Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 11
by Ervin Taylor
This is Part 11 of the summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
Summary for Chapter 10: Religion and Science and Reason
Through most of history, religion and science were not in disagreement. In fact, most scientists were devoted followers of some religious tradition and considered nature a way to understand God. The remarkable development of what we call science in the last few hundred years has however given us new and vastly greater resources for examining claims about the natural world.
The Criteria of Belief
The difference between religious belief and scientific belief is not adequately described by assertions that religious belief is irrational. The most important difference seems to be the criteria for evidence. After centuries of refinement, science currently depends on the careful rational evaluation of publicly available evidence. Scientific understandings are always subject to revision but tend toward stability over time and are a universalizing force in a world where religion and culture tend to be divisive.
The provision of religious belief depends most clearly on the acculturation of the child. Other sources of religious conviction are ancient documents, venerated as having supernatural sources by the particular religious community—with origins that are always contestable. Another important source of religious validation may come from private personal events often called mystical. These frequently powerful experiences take one outside a normal, rational, conscious state. These out-of-body states are reported to occur among adherents of a wide variety of religious traditions.
The Reasons that Religious Beliefs Cannot Be Examined Critically
In our practical daily lives, we seem most likely to be successful if we mobilize rationality and a certain skepticism about things that seem unlikely. Surprisingly, in Christianity someone who asks for evidence is derisively called a “Doubting Thomas.” One explanation is that religious belief is, in effect, a kind of group loyalty just as our ancestors had for their hunter-gatherer tribes—protected by strictures and taboos. Another option is to refuse debate for what seems a weak position since many of us find religious “truth” neither obvious nor testable.
For many Christians and many Muslims, humor about their religious icons evokes great hostility probably because it tends to make the subjects more life-size and human.
The Religious Intellectual Quest
One form of religious quest is the inward journey to change the self. Monks, nuns and various renouncers or holy men are especially devoted to this quest to become changed or enlightened—to be like Jesus or Buddha or . . .
Another religious quest is that of the theologian who spends his time trying to understand and justify his religious tradition and harmonize it with history and the rest of our intellectual world. This may involve some creativity but it is usually greatly constrained by the fundamental beliefs of the group. Religions may evolve over time to even be more tolerant and reasonable but this is unpredictable.
Religions have largely avoided studying the religious phenomenon itself—the real reasons for themselves in our world.
Paradox in Religion and Science
It is certain because it is impossible.
Rather than endorsing its apparent paradoxes, science seeks to understand and resolve them. Its paradoxes tend to result from limits of the models it has available rather than confusion about the phenomena.
Religion demands that the believer accept some seeming paradoxes such as Christianity’s one God but three persons. Devotees are supposed to eventually come to embrace these beliefs with confidence. Perhaps one reason religions do this is that sharing unlikely or absurd beliefs may strengthen feelings of community in the sharing group.
Attempts to Resolve the Conflicts of Religion and Science
The late Stephen Gould wrote a book proposing that if religion and science would confine their commentaries to their areas of expertise, there wouldn’t need to be any conflict. Unfortunately, especially in the Christian world, there are ongoing disagreements based on ideas about the origin of life especially human life and about the “soul.”
Religion Trumps Science
Fundamentalist Christianity has taken the position that scripture is inerrant and is correct if it disagrees with scientific understanding. This has most clearly involved study of the past including such disciplines as archaeology, geology, paleontology and anthropology. Groups with a more mythic interpretation of their documents are spared this useless struggle.
Science Trumps Religion
This school would say that when religion finds itself locked in disagreement with science it needs to revisit its central myths and find enough plasticity there to remove the conflict.
The illusion is that good science and “true” religion are never in conflict since both come from God and are about God. The reality is that science is about the facts of the world and religion has been honed for millennia to serve human emotional needs. They are both powerful tools. Science has brought immense changes in the circumstances of human life with the implication that religion will somehow have to learn to live with science.
Comments by ET.
In my view, this chapter is one of the most interesting in the entire book. I certainly agree with Dr. Wilbur’s statement that: “The difference between religious belief and scientific belief is not adequately described by assertions that religious belief is irrational.” To argue that some religious belief with which those of us who live in the West are acquainted may be considered irrational, we would first have to assume some system of rationality to be valid since being rational is very much tied to the what system of thought has come to dominate in a given society and cultural experience. Rather than argue that some Western religious concepts are irrational, it might be helpful to suggest that some are arational. Some religious ideas are not meant to appeal to the rational but to that part of human personality which we might call affective or emotional. How different individuals respond to religious-based statements meant to influence the affective part of human personality will, of course, vary greatly depending on different personality types. This is one reason that religious systems, such as that which has evolved within Adventism, which argue for universalistic truths, will always have serious problems since that type of system assumes that there is one “true” system of belief to which all humans should adhere.