Reviewing a recent biography of John Stuart Mill that focuses on the British philosopher’s attitude toward religion, and a recently published book that looks at the diminishing authority accorded in contemporary culture to the supernatural, John Cottingham examines what these two books have to say about the secularization of the West. Cottingham finds more merit in the latter book, written by Paul Gifford, but nonetheless contends that its core argument is unconvincing:
Gifford is well aware that there is more to being religious than the holding of certain beliefs: religion, he acknowledges, has been a vehicle for “community, tradition, emotion, ritual, color, beauty, value, art, poetry, and much else.” But he nevertheless insists on focusing almost exclusively on the cognitive element within religion because of what he calls the “great ditch”—the decisive shift in outlook in the early modern period leading to the rise of science and its application to technology, which produced “continuous innovation and increase” that “swept all before it.” The rise of a new “form of knowing associated with science,” Gifford argues, has “peripheralized religion in the West.”
If this thesis is hardly new, Gifford deploys it in an informative way, with almost every page enriched with quotations from an array of sociological, historical and other sources. But the thesis is highly problematic, not because there is any doubt about the magnificent achievements of science, but because there seems no good reason to think that these achievements are what have led to the decline in religious belief.
Excluding fundamentalists and fanatics, most religious adherents (certainly all those known to me) have a deep respect for the ways of knowing championed by science. They simply do not believe that these ways of knowing exhaust all reality. To insist that there is no meaning or truth outside the limits of science is not science but metaphysics, and Gifford’s airy dismissal of metaphysics (he cites with approval the discredited positivism of A.J. Ayer) thus verges on the self-refuting. If there is a connection between the rise of science and the decline of Western religion, one would need a philosophically more sophisticated account of such key notions as “natural,” “supernatural,” and “otherworldly” in order to make the case convincing.
Read more on Times Literary Supplement: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/john-stuart-mill-the-plight-of-western-religion-review-john-cottingham/