Faith in Religious Truth

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The Catholic historian Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute, a scholarly organization which contends religion has been too much neglected in public discourse, and whose stated purpose is to bring “Faith and Reason to bear on all the issues that confront us.” In “The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West” (Encounter Books, 311 pages, $25.95), Mr. Royal points out that far from being dead as Nietzsche proclaimed more than a century ago, God is very much alive in today’s world, and that a large proportion of the people who were supposed to be liberated by secularism have roundly rejected it.

Although Mr. Royal announces his status as a culture warrior in his first paragraph, with a (justifiably) snide comment about departments of comparative religion, “The God That Did Not Fail” is by no means pure polemic. Its blurb advertises it as “an original reading” of the role of religion in Western history from antiquity to the present day, and it succeeds on that level. His claim that ancient Greece was not the rationalistic culture the 19th century reimagined in its own image but one in which religion was intimately woven into its world view and its schools of philosophy is convincing. His argument that the medieval and Renaissance battles between pope and emperor were not merely exercises in thuggery but an “ongoing and productive quarrel between religious and political authority” and that, far from being a drawback, the resulting “division of Western civilization between a sacred and a secular power … has been the source of much of our restless exploration and our discontent with mere inherited forms,” I found persuasive, or at least worthy of consideration.

Mr. Royal’s belief that religion has acted as a restraint on human cruelty rather than an instigation to it addresses a question that probably will never be settled satisfactorily. He points out, as others have, that anti-religious regimes like Mao’s and Stalin’s murdered many more people than religious persecutions ever did. While this is certainly true, Mr. Royal does not take into account the fact that ideology functions as a sort of religion in its own right, offering its acolytes the feeling of transcendence normally associated with faith, and the sublimation of the ego in a larger cause. As history, “The God That Did Not Fail” is full of such issues and questions: There’s much to agree with, much to argue with, and many contentions that impel the reader to rethink long-held positions.

But when Mr. Royal launches into the anti-secular polemic that underlies the book’s philosophy — in his introduction, for instance — his critical thinking goes on hold. This learned man commits countless logical lapses and displays a scientific ignorance that can only be willful. For example: “Scientific atheism, strictly speaking, is itself a kind of faith since science itself has nothing to say about God one way or the other.” Maybe not; but it does have plenty to say about dogma and miracles, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise. Mr. Royal maintains (and it should be pointed out that two of the lowest demons in his personal “Inferno” are Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson) that religion is not likely to be a factor in natural selection since “[n]owhere else does a false picture of the world in which we live aid our chances of survival.” This is demonstrably untrue: What about placebos, the power of positive thinking, or the virtual impossibility of visualizing one’s own inevitable death? All these impressions are false, yet they clearly aid our own survival and that of the species. Current advances in neuroscience are extraordinary, and are radically changing our understanding of the human animal for better or worse. If Mr. Royal had bothered to read fascinating new books like Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought,” Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith,” or Dean H. Hamer’s “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired Into Our Genes,” his idées fixes might be deeply challenged. He has elected not to do so, though he feels qualified to dismiss them anyway. “The God Gene alone,” he writes,

cannot tell us whether or not its products are true — a question that amidst the countless entities in a vast cosmos is asked only by human beings [at least so far as Mr. Royal knows]. Something else, an intellectual component that we know is not reducible to chemical reactions in our brains, and perhaps even a supernatural element, is needed for that. The dog-chasing-its-tail quality of arguments by neuroscientists and other strict naturalists about human consciousness is a sign that we cannot entirely understand ourselves in the terms we use to understand most of the rest of the world.

This passage is so solipsistic one hardly knows where to begin. First of all, Mr. Royal ignores the fundamental distinction between religion, adherence to a specific faith, and spirituality, which can be defined as a capability of self-transcendence that predisposes certain people to religious lives; the latter quality can, indeed, be reduced to chemical reactions in our brains, and certain practices, such as prayer, yoga, and meditation, have been seen visibly to alter brain chemistry. Contemporary Europe’s retreat from religion (which Mr. Royal deplores) toward a vague “spirituality” demonstrates that while the dogma of certain creeds might be discredited, the human need for transcendence is eternal, and it is most certainly hardwired into many of us, whatever Mr. Royal might wish to believe.

But it is pointless to argue with the author on too many specifics. Suffice it to say that he makes a traditional Catholic argument for the importance of the Christian religion in shaping Western history, culture, and political philosophy, and of course he is correct on this point. But when he implies that because religion is good (according to his view) it must be true, the book collapses. Philosophy, which Mr. Royal respects when it comes from an Augustine or an Aquinas, can be defined after all as a search for truth. If our contemporary philosophers (a group that most certainly includes Messrs. Dawkins and Wilson) follow truth in directions that are disturbing to Christian traditionalists, we have an obligation as heirs to the Western tradition to respect that search. Even Augustine, as Mr. Royal says, said that truth by whomever spoken is from God.

Ms. Allen’s most recent book, “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers,” will be published this month by Ivan R. Dee. She last wrote for these pages about the Hudson River.

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