The Decline of Christian Belief in the Age of Science

Edward Holloway FAITH Magazine July-August 2008 s

For the first time we publish extracts from a 1950 book written by Fr Edward Holloway, “Matter and Mind: A Christian Synthesis”. Only a dozen copies were made at the time using one of the original Gestetner machines. The book’s subsequent history is recounted in the introduction to Agnes Holloway’s God’s Master Key (Faith Publications). Based upon these extracts, which are taken from Chapter Two, and from the vantage point of 21st Century Britain, we think it is fair to say that the founder of Faith movement and magazine saw what was coming.

“The implications of a philosophy of evolution closely wedded to experimental science ... shook Christian theology to its foundations and ... now imperils the entire edifice of Christendom. ... (The) trend from essentialism to existentialism does not of itself conflict with Christianity. But orthodox Christianity ... has not been able to synthesise adequately and orientate this philosophical emphasis so native to modern thought. The fool on the other hand has rushed in where the angels feared to tread, and the case for Christianity is being lost by the default of the defendants.”

The alienation of the modern mind from stable doctrinal Christianity which increases with each decade of the century, does not proceed haphazardly from private doubts upon a thousand and one points of belief. In terms of ultimate causes the factors which have brought on the intellectual and spiritual sickness of our civilisation are relatively few. It is true of course that a few root causes of disbelief may start a train of indirect consequences which may be for an individual the primary cause of loss of Christian faith. It is true also that an environment of disregard for the authority of doctrinal Christianity facilitates the ready and immediate acceptance of any criticism or objection against Christian faith or morals, – especially morals, – and that for the majority of men,particularly for the majority of the young, these latter are the immediate and primary causes of individual apostasy.

True though this is, no analysis however acute of immediate causes and immediate reasons for the decline in the prestige of Christianity can be the starting-point of remedy and recovery, if these immediate causes are subordinate in nature, time, and importance to underlying causes the importance of which is minimised or even overlooked. There are we believe certain factors, quite definite in themselves and easy to see, which almost alone are the root causes of the tension between the Church and the spirit of the age.

These few factors must be stated bluntly and dealt with honestly. We do not deny or dismiss lightly reasons alleged for disbelief which are far removed from those of which we will treat. It has already been admitted that these essential factors, with us now a hundred years, have bred an atmosphere of agnosticism in society which the adolescent breathes in effortlessly and unconsciously. Each generation hardens in this groove, each element of new knowledge gathered from science is interpreted in a manner hostile to Christian doctrine, and so each generation breeds another farther removed from traditional Christian teaching than itself. This drift away from the Rock of the Church is given impetus by the fact that the prevailing philosophical and social outlook of the churchman isdistasteful to the young.

An Unscientific Church

The mind of the churchman, especially of the Catholic priest, is still trained in the static formalism of Aristotle and the cultural tradition of the great classics and the arts. In a Catholic seminary very little modern science is taught at all and then only as an appendage to established scholastic philosophy. It is never taught as the physical background to newer and wider interpretations of the creative act of God, and of the implications of theology. Such a mentality, ignorant of sociology, of economics, of psychology, of physics, of biology, is intolerable to young and virile minds trained in the tradition of the modern sciences, and the philosophies of existentialism that derive from them. The churchman therefore has no capacity to inspire this dominant caste of mind in modernsociety, nor can he fashion, on the basis of a common cultural inheritance, the blue-prints of philosophy and theology which a new era in human history is seeking.

There are released in society today vivid intellectual energies of which the average priest is almost entirely ignorant, and even if he knows them, he neither understands them nor sympathises with them. Yet these are the raw material of a new civilisation, the mighty and magnificent energies that call for control and direction towards a final purpose, a constructive end. These are the very energies that must be synthesised in a unity of wisdom if any absolute meaning and last goal is to be offered for human striving or affirmed of the human person in a modern culture.

Because of this gulf between the Church and the scientific mind, men turn more determinedly towards those philosophies of life which however grave their shortcomings and whatever their lack of ultimate moral authority, think and speak the mental language of the world today, not of the world of Aristotle nor even of the world of mediaeval scholasticism. The adolescent therefore grows to maturity in an environment of conscious and outspoken contempt for orthodox Christianity and the Church stands increasingly discredited because she has been unable to formulate an intellectualism that will embody the well-proven theses of modern science within Christianity in the same thorough-going manner as the scholastics of the Middle Ages embodied the knowledge of their day within the culturalframework of mediaeval Christianity.

The gulf widens with each generation, and modern means of diffusing knowledge by the press, radio, and film, have brought us now to such a pass that the Christian, and especially the Catholic, whose beliefs are enriched in their religious manifestation by the ceremonies and practices of a most ancient past, finds himself considered the initiate of a recondite cult whose practices are not only unintelligible to men around him, but savour to them of superstition and magic. This cleavage between the devout Catholic and the non-Christian or the nominal Christian stands out in sharper contrast as technical and scientific education replaces the classics in our schools, and moulds an ever increasing percentage of the minds who really make and rule the cultural thought of the times.

Attacking Christianity

We can say of many of the secondary lines of attack upon Christian dogma drawn from the modern sciences and modern critique that the interpretations offered of the evidence is never necessary, and that frequently the evidence itself is too scrappy and too little evaluated as fact to be worth considering. This is particularly true of the modernist “higher criticism” of the Scriptures, and of that wonderful happy hunting ground of leisured cranks, – the study of comparative religion. It is not intrinsic evidence in these spheres which compel conclusions that empty out the content of the Christian faith. It is – and this is the real point – the thought and the presumption that there can be no reconciliation of these theories with historic Christianity, which places upon the critic thesubjective necessity of a modernist interpretation, whether it be idealist or materialist.

If for example the Christian Gospels are considered by themselves without any background of definite belief, or any authoritative norm of interpretation, all sorts of meanings can be put upon the bare words, the more so if the critic is ready and willing to make the early disciples of Christ neurotics, hysterics, or downright liars as the occasion may demand. This sort of critique of the scriptures in general and of the New Testament in particular, is in no way the necessary interpretation of the historic evidences, it is simply the only way a given critic can interpret them in the context of his own preconceived judgement upon the authority of Christian teaching.

The same process of deduction masquerading as analytic induction can be traced in other fields. In psychology above all, theories and judgements concerning the final ends of human motive and human impulse are offered as facts discovered by the analysis of the human mind, which are nothing more than the laughably obvious presumptions of agnostic materialists concerning the abnormal behaviour of minds in any case diseased. Indeed, if the digression may be pardoned, we say without hesitation that one of the most fatuous errors of much so-called psychology and psychiatry lies in the preoccupation of psychologists with pathological cases. After delving around in the sewers of humanity, they come smellily to the surface and from their findings gravely pronounce judgements true of human naturein general. It should be obvious even to the most blinkered specialist that if you wish to know the true orientation and true function of anything living, you must analyse the finest and noblest specimens, not those that are rotting in the last stages of disease.

However damaging these a priori critiques drawn from modern sciences may be to the authority of Christianity, and even though they may constitute the proximate and conscious motives for unbelief in the minds of those who make them, they are only secondary and derived factors. They are secondary because historically and philosophically they have a different pedigree, being based upon a few preconceived ideas concerning the nature and processes of the universe, and of man, upon which the whole concatenation of objections hinge. To find these real causes of the modern drift from the Church in Christendom we need to go much further back into the case history of the modern malaise than the more dramatic symptoms of the current year of grace or disgrace. Christian theology itself hasdeveloped from the latent potentialities of the mustard seed, and it may also be that the spreading anti-Christian bias of so much modern thought may be a development of a few simple theses, which if they can be resolved in accordance with Christian orthodoxy and synthesised within Christian theology, will give us the master key with which to unlock all lesser riddles and the power to harness the great creative energies of our times to that culture of Christendom which it bids fair to dissolve.

The Problem of Evolution

Foremost among those discoveries which have revolutionised the thought of the world in countless direct and indirect ways, we place the doctrine of the evolution of material forms of being, organic and inorganic. This teaching owes nearly everything it has to-day to the initial impetus given it by Darwin in the last century. It is not to our purpose here to trace the rise of this teaching, already pre-existing among philosophers in the dialectic of fact to the dust of speculation so that from the philosophic desert blossomed forth the scientific rose. The implications of a philosophy of evolution closely wedded to experimental science were tremendous, and the repercussions are not finished in our own day. This above all was the bombshell which shook Christian theology to its foundationsand caused a gradual landslide beneath those foundations which now imperils the entire edifice of Christendom.

As far as the Church was concerned, it meant that the Christian Bible could not be interpreted with the same guileless ease as a schools’ elementary primer, containing over some six thousand years the history of the world in detail to the present day. To most of the Protestant sects this was a mortal blow. Their Christian faith rested on the application of subjective personal opinion to an objective and infallible body of fact, the inerrant and literally infallible Bible. The stability of their teaching, never of the highest degree as the proliferation of sects testifies, was preserved in so far as it could be preserved, by the assurance of the infallibility of their final court of appeal. They now found themselves in a situation where the subjectivism of their “free Bible” was matched bythe subjectivism and uncertainty of the literally true “word of God” itself. They had no longer any firm ground of authoritative Christian teaching when the Bible itself became a work subject to comparative criticism and enigmatic interpretation. There remained now no canon, except again personal opinion, by which to redefine the very nature of inspiration, let alone to distinguish between the substance of doctrine and its mode of presentation – a distinction they had never been willing to admit before in any case.

This difficulty lay like a great sorrow upon all theologians whose last norm of belief was nothing more certain than private interpretation of the Bible, and while it broke the faith of some, it serves also, paradox though it may seem, to explain how it was that so many non-Catholic exegetes found it easy to strip themselves of theological vesture and to plunge wildly with the higher critics into the maelstrom of that speculative free-for-all and devaluation of Christian dogma which followed. Only for the Roman Catholic did the parity of Christian teaching remain unchanged, a phenomenon which has continued, to the amazement and indignation of other Christians, even to the present time.

Catholic Reaction

It was true in strict theory and remains true, that the Catholic Church was not directly compromised in her essential doctrine by the knocking away of those props which underpinned individualist Protestantism; yet conservative theological opinion, prone to the same type of literalism since the triumph of Aristoteleanism in the schools of the Church, had swallowed a very bitter pill, or rather refused to swallow it. In their reaction against scientific scepticism, and scientific generalisation which were as sweeping and as prejudiced as any theological temerity, they failed to distinguish the root causes of the new unbelief from the arrogance of the unbelievers, and met with equal contempt and malediction what could only be properly answered by the careful separation of fact frompresumption and prejudice on either side. Theologians had become both over-assertive and over-sensitive to error since the challenge of Protestantism, and many Catholics among the educated, formed in a deep rut that allowed no distinction between doctrine and common theological opinion, found their faith hardly less troubled than did their non-Catholic brethren.

Evolutionism and Agnosticism

Even more destructive however to those articles of dogma without which Christianity cannot survive as a religion, nor Christendom as a culture, are the myriad indirect consequences of the acceptance of evolution in the setting of a materialist or pantheist philosophy of life, settings which are almost exclusively associated today with the fact of evolution. Similarities of development, part of, or parallel to the processes discovered in biology, are now recognised in all branches of empirical science, and have justifiably resulted in the universal acceptance by the intelligentsia of all countries of evolutionary philosophies of matter and of the nature of living beings. Inevitably and necessarily this has changed the approach of modern philosophers to man, and to the universe from whichbackground he cannot be divorced. This trend from essentialism to existentialism does not of itself conflict with Christianity. But orthodox Christianity, which in effect means Catholicism, has not been able to synthesise adequately and orientate this philosophical emphasis so native to modern thought. The fool on the other hand has rushed in where the angels feared to tread, and the case for Christianity is being lost by the default of the defendants.

Belief in the existence of a personal God has declined as men have found the influence of mutually relative natural agencies, – environment, natural selection, organic composition, conditioned functional reaction etc., able to account for natural phenomena that before were related to more general causes or even to the First Cause. The Christian indeed has always recognised the immediate primacy of secondary causes in the bringing about of natural phenomena, but as serial causes have been traced further back, and their astonishing inter-dependence demonstrated, the scientist has tended to proclaim either a mathematical universe in which theses secondary causes may be identified with some primary basic formula, or equation, synonymous in definition with a physical ultimate, a universe inwhich God has no place; or else he has preferred to identify intellect with matter itself and has come to accept that idealistic cosmic pantheism which is almost as common a philosophy today as evolutionary materialism.

The classic proofs for the existence of God derived by the Church in their most accurate form from St. Thomas Aquinas, and the later proofs propounded by such moderns as Descartes, Leibnitz and Kant, have all equally fallen into disrepute. This may be partly because the moderns had some success in undermining confidence in the classic proofs by their criticism without winning any lasting confidence in their own, but the main cause is not any defect in the proofs for the existence of God, at least in the classic proofs, but the general discredit which has fallen upon all systems of thought which ante-date the last century.

Anti-Christian Spirit

Men will not tolerate thought that is expressed in the mental dress of ages totally devoid of modern knowledge, especially when the modern presentation ignores that new knowledge or utilises it only incidentally. When so many syntheses of thought have been shown to be too small a garment to fit a growing world of knowledge, when so many preconceptions have had to be revised in every field of knowledge, the modern man is in no sympathetic mood to listen to proofs for the existence of a personal God unless the very knowledge he has so recently acquired can be geared to the demonstration of such an Absolute. He will not require not merely that the new knowledge be used as the foundation of the proof, but that the very spirit and atmosphere of the new knowledge enter in such a way into thedemonstration of God’s existence, that the complexities and confusions of human thought engendered by the new knowledge shall be resolved in harmonious unity in the postulate of God’s existence, nature, and relation to created being.

We concede that not all who doubt the existence of a personal God do so because they accept the theory of evolution, whether the word be restricted to biology or enlarged to its cosmic significance, but we do say, and from experience know, that most modern agnosticism is bound up with those non-theistic philosophies of evolution that stream off from Hegel as their modern fountain-head. The real content of many so-called modern difficulties are as old as the eternal hills, as old as human pride, as hoary as the “non serviam” which was uttered by the first man and has been re-echoed since down the centuries.

When however to the legacy of criticisms ancient and near-modern there is added the firm acceptance of evolutionary philosophies of materialism or idealism contradictory in trend to Christian teaching, then every new difficulty, every fresh confusion of unabsorbed knowledge, every apparent retreat of conscious mind before reflex conditioned action, is taken as a new refutation of traditional Christian belief.

Conclusion

German philosophy and the idea of evolution have so combined since Darwin, – for all philosophy is an appreciation and interpretation of reality – that it is not now possible to unravel the tangled threads of fact and theory, physics and metaphysics. In reading the works of modern thinkers one cannot tell at a glance whether facts are the motivation of some new critique of religious values, or whether the unconscious theoretical assumptions of general theory permeates the presentation of new data, because physics and metaphysics, – or dialectics, – are so intertwined in modern thought that irrelevant presumptions creep into the work of even the most honest minds. Alongside this stream of modern philosophic and scientific thought, we have the Christian Church, labouring hard to preserveher inheritance and at last gaining a little in Europe, but mainly because of the bitter fruits already ripening in the communist-atheist countries, not because of any new stirring from within herself. The fruits of human lust, pride, and fear, when man supplants God are terrible and inevitable, but a recoil from the new barbarism of the mind already apparent behind the Iron Curtain will not suffice to build a new and positive culture in opposition to the Tyranny of the new errors. The Catholic Christian Church requires itself a principle of cosmic unity that will bind in one whole all wisdom natural and revealed; a principle which will give to Christianity a grandeur and a truth that will far outshine its rivals, and give to man with its deeper truth, the humility, charity and promise ofmercy that comes only of subjection to God, a subjection for which the heart of man cries out. If this can be done, or even well begun, then the doctrines of the Faith, true in all ages, can be developed anew and interpreted in a wider sweep to reveal to modern man the character of the new era he is entering, and the character of Christ who has from the beginning made wise provision for all human needs in all epochs of history until the end of time. Then, and only then, will the Church be able to inspire and inform those new patterns of international culture that must emerge if the new energies of human life are to be constructively deployed.

 

Faith Magazine

July - August 2008