Here is the typical claim we tend to hear in the West: as science increases religion will naturally fade away. Or put another way: the more we learn through science, the less we need religion. This has become such a common theme that many of us never actually stop to question its validity, i.e. is this claim really backed up by evidence? The real question I think we need to ask is – as the title says – ‘is science the main cause of secularization?’ Scholars over the last few years have devoted much time to researching this question and their findings may or may not surprise you. In effect the overarching answer given by scholars today is a clear no, science does play a part as we will come to see, however, this is much smaller than what we might expect. That science is not the major cause of secularization can be demonstrated relatively easily through some concrete studies and global examples, however before I get to these it is worth us unpacking very briefly the history of the very idea of science as being the catalyst for secularization. In understanding its origins we can come to better appreciate why the current trending theme – that science drives secularization – is so unfortunately misplaced in our modern world.
Starting In the 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte had suggested that society passes through three stages, the religious, the metaphysical and then lastly the scientific.1 With the events of the French revolution that had just taken place in the late 18th century in which the monarchy was overthrown it is perhaps no surprise that new philosophies of life were quickly developed that pushed back on the idea of religion as playing a key role within society.2 Continuing on into the mid to late 19th century drastic events took place that would shake the fundamentally Christian underpinnings of science. In a nutshell through the efforts of men – primarily in Britain – such as Thomas Huxley, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White the idea that science and religion were in conflict and that science necessarily eroded away at religion was firmly established and this idea persisted well into the 20th century. (For a more detailed account of the actual events of the 19th century see the articles: Are Science and Religion at War as the New Atheists Claim? How History and Sociology Reject this Thesis and Why doesn’t Science Include God Today? Science and Religion in History)
From the 20th century onwards sociologists were more or less certain that religion would inevitably dissolve in the face of scientific advancements, for example in 1966 Anthony F.C. Wallace suggested in his book Religion: An Anthropological View that “…belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge.”3 This is the standard line of reasoning we find in the 20th century and it is this same idea that has persisted in the public sphere despite the fact that contemporary scholarly studies have since moved past this rather basic analysis.
What examples as well as studies tell us about the correlation between science and religion
Firstly, 150 years after Darwinian evolution we find that the creationist movement has not decreased but rather increased, particularly from the mid 20th century onwards. The creationist movement is effectively a movement started primarily by two men Dr Henry Morris an engineer and John Whitcombe and old testament scholar who – holding to a literal interpretation of scripture – took the universe to be just 6000 years old with the events of Genesis such as the global flood and Tower of Babel as having historically taken place just as mentioned in the Bible. Their book The Genesis Flood4 which was released in 1961 caused something of a revival in young earth interpretation of the Bible which had been largely abandoned since the efforts of George McCready Price earlier in the 20th century.5 Currently around the world6 and particularly in America we find no shortage of creationist ministries (such as ‘Answers in Genesis’ and ‘ICR’) chuck full of PhD level scientists defending the literal biblical view of Genesis against the materialistic view of Neo-Darwinian evolution.
Secondly, a study done by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research released in 2009 analysed 26,200 individuals who graduated from high school between 1976 and 1996. They assessed these graduates religious views against their subject of study in college for a period of 6 years. After collecting the results the researchers found that “College students who major in the social sciences and humanities are likely to become less religious, while those majoring in education are likely to become more religious…But students majoring in biology and physical sciences remain just about as religious as they were when they started college.”7 These findings (although of course not completely conclusive) demonstrate that there is a problem with the simple idea that science is the main factor for secularization. In fact what we see here is rather that training in the humanities and social sciences seems to correlate more strongly to the loss of religious beliefs as oppose to the natural sciences.
Thirdly, the world today is anything but the secularized landscape 20th century sociologists expected it to be by this time. The Pew Research Center looked at the percentages of religious proponents around the world releasing their results in 2015. They discovered that the vast majority of the world is hugely religious today with Christianity containing around 31% of the entire population and Muslims containing around 24% of the population. Other religions make up most of the rest of the percentage whilst the unaffiliated make up only 16%. Sociologists such as Peter Berger have recognized this reality and Berger himself notes that “the world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted…by so many analysts of modernity”.8 In and amongst this fact it is worth quickly pointing out that America adds another degree of complexity to the “science causes secularization” thesis by arguably being the most technologically advanced country in the West whilst simultaneously still being the most religious country in the West.
Lastly, harking back to Darwinian evolution (but now taking it from a historical perspective), most people tend to assume that Darwin established his theory of evolution based on the “role he gave to natural causes in explaining the origin of species”9 i.e. the supposed success of its explanatory scope, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In the words of one of the leading historians of science in the world today Professor John Hedley Brooke
Darwin reacted strongly against evangelical Christian preaching on heaven and hell. Members of his family…were freethinkers. The doctrine that after death they would suffer eternal damnation was, for Charles, a ‘damnable doctrine’. He was also deeply sensitive to the extent of pain and suffering in the world, which he described as one of the strongest arguments against belief in a benevolent deity. Each of these concerns was intensified by deaths in his family – that of his father in the late 1840s and of his ten-year-old daughter, Annie, early in 1851…it would be false to say of Darwin that science, more than any other factor, was responsible for his unbelief.10
Conclusion – science, secularization and the media?
Currently we are largely in-tune with the idea that science leads to the loss of religious belief in society. As recently as 2015 Philp Adams – a well-known Australian journalist – has remarked that “As knowledge advances, God retreats…”11 What is interesting about claims such as these is that they largely seem to stem from the assumption that religious people have historically invoked God in order to plug up the gaps about the world that have been deemed unexplainable, in other words, religious people have always retreated to a ‘God of the gaps’ type argument. Whilst this assumption can be show to be false fairly easily through a quick historical analysis, what I think needs to be understood here for now is how this very information is disseminated, that is, the role of the media in all matters pertaining to the religious. As John Hedley Brooke once again notes, “since professed and vociferous atheists are more likely to catch the public ear than scientists who quietly combine their scientific and spiritual lives, a correlation between science and anti-religious sentiment tends to endure.”12
Recent Sociological research supports this idea suggested by Brooke that the media is at least one of the root causes. For the last few years John Mason-Wilkes has focused his research on how science is presented to the public through the media and found that 1) science is often presented like a religion in itself containing all of life’s answers, and 2) that science is also often used as a political tool rather than in its more natural form in order to promote particular agendas.13 This being the case, it is easy to see why the public perception of religion remains as that of a system in decline whereas science continues to be viewed as on the rise (of course science is certainly on the rise, however, my main argument is to suggest that this rise does not naturally cause a decline in religion). In reality scholarly research shows a much more complicated and unpredictable pattern between science and religion however, this information has not been successfully filtered down to public level – at least as of yet.
At any rate religious people can be confident that contemporary scholarly research as well as history are not against them – the idea that science causes secularization is a somewhat persistent myth that needs itself to be eroded.
- Bourdeau, Michel. “Auguste Comte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/comte/>.
- Acemoglu, Daron, et al. “The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution.” The American Economic Review, vol. 101, no. 7, 2011, pp. 3286–3307. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41408738.
- Anthony F.C. Wallace. Religion: And Anthropological View (1966), p265.
- Whitcomb, J, Morris, H. 1961. The Genesis Flood. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing
- Numbers, R. 2006. The Creationists. Harvard University Press, p88 – 119
- Numbers, R. 2006. The Creationists. Harvard University Press, p362 – 368
- Peter L. Berger (ed), The desecularisation of the World: resurgent religion and world politics (Grand, Rapids, Mich: Eardmans, 1999, p9
- Brooke, J.H, 2010. Science and Secularization, p111. In: Harrison, P. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press
- Philip Adams, Weekend Australian Magazine. 4 April, 2015, p38
- , p107
- Mason-Wilkes, W. J., 2018. Science as Religion? Science Communication and Elective Modernism. Ph.D. Cardiff University. p305 – 308