Hannah Waite reviews Religion after Science by John Schellenberg. 06/02/2020
“Act your age, not your shoe size.” It’s a comment many of us have heard before. A ‘joke with a jag’ (or an insult) that we don’t want directed at ourselves. It is to be deemed immature, and in the scope of normal conversation, being called immature is an insult. It is belittling and communicates that our argument or behaviour is not worth taking seriously.
Yet, there is an exception to this. If you call a movement immature you are as likely to be suggesting (genuinely, rather than patronisingly) that it is developing and will advance to more significant stages. Given that religions are among the oldest social ‘movements’ on the planet, it may seem odd to call them immature. Yet, that is the premise of Religion after Science, by the philosopher John Schellenberg.
John Schellenberg is a Canadian philosopher. He is a Professor of Philosophy and advisor of students at Mount Saint Vincent University and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, both a sceptic and an atheist. It is within this nexus that he begins to open up a new path to religion, a path that defines religion as evolutionary and immature, and enables a new way of responding to the age old science–religion debate.
Religion, or the ‘religion project’ as he refers to it, is indeed acting its age. In the 50,000 years humans have been on the planet, we know perhaps 6,000 years of religious history and thought. However, we have not yet been able “to see and internalise what deep time [the millions of years of earth’s history] means for religion” in both the deep past, and the deep future. As such, religion may be several millennia old, but in the grand scheme of time, it is “immature and needs more time to develop.”
Schellenberg argues that viewing religion in this way enables society to stop seeing it as either a “success or a failure.” Rather, he claims that seeing it as “immature” demonstrates the ways in which religion may grow and develop, and that in turn may encourage those of no religion to learn from it. He states that religion “allows us to treat the world and human things [that are within the world as] imbued with value and fulfilment,” in a way that is not possible outside of religion. Simply, religion enables humans to see and treat the world with dignity, respect and value that is not possible in secular society. It is on this premise that religion deserves “a second and third look,” particularly from the nones (those of no religious affiliation).
Schellenberg is “especially concerned to address those who take a negative view of religion.” Through his work he gently guides those hostile towards science and religion (on both ends of the spectrum) “from new atheists to evangelicals,” to recognise that neither group has the final say on religious matters. Schellenberg both views and places the New Atheists’ opposition to religion, and evangelicals’ (alleged) opposition to science, on the same plain, stating that New Atheists and evangelicals alike “believe it is either God or Science.”
This is, I think, unfair to evangelicals. In their book Science vs. Religion, US scholars Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle report that “evangelicals are actually significantly more likely than the general population and any other religious group to see religion and science as having a collaborative relationship” (emphasis added). Evangelical participants made comments such as “the more wonders scientists discover everyday makes me believe that [science] must be created by God,” and “science… has made me really appreciate the complexity and beauty in life.” Schellenberg’s comment on evangelicals is somewhat misrepresentative, or at least views them as a class through the lens of its most anti–scientific members.
Both the New Atheists and evangelicals, Schellenberg argues, are blinkered by their own opinions and as such end up engaging with one another in a hostile way. Rather than religion itself being immature, it may be those who discuss it who are immature. Therefore, Schellenberg highlights that “we could do better” at learning how to engage and disagree with others in a healthy way, as it is only in being open that both sides can engage in critical thinking and learn from one another.
There is a strong relational message to Schellenberg’s argument, his objective being to turn conversations of hostility into ones of hospitality. To foster a hospitable conversation is to sit with people, in disagreement and tension (which is uncomfortable for most of us), and not impose or force our views on someone else. It is to be willing to learn from the other person. It is to start from the right place, not immediately to try to convert others to your point of view or to impose your opinions on another person. It is to listen and learn, to be accepting of difficult and different viewpoints and to realise that even though there may not be agreement, each party can learn from the other. (It is – as an aside – the very basis of my colleague Elizabeth Oldfield’s podcast, The Sacred)
Calling religion immature is risky (and potentially condescending) and will stick in the throat of many believers. Moreover, it risks also the kind of progressive mind–set that ultimately will discard any religious commitment or creed just to appear modern and acceptable. Yet, if thinking of religion as “immature” can foster conversations of generosity, humility and self–reflection when it comes to religion – and science – it may be a price worth paying. Ultimately, it is only when we enter hospitable dialogue that difficult conversations may flourish, be fruitful and work towards the maturity and development of both science and religion alike.
Hannah Waite is a Researcher on Science and Religion at Theos.
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