Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, and Dr. Chris Myers, Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities, American Public University
Will religion always remain an important part in the life of humans? As secularization continues around the world, could it actually replace religious belief and practice?
In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with religion and philosophy professor Dr. Chris Myers about the evolving role of religion, the decline of certain religions, the conflict between religion and science, and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Listen to learn more about the evolving role of religion among humans.
Read the Transcript
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to The Everyday Scholar from the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today, we are talking to Dr. Christopher Myers, religion and philosophy professor, about Nietzsche’s statement, “God is dead.” Welcome, Chris.
Dr. Chris Myers: Thank you, Bjorn. It’s good to be here with you and I’ll be happy to provide a little bit of insight on what we can discuss in the coming podcast, and you can feel free to go ahead and fire away with questions and I’ll respond to the best that I can.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, and just as a little short preamble, I am not a philosopher and I am not a theologian. So I’m going to be really excited about this and to learn with the audience as we talk to you.
So my first question is religion doesn’t seem to be going away even with our advancements in science and technology. Why is that and do you think that religion will always remain an important part in the life of humans?
Dr. Chris Myers: That’s a good question, Bjorn. I do think that religion will always remain an important part in the life of humans. And a little bit of the background to this question is probably the enlightenment period and Nietzsche’s statement through a character named Zarathustra, who claimed that God was dead and we have killed him.
During the Enlightenment period, there was a tension between reason versus religion and of course developing science versus religion. And there were some philosophers and some scientists that believed that they were replacing religious belief and practice. So that’s where the idea came from.
Then there was a developing trend called secularization. Secular is moving away from any religious belief and practice and it has begun to happen quite a bit and say Western Europe, Eastern Europe to some degree, Northern Europe definitely. And it’s been happening a little bit in the USA and others around the country. Particularly in the USA, perhaps in the Eastern coast and in the Northern areas, but there’s still quite a prevalence of religious belief in the USA, even in the developed world.
And the question is whether the secularization process will continue, and will it actually replace religious belief and practice not only in our country or others, but around the world. And surprisingly, the evidence shows that although there has been a decreased membership in official religious institutions and there has been a slight increase in people that identify as atheistic or agnostic, religious belief and practice around the world is alive and well. And in fact, it’s increasing in many areas of the world such as in Africa and parts of Asia.
So I think it will remain a very important part of human culture because it tends to address questions that we really aren’t able to address in science, and people need to have coping mechanisms for the harsh vicissitudes of life. And we all continue to have questions about what is the meaning of our life, what is our purpose, what’s going to happen after we die?
Because even though we recognize our own physical death is inevitable and it’s on the way, science hasn’t replaced that yet. We still care about the world; we still care about our loved ones. We have this care for them and everybody who is going to be going on after us. So religion tries to help with some of those basic questions that humans have had and I think will always have.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is excellent. I would say you can see this debate daily in the public discourse. You can see politicians talking about it, you can see religious people talking about it, and you can see not-religious people talking about the status of religion say in American life, in American culture, and it is interesting to see those perspectives.
To our next question, less people in Europe and the U.S. claim to practice a particular religion or be active in a traditional religious institution. What do you think is behind this trend? And I’ll do a slight little tag question. Is there a danger to this? Because if you listen to certain commentators, they’ll say that without say, a moral grounding and religion that all bets are off.
Dr. Chris Myers: Yes, some people do say that in Western civilization, we do have some rational theories of morality that don’t have anything to do with religious belief in practice, like Aristotelian Virtue Theory. Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. And we also have Social Contract Theory.
And I think that the trend towards secularization in Europe and in the USA is demographically and sociologically evident. There’s no doubting that. And of course moral standards have changed whether for the better or worse would be another discussion.
For instance, around gender identity and the questions of abortion and freedom of speech and personal liberty versus social safety and things like that. But there is still a strong religious identity and culturally, even in Europe and in the USA, in areas that have undergone a secularization process.
So we look at something like the Notre Dame cathedral catching fire and being destroyed. Well on a daily mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral, how many people were attending? It was probably a very small percentage of people in the community that were actually active in that parish, but when all of a sudden you know, it needs finances and work and support and help and the tragedy happens, it’s a cultural impact upon people and they don’t want to let it go.
We want to save it. We want to rebuild it because religion intersects with all different areas of our life and throughout culture, and it’s going to do that in politics and economics, in ethnic relationships, in family life, in all of our institutions and our relationship to our governing authorities. It’s just a very powerful force and I don’t think it’s going to go away completely. So there are philosophical versions of morality that people use and that we teach in academics. And that makes sense because they’re based upon rational systems of thought.
And then on the other hand, there’s people that say that religion is a danger all of its own, because we can look at our own religious history and we can see the numbers of wars that have been fought in the name of religion. Of course, there were politics and economics involved in that, too. But if we look at some horrible examples in history of like the Inquisition and the Crusades and things like that, we can see that it has been involved in these struggles between different groups of human beings. So that’s on the other side of it.
But if we take a look at some work by a philosopher from Tufts University, like Daniel Dennett who’s wonderful, and he’s still teaching, he wrote a great book criticizing religion from a philosophical viewpoint called “Breaking the Spell” and he is an avowed atheist, but he is not vehemently opposed to religious belief in practice. He believes that religion does actually provide something for human beings.
And if all of a sudden take it away, what are we going to replace that with? He doesn’t know. He would like to do some more thinking and research in this area. So he does things like invites people over at Christmas time and they sing all of their religious Christmas carols and festivals, and he talks about it in his classes and he’s very open to attending liturgical services for the grand majesty of it all and to hear a good sermon and to listen to the music.
He’s a really neat guy and I used to play short video clips of some of his interviews to my classes when I was teaching part time at a community college. And sometimes I provide links to students at American Public University to some of his work. We can look at advantages and disadvantages of religious belief in practice. I believe there are different viewpoints that we can look at it from.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So a follow-up question, and I’m glad you brought up Daniel Dennett. What are your thoughts on Richard Dawkins and say, Christopher Hitchens? Because I find that very interesting to listen to, but they have such an anti-religious perspective in which they rightfully call out the very difficult and tragic and horrible history of religions that throughout history, but then they seem to have just focus[ed] on that versus the more spiritual part or what it can actually do to help people.
Dr. Chris Myers: Yeah. So I’m familiar with some of their interviews and some of the debates that they’ve had. And I would say that they do take a somewhat antagonistic view toward religious belief and practice, and they’re claiming to look at it from a rational perspective, whether it’s a journalist or a philosopher or some other viewpoint in the “secular world.”
Philosophically, I don’t think that atheism is a provable demonstrable stance as far as someone claiming to be 100 percent certain that there is no God or no creator of the universe. And on the other hand, I would say along with the theologian Paul Tillich, that the arguments for the existence of God are not demonstrably provable, either theologically or philosophically. God is not an object in the universe that is subject to the sensory proofs that we could use to test things like in a scientific laboratory.
And this reminds me of the Russian cosmonaut who blasted off into outer space and then came back. And of course he upheld the communist line of the Soviet Union at the time. And he said, “I went up in space and I looked for God and didn’t find him. So there is no God.”
Well, God wasn’t waiting for the cosmonaut in orbit around the earth. God’s not an object in the universe like all of the other objects in the universe. And so philosophically, if I was just to look at this and bracket out my own beliefs and my own opinions and practices, I would have to say that agnosticism is probably the most demonstrably provable philosophical stance.
Although the next question would be, even if we can’t prove the existence of God or prove that God does not exist, is there some inductive reasoning or probability or what provides a better explanation for the universe as it is and as we experience it? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? Is it just a quantum free lunch, like some speculative astrophysicists might claim, or should there be a sufficient reason for the existence of the universe?
So that’s really the ultimate metaphysical question, philosophically speaking. Why is there something rather than nothing? And what is a better answer to that question? So I try to think along those lines when I’m doing my academic work.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are excellent comments. And I really do like how you said that atheism is not provable in the same sense that try to prove a God is not 100 percent provable. And I find it interesting when you listen to great thinkers and great writers, and I’ll talk about Christopher Hitchens because I like Chris Hitchens and he’s quite funny. But at the same time it seems like a lot of what he says is just there for the joke. He’s a very fast thinker, a very fast talker, but he’s mean.
At the same time, whatever he’s saying in his stance is not provable, but then he instantly disproves the possible existence of God. At the same time, you’ll hear the same arguments on the side of the God exists. Of course it exists. And I think it’s just one of the great mysteries. And some people will completely say, “Oh, it’s not a mystery. It’s this, exactly.” Or they’ll say, “It’s this, exactly.” But at the same time you can’t prove it. It is one of the great questions of life.
So Chris, the next question I have for you is, is there a necessary conflict between religion and science and religion and philosophy?
Dr. Chris Myers: That’s a good question, Bjorn. And I think we can see that play out in some of our public discourse and even in our own public school systems—middle school through high school—here in the USA and some of the debates around like creationism versus evolutionary theory.
So there was a question about this going back several decades at least. One of the paleontologists who did a lot of work in this field was Steven J. Gould. And he was actually inspired by some Vatican scientists who were working on paleontology when he was over in the Vatican in Rome.
And he was amazed at the sort of intersection in their personal lives and in their work between their religious belief and practice, and they’re scientists. Because the Roman Catholic Church has had some tremendous scientists for hundreds of years in all different areas, and the Jesuits had been known for their education and passing along their knowledge all during this time.
But Steven J. Gould has something, the acronym is NOMA, N-O-M-A. What that stands for is he believes that science and religion are non-overlapping magisterium, which would be fields of study or fields of human knowledge. So in his work, he believes that science can answer certain questions about evolutionary theory, and he works on different ideas about how that may have happened throughout the history of the planet.
And he comes up with new about evolutionary theory called punctuated equilibrium where he believes there might’ve been like short bursts of evolutionary development. And then on the other hand, he believes that religion answers a different set of questions and it serves for a different kind of knowledge for human beings about how we can cope with things in our life and about answers to the meaning of life and why the universe exists and things like that.
So we can try to keep them separate. Although as you say, in public discourse, sometimes there does seem to be a conflict. So he would prescribe that there shouldn’t be unnecessary conflict between religion and science and I would definitely go along with him on that fundamental viewpoint.
I’ve been interested in science and Einstein’s Relativity Theory and quantum physics all of my life. Although I don’t do the math, I understand the words that they use to describe it. And at the same time, from the very beginning I was raised in a particular institutional religious belief and practice.
And then throughout my life and continuing on, even now, I tried to develop my understanding of different religions, different beliefs and different practices. So I don’t think that there really is unnecessary conflict. I think that sometimes scientists try to make religious statements like Stephen Hawking might come up with a theory of quantum gravity and a brief history of time.
At the conclusion of his really good book, he says that the universe has therefore always existed. So there is no need for a creator. There is no God. Well, I would say that he’s making a religious statement from the standpoint of his science.
On the other hand, we find religious people that make scientific statements out of hand and even claim to use biblical texts to support that. That would be the idea of a fundamentalistic view of creationism where supposedly maybe God actually created the world in seven 24-hour days because of a certain literal reading of the Book of Genesis, something like that. So there is no doubt that there is conflict, but I don’t think there should be.
So if it, religion has its own domain and the science has its own domain, and if we can do both, we can believe in both and we can practice both. Many, many scientists are religious, and many very religious people have been scientists and are scientists. So it’s possible that these two domains of human experience can coexist within a human being and within a society and a culture.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That made me think of a few things. I listened to some excellent podcasts with Bishop Robert Barron about specifically Christopher Hitchens and how it always seems to take the approach of a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and then of course criticizes it. Yes, which totally makes sense.
Not everybody views a scripture from a fundamentalist point of view. There’s huge diversity of thought. And then why do you think scientists, and if for some reason, and maybe it’s logical or illogical, a preponderance of sciences are atheists oftentimes because they view the world through such scientific clarity that they can’t put a God in there because they can’t prove it. So why do you think that is and why do you think so many scientists then feel like they have to then convince people of that?
Dr. Chris Myers: Well, if I put the premise of your question in brackets and just put a big question mark behind that, right now I will say, of course, I talk about Paul Tillich. The good theology realizes that if God exists it’s not an object in the universe like other objects.
So there’s no way that we could perform a scientific experiment in a laboratory that would prove the existence of God or not. That’s just not the human activity that God can be responsible for, responsive to. We have to admit that, and we have to believe that there is no scientific proof for the existence of God.
However, if we look for any reason why the universe exists, why does it exist as it does with a certain sense of other dimensions of human responsiveness to things like beauty and to love, to honor, to courage, to relationships, to our own intelligence.
What are the odds that somewhere out in the boondocks, the Milky Way galaxy, in this vast expanse of a universe, there would be creatures that would develop into humans that have intelligence like we do. What is a good answer for that?
So that’s probably the domain of religious belief and practice trying to focus on explaining, things like that so that human beings can find meaning in our lives. If scientists find meaning in their science and they certainly can, then that’s great. There are many different avenues to, I think, understanding the meaning of our lives and to working toward a fulfilling human life and to whatever may come afterward, if there is anything afterward.
Einstein’s done some really nice talking and writing about some of these points as well. So I like to say there is no necessary conflict, and there are scientists who are very devoted religious believers and they practice their religion. And then there are many scientists who are not.
That’s understandable because you’ll find that in any area of human activity, whether it be economics or politics or military conflict or anything that we do, you’re going to find that, believe in a religion and practice it and people that don’t. That’s part of humanity.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and I completely agree and I feel a little conspiracy theory-ish I should by saying, I think sometimes you hear comments from scientists or people who are maybe describe it as more evangelical, because they want to write articles and they want to publish books. And so I completely agree that there doesn’t have to be a conflict. So some people do create a conflict, so it helps them spread their message or sell books. Who knows?
Dr. Chris Myers: I would agree with that, Bjorn. In fact, one of the major strategies of getting published and getting your name out in the debate out there is to attack an opposing viewpoint, even if you have to make up the opposing viewpoint and to get involved in this debate. Yeah, and some people probably do it just for that reason as well.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And again, I brought up Christopher Hitchens several times. I like listening to him. I think he’s a really good thinker, but at the same time he likes to attack and that is his debate style and it’s not my debate style. I think everybody should listen very openly, listen to the other side, acknowledge that what we know could not be true.
And I think especially with science and religion, there’s nothing more true than that. Then so far, last question. What is the difference between the academic study of religion and studying at religious institutions such as the Bible college, summer, a mosque, a temple, a monastery? How does this inform your teaching?
Dr. Chris Myers: That’s a great question to close with. And I do teach a variety of classes in the area of philosophy and in the area of religious studies. And I was raised in an institutional religion here in the USA and went to a religious educational system all the way through.
And then after I enlisted in the Air Force and I got out again to pursue my education. I actually went to a Bible college in Santa Cruz, California. And then I went and did my Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. And after that, I ended up doing my Ph.D. at the University of Iowa in the department of religious studies.
But my area of expertise and my dissertation is on philosophical hermeneutics. So hermeneutics is a science and the art of interpreting, starting with texts, written texts, but then it expands out to all other kinds of areas of human communication and activity.
But I developed something when I was writing my dissertation: I realized that I’m going to have to take a very academic viewpoint here so that my rational and my philosophical arguments aren’t skewed by my own religious belief in practice if I had or have any at that time. I started developing it then and then when I started teaching, it became more fully developed. It’s something that I call a positive metaphysical agnosticism.
So in our classes, especially our religion classes at American Public University System, which is … It’s not a Bible college or seminary, and it’s not a confessional system of religious belief in practice. It’s an academic approach to religion. I take an agnostic view in my relationship to what I teach and in my communications with my students and I also teach it and recommend that students do the same.
It’s positive in the sense that it’s okay to talk about our own religious beliefs and practices even in the classroom, in our discussions. So whether we’re studying world religions or religious existentialism or whatever, it definitely has a place in our academic discussions, but then I put it all in brackets and I teach my students to do the same. Put your own religious belief and practice in brackets for the purposes of our discussion.
And so we can talk about things like supernatural events, angels, divine intercession, and to the natural order of things. Or we can talk about a prayer that I might’ve had answered or maybe someone talks about an angel who saved them in a car accident or somebody who was healed from a sickness. That’s fine, we can talk about it, but we put it in brackets and for our academic study of religion, we just try to maintain an agnostic viewpoint.
That not only helps us and avoid conflicts in religious discussions, but it also helps us understand the other religions better. So if I put my own Judeo-Christian belief or culture in a parenthesis so to speak, and just put a question mark by it all my own metaphysical beliefs and be agnostic about that, then that can help me understand Hinduism better, their beliefs and practices. That can make me understand Buddhism better, their beliefs and practices or Confucianism or any other major world religion. It can actually help us understand the other religions better.
And of course we keep them in brackets or a set of parentheses with the question mark as well. But what happens then is then we bring all of these things into our discussion and we learn about them and then our discussion develops and our understanding progresses further and further and further into what Hans-Georg Gadamer would call a fusion of horizons, which I think is a beautiful term to describe the process of understanding.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I have to say that for the rest of my life, I’ll be using your term positive metaphysical agnosticism. I think it’s an absolutely wonderful way to look at how to look at religions and how to talk about them.
Dr. Chris Myers: I think so, too. And that’s what I practice with my students and that’s what I try to teach them as well. I work the idea into a discussion and I’ll post it. Every once in a while, of course, an instructor has to step in to an argument or a debate that might be going on in the online classroom, has to step in and insert the parentheses and the question marks. But when I come from this viewpoint and this approach, it seems to work very well.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and I think two things that people always say don’t talk about at work or at Thanksgiving, religion and politics.
Dr. Chris Myers: Yeah.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Even today, I think, it’s a little easier for people to talk about religion than politics. But with religion it doesn’t have to be binary. Religion is not a football game where one person wins, one person loses.
So many different types of religion have existed and will exist, just based on people and cultures and language and time in which religions came about. It’s absolutely amazing. The fact that, and Hinduism has existed for thousands of years, Buddhism has existed for thousands of years, Christianity for 2,000, Islam for 1,500, Judaism for even longer. It’s just that these shared ideas have come down with certain peoples and then have traveled around the world is just amazing.
Dr. Chris Myers: I think so, too. And that’s why I love teaching not only my philosophy classes but my religion classes as well.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so absolutely wonderful conversation. Chris, any final words? I know we started with Nietzsche, but whew, we had a lot of other places, which is great.
Dr. Chris Myers: I think it was a great discussion and I enjoyed it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And so today you’re at the Everyday Acholar. We’ve talked to Dr. Christopher Myers. Again, thank you for being here.
Dr. Chris Myers: Good to be here. Thank you, Bjorn.
About the Speakers
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.
Dr. Chris Myers is a full-time associate professor in the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University. He holds an M.Div. in theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Iowa.
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