“When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy” by Chet Raymo


Religion is a universal human phenomenon. Can it survive the epistemological onslaught of the scientific method? If Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are to be believed, the answer is definitely not. If Chet Raymo is to be believed, the answer is yes, but….

When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy outlines "the making of a religious naturalist," as the subtitle puts it. In addition to "religious naturalist," Raymo describes himself as a "Catholic agnostic." A cradle Catholic, Raymo left behind his faith gradually as the result of his scientific education, but he did not leave behind his appreciation of Catholic sacramentality, of the holiness of flesh-and-blood, of what Dun Scotus called haecceitas or "thisness." Sacramentality provides Raymo the bridge between religion and science. "The religious naturalist seeks a language of spirituality that is consistent with the empirical way of knowing."

Raymo identifies his religious naturalism with "creation spirituality" and "panentheism," although he recognizes the dangers of using those terms. What he especially wants to guard against are the "idolatry" of belief in a personal god and "faith-based" ways of knowing. He recognizes the limitations of scientific knowledge, of course. "Nature likes to hide," he writes repeatedly throughout the book. Its mysteries must always be searched out by science. But Raymo is clear that science is the only reliable method of attaining genuine knowledge.

As a Christian and a pastor, I find myself both more attracted to and more wary of Raymo’s religious naturalism then of Dawkins’s and Harris’s strident atheism, even though Raymo is an atheist himself and somewhat appreciative of those two polemicists’ efforts. "God had it coming," he says. Why more attracted? Because Raymo is more apt to see the genuine, beneficial contributions the religious spirit has made to humanity than are Dawkins and Harris, who seem to think religion is unrelievedly evil. Why more wary? Because a little sugar hides bitter poisons. Raymo wants to retain all the ethical and aesthetic benefits of Catholicism (and Christianity more generally) while chucking its doctrinal core. Many will find this convincing.

Me? Not so much. Different metaphysics entail different moralities. Christian theism produced a morality quite different from paganism. One small example: Christians rescued from the trash dumps those weak infants whom the Roman paterfamilias had ordered exposed. Christians saw something wrong with this treatment of infants. Romans? Not so much. Another example: Christian missionaries in India forced the end of the practice of suttee, by which widows were burned alive on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Christians saw something wrong with what was taken as normal by Indians. Raymo is quite drawn to the compassion and grace of the Catholic (and Christian) religion and seems to think they can be separated from the ridiculous story of the Beloved Son of God dying on the cross. But why?

The scientific worldview is an evolutionary one. Nature is red in tooth and claw. Oh sure, biologists have pointed out altruistic behavior in animals, and this too is part of sociobiology. But at the end of the day, an evolutionist has no way of preferring tooth-and-claw to altruism, for both are simply strategies of survival. If picking fleas out of her mate’s hair helps a chimpanzee survive, do that. If cannibalizing her young helps her survive, do that. Who’s to say which is better?

Who’s to say, in other words, whether in the absence of God everything is holy or just plain terrifying? At several points, Raymo notes that a person’s religion generally correlates strongly with where he or she was born. If born in America, one is likely to be Christian. If born in Saudi Arabia, Muslim. If in Mumbai, India, Hindu. (Obviously, that has nothing to do with the truth of those religion’s claims. After all, if one was born to atheist parents, one is likely to be an atheist.) But I wonder whether Raymo’s privileged status as a white male, North American academic with a fairly comfortable retirement hasn’t slanted his view of nature. Would he consider nature so benign had he been born a dirt-poor, starving Ethiopian?

The picture of nature that emerges from Raymo’s book is of nature veiled, but nonetheless productive of wonder, awe, joy, and delight–of a good nature minus the God who brought order out of chaos and called it good. Rudolf Otto identified the idea of the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Raymo focuses on the fascinans. He has forgotten the tremendum.

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