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Atheology

A third moral that is proposed is that it is a mistake to believe that the identification of scientific narratives as alternative ‘atheological’ mythologies is an end in itself or a reason to dismiss science. Instead the identification of atheological myths and stories in science can be a first step towards a better recognition of the many roles positively fulfilled by science in areas that used to be theological preserves, and of the fact that different parts of the sciences have different relationships with theological enterprises. There is not just one relationship that holds between ‘science’ and ‘religion’.

I suggest above that an important distinction needs to be made between empirical science and science-as-worldview. There is a corresponding difference in nuance to the term ‘atheological’ when applied to these different incarnations of science. The detailed observational reports of experimental data and the technical theory-construction and mathematics of empirical science are almost always atheological in that they are simply conceived and executed in a way that has no thought for theological categories or narratives. The details of empirical science are atheological in much the same way that a recipe in a cookery book is atheological - both are, if you like, just ‘untheological’.

Science-as-worldview, on the other hand, is a quasi-theological enterprise connected to scientific practice, which provides sets of assumptions and narratives about the universe, our place in it, and the proper way to gain knowledge about such things Science-as-worldview is ‘atheological’ (like empirical ‘cookery book’ science, it is untheological) but additionally it is quasi-theological. Science-as-worldview, in providing overarching stories about life and reality performs a very similar role to that traditionally performed by religion and theology. In using the word ‘atheology’ to describe this enterprise, I wish to emphasise both its similarity to theology and also its alienation from the Judaeo-Christian theological resources from which it originally grew. The ‘atheology’ (a naturalistic quasi-theology without God) provided by some scientific writers is a particularly interesting kind of atheological writing - it is not just theology (in disguise) or its inversion, but it is like theology in important ways. Within scientific worldviews God is often replaced by Nature, Humanity, or the Unknown as the beginning and end of all things and the ground of all reality.

In the psychology of emotions produced by inhabitants of scientific worldviews in the nineteenth century, theological agents such as the will, the soul, God, the Holy Spirit and Satan were discarded as real agents, as were ‘passions’ and ‘affections’ of the soul. The tacit ontology of the new psychology of emotions, as developed by Spencer, Bain, Darwin and, ultimately, James in the 1850s-1880s was one in which there were only two real psychical agencies - the evolutionary past and the body (especially the nerves and/or the viscera). Introspection on one’s own soul was replaced by observations of others’ bodies and behaviours as the favoured epistemology. Moral-theological and salvation-historical stories about people as God’s creatures who had sinned and fallen but could be saved, and who were moral agents in society were replaced with natural-historical ones about human organisms as evolved animals who were products of their environment.

Thus, the fact that we are now evolved animals that have ‘emotions’ rather than created souls that experience ‘passions and affections’ is but one of the myriad ways in which our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos is increasingly informed by an atheological set of narratives derived from the sciences rather than by traditional theologies.

Contributed by: Thomas Dixon

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