Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do religion and theism make factual claims?

Literal and metaphorical images and myths are often contrasted with each other, and we are sometimes asked to choose between them. Are the stories of the bible (with their miracles) to be taken literally, or metaphorically? Which? Tell me!  Julian Baggini recently asks these questions in the Guardian Newspaper, in his column entitled The articles of 21st-century faith. He says
Atheist critics of religion are often dismissed for dealing only with the simple, highly literal forms of belief, while ignoring more nuanced, intellectual understandings of religion. The form of this argument varies, but in general terms it rests on a rejection of the idea that religion requires belief in anthropomorphic supernatural beings. As Theo Hobson put it in an exchange with me a few years back, "a huge proportion of believers inhabit this grey area between 'literal' and 'metaphorical' belief – in a sense all believers do.
He wants to know whether religious people choose between a metaphorical interpretation of religion, the first bullet of which is:
M1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant. 
Alternatively, the choice is to take stories and miracles literally, which is to take the opposing positions:
L1. Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.
L2. Religious belief requires the belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.
L3. Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.
L4. Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.
Baggini thinks that such people would like to take these 'opposing positions', but are reluctant to admit this in public, because this exposes them to being contradicted by science. So they retreat to the metaphorical views M1-M4, which are almost devoid of content.  Baggini's immediate aim is to determine whether the fashionable atheists of today are correct in attributing positions L1-L4 to the religious believers, and hence whether they are targeting actual beliefs when they attack these from the scientific materialist & atheist point of view.

In theistic science, by contrast, our position is clear. We clearly affirm all the positions L1, L2, L4, and the first sentence of L3. And we do not retreat from them in the face of science. Instead we take science as the systematic application of reason and evidence in examining the nature of things. We therefore use science to examine things of religion, of spirituality, of mind, and even of God insofar has the Divine has effects in the world. That is our challenge in theistic science.

There are some provisos, however:

  1. We do not insist that "if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail", because religions are also subject to investigation by theistic science, and, after sufficient investigations, not all parts of all religions will necessarily be found based on fact.
  2. We do not insist that all stories in religious scriptures are necessarily literally true. That is because some stories may be included because they are parables rather than history. Or they may be selected pieces of history put together to illustrate a spiritual truth as if history were the parable. We are not going to get into discussion about whether the stories are 'real but not true'.  Only to say that the true reference of the characters and events in the stories may be at one of the discrete levels that exist in the interior parts of our minds.

There is much to discover and to learn.


  1. The link to the articles of 21st century faith was fascinating - and so today I read his followup. Baggini had run his articles by several liberal believers and atheists (fashionable atheists). Virtually none agreed with him. He is a little stunned. No one had the heart to tell him his idea was stupid (I think he mostly asked people who knew him, so what could they say, really?).

    Baggini's idea was stupid because he really can only think like an atheist, and so when he tried to get everyone to agree to something in the middle, he left out any respect for the mystical nature of religion. He does not see that nature at all. Poor dear. He wants religion to have to 'live' only in a dreary natural world. And it just can't.

    But my actual question here is: as for 'theistic science', when did it first come about? Did it predate your ideas or did you 'invent' it? Or did someone else 'invent it'?

  2. It is indeed interesting to read the series of Baggini's posts as listed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/series/heathens-progress . I must say that the religious people are very reluctant to say what they ought to say about what exists!

    I first saw the phrase 'theistic science' on the web pages of Leon James in Hawaii, in August 1999. He replied that 'You're the first person that I know of who is willing to type the phrase "Theistic Science" and not protest or smile.'

    Later on I discovered its earlier meaning from Plantinga and the Intelligent Design people. Most of these uses are discussed in the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theistic_science