Is Religion an Emotional Crutch?

By Nancy Pearcey

In the fall of 2005 Kansas University announced a new course, subtitled “Intelligent Design [ID], Creationism, and other Religious Mythologies,” taught by the chair of the religious studies department Paul Mirecki. But controversy erupted when news leaked out that Mirecki had posted notes on the website of a student atheists group mocking proponents of ID as “fundies.” I am “doing my part to [tick] off the religious right,” he wrote, giving them a “slap in their big fat face” by teaching ID “under the category ‘mythology.'” Mirecki later apologized and cancelled the course, but the cat was out of the bag. Many evolutionists regard ID not simply as false or mistaken, but as sheer mythology–in the same category as fables and fairy tales.

We must understand that this is not simply an attempt to insult ID supporters, but a perfectly logical conclusion. ID builds a scientific case that the kind of design we observe in the world around us is characteristic of an intelligent agent, or Agent. Thus ID implies that Mind preceded matter, whereas naturalistic evolution implies that matter produced mind. These are antithetical views; they cannot both be true. As Phillip Johnson likes to say, if material forces acting on their own are capable of doing all the creating, then there’s nothing left for a Creator to do; He has “no gainful employment.” And if the existence of God is not needed to explain anything about the world–if it does not serve any explanatory or cognitive function–then the only function left is an emotional one. People will treat religion not as a genuine truth claim but as an expression of psychological need, a source of comfort and consolation.

This explains why many historians identify the rise of Darwinism as the key turning point in reducing religion to the status of mere myth. For example, Neal Gillespie says Darwinism caused a shift “from religion as knowledge to religion as faith” (Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation). Since “there was no longer any function for God to carry out in the world, He was, at best, a gratuitous philosophical concept derived from personal need.” Or, as I myself used to say as a teenager, religion is nothing but an emotional crutch.

Another way to put it is that Darwinism shattered the unity of truth. Traditionally, all cultures have taught that truth is a unified whole–that there is both a material/physical order and a moral/spiritual order, integrated into a single coherent system. But Darwin’s theory broke the “link” between the material and the moral order, as his former teacher Adam Sedgwick pointed out. Morality and religion were relegated to the category of cultural tradition, or emotional need, or wish fulfillment. One textbook, A History of Philosophy in America, sums it up nicely: “Until 1859, the fundamental unity of knowledge was assumed by virtually all serious writers in America. . . . What the controversy over evolution did was to shatter this unity of knowledge,” ultimately reducing religion and morality to “noncognitive subjects.”

This is why debates over Darwinism will not go away any time soon. The impact of the theory goes far beyond the details of mutations and natural selection to a redefinition the concept of truth itself. Today’s most strident popularizer of evolution, Richard Dawkins, describes “the Darwinian view of life” in stark terms: “No design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless, indifference.” Notice that in a single breath he combines “no design” with “no evil or good,” and he is right. To define what is morally good is simply another way of saying what the world is designed or intended to be, what its purpose is. But if there is no Designer, then there is no objective purpose, and each of us must live by whatever subjective purposes we can come up with.

No Design, No Values

Historian Edward Purcell explores the implications of Darwinism in a book subtitled Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value. The worldview of scientific naturalism or materialism asserts that nature or matter is all that exists; there are no spiritual or transcendent realities. As this worldview became accepted, it created a “problem of value” because good and evil, right and wrong, are not part of the material world known by science. The result was a split view of truth, where the natural sciences were elevated to the only objective knowledge, while religion and morality were demoted to the level of mere symbol. As Purcell puts it, in scientific naturalism, “theological dogmas and philosophical absolutes were at worst totally fraudulent and at best merely symbolic of deep human aspirations.”

Another historian, Julie Reuben, tells a similar story of how the concept of truth was split. In a book aptly subtitled The Marginalization of Morality, she explains how questions of value were removed from the college curriculum. After Darwin, the only form of religion considered acceptable was one that consisted solely of “sentiment, experiences, ritual, and ethical living”–in short, a religion that “had no intellectual content.” By the 1930s, Reuben writes, American universities had largely given up the ideal of “the unity of truth” and had relegated religion and science to separate spheres of life–”science to the intellectual and religion to the inspirational” sphere. Objective knowledge was defined as “value free” because values had become a form of subjective bias that threatened to distort research.

Today this division of truth is often referred to as the fact/value dichotomy. The assumption is that on one hand there is a realm of facts, which are scientific, objective, and value free. On the other hand there is a separate realm of values, which are merely private preferences. The split can be diagramed like this:

Private Preference; Subjective

Public Truth; Objective

This division has now become embedded in most college textbooks as an unquestioned assumption. “Facts are objective, that is, they can be measured, and their truth tested,” says a typical textbook. “Value judgments, on the other hand, are subjective, being matters of personal preference. . . . Such preferences are based on personal likes and feelings, rather than on facts and reasons” (Economics for Decision Making). The impact of Darwinism is not limited to science but has permeated the entire curriculum.

Not Even Wrong

This is why the evolution controversy continues to grow, as it draws in a broad range of people concerned about the fact/value split. According to Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, not just conservative Protestants but also “Catholics and everyone else have an enormous stake in defending the unity of truth.” A BBC correspondent recently asked why many Americans “are spending more energy fighting Charles Darwin than cutting taxes,” but the reason is clear: At stake is not just a scientific theory but a divided concept of truth that reduces religion and morality to the level of myth.

Moreover, propagandists for evolution are growing ever bolder. Not long ago, the New York Times published a piece by Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, saying, “We don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny–or God.” This dismissive attitude explains why the University of Kansas would hire as chair of its religious studies department a professor who expresses contempt for religion–and for scientific concepts such as ID that support a religious worldview. A second KU professor has now announced that he will add the study of ID to an existing course called “Archaeological Myths and Realities.” John W. Hoopes , an associate professor of anthropology, told a reporter that ID is “pseudoscience” because “it is based on hypotheses that are not falsifiable.” In other words, the starting assumption of the course is that ID does not even qualify as something that can be true or false, but is merely myth.

What this means is that the challenge to any religion-based worldview is much more radical than it used to be. In the past, secularists would argue that Christianity is false–which meant the two sides could engage one another with questions such as, What is true and false? How we know? What is the evidence? What are the arguments? Today, however, secularists are much more likely to argue that Christianity is not a valid truth claim at all. It may be personally meaningful to certain people; it may be part of their cultural tradition; but it is not taken seriously as a candidate for truth in public discourse.

A well-known physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, is famous for having told one of his colleagues, Your theory is so bad, it’s not even wrong. That is, it’s not even in the ballpark of possible answers. This is how Christianity is treated in the public arena today: It is not that people reject it as wrong so much as that they do not even consider it a possible answer to the question of truth.

All Truth Is God’s Truth

Before the dominance of Darwinism, most people simply assumed the unity of truth. Western culture was thoroughly imbued with the biblical conviction that all of creation comes from the hand of God, and therefore all its parts fit within a single ordered plan. “Knowledge was unified because it rested on Christian claims to universal truth,” write Catholic historians Jon Roberts and James Turner (The Sacred and the Secular University). Even though scholars specialized in various fields of expertise, they assumed that each specialty was part of an overall system of truth, like an old-fashioned quilting bee where each embroiderer works on one part of the overall pattern.

The conviction of a unitary truth rested ultimately on the biblical teaching of creation. “Christianity posited a single reality, with some kind of rational coherence integrating it,” Roberts and Turner explain, because it all originated from a single Mind. Christianity taught that “a single omnipotent and all-wise God had created the universe, including human beings, who shared to some extent in the rationality behind creation. Given this creation story, it followed that knowledge, too, comprised a single whole.

In short, the biblical creation story leads to a unified concept of truth, in which the moral and the material orders fit into a single whole. By contrast, the Darwinian creation story has bequeathed a divided conception of truth, where the material order is all the exists or can be known, while moral and spiritual truths are no longer truths at all but merely private fantasies. That’s why the debate over Darwinism has implications far beyond the bounds of science. At stake is the definition of truth itself.


Published March 30, 2016