Seeing Things: The Two Cultures Revisited

Ever since C.P. Snow delivered his famous 1959 lectures, “The Two Cultures,” the English-speaking world has had a ready-made formula to sort out the problems created by the immense power and prestige of science and technology on the one hand and the uncertain status of the rest of human knowledge on the other. But this attempt to clarify our culture by dividing it made the confusion worse. There are not two cultures—one scientific and the other, for lack of a better term, humanistic. There is only one human culture, and it encompasses everything we know and cultivate. Science and technology are simply one mode of that culture.

Of course, to put it this way invites endless arguments. We have gay cultures and world cultures, minority cultures and majority cultures, criminal culture and corporate culture (sometimes hard to tell apart). Why not science as a culture? We use the word “culture” promiscuously because it seems to prevent conflicts by assigning things to separate groups that are expected to leave one another alone. But modern science is the most powerful of these groups, and when it is given the status of culture, it tends to gobble up all the other cultures, setting itself up as arbiter and defining what is a legitimate culture for everyone else. Many argue that it does not have to be this way. Scientific and non-scientific disciplines, they say, should each respect their own proper limits. But in fact, today it is usually the scientists who cannot refrain from cross-border raids.

Take the prominent British Darwinian Richard Dawkins, who is the (portentously titled) Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. Dawkins has made a name for himself by assailing the persistence of religion, philosophy, poetry, and many of the other human activities that constitute culture—as if these represented a threat to modern science. About religion, for example, Dawkins has opined: “It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, ‘mad cow’ disease, and many others, but I think the case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”

Dawkins is admittedly an extreme case, but it is telling that someone possessed of such a narrow mind has been appointed by a leading English university to help the public to a better understanding of science. It’s the moral equivalent of Oxford appointing a flat-earth creationist as Professor for the Public Understanding of Religion.

Fortunately, the university does better on that subject. It boasts one of the brightest lights in contemporary evangelical theology, Alister McGrath. A convert who once studied molecular biophysics, McGrath has been laboring mightily over the past few years to give us a better idea of the relationship between science and culture. His latest book, The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis (Doubleday, 2002), starts out as a defense of the Christian view of Creation. McGrath denies that Christianity lies at “the historical roots of our ecological crisis”—the claim of a highly influential article of the same name by Lynn White. This is well-trod ground, and McGrath adds little to what other Christian ecologists have said already. The Christian view of Creation precludes our thinking of nature—or treating it—merely as material for human use. It was the disenchantment of the world after the Enlightenment that cut human action free from age-old Christian and even pre-Christian constraints. The proper Christian attitude towards the world is one of affection and reverence; we are to tend it as one tends a garden.

All quite true, but it leaves the hard decisions untouched. We have to make use of the world in order to live, sometimes to the sorrow of other creatures. It is not an easy matter to decide when quite aggressive uses of nature are justified for the sake of human populations or when stewardship counsels us to live more simply.

But McGrath is after much bigger game: He wants us to recapture a sense of the holiness of nature that science, as we know it, typically denies. Scientists themselves are not always the problem. As McGrath points out, about 40 percent of professional scientists are openly religious. So far from thinking that scientific knowledge undermines belief, many scientists are convinced that their religious beliefs undergird their efforts to understand the wonders of the world. Nor do they think of religion as particularly authoritarian. Eminent scientists such as Freeman Dyson have reminded us that the truly murderous ideas in recent centuries have been secular, notably the two forms of atheistic socialism that were pushed by Hitler and Stalin.

But how do we arrive at a different sense of the world? McGrath believes, to begin with, that the sheer desolation of the modern scientific view of the world lies behind the recent resurgence of religion. We are somehow programmed to ask questions about overall meaning in our lives. Marxism, Freudianism, and other scientific theories were not able to eliminate religion. (Dawkins is at least right about the hardiness of belief.) Scientists may feel their lives are justified in hot pursuit of the next discovery, but for the mass of mankind, something else must fulfill our aspirations. And in the end, we really need a different kind of inquiry. As the prominent astrophysicist Steven Weinberg has remarked, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

Science tells us one important set of things about the world. But to assume that the models science sets up to explain certain phenomena are identical with reality itself is to practice a kind of systematic dumbness. Once we understand that there is much in the world that eludes scientific analysis, we are well on the way. These limits of rationality do not require us to impose our own wishes on a meaningless world, as many think. Rather, they invite us to open ourselves up to reality in order to discover multiple meanings and messages. For McGrath, Dawkins and his like are simplistic—even about science.

McGrath offers a very lively exposition of our various Western views of nature and underscores the richness of our civilization’s ascetic traditions—Celtic spirituality, the Franciscan movement, and the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. Of course, we have fallen too far for any easy recovery of the sense of the sacred in nature. But if you are looking for a genial and reliable guide to this urgent task, there are few better companions than Alistei McGrath.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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