The Myth of Religious Neutrality
Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).1,2
In his book Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, Czech president Václav Havel noted that “as soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.”3
The Question of Authority
In order to uncover why “man began considering himself . . . the measure of everything,” we must go far back in history.4 The ancient Greeks had numerous gods, who were full of evil passions. For example, the chief god Zeus was believed to brutalize and even murder his fellow gods and human beings.5 By the fifth century BCE it became clear to Greek thinkers that society could not survive such “divine” authority. In their perplexity and revulsion, Greek philosophers began turning to man himself as the source of authority. The prominent Greek sophist Protagoras (481?-411 BCE) declared, “Man is the measure of all things.”6 This conviction marked the beginning of the Age of Greek Enlightenment — the first age of humanism. Later, Plato also rejected the passionate gods.
Plato and Aristotle had a powerful influence on early Christianity. Indeed, “much of Christian theology has been formulated by using Platonism or Aristotelianism as instruments of interpretation of Christian beliefs.”7 Following Plato and Aristotle, the early Christian fathers and theologians rejected the passionate pagan gods. However, these early Christians contended for a transcendent and impassible God who had no passions at all — with no interest or concern for the humanity he had created. Thus, for nearly a thousand years the church acted in the place of God and exercised its own authority over man.8 Then, in the 14th century, a revival of Greek learning gave birth to a new age of humanism — the Renaissance.
While the Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements of the 16th century brought a revival of divine transcendence, they also revived a deterministic and impassible God — a view that was reflected in implacable communities. By the 17th century a new Age of Enlightenment was born, with a renewed conviction that man (male and female) was the measure of all things. Human reason was again exalted as man’s authority. With the exaltation of human reason, all truth became axiomatic or self-evident — completely seen by oneself.9 This conclusion excited Enlightenment thinkers everywhere. Thomas Jefferson was moved to write, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ”10 Decades later, the American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space . . . I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all . . . ”11 Other less grandiloquent spokesmen for the autonomous (self-contained) authority of man used more subdued colloquial expressions such as “the facts speak for themselves,” “it is perfectly obvious,” “it is as plain as the nose on your face.”
This new Age of Reason brought the revolutionary overthrow of established governmental authority, first in America and then in France. But the terrible excesses of the French Revolution led many to return to traditional religious authority. For example, the founding fathers of America quickly returned to their earlier colonial religious heritage. However, others merely questioned the sole validity of human reason and invoked other human attributes such as observation and experience as the ground of authority.12 These rejected all claims that human observation, knowledge and reason were grounded in prior assumptions that shaped and directed their understanding. They held what they called a “positive” view of reality.
Authority and “Positivism”
In order to appreciate the “positive” view and the “positivism” from which it comes, we need to review the life and times of the French philosopher Auguste Comte. Isidore Auguste Marie Francois Xavier Comte was born in Montpellier in the south of France on January 19, 1798. He was the only son of Catholic Royalist parents who had suffered through the riots and grisly events of the French Revolution. Auguste was an ungainly and sickly boy but both a genius and a rebel at heart. From an early age he rejected his parents’ religion and their support for a monarchical government. On the other hand, he also rejected the excesses of the French Revolution. He had a lifelong dream that true and lasting social and political order could be achieved if human beings would only respect the natural laws of human community.
About the same time that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was pondering the theory of biological evolution, Auguste Comte proposed an evolutionary theory of the human mind. He suggested that man first sought a theological or supernatural explanation for reality, based on the influence of the gods. Man then evolved to a metaphysical stage in which he sought for explanation of reality in abstract opinions. Ultimately, Comte contended that man evolves to a triumphant, positive stage in which he seeks all explanations through an objective, experiential examination of the phenomena themselves. Upon reaching these conclusions, Comte proposed a new science of sociology based on the laws of human society. He thus became the father of modern sociology.
While holding a number of minor academic positions in Paris, Comte lectured frequently and wrote extensively. His greatest work, the Course of Positive Philosophy, was published in six volumes between 1830 and 1842. These and other of Comte’s writings attracted and inspired scholars in France, Germany, England, and around the world.13 These included great thinkers such as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Dewey (1859-1952), and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). To them it was wonderful to think that human thought, behavior and relationships could be reduced to reasonable, scientific principles and that obedience to these would usher in a stable world order.14
For example, Bertrand Russell and his colleague Alfred North Whitehead applied Comte’s positivism to the field of mathematics as the ultimate human philosophy. They determined to show that mathematics followed inherent laws open to human observation, experience and reasoning, entirely independent of external assumptions or presuppositions. Their application of positivism to mathematics led to the well-known work Principia Mathematica. To many this renowned work was the summit of positivism.15
Positivism’s View of Authority Challenged
However, positivism has not gone unchallenged. As early as 1931, Kurt Göedel, a young logician at the University of Vienna, examined Bertrand Russell’s ideas incorporated in the Principia Mathematica. Göedel showed that the principles of mathematics are not self-contained nor self-evident.
This meant the Principia could not stand as the desired foundations for mathematics. Nor could one repair its deficiencies by adding more definitions and axioms, for . . . the resulting system, even though richer, would also admit of statements that could not formally be proved or disproved within that system. They would be undecidable, in the language of mathematics. The very hope of establishing foundations, ironically, was without foundation. . . . In the words of Donald Martin of the University of California at Los Angeles, “If you want to establish consistency, you need the full strength of the theory — and even more.” It would take a theory stronger than that of the Principia to prove the Principia’s consistency. Then this stronger theory would need yet a stronger one to prove that it itself was consistent, and so forth.16
One of the most serious challenges to positivism’s claim to rational, observational and experiential truth has come from the development of modern quantum physics. For example, quantum physics has found that the ultimate properties of subatomic matter are not simply “seen” by observation. Some properties are actually determined by observation. Other properties are wholly excluded by observation. Thus, observation is not capable of disclosing the “truth” of reality. As a result, some positivists actually deny the relevance or necessity of matter. For example, the traditional positivist observes a rock simply to determine its location, size, shape, weight, color and surface characteristics but dismisses the unobservable substance of the rock as irrelevant.17
However, the most radical critique of positivism is its claim that mankind, individually and collectively, exist under invariable law. This law excludes human freedom, will, responsibility, and even personhood.18
The Postmodern Struggle over Authority
Therefore, our time has witnessed a mighty human struggle. On one hand, there are those who contend that reality is defined by independent laws open to “naked” observation, experience and reasoning. On the other hand, there are those who contend that reality is not nakedly observable. As Albert Borgmann states, “The most important postmodern discovery [is] that reality is shaped by human perceptions and that human thought cannot be understood, therefore, simply as a ‘mirror of nature.’”19 Reality is obvious only to those who wear the same “glasses.” Human reality is always seen through assumptions, preconceptions or presuppositions that precede it. We all see the world through interpretive spectacles.
The struggle to show that man observes, experiences and reasons with reality only through interpretive, religious glasses was the life work of the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, professor of law at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands until his death in 1976. In 1935 he published his major four-volume work entitled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. In this work Dooyeweerd criticized the “pretended autonomy [condition or quality of being self-governing] of theoretical thought” and proceeded to show that religious belief plays a central role in all philosophical reflection. Religious belief itself, in turn, reflects belief in some form of transcendent Being or God.
Over the years, Dooyeweerd’s argument that religious convictions lie behind all theoretical and philosophical thought has been made more understandable and successfully introduced to a larger audience of scholars. In his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories,20 Roy Clouser, Dooyeweerd scholar and professor of philosophy at Trenton State University, adapts Dooyeweerd’s claims to a broader audience. Clouser contends that all philosophic and scientific theories are “regulated by a religious belief of some kind” and “that the contents of the theories differ depending on the contents of the religious beliefs they presuppose.” Following on from Dooyeweerd himself, Clouser makes the bold claim that “religious beliefs inescapably lie at the foundation of all theories in philosophy and the special sciences.” Clouser defines religious beliefs as “the . . . divinity on which all else depends.” These beliefs, in turn, are the “constitutive presupposition of the theories themselves.”21
Simply stated, religious belief stands behind all our thinking and assumptions about this world. We inescapably view this world through religious or divinized spectacles. There is no such thing as religious neutrality. If human beings do not believe and grasp the transcendent authority of a Supreme Being outside themselves, they impute that same religious authority to something inside them or to themselves. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to learn that, before his death in 1857, Auguste Comte himself founded a new religion called “positivity.” In this new religion Comte established liturgical laws, a hierarchical organization, and a religious community dedicated to the worship of humanity. Even Comte saw his positivistic world through religious glasses. Man was his god.22
Man by nature must have a final authority. If that authority is not properly located elsewhere, man will religiously bestow that authority on himself. Again, there is no religious neutrality. The great tragedy of humanism is not that it has earnestly sought to better the condition and role of humanity on this planet. The tragedy is that, apart from extramundane authority, humanism inevitably debases, despoils and destroys the humanity it seeks to save.
No human being has a “naked” view of the world. No one sees the world solely by independent observation, experience and reasoning. All mankind see the world of reality through the “glasses” of their own or others’ preconceptions, presuppositions and assumptions. Ultimately, a person’s view of God determines one’s view of this world, the meaning of this world, and one’s behavior in this world. An autonomous humanism that claims self-evidency and self-sufficiency for itself is one of the key elements now bringing our world to the present “single, common crisis.”23 If humanity is to be and to become truly human, we ourselves cannot be the measure of all things.
The next interpretive review will address another key element involved in precipitating the present global human crisis.
- Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), is available from various booksellers listed at www.bookfinder.com/book/9780268013998/. (go back)
- See Kenneth W. Hermann, “A Time for Dooyeweerd,” Perspectives 7, no. 9 (November 1992): 21, 22. (go back)
- Václav Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 11. (go back)
- Ibid. (go back)
- See William C. Placher, “Narratives of a Vulnerable God,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 14, no. 2 (1993): 134-151. (go back)
- J. Deotis Roberts, A Philosophical Introduction to Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), p. 36. (go back)
- lbid. (go back)
- See Stanley J. Grenz, “Twentieth-Century Theology: The Quest for Balance in a Transitional Age,” Perspectives 8, no. 6 (June 1993): 10-13. (go back)
- See R. Brookhiser, The Way of the WASP (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 30. (go back)
- Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (1776). (go back)
- Brookhiser, The Way of the WASP, p. 30. (go back)
- See notes 13, 14. (go back)
- See New Encyclopaedia Britannica (1992), s.v. “Comte, Auguste.” (go back)
- See ibid., s.v. “Philosophical Schools and Doctrines, Western: Positivism and Logical Empiricism.” (go back)
- See ibid. (go back)
- T. A. Heppenheimer, “The Long Shadow of Kurt Göedel,” Mosaic 21, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 2-13. (go back)
- See note 14. (go back)
- See Encyclopedia Americana (1991), s.v. “Positivism.” (go back)
- Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). See Christopher Lasch, “After the Foundations Have Crumbled,” Commonweal 119, no. 20 (November 1992): 22, 23. (go back)
- See note 1. (go back)
- Hermann, “A Time for Dooyeweerd,” pp. 21, 22. (go back)
- See note 13. (go back)
- See “‘A Single, Common Crisis,’” Outlook (Prolepsis 1993.2). (go back)
This article was originally published November 1993 under the Quest imprint.