Thursday, August 28, 2014

Religion & Evidence

I saw this meme recently that made this claim about religion being closed off from evidence, or denying evidence to preserve the belief. There is, to me, a simple counter-argument to this assertion: The Book of Job.

The Book of Job is proof that religious people are not necessarily unable to change their beliefs in the face of evidence. Many are so closed off. But not all are. The Book of Job represents a religious writer who jettisons a long-standing and deeply held religious belief because of evidence to the contrary. Certainly, and the Book of Job comments on this, one of the most deeply held religious beliefs among ancient Jews was that God is just. But Job, because of the presence of great innocent suffering in the world, rejects the idea that God is just. Ergo, religious beliefs can be reviewed in the face of evidence and some people do just that.

Of course the Book of Job is not alone in this. The truth is that within the scriptural record there is a great amount of evolution. People are over time changing their positions on important matters, and sometimes people have great disagreements over those matters. What do skeptics think caused these disagreements. I supposed they believe they are purely ideological or political, but when you read the text what they actually look like is empirical disagreements. "Does God only love the Jews, or does He deal with all people equally?" This is a long-standing debate, and those who won out won out BECAUSE of the evidence of the way the world around them works. The Problem of Evil debate worked the same way.

Heck, the entire Book of Ecclesiastes is about a man who argues against the proposition that life is meaningful, a central tenet of any religion. And all of his arguments use sensory experience as their foundation. He uses the way the world works as his argument against the proposition that life has any meaning at all.

Of course, sensory experiences are not the only experiences people have and much of the debate takes place at the level of religious experience. People in scripture are arguing over what their religious experiences mean. And what is true for the religious community that wrote the Bible, is true for most individuals as well. People's religious beliefs are in flux. And that flux is the result of people reasoning about their experiences, both sensory and religious.

The very fact that religious experience changes a person's conception of God is problematic for the skeptical view put forth by many skeptically minded people that religious belief is purely ideological, or simple wish fulfillment. Even if the skeptic doubts the validity of the experiences the religious individual has (which he is perfectly within his epistemic rights to do, by the way), what cannot be denied is that a person who has such experiences may have rational foundations for them to believe in God. No one can stand outside an experience and evaluate how that experience should affect the way someone else reasons or thinks about the world. You can have stronger or weaker reasons for rejecting the outputs of said experiences for yourself, but you can't impose those on the other person.

But the upshot is that even though most religious people like to treat theology as something like philosophy, and the direct discovery of some kind of first principles from which all other knowledge flows, any in-depth study of any religion shows that religion is actually more like science than religion. Until certain forces of institutionalization start to freeze (or rather retard) doctrinal evolution, the process of revelation is a lot more like the process of gaining knowledge about the physical world. People have experiences and reflect upon them. Then others criticize and add their own personal experience. Others then respond in kind. This data is fit into the totality of one's worldview, and attempts are made to reconcile it with the outputs of other modes of experience. Sensory data weighs heavily on the process, but so does the religious and affective experiences that began the quest.

To this day I believe that no greater evaluation of the nature of religion exists than Alfred N Whitehead's RELIGION IN THE MAKING, and I think the overall view of what religion is, laid down there, is more or less correct. It is one of those little-study works of genius that deserves more attention than it receives.

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