That’s So Second Millennium

Why Do Westerners Really Think Science and Faith Are Opposed?

December 29, 2018

This is Paul. Welcome to the first regular blog post for That's So Second Millennium. For 2019 I'm going to be supplementing the podcast with a series of weekend blog posts.

Let's start out with this question: Can we hope to get a broad enough picture of why so many people in Western cultures think religion and science are unavoidably opposed to do justice to the reality?

People who concern themselves with this question tend to gravitate toward particular answers. These can go to extremes, like "The Bible tells these mythical tales that clearly didn't actually happen, and so that's why people believe science has disproved religion." Or, "Scientists have this conspiracy going where they hide the truth from people." They can be moderate, but still only a slice of the truth of uncertain importance, such as "We just don't do a good enough job of teaching young people what the Catholic Church teaches, or what the Bible actually says." In this, the situation is like that of any widely recognized social phenomenon. Read this, and skip down to the comments: see the tension between the worldviews by the time you've reached just the second comment.

The perceived opposition between science and religion is bound up with other social phenomena, including secularization, the growth of "fundamentalist" strains of Christianity and Islam, and the hollowing out of the old middle ground of Western societies based on what one might call "national identity churches." The old implicit social contract that because we are American, or British, or French, or Spanish, etc. we are this particular type of Christian, we will attach social stigmas to people transgressing these particular families of moral norms and not others... that is gone in Europe and has been evicted from broad swaths of America. A dry but important snapshot of contemporary problems in Catholic America can be found in this report from the McGrath Institute for Church Life.

I doubt I am treading on shaky ground by thinking that the media saturation of our culture sucks up more of our mental bandwidth than it used to, and that in every subculture the effect is to focus us more on the bubble of the present, on secular politics and on the panoply of media franchises. On the whole I suspect we think less about history, less about philosophy, less about mathematics, less about science aside from a sort of froth of surface factoids, and less about religion than we would otherwise.

Yet, as the old saying suggests, our ignorance of our own history in no way eliminates our dependence on it, only our ability to recognize patterns and consciously change them or at least, on an individual basis, cope with them. We humans have been conducting experiments on each other for as long as we have been anything like the creatures we now are, however many tens or hundreds of thousands of years that has been, and we have thousands of years' worth of notes on the results. I think that we would, on average, benefit from far more extensive reading and thought about the ways our ancestors have tried to work out the problems of human existence. I think a terrifying aspect of contemporary secularism is its dismissal of basically the entirety of past human culture as racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, and therefore not worth taking seriously.

In future entries I intend to explore these hypotheses among others:

  • The story of Western culture is massively influenced and perhaps dominated by the amazingly long run of the "Constantinian experiment" of trying to make Christianity an official religion. This involved the Church in a situation of ultimately fatal hypocrisy, because if this Jesus of Nazareth guy hated one thing, it was arrogance, and if he hated two things, they were arrogance and the love of money.
  • One of the major effects of enthroning the Church as the official religion of Western states was to create an intellectual bubble in which Christian claims could be taken for granted, and people and philosophies outside the Church could be discounted. This allowed unfounded but pious-sounding nonsense to flourish, and we are living with the consequences down to this day, as "fundamentalist" Christians (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and otherwise) are still with us, treasuring ideas sprung from that choking hothouse environment of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and functioning to some extent as living straw dogs for opponents of religion to point at and mock as if they were the norm for all people of faith.
  • I say this, as a great fan of Tolkien and many other works of science fiction and fantasy, with reluctance. First, I worry that the proliferation of this type of storytelling into such a massive amount of media has, by its sheer bulk, displaced a great deal of better material for thought from our minds. Secondly, I worry that by getting us used to learning entire massive systems of history and plot and magical physics that we know to be fiction, this intrinsically poisons us against taking real history, philosophy, and theology seriously. In effect, it dissociates us from reality.

This is a good juncture to let you know that the podcast and blog are available at both and at, the WordPress blog attached to my business website. You may prefer to follow and leave comments on TSSM at the latter site. We are still feeling our way forward and will probably be making further changes to the platform in the coming months.

The Post Christian meditations address the larger question, "Why do people believe science and the Catholic, Christian faith are mutually contradictory?" by considering the background reasons why people in the modern West desire to punish the faith of their ancestors and deny it credibility, apart from any cogent reasons to reject its actual dogmas and teachings.

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