Book review: Denying and Disclosing God by Michael Buckley (2004)

In an earlier post, I looked at the idea proposed by Jesuit theologian Michael J. Buckley that it was the enthusiastic embrace of natural theology by 17th century theologians, following the spectacular success of religious scientists like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton in explaining the workings of the cosmos, that ultimately led to the rise of atheism that we see today. How does he arrive at this conclusion?

He argues that by abandoning its traditional means of belief in favor of inferring the existence of god by looking at the evidence provided by the natural world, theology has taken a seriously, and perhaps fatal, wrong turn. I can understand why he would have that perspective. That approach of trying to find evidence for god by looking at the natural world inevitably leads to a ‘god of the gaps’ approach, with so-called intelligent design being the latest (and likely last) manifestation of it. This leads to atheism as the gaps get smaller.

Having lived all my life in a world where the mode of thinking that Buckley critiques (that empirical evidence should form the basis for beliefs about the existence of anything) is ubiquitous, this prompted the questions in my mind of what exactly it was that theology had abandoned by adopting this approach, whether it was in fact better than natural theology, and if so whether theology could return to it. In order to answer these questions, I read Buckley’s book Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism.

I have written before giving five reasons why I think that theology (as distinct from religious studies) is perhaps the most useless of academic disciplines. What is interesting is why theology finds itself in such a difficult situation now, and Buckley’s book provides some interesting insights as to the reasons.

Buckley says that, contrary to what one might think, it was the enthusiastic union of science and religion, not hostility between the two, that has led to theology’s downfall.

It was not the opposition of science to religion; it was much more the endorsement of science that generated modern atheism. It was not because science was indifferent or antagonistic; it was because it was too enthusiastically affirmative and comprehensively supportive that atheism emerged. Science smothered religion by adopting it. (p. 2)

How did that happen? He pins the ‘blame’ on three great scientists Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). These three scientists can be considered as laying the foundations of modern science and made spectacular progress in our understanding of the world. But they were also all deeply religious and each sought to reconcile their science with their religion, although each did so in different ways.

At the dawning of modernity, then, one comes upon three distinct settlements negotiated between the new knowledge and the ancient faith: In Galileo, they are separate enterprises, neither contradicting the other and neither having a place within the other. Where certainty is found, the one will correct the other as is the case with any knowledge. In Kepler, they are finally a single enterprise, a deduction of what is likely and appropriate within the universe from the triune nature of God and the suggestion or the confirmation of that deduction from observation and mathematics. In Newton’s universal mechanics, science gives to religion crucially important evidence, its methodology, and its foundation in fundamental religion. (p. 23)

He says that the beliefs of these immensely influential religious scientists that science and religion could work in harmony, while well-meaning, was what eventually proved to be theology’s downfall, because while theology became dependent on science, science soon became independent of theology. After the efforts of the three scientists, science proceeded independently of religious thought and left it behind.

Mechanics may not have needed theology, but theology in its apologetics had come to need mechanics, whether in astronomy or biology. Theology had become addicted to it. The pivotal theological assertions that had so relied upon mechanics became gratuitous assertions, and it runs as a classic maxim in logic, as well as in history, that “whatever is gratuitously asserted can be gratuitously denied. (p. 36)

So far, so good. Where Buckley and I part company is his belief that there actually is good evidence for the existence of god but that it is not scientific, and that a reversal to this pre-Galilean way of experiencing god will provide the necessary proof for believers. As reviewer David Rohr says of Buckley’s views: “God’s existence cannot be proven through philosophical arguments about the natural world. Instead, God must be known in the immediacy of religious experience. Actual religious faith almost always begins when God is manifested to a person. This can happen while reflecting on the life of a saint (129-30) or in the experience of a pre-rational, absolute obedience to truth, justice, love, beauty, or other divine characteristics.”

Buckley says that theology took the road away from personal experience of god because it saw the scientific approach as intellectually superior and aspired to its cachet.

[I]nferential forms of thought were introduced as foundational demonstrations because the religious experience and reflection was not read to possess adequate intellectual cogency, certainly not what one would find in natural philosophy and mechanics. (p. 37)

But he says it is personal experience that makes people believe in a god, not intellectual rigor, and that is what has been lost.

Further, this book argues that inference simply cannot substitute for experience. One will not long believe in a personal God with whom there is no personal communication, and the most compelling evidence of a personal God must itself be personal. To attempt something else as a foundation or as substitute, as has been done so often in an attempt to shore up the assertion of God, is to move into a process of internal contradictions of which the ultimate resolution must be atheism. (p. 138)

He says that since this intellectual approach to belief in god lacks the rigor of scientific thinking, it should not be surprising that people will find it wanting by comparison and fall away from belief in a god.

For many educated Americans of the second half of the nineteenth century, the honest – the moral – resolution of the contradiction that was groundless affirmation lay with either agnosticism or atheism.

Once more, religion was not undermined by science; the religious assent was undermined when theologians excised the specifically religious and came to rely upon scientific evidence and procedure as foundational. The more that theologians insisted upon such a foundation, the more they discredited belief. (p. 42)

So what does Buckley suggest would be evidence for a god? Here he goes back to Thomas Aquinas and seems to be arguing that a knowledge of, and desire for, a god is somehow innate in human beings and we just need to recognize it when we experience it.

Aquinas’s response was initially to develop the cogency of the objection further with the axiom that “what is naturally desired is naturally known.” Now human beings naturally desire happiness – not simply some form of contentment however mindless, but the fulfillment of the human desires for knowledge and love, for meaning and communion. Happiness is the complete human good , and thus the longing for happiness in inherent in a human being. But God specifies or constitutes or “informs” human happiness. God discloses, realizes, and constitutes the meaning and joy for which human beings were made. Thus, when human beings naturally long for happiness, they are actually and naturally longing for God. [My italics-MS]

But whatever is naturally desired/longed for is naturally known. Thus in this way, God is actually known – even if unknown! God is given to human awareness in the human longing for happiness. (p. 53)

It sounds a little glib to me and I suspect that it is too late for that reversal to catch on. It will likely appeal only to mystics who see this world as ephemeral and who already reject scientific ways of knowing. We are now too deeply embedded in the world of scientific inference in which even people’s thoughts and emotions and felt religious experiences are subjected to the tools of scientific investigation. Most religious people, other than mystics, demand that science support, or at least be consistent with, their beliefs.

The reason that even religious people embraced the scientific empirical path blazed by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton was because the earlier approach based on personal experience was clearly perceived to be inadequate. It is even more inadequate now so the reversal to that pre-scientific way of thinking about god that Buckley is hoping for will not materialize.


  1. invivoMark says

    There can be no reversal of this path, no turning away from science and its mode of thinking, because, as Randall Munroe would say, science works, bitches.

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