Religion, Science, and Naturalism

Back in 2003, I did a book review of Religion, Science, & Naturalism by Willem Drees . I haven’t posted much on science and religion (one of my great interests), so I thought I’d dust this off and share it.

Religion, Science, and NaturalismWilliem Drees hopes to develop an understanding of religion in a world that is understood scientifically. Science, for Drees, is descriptive of reality as a whole and is the preeminent way that we gain information about our world. Even in the introduction Drees argues that challenges from science should result in religious changes.
He argues that the most adequate view of the world is naturalism, specifically a ‘hard naturalism’ where human behavior is viewed as one of many objective events in nature.

Interestingly, he admits this description of his view of reality is a metaphysical position that involves several aspects: a.) there is no supernatural realm distinct from the natural world b.) all entities made of same constituents, c.) physics give us the best available description of reality, d.) description or explanation of phenomena may require concepts beyond physics because of additional complexity of interactions, and e.) fundamental physics and cosmology form a boundary where questions (that he calls limit questions) about the naturalist perspective arise.

From this Drees argues that religion should be approached in the same way as all human phenomena. He believes that eventually all human behavior will be describable from a behavioral standpoint. From here, Drees gives a chart that describes the interaction of theology (from Lindbeck’s three categories) with new advances in science.

Since one of the prevailing metaphors in the science theology debate is the ‘conflict metaphor’, Drees gives us a brief history of the interaction between religion and science using the ‘Galileo incident’ and the development of Darwinian evolution. With the ‘Galileo incident’ we see a good description of the major issues regarding hermeneutics and exegetical authority that lay behind the typical presentation seen when representing the ‘conflict’ between science and theology. Here Drees points out that members of the Church and the Academy were on both sides of the argument and the entire affair was much more complex than is commonly believed.

He then describes the debate of Huxley and Wilberforce regarding Darwinian evolution with the same thick description. Drees reminds the reader that the conflict was as much an inter-disciplinary rivalry as a conflict between science and theology.  Once again we see that there are members of the Church and the Academy on both sides of the issue. This is an interesting and important chapter, but as we see further in the book it appears Drees wants to do more than reduce the conflict between the two fields.

Drees then begins a discussion of theology and knowledge of the world. This discussion begins with divine action and the challenges presented especially by the overwhelming lawful behavior of natural processes. Here, he describes and interacts with a few modes of divine action. First is Polkinghorne’s understanding of divine action in unpredictable processes where God exerts a non-physical informational input into undetermined processes thus influencing causal events. Drees disagrees with this argument by stating that we cannot say that there is divine causality in unpredictability and describes this as a remnant of God-of-the-gaps even though it is not an epistemological gap.

He then interacts with the ‘top-down causation’ of Peacocke and others. Here God exerts control in the world-as-a-whole in an analogous way to the mind asserting control over the body. Drees disagrees with this approach as well and points to two ‘gaps’ that he believes might be legitimate for God’s activity: human subjectivity and the existence of the world. As a whole, Drees seems very skeptical about the entire program of the integration of science and theology.

Drees then begins a description of theology and knowledge of human nature. Here he goes into a few details regarding experience and the naturalistic explanation resulting from modern advances in the neurosciences. From here, we see a discussion of the evolution of traditions: specifically morality and religion. Here he argues that the evolutionary view of morality need not be in conflict with the overall benefit of morals in a society. In the area of religious evolution, he describes a few different models including the view that God ‘is natural selection’ and the prophetic view of what is and what ought to be that is intrinsic to the human person.

Finally, we see the author announce his position on science, naturalism, and religion. Unfortunately, this is not as rewarding as one might hope. Science is the preeminent cognitive exercise. It can be understood naturally without losing significance. Reality is naturalistic. Religion is simply a phenomenon within that reality. Although he writes that seeing religious as functional does not deny the reference to reality, what appears is a very limited view of God and religion.

For Drees, religion turns out to be a functional necessity of evolution that keeps us from being too aggressive in our post-hunter/gatherer societies and God is an ultimately transcendent non-temporal possibility. Give me a break.

The promise of answers to the limit questions proposes throughout by Drees (why is there something rather than nothing, etc.?) turns out to be limited as well. God may be behind the whole process, and we can have a sense of wonder at existence and see this as a version of faith. We end with Drees admission that he is from a particular tradition, that of liberal European Christianity, and thus participates in this particular ‘form’ of relating to the ‘great’ transcendent God. Although this is not particularly better than any other form, it is important that we analyze these traditions in our new evolutionary contexts, and reform them in the light of modern science. In my opinion, Drees goes a long way to say that he is a naturalistic Deist.


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