Culture & Society

Is Religion on the Wrong Side of History?

Many think religious beliefs should be left in the past, but recent scholarship suggests that such beliefs are often the cause of intellectual and moral progress

Religion has at times been regressive and reactionary, but that’s not the whole story. Francisco Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828), “Night Scene from the Inquisition.” Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In an era of increased sensitivity to diversity in many forms, one might reasonably wonder why religious diversity isn’t actively pursued by many universities. From conversations with fellow academics over the years, I suspect one reason is that a substantial number see religious belief as intellectually and morally backward. They view religion as being on “the wrong side of history” and therefore something that should be left in the past. This perception is, I believe, the result of accepting a questionable narrative of how intellectual and moral progress has taken place. In short, it is the narrative about religion that is on the wrong side of history, not religion itself.

The Narrative of Progress

One popular narrative of the arc of history is one of intellectual and moral progress. This contemporary view of history is a descendent of positivism, a philosophy that (among other things) claims our understanding of the world progressed through three phases: the theological, the metaphysical and the positive—or, to update the language: the religious, the philosophical and the scientific. In this way of thinking, science and religion offer, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “competing explanation[s] for facts about the universe and life.” That is, religion was an early and primitive attempt to explain the world around us. Science offers competing—and superior—explanations and so should supplant religion. Consequently, religion belongs to an early phase of human development that is now obsolete. It hangs around in some quarters even though it has outlived its usefulness—a relic or “survival” of earlier, more superstitious times.

Yet this narrative isn’t only about intellectual progress; it’s also about moral progress. For some, religion is associated not only with ignorance and superstition, but with reactionary conservativism. Grounded in the arbitrary whims of a deity or a rigid natural law, the morality of the past is seen as cruel and bigoted. The monstrous doctrine of hell, the acceptance of racism and slavery, the bigoted views of women as well as homosexuals, all had to be overturned by the revolution of reason and science that came with the Enlightenment, which cast off the shackles of religious dogma.

If this is your understanding of history, no wonder you’d have qualms about bringing religious diversity to campus. From that perspective, promoting a religious presence on campus seems nostalgic at best, downright harmful at worst.

It is true that religious people have often been intellectually and morally reactionary, and at least in some cases because of their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, the notion that religion is inherently intellectually and morally regressive is dubious at best. Many religious people have been regressive, but many others have been intellectually and morally progressive because they are religious. Religion is not exclusively regressive. In fact, on balance, I would argue that religions such as Christianity have been a force for progress, both intellectually and morally.

Religion Is Not Intellectually Obsolete

While the positivist characterization of the historical relationship between science and religion—where science and religion represent two competing explanations for the world—has been wildly influential in the popular imagination (and even among many academics), it doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Aside from the fact that vanishingly few historians would consider a simplistic story of conflict between science and religion a plausible understanding of their complex historical relationship, the positivistic narrative of history leads us to misunderstand the beliefs and behavior of religious people. Specifically, in interpreting religion as a competing explanation for the world, positivism encourages us to view religious texts as proto-science and religious rituals as proto-technology even though it is often inappropriate to do so.

In his classic essay, “Dinosaur Religion: On Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Creation Texts,” historian of religion Conrad Hyers says that there is a tendency “by those of scientific orientation . . . to look at biblical materials in terms of the narrative accounts of modern science and natural history.” From this perspective, texts like Genesis 1 (the first creation story in the Hebrew Scriptures) “represent pre-modern, pre-scientific explanations of things for which we now have better explanations. . . . Since we are in possession of superior knowledge and instrumentation, we have gone beyond these earlier views, more or less as brick buildings have gone beyond straw huts or sheepskin tents.” That is, from the perspective of positivism, the creation account in Genesis 1 looks like an early attempt to understand the world scientifically—an understanding which has now been supplanted by modern science.

Unfortunately, this view represents a misreading of the text—a misreading, ironically, common to the New Atheists and “Scientific” or “Young Earth” Creationists. In interpreting any text, one must be sensitive to genre. One does not read poetry to learn about quantum physics. Hyers offers the example of Jesus’ parables. The point of a parable is to offer not biographical or historical information, but (purported) religious truth. Consequently, it would be inappropriate to interpret a parable as anything other than a parable.

Similarly, the “literal” way to interpret the creation narratives is not as scientific treatises, but as creation narratives. Understood in its historical context, Genesis 1 is geared to present (purported) religious truth, namely, that the gods of the surrounding cultures—gods of light and dark, sky and sea, heavens and earth—are not divinities at all but natural creations of the one true God. In other words, if we understand the Genesis 1 creation narrative properly, we see that it is in competition not with science, but with the polytheistic accounts of creation that prevailed at the time.

Just as positivism leads us to interpret religious texts as proto-scientific accounts of creation, it leads us to interpret religious rituals as proto-technology. For example, if a “primitive” tribe engages in a rain dance, this is taken as evidence that they don’t yet understand how the world works, and they believe that they can make it rain through a ritual. But this may be a misunderstanding not by the tribe, but by the interpreter. Many religious scholars have noted that rainmakers wait until the beginning of the rainy season before they dance. As one rainmaker put it, only a fool would do a rain dance in the dry season. In other words, one might engage in ritual dance to greet the rainy season, not to cause it, much like our own New Year’s Eve celebrations greet the New Year but are not believed to have caused it.

Similarly, I often ask my students, “So, you know the ancient Greeks would do things like go to the temple of Demeter and pray for a bountiful harvest. When they went home . . . do you think that they watered their gardens?” Students are flummoxed by the question because it is a direct challenge to the narrative about history they have absorbed. Eventually they realize: Of course they would have. Ancient peoples did not first have some belief in magic and then only later, when they realized its failure, engage in practical action. Ritual and practical action coexisted. The two weren’t mutually exclusive.

Ritualized behavior doesn’t need to be the manifestation of a magical belief about the world. We shouldn’t need anthropologists to tell us this; after all, we behave in similar ways today. When people suffer a terrible breakup, for example, it is common for them to tear up or burn photos of their ex—but they don’t believe that burning the photo will somehow harm the person who dumped them.

Religion and science are not simply two different, mutually exclusive ways of trying to explain and control the universe. Rather, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and a number of contemporary religious theorists have pointed out, religious behavior usually accompanies practical action; it doesn’t replace it. This is why a religious couple today who is having trouble conceiving will pray for a child, but also see a doctor. As the sociologist John Evans has argued, today most religious people (though not all) are happy to base their beliefs about the natural world on the sciences. They do not regard their religious traditions as alternative ways of understanding the natural world.

Certainly science and religion can be put into competition; but such a competition requires a particular interpretive framework that need not and, for most religious believers, has not been adopted. Grasping this point helps us see that religion has not been a force holding back scientific understandings of the world.

In fact, contrary to the popular narrative generated by positivism, religious belief played an integral role in the rise of the modern sciences. Many of the natural philosophers involved in the scientific revolution saw their scientific research as an outgrowth of their religious commitments. Moreover, historian Peter Harrison has argued that the sciences took root in Europe in a way that they did not in other cultures precisely because they were given a religious vocation, which bestowed a social legitimacy that the sciences otherwise would have lacked. In other words, religious faith, in this case Christian faith, motivated scientific research and helped protect the budding sciences while they were vulnerable to ridicule. In so doing, it played a pivotal role in the progress of human knowledge.

Religion Can Lead to Moral Progress

To put it bluntly, the idea that moral progress only happened after religious belief was cast off is inaccurate. Part of the root of this mistake is that, when we think in terms like “science versus religion,” these concepts get removed from the flow of history and are treated as transhistorical essences. For there to be a perpetual conflict between science and religion, we must conceive of them as static, unchanging, monolithic entities—there has always been science and there has always been religion, and the two are locked in an eternal struggle.

Speaking in a related context, the anthropologist Edward M. Bruner writes, “These oppositions postulate a fixed and timeless world of essences, an imaginary world; and having done so, they can only account for change by having it originate from outside that timeless entity, as if change were always exterior to the system. . . . The main problem is that there is no conceptualization of the system from the inside, so that all creativity is relegated to a separate outside domain.” Thinking in these essentialist terms distorts our understanding of how social and cultural changes happen, which is far more complicated and surprising.

The historian Dominic Erdozain has argued in “The Soul of Doubt” that, since we know many of the changes that happened around the time of the Reformation and Enlightenment resulted in a liberal, scientific, humanistic secularism, we think these changes happened because liberalism, science and secular humanism acted as external and alien forces on religious belief. But this isn’t quite true. For example, and to stick with Christianity as my exemplar, there is now substantial agreement among scholars of John Locke—often called the “father” of liberalism—that his liberalism was in reality a product of his egalitarian Christian convictions.

Even secular humanism was, as Charles Taylor has argued, in part the result of the desire of Protestant Christians and others to “reform” the everyday world and reduce the distance between the sacred and the profane, thereby making a Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The irony, Taylor tells us, is that this desire, “so much the fruit of devotion and faith, prepares the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world.”

Similarly, an increasing number of historians, religious scholars and philosophers have argued—among them Alec Ryrie, Tom Holland, N.T. Wright, as well as the aforementioned Erdozain and Charles Taylor—that the motivating force for moral progress in society was not always external to religious belief and practice, but was often internal to it. In other words, modern progress wasn’t the result of the subtraction of religious faith; it largely happened because of religious faith itself.

For example, Holland has recently argued that the Christian insistence on moral egalitarianism slowly dissolved any kind of hierarchy between people, whether Jew or Gentile, man or woman, slave or free, noble or common (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11). These religious convictions inspired activists to work for reform and moral progress for many centuries.

That Christian convictions drove Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose Jim Crow and William Wilberforce to oppose the slave trade is well known. Less well known is the role that Christian faith played in the American embrace of religious tolerance, the women’s suffrage movement and the progressive movement, as in the case of the Social Gospel. More recently, Holland has argued that the intense repugnance of misogyny, racism and the like, typical of “woke” progressivism, is driven by an internalization of Christian ethics.

To be sure, some Christians have taken the opposing, regressive or reactionary side on every one of these issues. But when we take the “inside” view, we see that religious traditions are dynamic entities fraught with tensions, incompatibilities and inconsistencies that result in internally motivated changes over time. Christianity—like every other religion—is not monolithic, and it is precisely these internal disagreements and their resolutions that have been significant drivers of change within the religious traditions themselves and in the culture more broadly.

It would be a mistake to think that only the “modernist” or “liberal” wing of religious faiths—those that are really secular in marrow—are responsible for moral progress. Perhaps surprisingly, Christian fundamentalism lay at the heart of the political progressivism of William Jennings Bryan, and good old-fashioned conservative concern for religious liberty was behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s original endorsement of Roe v. Wade. On the contrary, it has often been the most devout—whether of a theologically liberal or conservative stripe—who desire to make the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by establishing justice, equality and freedom.

The Roots of Secularism

The lesson is that secularism may be the result of such moral progress, not its cause. When Christianity successfully reforms the profane world and is reduced to its moral teachings, specifically religious faith begins to look superfluous. Perhaps secularism isn’t the consequence of a straightforward rejection of religious beliefs, but a product of the universalization of Christianity’s moral convictions. As Erdozain and Ryrie meticulously argue, the greatest danger to traditional religious dogma hasn’t been reason or science, but the ethical teachings of religion itself. Once these ethical beliefs become so pervasive in culture as to be taken for granted, they begin to react against their own historical basis in what—from the vantage point the acceptance of these ethical beliefs give us—now appear to be barbaric, misogynistic, exclusionary and intolerant dogmas.

The belief that inviting religious diversity onto campus means going “backward” likely has more to do with the simplistic narratives we tell ourselves about historical progress than with history itself. Nevertheless, the narrative leads to unwarranted views about the presence of religious believers on campus. Improving our understanding of history is a good first step toward increasing our openness to religious diversity on campus. Religion is not on the wrong side of history; positivism’s interpretation of religion is.


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