17 August 2003

The loss of faith

Here is an article written by a 26-year-old Philip E. Wentworth for the Atlantic Monthly in 1932: “What College Did to My Religion.” The author tells the tragic tale of how, as a young man, he was moved by an undergraduate Harvard education, not only to abandon his previous plans to become a Presbyterian minister, but to renounce his christian faith altogether. To be sure, his argument is not a particularly sophisticated one. Somewhat surprisingly, it amounts to nothing more than his professors persuading him that his childhood view of “a universe which revolved about the central figure of an omnipotent Deity” could not stand up to a more scientific view in which “[a]ll events in history were manifestations of cause and effect operating upon the natural level.” In short, a fairly naïve conception of science rather too easily vanquished religious faith from his heart.

One comes away from reading Wentworth’s personal apologia with the feeling that he might have come through Harvard with faith intact if only someone had bothered to open him up to the reality of multiple levels of causality. Surely it is not that difficult to grasp that a biological or chemical explanation for a given phenomenon does not rule out social or psychological motives. The fact that feelings of romantic love can be analysed in terms of electrical impulses in the brain does not by any means lessen the reality of romantic love. To recognize the role medical assistance plays in curing an illness is hardly to deny the hand of God and the efficacy of his people’s prayers in the patient’s recovery.

What I find especially curious about such stories is precisely this: The narrowing of vision and the discovery of a supposedly single, naturalistic form of causality comes disguised as an opening of one’s vistas to the real world. By contrast, those who retain a worldview recognizing the inescapable complexity of the cosmos and who refuse to see it as self-contained are almost always portrayed as cramped and closed-minded. Yet would it not make more sense to assume that those who, with the psalmist (e.g., in Psalm 104), take joy in the sheer variety of God’s creation and live their lives accordingly are the open-minded ones? Would it not be more accurate to judge that those buying into reductionist explanations of reality have the narrower minds? Yet the peculiarly modern prejudice to the contrary dies hard, and there are still plenty of people willing to take it at face value, particularly in the academy and the popular media.

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