Yes, Religion DOES Need to Conform to (Broadly) Scientific Standards of Evidence

Breaking off from the philosophy of punishment, I wanted to talk about the philosophy of religion. A position that I’ve encountered a lot recently goes something like this:

“Considered by broadly scientific standards, as an explanatory hypothesis, belief in a personal, omnipotent, morally perfect God is irrational and unjustified. But those are the wrong standards to apply: theism is not an explanatory hypothesis, and treating it like a scientific claim misunderstands it.”

Now, I’m conflicted about this position. I think there’s a valuable point here, but I also think it’s presented in the opposite way that I would present it – it’s presented as a defense of religion against rationalistic criticism, whereas I would seek to use it to guide that criticism more effectively.

Because the thing is, I would be quite happy to accept that statements about God are best understood not as positing ‘one more entity’ alongside the other entities in the world, but rather as making some more complex sort of philosophical point. I think such an analysis would often bring out much of what was compelling and relevant in such claims.

For example, you might take the statement “we should all be grateful to God for His creation”, and say: ‘this looks like the same sort of statement as “Brian should be grateful to Sally for her help with revision”, i.e. the application of our standard notion of gratitude to a particular case. But actually, it’s a statement about that notion of gratitude itself, telling us that it needs to be applied in a certain way, that to be consistent we should extend a foundational sense of gratitude to all objects, rather than taking some as requiring gratitude, some as worthless, and some as deserved.’ Or something like that.

Similarly, statements that “God is with your everywhere” become statements about the application of our concept of solitude; “God moves in mysterious ways” becomes a statement about the application of our concept of mystery.

I would be quite happy to interpret claims about God in these kinds of ways. Except for a troublesome fact: this is not how religion usually presents them. Religion habitually and systematically offers these as claims about the existence of a distinct entity. In doing so, IT submits them to broadly scientific standards of evidence. And it has to do so, to remain recognisable as religion.

(I should clarify ‘broadly scientific’. ‘Narrowly scientific’ would mean ‘such as would be properly studied by a particular department of science (physics, geology, etc.), using the conceptual equipment of that department’.

In this sense, for instance, my belief that other people around me have minds and mental lives, and particular claims about what they’re thinking and feeling, is not narrowly scientific in nature. But it is ‘broadly scientific’ in that it can be traced back to evidence, and in that it emerges, when thought about carefully, from the critical evaluation of alternative beliefs in terms of their relative ability to explain the available data.

In this sense, the ‘argument from evil’, that God probably doesn’t exist because the world is so far from being perfect, and so filled with apparently pointless injustice and suffering, is an example of a ‘broadly scientific’ method of reasoning about God – ‘how well does this theory fit with the available data’.)

If interpreting claims about God as being claims about, you know, a real being with certain features called ‘God’, is a misunderstanding of what religion is about, then religion itself is a systematic misunderstanding of what religion is about. But in that case what it misunderstands shouldn’t be called ‘religion’, but something different, like ‘spirituality’ – with the above claims about the proper application of our emotional concepts being examples of ‘spiritual’ claims.

To put it another way, there is a meme that floats about that says: “natural science, mathematical logic, religion, moral philosophy, etc. are all equally valid modes of reasoning, and should respect each other’s proper domains.” I want to accept this, but just amend it to say “natural science, mathematical logic, spirituality, moral philosophy, etc. are all equally valid modes of reasoning, and should respect each other’s proper domains – and religion by its nature does not do this, being an attempt to misappropriate spirituality so as to ‘invade’ the domains of science, moral philosophy, etc.”

I mainly wanted to lay this view out, but I’m conscious that I should say a bit more to justify it. For a start, I’ve simply assumed that, considered by broadly scientific standards, the claim that God exists is unjustified and probably false. Certainly, I have assumed that – I am quite happy to justify it if necessary, but I won’t here for reasons of space: in short, there is no positive evidence, and a lot of apparent negative evidence (evil, suffering, futility, tragic choices, etc).

I’ve also assumed that it’s vital to religion to make this kind of ‘mistake’ and interpret claims about God as postulating the existence of a distinct entity – that if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be recognisable as religion. Why is this?

To put it briefly, it’s only by postulating such an entity that religions can be ‘dualistic’ – they need to be able to contrast ‘this world’ with something else, something beyond it, in order to do most of the stuff they do.

Without dualism, there can be value-dualism between the worthless vanities of this life and the transcendent purity of the things beyond; there can be no prominent role played by emotions of disgust, since as I have argued in the past, disgust is dualistic in its content; there can be no elevation of certain groups over others as ‘pure’ and ‘spiritual’, and no elevation of certain institutions as ‘inspired’ with divine knowledge. There can be no dualism between rationalistic methods of thought in most of life (who relies of faith to build an aeroplane?) and authorities ‘beyond criticism’ in particular areas. There can be no dualism between the sacred and the profane, except as an explicitly subjective arrangement to suit one’s emotions.

In short, most of what is recognisably religious has been taken away, and there is simply rationalism with a certain emotional style.

4 Responses to “Yes, Religion DOES Need to Conform to (Broadly) Scientific Standards of Evidence”

  1. Awais Aftab Says:

    There is another religious strand in this debate which is commonly ignored, and which i have recently been exposed to, and that is the involvement of mysticism. For instance, what do you make of this:
    http://tehzib.wordpress.com/2009/10/17/ony-mythology-and-the-new-atheism/

  2. missivesfrommarx Says:

    To make this work you’ll have to have a fungible definition of spirituality. What do you mean by that? Existential reflection on the meaning of life? Getting in touch with the your chi? Meditating in order to relieve stress?

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well, I don’t know how much this captures the normal meaning(s) of the word, but what I had in mind here was something like this: conceptual analysis, but performed on emotional categories and not just intellectual concepts, and, as a result of this shift of emphasis, aiming at ‘corrections’ in emotional life as well as intellectual life.

    So for instance, the claim that material goods are not worthy of desire and that the desire for them is usually a net disadvantage even when satisfied (which may or may not be true), could be taken as a psychological claim about the brute fact of how people feel and behave, a philosophical claim about the proper application of the concept of value, or a ‘spiritual’ claim, which would be like the philosophical claim but presented less as something to argue over but as something to, so to speak, ‘make use of’ in adjusting the way you relate to various objects of desire.

    Although it can also be presented in a way that neglects the philosophical question of whether it’s actually rational to believe, and just offers it as a tissue of vague and ill-defined aphorisms. Or in a religious way, where a truth (or falsehood) about the value of material things is projected onto a supernatural being, and its meaning thereby changed.

  4. missivesfrommarx Says:

    I forgot to check back and see if you responded. This seems like a legit answer, although it is—I think—pretty far from the colloquial sense. But you know me, that needn’t stop you from using it your way.


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