Has Science Killed God? By,NORMAN PODHORETZ
Posted by madcap on March 4, 2008
Norman Podhoretz traces, from the time of Galileo, the various conflicts and connections between religion and science. While it was in becoming “modest” that the human mind seemed to have grown to superhuman proportions, it soon forgot, in the headiness of its accomplishments, the respect for its own limits. Now the idea spread that reason in the form of science had shown that it, not God, was omnipotent and was on its way to usurping the divine attribute of omniscience as well. (This is the pathology of vMEME #5, or gay science)
“By the 19th century, with the advent of Charles Darwin, the new philosophy had descended from the planets to the apes. And with this shift, the so-called war between religion and science, which Bacon had denied would ever occur, heated up to a veritable frenzy. Like so many of the scientists who had come before him, Darwin protested that he was not a nonbeliever and he insisted that his discovery of the descent of man from the apes did not refute the essential truths of religion.
But to little avail. There were (and still are) desperate efforts by many Christians either to refute Darwin or to find a way of maintaining their faith in the biblical ac count of creation in the teeth of his work. Great outpourings of religious enthusiasm even occurred here and there. And yet when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed toward the end of the 19th century that God was dead, he was expressing a very wide spread feeling, often secretly held, that few others had the nerve to articulate s boldly,
Nietzsche welcomed the death of God as a necessary precondition for the fruition of human greatness. But his older Russian contemporary, the great novelist Foodor Dostoevsky, like John Donne before him, was appalled by the consequences that the victory of science over religion were likely to bring with it. If God was dead, he said (through the mouth of one of his characters, Ivan Karamazov), then everything was permitted.
At this point in the story, we run into another fascinating paradox. While it was in becoming “modest” that the human mind seemed to have grown to superhuman proportions, it soon forgot, in the headiness of its accomplishments, the respect for its own limits that had made the gigantic accomplishments of reason possible in the first place. Now the idea spread that reason in the form of science had shown that it, not God, was omnipotent and was on its way to usurping the divine attribute of omniscience as well.
And so it came about that modesty was replaced by the puffed-up pride the Greeks called hubris. The likes of the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century and then Auguste Comte in the 19th asserted that science need not even be restricted to the physical world; it could be adapted to the social world just as successfully. “Social science” could design plans for an ideal society, and in implementing them, it could at the same time — or so the most utopian of these social engineers expected — reshape and perfect human nature itself.
If, according to Dostoevsky, the death of God meant that everything (evil) was now permitted, the new worshippers of reason believed that everything (good) was now possible. But Dostoevsky was a better prophet than the utopian rationalists on the other side, as the grisly horrors perpetrated by the two main totalitarian systems that sprang up in the 20th century would demonstrate.
For both communism and Nazism were forms of social engineering based on supposedly scientific foundations. The communists who took over in Russia in 1917 explicitly saw themselves as “scientific socialists;’ carrying out the hither-to hidden laws of History as unearthed by the mind of Karl Marx and creating as they went along the “new Soviet man.” As for the Nazis, they justified their slaughter of Jews and others as part of a program of putatively scientific eugenics that would purify the human race and create the higher breed foreseen by Nietzsche in his vision of the superman…
Hence totalitarianism failed to make a dent in the hubris of the religion of science. But the atom bomb did manage to trigger a recoil among the physicists who had invented it. In yet another of the paradoxes that keep cropping up here, this most vivid demonstration of the seemingly limitless power of science brought about something of a return to Galileo’s modesty. Scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had supervised the project, took to agonizing over what science had wrought and were beset by doubts about its role in the total scheme of things.
In yielding to these doubts, Oppenheimer and others had been preceded by several scientist-philosophers, of whom the most eminent was probably Alfred North Whitehead. In Science and the Modern World (1925), Whitehead, from within a generally scientific worldview, raised deep questions about the idea that science provided an exhaustive account of reality. “Religion,” he wrote approvingly, “is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things.”
Podhoretz, Norman. “Has Science Killed God?” Wall Street Journal (February, 2000).