02/25/2013 01:31 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Science, Religion and 'The Breakfast Club'

In my last post I discussed the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit. This is the idea, held by some atheists, that humanity is growing up from an infancy characterized by belief in God. Under this conceit the God fantasy must be sloughed off because it is untrue and unhelpful. Reason and empirical science have now emerged as the only principles worthy of a fully awake and grown-up humanity. The giving-up of religion and the full embrace of reason is the trading of a childish dream for reality. It is a happy signpost along the way to humanity's majority.

So goes the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit.

I believe this idea is no more than a convenient fiction, but I'm not interested in attacking it directly (others have done that already). Instead I'd like to simply propose an off-the-cuff alternative model. It is at least as plausible as the Goat Herder. My point is not that this alternative is right and the Goat Herder is wrong. Instead, I wish to say only that it's easy to manufacture interpretations of history that seem compelling, especially to those who already believe them.

Like the Bronze Age Goat Herder Conceit, my model is based on the theme of growing up. I call it the "Breakfast Club Conceit."

"The Breakfast Club," for those who don't know, is a movie by John Hughes ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off"; "Home Alone"; "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"). It was released in 1985 and chronicles one day in the life of five teenagers. Each hails from a different clique -- Brian's a geek, Allison's a recluse, Claire's a princess, Andrew's a jock, John's a rebel -- and they spend a long Saturday in detention, cloistered in their school's library. They laugh, cry, make out, dance, smoke dope and talk. They talk a lot. They talk about their different social scenes, they talk about their friends, they talk about their parents, they talk about themselves, they talk about each other.

None of them trust the way they were brought up, and all of them end up trusting each other. Two points stand out: 1) their new social worlds, in sharp contrast to the worlds of their parents, are utterly absorbing to them; and 2) their parents' values -- that is, their own values up to roughly the date of their detention -- are questioned and, in the end, judged to be inadequate to the realities of their lives.

What we see in "The Breakfast Club" is a well-documented piece of psychology: Once a human being learns a new intellectual or social skill, it has a way of rearranging the mental furniture. The new arrangement is centered on the new skill. Old arrangements and skills are devalued. And the new skills, for perfectly valid developmental reasons, are actually overused. It is necessary to overuse them, to test them and to find their limits.

We see the awakening of social skills in "The Breakfast Club." In the clear light of a new understanding, life under parental and institutional standards appears dopey and restricting and just plain wrong. And, as the film shows, it feels really good to push the new skills. Kind of like freedom, kind of like release, kind of like growing up. Plus it's fun, like rearranging your living room around a new sofa.

So what I'm thinking is, maybe religion is like what our parents taught us when we were kids. And science, only a few hundred years old and still growing, provides an exciting new understanding by which our religious upbringing may be judged. But perhaps in our exuberance -- look, we can do the physics and predict an eclipse and build a bomb! we can vaccinate for polio and sequence our genes! -- science gets overvalued. Perhaps in our search for its limits we overemphasize it.

Indeed, why worry over outdated metaphysics and ancient rules when we can clone sheep? When there's stuff to learn? When the final frontier awaits? Why hang out with Mom and Dad at home when there's a football game and pizza and a party? And a road trip to the beach in the morning?

But if this is the way things are, then it's wrong to say that science is good and religion is bad. After all, there is no more evidence to say that religion is a useless and hurtful artifact of our past that must be jettisoned wholesale than there is to say that everything Claire Standish's parents ever told her was a flat-out deception.

Plus, when Claire hits adulthood she may be surprised to hear her parents' words coming out of her mouth. And what may be most surprising is the discovery that she means what she says.

So under the Breakfast Club Conceit, science is a relatively new and powerful skill, like a teen's social awareness, that has come to dominate part of humanity's consciousness. And like the teen's overused social skills, empirical science will one day be seen as just one important tool among others. And those atheists who want to rid the world of religion altogether are like hellraising kids who, for very good reasons, want to just forget everything their parents ever said or did.

Hellraisers notwithstanding, we will eventually come to see our religious and scientific lives come into balance, just as teenagers eventually grow up and learn to balance the dual influences of authority and peers, of restraint and exuberance.

I could work this idea harder, and it might be fun. But frankly I don't care if the Breakfast Club Conceit is right or wrong.* Why? Because my point is broader and more modest: The Breakfast Club, like the Goat Herder, goes down easy if you basically believe it already. Heck, I'm starting to warm to it myself.

Anyone can come up with an idea and sell it. And if it fits some group's preconceptions, or if it serves their political or (a)theological agenda then there will be no push by anyone in that group to question it. And then you might end up with a lot of people believing a lot of nonsense. Which, truth be told, is not a phenomenon unique to religion.

*I do in fact think that the Breakfast Club has more insight to offer than the Goat Herder. But it has problems. One is that it characterizes religion as conservative and authority-based and science as iconoclastic and intellectually liberating. Both statements are partly true but are taken by themselves misleading about both religion and science.

There are more severe problems. Like the Goat Herder, the Breakfast Club suffers from one unfounded assumption: that human history should be understood in terms of an individual's development, and, even more problematic, that it should be described in terms of progress at all.