Jean Kazez, a philosopher at SMU, blogs a nice critique of the bone I picked with Jerry Coyne. She sees in my argument:
a kind of defense by decimation. First you cut down the pretensions of religion; then you say religion is alright.
Rosenau says that if religious scripture doesn’t deliver scientific knowledge, like a physics textbook, it can still deliver some kind of knowledge. It can deliver knowledge like novels do. When you understand fiction as fiction, you understand that it’s true in vampire stories that there are vampires. What’s true out there is only that power can come from preying on others. If you don’t separate truth-in-fiction from truth-out-there, you’re liable to make mistakes. Maybe you’ll go around looking for vampires to hang out with, in the hopes of getting bitten by one and living forever.
This, I think, is an essential point. Genesis is a lovely book, written in a mix of poetry and prose, filled with mythical beasts and impossible events. The Book of Job is clearly set up as a parable, with an omniscient narrator (omniscient, but not divine). The Bible is a literary work, and saying so diminishes it not one whit (assuming you have sufficient respect for literature, I guess). Problems come when you try to force it out of that framework, making it into something it is not. That’s not to say the Bible is necessarily only a literary work, but in interpreting it in other contexts, we can’t ignore that literary aspect. In this sense, I think that the claim of decimation may be unfair. However, I’m talking outside my area of special expertise, and am willing to admit error in response to reasoned critique.
To step out of the religious realm for a moment, Star Trek gives us an analogy. It’s one thing to argue about whether Picard or Kirk is the better captain. It’s one thing to think Kirk rocks and to pay $75 to get Shatner’s signature. It’s yet another to pepper him with questions about why Kirk didn’t do this or that in episode 5. He doesn’t know. He’s an actor playing a character. The character made that choice, not the actor. The actor doesn’t know everything the character does. This inability to separate fiction from reality is widespread, and hardly restricted to religion. It is bad wherever it crops up. We don’t just need better science classes, we need better English classes. We need to train people to appreciate that there are different sorts of claims out there, different ways of evaluating them, and that it’s foolhardy to try testing a claim from one domain using the tools of another.
This is not to say that “religion is alright,” but that religion may well be alright. Religion is a topic where I’m unwilling to express much certainty.
Kazez suspects that I may have been arguing, then:
that there’s an element of actual religion that’s salvageable, even if the claims about miracles and the supernatural are false. If everyone would just recognize scripture as fiction, religion would be a good thing–at least the religions that involve good, edifying fictions. The truths in these fictions would stay safely in the fictions, and the edifying lessons would be learned. These are lessons about human psychology, morality, happiness, and much else.
I’d quibble here. Calling miracles false requires us to unpack a lot of meaning.
It’s one thing to say that God did not miraculously reach down and craft Eve from Adam’s rib. That is clearly not how the first woman came to be. This doesn’t mean that our existence as a species is not somehow miraculous. I don’t think in these terms, so I can’t do justice to the arguments of people who defend this notion, but certainly many see the natural processes by which life evolved as having been set in motion or nudged by divine will. The image of a rib being taken from a sleeping Adam is thus a figurative representation of that complex process, too elaborate to attempt to set down in the poetry of several millenia ago. Again, this is imputing a level of literary truth to the concept of a miracle, a level of meaning some religious people deny vociferously and consider heretical. Nonetheless, I think it’s at least a notion worth exploring.
And I think Kazez gets the critical point here right, that the truths (or at least truth claims) from literature and other non-scientific ways of knowing are of a different sort than scientific truth claims. They involve squishy things like psychology, emotion, morality, and other normative judgements that simply can’t be tested in a scientific framework, but which do carry meaning.
Kazez gets my basic goal here, but thinks I go a step too far:
Rosenau’s real interest is in arguing that religious people ought to be brought to science without being made to feel that their religion has to be left at the door. If religion delivers truths to us in the way that fiction does, it would be a bad idea to leave it at the door. That’s his basic idea, I think [yes- Josh]. But he’s simplified reality to make his argument more compelling. Religion delivers truths (like fiction does), but also falsehoods. Some of the falsehoods are inimical to science. You really do have to leave religious fundamentalism at the door, if you want to enter into the temple of science.
Naturally. You also have to leave scientific falsehoods behind before entering the temple of science. One of the confusions I see in a lot of critics is the idea that by claiming religions may possess truths that I’m claiming all religious claims are true. No, no, no. That’s why I distinguish “truth claims” from “truths.” Just as our current state of scientific knowledge contains a certain number of falsehoods, our understanding of religious topics is sure to contain a certain number of falsehoods as well. Some religions may be entirely false, and I’m not inclined to think any religion has an exclusive claim on truth.
Fundamentalism is particularly risky because it fails to recognize the possibility of internal error, or to leave any scope for new knowledge. I oppose fundamentalism because it sets itself as the sole possessor of truths, and in making that claim, creates an inherent imposition on others. This all treads dangerously close to a sort of relativism, and my thinking on why it isn’t relativism to actively defend this sort of diversity of opinion largely derives from a post on the late, lamented Left2Right blog, a post only available on the Wayback Machine now. As that post notes, one can agree that there are absolute truths without thinking they have those truths, and without imposing one’s proposed truths (truth claims) on others, either forcibly and overtly or through passive coercion. That’s why I’m a civil libertarian, and a member of groups like SPLC, ACLU, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and why I volunteer to promote marriage equality (often staging out of pro-marriage equality churches, FWIW).
So I don’t just think fundamentalism is incompatible with good science, I think it’s incompatible with good society. Note, though that this is a truth claim which cannot be scientifically tested. A lot of religious people agree with me, and find support for that view in their religious texts, in their study of history, and in their reading of literature. Jason Rosenhouse challenges me to offer a truth derived from religion, and I guess that’s a good start. So is the Golden Rule. (Though again, I’d call these truth claims, not confirmed truths.)
Kazez concludes by identifying areas of agreement and repeating her disagreement:
I don’t think it’s either true or helpful to say that a choice must be made between science and religion. But we can make that argument without decimating religion–making it out to be just a tiny, innocuous fraction of what it really is.
I see her point about decimation, and it inspires two thoughts. First, that the enablers are making a big fuss over my attempts to compare religion with golf or literature, but I don’t recall similar outrage from them over PZ Myers’s comments in Expelled:
Religion is an idea that gives some people comfort, and we don’t want to take it away from them. It’s like knitting. People like to knit. We’re not going to take their knitting needles away, we’re not going to take away their churches, but what we have to do is get it to a place where religion is treated at the level it should be treated, that is something fun that people get together and do on the weekend and really doesn’t affect their life as much as it has been so far.
I don’t think I’m winding up at quite the place PZ was, but how far apart is that rhetoric from mine? Would everyone be fawning over me had I used knitting rather than golf as an example?
In any event, I’m not convinced that what I’m doing is really decimating religion. I look at people like slacktivist, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, various popes, and even people I know who are Christian ministers, and I feel like the idea of religious truth (claims) being distinct from scientific truth (claims) is pretty central to their approaches to religion.
My challenge, and one I think is shared by many agnostics and atheists, is that I don’t actually have much experience with religious feelings. The claims that seem central to me about religion are not claims about our intersubjective, shared reality. They are claims about personal revelation, feelings of oneness or connection, and other matters of intrasubjective reality. I can’t share that experience. I have no way of testing it, of replicating it, or otherwise picking it apart. They tell me they had the experience, and I have no obvious reason to think they are lying. Even if fMRI revealed some consistent brain activity associated with those experiences, that doesn’t do much to explain what those experiences signify, nor does it help me share that experience and compare it to other experiences I’ve had. Because of that disjunction, I’m at something of a loss in trying to describe the experience of religious belief.
To me, this is sort of like my experience with dance. I don’t dance. I watch professional dancers and dancers at parties with a sort of anthropological interest, but I can’t really relate to the joy people take in moving particular ways. They seem to know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to move in response to movement, and in response to other dancers and their partners. I see that, and can appreciate that it occurs, but I can’t really relate to it. I don’t know why that is, but I feel roughly the same way when I hear people talk about religious experience.
So I feel no more qualified to judge the merits of religions or of religious experiences than I do to judge dance. One need not be a professional dancer to evaluate the qualities of a dancer or a dance troupe, but I tend to think that one really should have some sense of what dance means to a dancer before criticizing a dance. I feel the same about religion, so I don’t feel qualified to speak too broadly about the core of religious experience, which parts are essential and which parts aren’t. But my experience reading about and talking with various believers makes me think that, for at least some, religious experience doesn’t consist of claims about the material world, and indeed that claims about the material world are too mundane to get tied in with religion. If I’m right about that, the distinction of scientific truth claims from religious truth claims is not a decimation, but a clarification, one which could be useful to all involved.
The reason I ran with the vampires example was that it is a less personal experience. Those of us involved in the discussion are not the sort who believe vampires are real, or who dress up as vampires and try to be them. We all seem to have roughly the same relationship with them, and many of us seem to enjoy things like Buffy or Underworld. As such, it seemed like a useful way to raise questions about what we gain from tales of the supernatural or paranormal, in a context where not much is at stake. And to offer yet another answer to Jason Rosenhouse’s query, I’d suggest that slacktivist offered some truth claims that can be drawn from literature, and how those intersect with religion. To whit: “any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others,” “there’s a downside to this predatory choice,” “The symbol [of the cross], like the thing itself, is powerless,” and most significantly: “The cross confronts vampires with their opposite — with the rejection of power and its single-minded pursuit. It suggests that no one is to be treated as prey — not even an enemy. The idea of the cross, in other words, suggests that vampires have it wrong, that they have it backwards, in fact, and that those others they regard as prey are actually, somehow, winning.” That last sentence is not just about vampires, it’s also about what Jesus means to slacktivist. Nothing about that sentence is dependent on Jesus having risen from the dead, or being the son of god, or any other of the claims which one occasionally sees Christians challenged to justify.
And as if anticipating this debate, slacktivist went further, and made clear that this symbolism isn’t exclusively Christian. “I’ve heard rumor,” he writes, “of a vampire not so long ago being turned away by one of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of Gandhi at his spinning wheel.” In short, by the symbol of an undeniably real person, one who was not a Christian but who exemplifies the sort of attitude that slacktivist describes.
Can anyone claim we’d be worse off if more people took these lessons to heart? No empirically testable claims are at stake here, only the normative questions of ethics and literary interpretation.
To anticipate some objections: No, I’m not claiming that religion has exclusive domain over such normative truth claims. And again, I’m certainly not claiming that any particular religion has the correct set of truth claims, which is to say, I don’t know that any religion is true, and I don’t think religious truth claims ought to be inherently treated as true. Testing them is different than testing scientific truth claims, and it’s worth remembering that even in science, where we share an empirical reality and can replicate experiences, we still cannot arrive and unquestionable truth, only at increasingly good approximations of the truth. I’ve met many religious people who approach religion in a like manner, which makes me think it fair to hold that religious truth claims can fairly be considered tentative and incomplete, subject to revision as new knowledge and new experiences come to bear.
I’ve written more than enough here to keep folks busy for the weekend, but I’ll try to put up a post shortly clarifying a few terms, which may help move the discussion along.
Manual trackbacks and hat-tips to John Pieret, Ophelia Benson, and Stephanie Svan, and a thank you to all the commenters. I apologize for not being more active in the comment threads, but there have been actual attacks on science education occupying time I might prefer to spend on abstract philosophical debate. This issue is unlikely to go away soon, so don’t give up on me.