualism and atomization. 

Habermas isn’t suggesting that we reject secularism. Rather, he develops a critical account of secularism which recognizes and maintains the fundamental tenets of secularization — state neutrality or the causal connection between social differentiation and the loss of function of religion — while rendering them compatible with the continuing “public influence and relevance” of religion in our complex and highly secularized pluralist societies.

If religion hopes to play a significant role in the West’s ongoing development, it needs to align and reformulate its theologies according to forms of reasoning that dominate the culture and human learning in general. It must participate in the rapprochement of post-secularity.

Rather than see science and theology in perpetual conflict, advocates of rapprochement argue that science and religion can coexist, not merely tolerating each other, but coexisting in mutually beneficial ways. Human cultures benefit when both forms of reasoning are carefully employed since human life is an experience of quantitative and qualitative concerns, an interweaving of meaning and fact.

The purpose of religion isn’t to intervene in science (or other disciplines) over questions that science is much better prepared to address but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern — of value and meaning — which science can’t fully address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.

Much of religious reasoning wrestles with normative and qualitative claims that cannot be deduced or induced or justified through the scientific method. Rather, much of the religious enterprise relies on illative reasoning which operates by drawing together variant strands of arguments and evidence, none of which is conclusive on its own, but together may offer a reasonable argument.

We are not speaking here of practical problems in need of religious answers — science will continue to provide refined answers to practical questions — rather, we are speaking of mysteries that call for reflection and meditation. Mysteries of existential meaning and purpose do not cry out for solutions or scientific answers — they (may) find their resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage the question why? And this why? Is not simply the curious probing of science (although such may help), it is the subjective yearning of each human heart. 

Yes, science helps us reject superstition and magical thinking and helps us understand vast aspects of our world and ourselves. But science can’t fully address existential core human concerns, which is much the role of spirituality, even once the supernatural magical thinking has been factored out 

The reciprocal obligations of the rapprochement require the sciences to recognize a positive role for religion when it speaks (correctly, of course) to issues of normativity, morality, and human purpose and meaning. The same reciprocity requires religion to formulate its claims in accord with scientific and reasoned evidence and differentiate or indicate when it’s speaking mythopoetic, or metaphorically, or symbolically. 

Unfortunately, many religious persons, especially Christians, operate from literal, fundamentalist, or even reactionary positions, and refuse to adapt their religious thinking accordingly. They claim a privileged position for theology that isn’t justified or merited. And worse, many still look back nostalgically (and with hopeful eyes) to religious ways of thinking that are by now at least three centuries out of date. Simply proposing the same theological vision more forcefully, more purely, and more earnestly won’t do. In terms of religion and spirituality, it’s time for some necessary upgrades.

And this is where spiritual naturalism comes into play and shows its potential value. Spiritual and religious naturalists have already adapted to the demands of both science/naturalism and religion/spirituality. 

Those of us who ascribe to forms of spiritual naturalism have a vital role in the ongoing rapprochement of naturalism and religion in the post-secular age. We already occupy something of the middle ground. We are already accustomed to speaking about religious and spiritual experience, values, and practice in ways that align with naturalist philosophy. 

Spiritual naturalists must find clear and cogent ways to remind those who are secular and naturalist that normative and spiritual concerns are valid and important, while also reminding our religious friends that magical supernatural thinking no longer holds and isn’t necessary. 

That’s much of the work of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, and I’m glad to be a part.


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