Reflections on “The Question of God,” part 2
Program Two of the Question of God (www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod) is titled, “Science or Revelation.” It takes us into the world of science in the late 19th Century–a world Sigmund Freud would make his home for the rest of his life. Here the “naturalistic” worldview held sway and was gaining increasing power to shape culture.
The path to Freud’s naturalistic worldview goes back much farther in Western Civilization then the 19th Century. It began with the “Natural Philosophers” of Ancient Greece, also known as the “Pre-Socratics.” Xenophanes famously observed, “Man has created the gods in their own image.” As their name implies, these early mathematicians and naturalists sought natural rather than supernatural explanations for why things were as they were. They rejected the mythical stories of the gods as rationale for natural phenomena, speculating variously that truer answers were to be found in basic constituent substances and the natural interactions between them that produced change.
Their initial emphasis on the four elements (earth, water, air, fire) initiated the empirical quest for explanations about the world that could be observed, experienced, and explained. As panelist Michael Shermer put it, “All phenomenon have natural explanations. There is no supernatural, there’s just the natural and stuff we can’t yet explain.” Three important early Greeks provide a basic framework for the naturalistic worldview that influences science down to our time. Parmenides focused on the constants in the natural world, concluding that human reason (rationalism) is the primary path to knowledge. Heraclitus thought since natural world was always in a state of flux, and our senses helped us discern the “universal reason” (logos!) behind all this change (empiricism). Democritus proposed the existence of immutable, irreducible particles (“atoms”) that constituted all “knowable” reality (materialism).
The Classical and Medieval worldviews that influenced C. S. Lewis will be more thoroughly considered later, but suffice to say that the interplay between natural and supernatural played a more significant role in the cosmology of those periods. While the “scientific revolution” of the Renaissance and Baroque era gave us Copernicus and Galileo’s heliocentric universe; Bacon’s Scientific Method; Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”; and Newton’s Universal Laws; these “new views” remained rooted in a worldview heavily influenced by Christian understandings of the uniqueness of human agency in the cosmos.
The Enlightenment’s emphasis on human reason and rejection of traditional authority (particularly religious authority) was followed in the 19th Century by the impact of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. By the time Freud was taking up serious scientific and medical studies, the influence of rationalism, empiricism, and materialism on the scientific worldview was profound. Man was a highly-evolved, thinking animal progress-ing toward an ever greater understanding of—and control over—the natural world and his place in it.
Freud the scientist argues vehemently against the existence of God. He points to the problem of suffering and he develops the psychological argument that the whole concept is nothing but a projection of a childish wish for parental protection from the vicissitudes and sufferings of human existence. He also argues against the objection of those holding the spiritual worldview that faith “is of divine origin and was given us as a revelation by a Spirit which the human spirit cannot comprehend.” Freud says this “is a clear case of begging the question” and adds, “The actual question raised is whether there is a divine spirit and a revelation by it, and the matter is certainly not decided by saying this question cannot be asked.”
Learn more about Science, Revelation and the Human Story—
Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (U. Chicago, 1998); Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science (J. Hopkins, 2010)
Thomas Cahill, The Hinges of History Series (Doubleday, 5 volumes, more planned): How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995); The Gifts of the Jews (1998); Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (2001); Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter (2004); Mysteries of the Middle Ages (2006)