Brad S. Gregory


Science and religion are not incompatible

Cover Interview of March 11, 2012

The view that the findings of science are incompatible with claims of revealed religion per se is widespread—but mistaken.

In the first chapter of The Unintended Reformation I explain why many intellectuals today think that science renders the claims of revealed religion untenable and leads inexorably to atheism.  This view derives not from scientific findings per se, but from contingent (and often unknowingly held) metaphysical assumptions with medieval roots.

Into the thirteenth century, traditional Christian metaphysics entailed that nothing could be attributed in the same way to a transcendent creator-God and to creation.  Beginning with John Duns Scotus, being itself, understood in its most abstract and general sense, was predicated univocally of both.  Medieval nominalists extended this metaphysical univocity by conceiving of God as a highest, singular ens.  This move reinforced the grammar of ordinary religious language, which veers by default in a univocal direction, as if “God” denoted a quasi-spatial entity within creation, a “highest being” belonging to the same order of reality as creatures.

Nominalism spread in the many new universities and theology faculties established in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Metaphysical univocity and Occam’s razor spread with it, as did the distinction between natural and supernatural causes conceived in either-or terms.  This combination established the preconditions for the domestication of God’s transcendence via the explanatory power of the natural sciences.  But these preconditions would become actual conditions only if God’s self-revelation ceased to serve as the framework for shared intellectual life.

Here the Reformation’s role was fundamental, albeit in indirect terms.  It is important for the eventual extrusion of God from conceptions of reality via science, but not because Protestant reformers themselves necessarily embraced metaphysical univocity.  Protestantism as such did not disenchant the world.