One of the great ironies — and paradoxes — of history is that religionists claim on the one hand that spiritual belief is ineffable, non-material, and not subject to empirical verification, yet on the other hand they are always seeking — sometimes desperately — for material confirmation of their beliefs. This contradictory thinking supposes that if some evidence of the spiritual could be produced, all doubt would be removed.
This irony, or paradox if you will, is the legacy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. William Bouwsma, Professor of History at UC-Berkeley, has written perhaps the best account of these intellectual developments in his splendid book, The Waning of the Renaissance: 1550-1640. As Bouswma notes (pp. 87-88), Renaissance skepticism and science had a particularly corrosive effect on religious belief:
In fact, much in the society and culture of the period was being, in various senses, “secularized.” Increasing numbers of people now lived compartmentalized lives, ruled by religion in fewer and fewer aspects of their experience: by reason in science; by worldly calculation in economics; and by common sense in daily life.
Not much has changed in 400 years, except for the fact that the backlash against secularization — in the form of religious fundamentalism — has become particularly paranoid and hateful. I was reminded of this while reading Nina Burleigh’s recent article “Science and Belief in Turin“:
What some people call the clash of civilizations is not a fight between Islam and the West but between science and faith. The religious rightists in America may want us to believe that they are different from the theocrats of Iran and the fundamentalists of Al Qaeda who teach their suicide bombers that they are targeting “infidel” Christians or Jews, but in fact, the dogmatically religious have more in common with each other than with non-believers.
We live in an age of intense materialism in which scientists are on the verge of understanding how the universe was formed, but we also live at a time of resurgent faith that remains as hostile to science as when Galileo was locked up for observing the centrality of the sun.
The context for Burleigh’s article is her research into the commerce of sacred relics and holy objects, “which have enormous meaning for believers around the world.” Much of this meaning arises from the need of believers living in an empirical world to see or touch something which affirms the spiritual. They need, in other words, material affirmations of their faith.
Burleigh’s article is worth reading, as is her book on this subject, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. Given the lucrative nature of this trade, potential buyers should heed the old adage: caveat emptor.