Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion

Demonizing religion

The attitude I am promoting in this blog is to admit that what passes for “religion” in the world is a mixed bag, some of it bad, terrible; some of it good, wonderful. It runs to both extremes (and so does atheism). I have also offered other words as a help to get at what “religion” is meant to be about. I have offered the word “reconnection”, for example, which I got from Brian McLaren’s helpful book, “Naked Spirituality”. My own favourite word for it is “recognition”. You can see a longer definition on the Home page of this blog.

In this post I want to comment on the practice of demonizing religion. To “demonize” is to portray as wicked or threatening, and the term is especially appropriate when this is done thoughtlessly or automatically, as if it is an agreed thing.

I noticed a small but telling example in a physics lecture at Oxford University. The lecture was about the concept of emergence, and the fact that Newton’s formulation, in which large-scale behaviour is derived from equations of motion of microscopic constituent particles, does not always work. The lecturer attributed the grand style of Newton’s contribution in part to Newton’s religious commitments, but what is interesting, what is really telling, is that the lecturer did not do that in order to celebrate the tremendously insightful contribution of that style. No, he only mentioned ‘religion’ when he wanted to point out the sense in which Newton’s approach does not work. Newton’s religion did not need to be mentioned when the lecturer celebrated the profound and important work which Newton’s Principia achieved. But when the lecturer invited us to think about emergence in effective field theory—a style of physical reasoning not correctly captured by the sort of approach adopted in Principia—then he chose to mention Newton’s religion, putting it in the role of limiter or misleader (but not promoter of what Newton got right).

You see, for a certain mind-set, ‘religion’ is always the bogey-man: as long as Newton’s physics was right, then he was not religious, or only incidentally so. Then as soon as we decide that Newton’s physics was wrong after all, then suddenly we can call him religious, or invoke his religious commitments. It is almost beyond parody.




This diagram is there simply because it is used to illustrate an effective field theory described by Junhyun Lee and Subir Sachdev in Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 226801 (2015) .



1 Comment

  1. It is indeed! Couldn’t agree more and as someone interested in the interface between religion, philosophy and science I can confirm this is the case – at least in my experience. Of course this is particularly manifest in UK – the same is not necessarily true say in Italy or Poland where religion is part of life, not some troublesome oddity to be eradicated by the utopian march of science and secularims. It doesn’t of course help that sometimes one sees barely veiled arrogance in relation to the southern Europeans or Catholics. Interestingly enough I am neither Italian nor a Catholic nor English nor Anglican, which I believe gives my observation at least some objectivity – or so I hope. The dominant ‘English narrative’ (for want of a better description) is that religion is troublesome; better choose cricket. The real trouble of course is that choosing cricket doesn’t help with those who choose religion – and so we have the current climate where Christians are villified while Islam is appeased.

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