Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Theory, Experience and Understanding

One of the criticisms of religion that I frequently come across online is that religion (usually taken as a single homogenous phenomena) deliberately discourages questioning and enquiry.  One of the pithy catch-phrases I’ve seen is:  “Science has questions that can’t be answered.  Religion has answers that can’t be questioned.”  The apparent assumption is that if you’re religious, you have to take everything ‘on faith’, as opposed to science, where everything is (supposedly) based on fact, experiment and evidence, and where questioning is not only encouraged but mandatory.

Now, that’s never been my experience, at least of religion.  I’ve always been encouraged to question, and to consider everything, including religion, critically.

I think that the problem is that religion is not something to which the scientific method can really be applied.  Religion is accused of starting with the conclusion, and then trying to find the facts to justify it, rather than gathering the facts and using them to form a theory.  The implication (and quite often the explicit demand) is ‘Prove that God exists’, as though you can gather your facts and link them up to form a cohesive ‘theory of God’.  To me though, trying to apply this method to religion is like telling a child not to open their eyes until they have studied optics and electromagnetics. 

Sometimes, you have to start with an experience, then work to try and understand it.  We don’t start with a theory of rainbows or flowers.  We can see them; it’s a direct experience.  We can then start to ask how we are able to see them, and why they look the way they do, and we can philosophise about whether different people see the same thing when they look at an object as everyone else, but the fact that there is a flower isn’t really open to debate or investigation.  It’s not a theory, it’s an experience.

The problem I have is that often the people I talk to don’t have that shared experience, and don’t understand a non-scientific, non-evidence-based way of looking at the world, and so it’s almost impossible to get across my point.  I’ve come across two quotes, one by St Augustine, and one by Thomas Aquinas that resonate quite a lot:

Seek not to understand, that you may believe, but to believe, that you may understand.  St Augustine.

If you believe, no explanation is needed.   If you don’t, no explanation is possible.  Thomas Aquinas

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