In a recent essay in the Times Literary Supplement , Steven Weinberg suggested that the reason the West has so far outstripped the Islamic world in scientific knowledge is "religious certitude." In the West, the decline of religion has freed science to move forward at an astonishing pace. As evidence of the decline of religious certitude in the West, he cites his own experience.
Even though American atheists might have trouble winning elections, Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don’t really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain "not important what one believes" to Luther or Calvin or St. Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.
Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam.
Like many an anti-religious polemicist before him, Weinberg doesn’t seem to care whether he’s arguing that scientific progress has undermined religion or that religion’s decline has enabled scientific progress. There are reasonable arguments for both, but one ought at least to acknowledge that they are two arguments, not one.
But leave that aside for a moment. And leave aside, too, the question of whether the Muslim world’s problems have primarily to do with religion or (as I tend to think) deep cultural envy expressed in the language of religion. What strikes me about this passage is Weinberg’s breezy assumption that, until very recently, everybody or almost everybody who considered themselves Christians adhered to the doctrines of Christianity with total or nearly total conviction. This assumption is common among highly intelligent people, like Weinberg, who haven’t thought much about the history and character of Christianity except as a sociological or psychological phenomenon.
Perhaps Weinberg really supposes that his Baptist and Presbyterian friends, and the squishy priest he mentions, are representative instances of Christians in the early-twenty-first century. But surely he can’t believe the intellectual and moral convictions of Luther and Calvin to have been typical instances of religious conviction in their time?
Of course, they were nothing of the sort. From its birth, the Christian Church has counted among its members people possessing vastly different levels of certainty and fervor. The writers of the New Testament themselves were already chiding Christians whose commitment to the risen Savior was less than wholehearted: Think of the writer of the Book of Hebrews or of the third chapter of Revelation. Censures of outward observance in the absence of inward belief are myriad in the sermons of Chrysostom and the commentaries of Calvin.
So it has always been. The Awakenings in America, for instance, couldn’t have happened apart from the fact that great numbers of people, theretofore conscious of themselves as Christians in some sense, suddenly felt that the depth of their "certitude" had been disgracefully shallow. Archibald Alexander (1771¯1851), one of the early figures of the Second Great Awakening, recalled that, as a young man, "my only notion of religion was that it consisted in becoming better. I had never heard of any conversion among Presbyterians." Such people as Alexander’s family and their friends would have been perfectly at home with the notion that it’s "not important what one believes."
Throughout the eighteenth century in Europe, the decline of "religious certitude"¯what is nowadays called evangelicalism or, less knowledgeably, fundamentalism¯was widely taken for granted. It would be easy to cite specific instances. My own favorite is the testimony of William Blackstone, the famous jurist, who went from church to church in order to hear every noteworthy clergyman in London. Blackstone (hardly an "enthusiast," to use the terminology of that age) said he heard no more Christianity than could be found in the writings of Cicero and wasn’t able to discern with certainty whether any one preacher was a Muslim, a Confucian, or a Christian.
Now think of Jonathan Swift. Here was a dedicated and highly successful churchman who had no genuine belief in the central doctrines of the Christian faith whatever. He believed Christianity to be superior to heathenism as a moral system, but there is nothing in his sermons to suggest that he believed, for example, in the Resurrection or the miracles of Jesus. His attitude seems not to have altered much from that of an early tract he wrote, "A Letter Against Abolishing Christianity" (1708), in which he argued for the maintenance of the established religion for reasons totally unrelated to the question of whether that religion represented the truth or a lie¯a question he felt to be irrelevant. If "religious certitude" looks moribund now, was it thriving three hundred years ago?
The seventeenth century would surely count as the height of "religious certitude" in Europe: Wars were fought over religion¯or at least over the ecclesiastical form religion took in different national contexts. But this only proves that Christianity represented the dominant way of thinking on the subject of political governance. It doesn’t follow that every European, or even most Europeans, maintained mental fidelity to the propositions of the Nicene Creed. It’s easy to suspect, indeed, that a majority did not. The Puritans were never more than a tenth or so of the English population, after all, and many "Puritans" were so designated owing to their views on parliamentary and ecclesiastical government and not to the depth or vigor of their religious sentiments. Believing that a fully divine Jesus Christ had risen and now lived¯assenting to that claim with heart and mind¯was neither easier nor more difficult in 1640 than it is in 2007. Jesus himself was nowhere to be seen in 1640, and the only witnesses to the truth of his claims were found in ancient manuscripts, the veracity of which were easily doubted.
"Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West," Weinberg says, "can be laid at the door of science." The problem with this formulation is that it conflates, or anyhow fails to distinguish between, the religious character of a person and that of a society. People of a skeptical disposition commonly suppose that because modern science has provided them with a reason to disbelieve the claims of religion, or because they think it has, modern science must therefore be the generating force behind secularization itself¯that historical progression, evident in the West since the Renaissance, in which habits and institutions are less and less influenced by religious doctrine.
This supposition is mistaken. Secularization has to do above all with outward practice, not with inward conviction. It is a cultural transformation that allows people to cease observing what they don’t really believe. Its driving forces are commerce and urbanization, not scientific "proofs" for the nonexistence of God or the unreliability of the Bible or even discoveries about the nature of the material world. These last factors, whatever their merits, have been around for thousands of years and as antagonists of religious faith are neither stronger nor weaker than they ever were. The number of "Christians" in the West, defining that term loosely, has obviously and dramatically dropped off in the last half-century. Still, I find it difficult to believe that the number of people who now believe in, say, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is substantially fewer than was the case two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago. And even in Western Europe, where Western secularization has reached its furthest point, people disbelieve not because they’ve consciously rejected Christianity but because they know scarcely anything about it.
The point here is not that secularization is unimportant or that it hasn’t had profound (and in recent decades woeful) consequences for Western societies. The point, rather, is that Steven Weinberg and people like him are committing a grave error in historical interpretation when they posit a causal relationship between secularization and the advance of modern science. Such theories are always dangerous, tending as they do to cultivate contempt¯and eventually hatred¯for whatever stands in the way of what is determined to be "progress." Inevitably, at some point, "religious certitude" will cease merely to irk skeptical intellectuals and will be perceived as a concrete obstacle to that progress. And then what?
Barton Swaim (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives and works in Columbia, South Carolina.
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