The philosopher Wilfrid Sellars famously distinguished between the “manifest image” of the world — i.e. the way the world presents to the average person — and the “scientific image” — i.e. the way the world presents to the scientist. Evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin wonderfully captured the chasm between the manifest and scientific images in an influential New York Review of Books review of Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World. The review is very much worth reading as Lewontin methodically deconstructs the simplistic “science/reason vs. religion/faith” binary that frames the way the village new atheist views the world.
The new atheist revels in a simplistic binary in which they exercise reason over-against the benighted religious fools who exercise irrational faith. Along the way they completely fail to recognize the rationality in dissenting views … or the inescapable faith in their own.
Lewontin beautifully illustrates the point when he exclaims in mock amazement:
“Do physicists really expect me to accept without serious qualms that the pungent cheese that I had for lunch is really made up of tiny, tasteless, odorless, colorless packets of energy with nothing but empty space between them?”
The importance of this passage is that Lewontin realizes there really is a conflict of loyalties here. The person who defers to the judgment of the scientist over their senses makes a faith judgment. That’s not to say it is right or wrong. But it is a matter of explicit trust in what scientists say. It is faith.
With that in mind, let’s switch for a moment back to a memorable declaration by sixteenth century Ignatius of Loyola, faithful Catholic and founder of the Jesuits:
“If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical church so defines.”
Such a bald declaration to elevate the testimonial witness of others over the testimony of one’s own senses is denounced as anathema by the new atheist. But note that this same new atheist expects the average person today to defer to the physicist when it comes to the nature of the cheese they had for lunch. And that’s the key. It turns out that the issue is not reason vs. faith. Rather, it is this: where does your faith lie? Does it lie with the Catholic Church? Or the physicists? Or perhaps the new atheist cults of celebrity?
And since such questions are hopelessly simplistic, let’s note a far more satisfying possibility, namely that the nature of one’s deference to faith depends on the domain in question. For example, one might defer to the physicist when describing the cheese and the Church when describing salvation. And just as deferring to the physicist might require the abandonment or qualification of a manifest image, so might it be for the deference to the church.
Yes, this can get complicated. Yes, it isn’t always clear when we defer to an authority and when we retain our manifest image. The relationship between reason and faith can get complicated. But then, who said reality is simple?