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.
Instead, the Reformation influenced the eventual emergence of closed-universe atheism because of the unending doctrinal controversies that followed in its wake. The controversies unintentionally sidelined explicitly Christian claims about the relationship between God and the natural world. Only empirical investigation and philosophical speculation were left as supra-confessional means of investigating and theorizing that relationship. Beginning in the early 1520s, ecclesiastical authority, tradition, scripture, and religious experience were effectively out of bounds if one hoped to avoid the quagmire of theological controversy.
Hence the univocal metaphysics prevalent since the late Middle Ages became newly important. Empirical investigation of the natural world and philosophical speculation about God’s relationship to the natural world would unfold within this metaphysical framework.
If one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal reality as creation, believed that natural causality and supernatural presence were mutually exclusive, and understood that natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference to God—then the more science explained, the less “room” there was for God except perhaps as an extraordinarily remote, deistic first efficient cause.
The modern natural sciences are a distinctive form of knowledge. They explain natural regularities regardless of what scientific investigators think about God. But from the self-restrictive methodological naturalism of scientific inquiry, some have drawn the unwarranted inference of metaphysical naturalism—i.e. the atheistic claim that nothing transcendent is real.
The standard narrative claims or implies that this is a consequence of scientific investigation per se. It neither is nor can be. In fact it relies on a univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor inherited from the late Middle Ages. These became unexpectedly important because of the ways in which doctrinal controversy in the Reformation era unintentionally marginalized theological discourse about God and creation.
Brad S. Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 2003. He is the author of Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard, 1999), which received six book awards, and in 2005 was the inaugural winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities.