John Polkinghorne loses the thread of the story
After reading Thompson’s and Aukofer’s Why We Believe in God(s), I scounted around some of the things that I had downloaded over the last few years to find other things that might be somewhere in general vicinity and I came across a very short review by John Polkinghorne of Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, entitled “Some of the Truth.” I remember buying Boyer’s book at Chapters in Kamloops, British Columbia, way back in 2003, when the fires were so bad we drove through the mountains from Kamloops to Calgary and never saw a mountain! Anyway, I began reading the book on our trip back across the country, and remember reading this review sometime later, though it was written a couple years earlier. For those of you with access, it can be found in Science (New Series, Vol. 293, No. 5539 (Sep. 28, 2001), p. 2400), but I want to pick out only a couple points from it.
Those of you who are not familiar with John Polkinghorne need be told only that he was a theoretical physicist, studied for the priesthood in midlife after a successful career in science, and was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1982, having begun studies for the priesthood in 1979. According to the Wikipedia article on Polkinghorne:
He said in an interview that he felt he had done his bit for science after 25 years, and that his best mathematical work was probably behind him; Christianity had always been central to his life, so ordination offered an attractive second career.
He received the Templeton Prize in 2002, having written a number of books on the relationship between religion and science. I can never be reminded of Polkinghorne without remembering Simon Blackburn’s remark about him that he “beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting, white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy.” (Blackburn’s review of Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World, entitled, tellingly, “An Unbeautiful Mind“, is worth reading.)
Since there isn’t any obvious relationship between religion and science, it’s amazing how much Polkinghorne has written about it. I’m sure he gets a lot of the science right, but when I read him some years ago — and I have a couple of his books still — it seemed to me that there was something missing in his conception of religion. He thought about it much more realistically than I could ever manage to think about it, even in my highest of high church Anglican days. Although I tried very hard, I don’t think I ever got to the point where I could believe in a God who was somehow out there governing things and keeping them in existence. Paul Tillich, for all his obscurity, was more my speed, because, for him, God was always somehow beyond all being, and not in any clear relationship to it. Jesus came into play in vague existential ways, but never as a truly redemptive figure, although it was hard to square this rather indeterminate understanding of the Christian faith with the overly realistic language of the liturgy. But even that fairly liberal understanding (or way of dealing with the imponderables of) faith came unstuck in the face of suffering and general willingness of Christianity and other religions to connive with goverment and each other to force people to suffer the pangs of hell before they die — which, as I’ve said before, is one reason that I write about religion as well as about assisted dying.
To get down, then, to Polkinghorne’s remarks on Boyer’s book Religion Explained. Here’s the first paragraph. I’ll begin with that, and then address one or two other concerns. Here’s how he begins — and remember, while you’re reading this, that it comes from Science, not from Theology or The Church Times:
It takes a pretty self-confident reductionist to suppose that a book of a few hundred pages can dispose of all the questions that have been asked for many centuries about a complex aspect of human experience. Only those who think that they possess the master key that turns every intellectual lock could attempt so implausible an enterprise. After Daniel Dennett’s bombastically entitled Consciousness Explained, now comes Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. Such grandiose attempts fail in their imperialistic intentions, but that does not mean that they are without more modest interest. The single level of the reductionist discussion is a significant dimension, if only one, of the many-layered subject at hand.
That strikes me as a very hostile beginning. Think only of these expressions: ’self-confident reductionist,’ ’bombastically entitled,’ ‘grandiose attempts,’ ‘imperialist intentions.’ After that, to be damned with faint praise in the last sentence does not really represent a withdrawal of Polkinghorne’s troops from the battlefield. Polkinghorne is clearly bruised, but his opponent is still dangerous. No one uses this much heavy artillery unless he senses danger. But it’s a wonderful piece of deflection and misdirection. After all, Boyer wasn’t out to “dispose of all the questions that have been asked for many centuries about a complex aspect of human experience.” He was out to examine an aspect of human experience scientifically, and that is a very different thing. Polkinghorne must know this.
As Polkinghorne must have known — mustn’t he? — the danger of the proposed science of religion is very real to anyone for whom religion is an important personal commitment. For if religion can be explained, as, for example, the physical world can be explained, by being reduced — yes, it is reductionist isn’t it? — scientific explanation, that is — to a sequence or a complex of causal relationships, then all the theological furniture could be put back in the closet. That’s why Polkinghorne talks a lot about the many layers of the subject. In a moment he is going to compare religion to science, so that the complexity of religion, it’s “many-layeredness,” can be seen by analogy to the complexity of science. For instance, Polkinghorne claims that
The two sets of insight [moral and religious] stand in a subtle relationship of support, not altogether unlike the mutual self-sustaining of theory and experiment in science.
He seems to think that that’s enough to make a point. But what point was it that he wanted to make? There is simply no way in which the relationship of religious beliefs and moral rules, concepts or understanding can be seen to be related as theory is related to experiment in science. Experiment is used to confirm or disconfirm theory. In what way is this a helpful analogy in explaining the relationship of religion and morality? Boyer had claimed that religion was parasitic upon moral intuitions, as it surely is. Just consider how often Christian morality has changed over the centuries, how it has recently claimed for itself the ideas of justice and compassion, as though these somehow originated with the church. Just consider how much justice was expressed by Christianity in the ghoulish torments that were used to extract confessions, and how cruel the church could be in suppressing heresy, not to mention so many other things about the church that did not (and often do not, even now) exhibit unalloyed concern for either justice or compassion.
But this isn’t the main point that I set out to consider. The point really at issue in this short review is this one. Polkinghorne refers to two self-imposed limitations or restrictions, of which I will consider only the first:
One is the complete bracketing off of the possibility that there might be truth about a transcendent reality contained within the diverse accounts of encounters with the sacred. It would be odd indeed to talk about science without considering its relation to the physical world. In the case of religion, however, we are briskly told that there will be no discussion of the view that it contains any truthful insight, and that is that.
Now, notice how the parallel with science is made — accommodationism happily at work! It would indeed be strange to talk about science without considering its relation to the physical world, because that is what science is about. However, what is religion about? Just assuming that there is something for religion to be about won’t do the trick, especially in the light of the diversity that Polkinghore mentions (and then promptly ignores). If there is something that religion is about, and if theology is constrained by that reality as science is constrained by the physical world, then by all means, we cannot bracket out that which constrains theology. But … where are the constraints? It’s not enough for Polkinghorne simply to say that there is a parallel here; he must provide evidence that there are any such constraints, and this he cannot do, for the very simple reason that there are many religions and they differ from each other in the way they speak about what they are about.
This may seem to be an obvious point. But if it is obvious, how did Polkinghorne come to write as he has written? He may be convinced that when he is doing theology he is doing something, but if he were to consider the different theologies that are available — and I suggested that Jerry Coyne read a collection of essays edited by Roger Badham, Introduction to Christian Theology, in order to see this point clearly — it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to see it as clearly as this book makes it — he would see that the constraints are just not there. Not only is it not like science; it is so at variance with science that it is hard to understand how anyone could see a similarity. There is no reality which constrains the work of theologians. There are traditions; there may be scriptures; there may even be regulations about what is or is not sayable; but there is no reality independent of those traditions, scriptures or regulations that makes certain things unsayable. After Darwin it became impossible to think that animals were designed and fashioned by God in some kind of a special creation. Since the discovery of DNA it has become completely impossible to think in terms of human exceptionalism. We share genes with cabbages and kings. For a scientist not to have seen this point, and to have argued, unconvincingly, as a result, that Boyer’s bracketing off the possibility of a transcendent reality is in any sense self-imposed, is simply to have misunderstood science. If religion can do this to a physicist, just think what it can and does do to other people!
I end this post with a lovely story that Boyer tells towards the end of his book, which makes the same point:
I was mentioning these and other such exotica [about "witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf or throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims"] over dinner in a Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent Catholic theologian, turned to me and said: “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe in such nonsense.” Which left me dumbfounded. … For the question “How can people possibly believe all this?” is indeed pertinent, but it applies to beliefs of all hues and shades. The Fang too were quite amazed when first told that three persons really were one person while being three persons, or that all misfortune in this vale of tears stemmed from two ancestors eating exotic fruit in a garden. 
Honestly, though, if Polkinghorne read the book — which he may not have done — he ought to have seen this, and, if he did, he should have included it, because this is the answer to most of his questions about this book. Perhaps Boyer doesn’t succeed, and religion remains unexplained, but I think — and thought when I first read it — that it was closer to the truth than most theologians, because, while, as Polkinghorne alleges, he may use what Polkinghorne calls ”reductionist tricks,” these, really, are scientific controls. Polkinghorne’s real problem, I suspect, is that Boyer is discussing things that are very precious to Polkinghorne, trampling through the quiet piety of a Cambridge chapel without proper respect for those worshipping there. Polkinghorne ends with these words: “Religion explained? No. Religion illuminated? Up to a point.” Which doubtless explains the title, though Polkinghorne never tells us what truth he found in the book. But it is, I think, despite this conclusion, the illumination that’s so unwelcome in that sainted darkness. For it is, in the end, the darkness that is real to the religious, the mystery, the incomprehensibility of it all. As for the rest? Scientific tricks, perhaps. It’s easy to see how the scientific revolution must have discommoded many, if a scientist like Polkinghorne can find so much fault with Boyer’s attempt to provide foundations for the scientific study of religion.