The issue is secularization. The term has many definitions and contours, and many have offered various descriptions and explanations.
Steven Weinberg is a Nobel particle physicist, working presently at the University of Texas.
Weinberg recently published a piece in the Times Literary Supplement in which he claims 1. a loss of religious “certitude” in the West (meaning among Christians), and 2. that this loss of certitude can be laid at the door of what he terms “science,” the primary factor in the secularization of the West.
As a scientist, it is to be expected that Weinberg would claim for science the fruits of all good things, and to him secularization (as well as his perceived loss of religious certitude) is a good thing.
These claims contain some debatable implicit assumptions (such as a claim that in some previous time most Christians were filled with religious “certitude”), and raise a whole host of questions about the relation of religion, science, and secularization.
Bartons Swaim at First Things said this about Weinberg’s thesis:
‘ “Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West,” Weinberg says, “can be laid at the door of science.” The problem with this formulation is that it conflates, or anyhow fails to distinguish between, the religious character of a person and that of a society. People of a skeptical disposition commonly suppose that because modern science has provided them with a reason to disbelieve the claims of religion, or because they think it has, modern science must therefore be the generating force behind secularization itself—that historical progression, evident in the West since the Renaissance, in which habits and institutions are less and less influenced by religious doctrine.
This supposition is mistaken. Secularization has to do above all with outward practice, not with inward conviction. It is a cultural transformation that allows people to cease observing what they don’t really believe. Its driving forces are commerce and urbanization, not scientific “proofs” for the nonexistence of God or the unreliability of the Bible or even discoveries about the nature of the material world. These last factors, whatever their merits, have been around for thousands of years and as antagonists of religious faith are neither stronger nor weaker than they ever were. The number of “Christians” in the West, defining that term loosely, has obviously and dramatically dropped off in the last half-century. Still, I find it difficult to believe that the number of people who now believe in, say, the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is substantially fewer than was the case two hundred or five hundred or a thousand years ago. And even in Western Europe, where Western secularization has reached its furthest point, people disbelieve not because they’ve consciously rejected Christianity but because they know scarcely anything about it.
The point here is not that secularization is unimportant or that it hasn’t had profound (and in recent decades woeful) consequences for Western societies. The point, rather, is that Steven Weinberg and people like him are committing a grave error in historical interpretation when they posit a causal relationship between secularization and the advance of modern science. Such theories are always dangerous, tending as they do to cultivate contempt—and eventually hatred—for whatever stands in the way of what is determined to be “progress.” Inevitably, at some point, “religious certitude” will cease merely to irk skeptical intellectuals and will be perceived as a concrete obstacle to that progress. And then what?”
I don’t agree with much of what Swaim says, but the larger issue raised by Weinberg is an interesting one. As for myself, what is generally called “modern science,” in its strictest terms, has contributed to my faith, not lessened it. Many people I have known through my life, who have claimed that “science” presents obstacles to their faith (or, more commonly, in their minds to my faith), haven’t known much of anything about science, nor how it might possibly relate to their faith or anyone else’s; it’s merely presented as a bogeyman to support a currently comfortable position and the use of the term “science” is supposed to serve as a show-stopper.
I don’t think science has had much to do with secularization at all. After all, the medieval churchmen were as committed to their Aristotelian science as moderns are to their Platonic science (and the Franciscans railed at them for it). But that didn’t seem to bring on any broad movement of secularization in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Secularization in the West is a very difficult problem to analyze. I diverge from Swaim when he claims that secularization has to do with “outward practice” and not “inward conviction.” I wouldn’t use the term “inward conviction,” but I would claim it has had very much to do with inward experience and the ways of understanding both the world and our participation in it. Some of these ways are decidedly “secular,” and some aren’t. They obviously influence “outward practice,” but not always. And, they make claims for our allegiance, sometimes provoking the most bitter suspicions and epithets for deviation. This isn’t just a matter of the form of “outward practices.”