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Is science the new faith?

principiaThis is the 12th and last in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is Daniel Garber, a professor of philosophy at Princeton University, specializing in philosophy and science in the period of Galileo and Newton. In a week or two, I’ll conclude with a wrap-up column on the series.

Gary Gutting: In the 17th century most philosophers were religious believers, whereas today most seem to be atheists. What explains this reversal?

Daniel Garber: I think that it is fair to say that in the 17th century most people, not just philosophers, were believers and that it was simply taken for granted that people of ordinary intelligence would believe in God, in just the way that people today take it for granted that people of ordinary intelligence have faith in the authority of science. Many important scientists and mathematicians in the period were also believers, including Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Pascal and Newton. Not that there weren’t atheists in the period, but atheism was something that in many circles needed a special explanation in a way in which belief didn’t.

In many circumstances, atheism was considered so obviously contrary to evident reason that there had to be a special explanation for why atheists denied what was so obvious to most of their contemporaries, in much the way that today we might wonder about those who deny science. What changed? I hesitate even to speculate. There was the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, political revolutions, Darwinism, the wars of the 20th century, a lot. As a result science and religious faith have, in a way, exchanged places, and a general and widespread faith in science has replaced the earlier general and widespread faith in God. But even so, God is not dead among the philosophers. There is still a very significant community of believers among philosophers. I’m personally not one of them, I should say, and I would doubt that they constitute a majority. But even so, I think they cannot be ignored.

Click here to read more from this October 5, 2014 New York Times article by Gary Gutting.

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