Secularism is on the rise and one of the narratives motivating it is the view that God is no longer needed to explain consciousness and its origins.

A new view on consciousness is increasingly gaining attention in science and religion discussions. This is both promising and disheartening. It is promising because it means that hard-line scientistic views of consciousness advanced by the New Atheists (e.g., Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) are increasingly becoming less plausible in popular discussions. It is disheartening because the view replacing it remains secular—that is, it’s just another view that purports that consciousness and everything else can be explained without God.

If you’re religious, then this isn’t good news. And, it’s disheartening because we are hearing of ongoing reports that the West is increasingly becoming secular. Pew Research reports have in recent history reported that there is a significant decline in religious belief as well as religious practice. Much of this seems to be the fruit of church closings of 2020 simultaneous with progressive secularist re-envisionings of traditional institutions like marriage. What this means is that there are growing numbers who identify as “unaffiliated” and, worse, atheistic. What this ultimately means is that there is ongoing decay of societal values and a weakening of the moral fiber of its citizens. As a Christian minister, I am concerned that we are seeing the dwindling of values that solidify a strong society committed to principles representing traditional Christian teaching. And, worse, many are pushing for further secularization that they see as part and parcel of what it means to be a democratic society. One recent author described this as a religion in itself, just not one that is theistic.

Recent discussions surrounding science and religion are not immune to this secularizing effect. It’s not surprising that so many in recent history have described the notions of God, the soul, and the afterlife as crazy ideas with no scientific support in sight. This was certainly a claim made recently by physicist Sean Caroll. But he’s not the only one; new atheists continue to advance such an idea. Several others have similar attitudes to traditional ideas that require religious commitment. Developmental psychologist Bruce Hood is one obvious example when he says: “It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self, as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time the concept has been dismissed for lack of empirical support.” Francis Crick and Owen Flanagan too have opted for a complete secularizing of the mind, God, the afterlife and other such religious notions that were once taken to be normative in public consciousness. Crick opts for a complete scientistic or physical view of consciousness when he states: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” In Flanagan we see the parallel to the ongoing secularization of social morality when he states: “desouling is the primary operation of the scientific image.” This should concern us.

The same is occurring in consciousness studies. But one thing has changed. There is a recognition that consciousness is not wholly material and physics can’t explain it—or at least its not clear how physics can or ever could explain consciousness. This sentiment is growing even amongst those who were once wholly committed to a physics view of consciousness. Even secularist Annaka Harris (wife of the famous New Atheist Sam Harris) has come around to arguing that physics might not have the resources to explain consciousness and we should look at a view that takes seriously the utter uniqueness of consciousness apart from physical bits and particles.

There are those who are taking seriously the fact that science and quantitative analysis cannot give us an explanation of consciousness. And why should it? Consciousness is a wholly subjective reality that has a felt or qualitative feel to it. It is wholly unlike what we find in physics. And, in fact, this is what Philip Goff claims in his recent work Galileo’s Error. He argues that Galileo led science down a path purporting to explain everything through quantitative and mathematical analysis alone. But, here’s the problem: quantities don’t and can’t explain everything—for example, qualities. They just don’t. The two are different. And, no doubt, Galileo’s impact has been significant and the scientific approach to quantitative analysis has done a great deal in terms of explaining our world. But, it can’t explain why you like chocolate or the experience you feel when a loved one smiles at you.

For Goff, qualities and experience actually exist, and this is what it means to be conscious. So far, so good. This is an improvement on recent attempts to explain consciousness according to mathematical quantities, physical bits, and mechanisms. And, once again, as I said above, this is both promising and disheartening. Its promising because what was once conceived as something that science couldn’t explain used to be explained by God. But there’s something disheartening. Like so many secular proposals, Goff suggests that while we can’t explain consciousness and the world by the austere physics of Galileo with its emphasis on mathematical quantities, this doesn’t mean that we need God to explain it.

Instead, he posits that we can have qualities and consciousness. Accordingly, he takes it that qualities, like quantities, exist at the most fundamental levels of the physical universe and consciousness is, somehow, a higher order product of biological evolution.

But there are two problems, it seems. Qualities can’t simply be added to Nature, which is otherwise explained wholly and completely by physics. Qualities are dependent on something. Consciousness isn’t something that is merely an utterly unique feature of an otherwise resistant physical system explained by quantities, but is a feature of something entirely different, something more akin to a soul. At a minimum, the jury’s still out on whether we can get consciousness from an otherwise resistant system explained almost solely by quantities. But there’s another problem. Consciousness is contingent. It’s something that comes into existence. But where does it come from? Goff, and his colleagues, give no answer other than: it just does.

Here’s the question, then: Why think this is a better explanation for qualities and consciousness than the older view that we are souls created by God?

In the end, despite reports to the contrary, this new secularism of consciousness doesn’t give us the hope that it promises. While it’s true that secularism is growing, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it supplies a better answer to consciousness.

— Joshua R. Farris (PhD) is an ordained minister and the Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum. He was a previous fellow at The Creation Project, Carl F. H. Henry Center, TEDS, and Heythrop College, University of London. He was also the Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He is the author of The Creation of Self: A Case for the Soul.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney on