Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Unscientific Religion

It is my frequent pleasure and frustration to take part in the discussions on certain stories on the BBC website, and most recently on this one.  Whenever the Corporation open any story with a religious element up for comment, it very quickly fills up with largely ill-informed anti-theistic mockery, sweeping generalisations, factually untrue statements and arguments which seem to assume that all theists are either ISIS soldiers or Young Earth Creationists.

One of the main issues that I see though, and one that is the greatest obstacle to the understanding of religion by a great many atheists, is that they insist on viewing everything solely through the prism of science.  Now obviously science is one of the most powerful tools humanity possesses to learn about and make sense of the world in which we find ourselves and by using it our knowledge continues to grow and grow, and our capabilities as a species continue to grow and grow.  However, the idea that every single thing must therefore be explicable via the scientific method is not only potentially limiting, it is dangerous.

I’m not saying anything new here, or expounding any profound new theories.  This has all been said before, but it appears to be worth reiterating.

I say potentially limiting, because an insistence that everything must be essentially a scientific phenomenon of some sort, either understood or not, can lead to circular reasoning.  I have seen a wonderful refutation of miracles which runs, “We know that miracles are impossible because all apparent miracles are just scientific phenomena that we don’t understand, and we know that they are just scientific phenomena that we don’t understand because miracles are impossible.”  Effectively, “Miracles never happen because they’re impossible, and we know they’re impossible because they never happen”.  As soon as you allow the slightest doubt that they might be possible, the reasoning falls down.

Likewise the attempts to do a scientific study of prayer.  The flaws in this should instantly be obvious, unless you have no understanding of what prayer is or how it works.  As far back as 1867, George MacDonald was decrying ‘scientific’ attempts to study the efficacy of prayer as nonsensical in his Unspoken Sermons.  As to the so-called scientific challenge to prove the efficacy of prayer by the result of simultaneous petition, I am almost ashamed to allude to it.”  The majority of studies focus on praying for ill or injured people, and whether prayer has any effect on recovery rates.  That’s not prayer.  That’s trying to get a mail-order miracle.  Prayer is a conversation, a process, a relationship, and totally subjective and internal and personal and intimate, all things anathema to scientific enquiry.  It’s not something that can be slapped down onto a laboratory table and dissected.  Nonetheless, when amputated limbs fail to instantaneously grow back, anti-theists crow that prayer has been disproven. 

I do not believe that science and religion (a false dichotomy in any case) are intrinsically opposed.  It is true that certain ‘scientific’ claims as to the nature of the world and our own origins as a species have been shown to be incorrect by scientific enquiry, and when this happens we should acknowledge it and do so graciously, adjusting our beliefs accordingly.  However, that doesn’t mean that I subscribe to the ‘God of the Gaps’ theory that says that gradually the need for God will diminish until it disappears altogether beneath the burning light of Science (capitalised with worrying frequency).  The most important questions that religion attempts to answer are ones that science is unable to.  Not ‘currently unable to’ but by nature and definition completely unequipped to.  Not ‘what’ and ‘how’ but ‘who’ and ‘why’.

Here is a quote from the comments on the story linked to above:

"If something can have an effect on the world, it's physical. If it can't, then it doesn't exist."

I am assuming, and by the context and the contributor’s other comments I think that this is safe, that by ‘physical’ he means scientifically verifiable.  Scientific enquiry requires repeatable, observable, measurable results, and as soon as you start measuring a thing, what you’re really doing is counting it.  It might involve breaking one aspect of a thing down into arbitrary units like degrees or millimetres or centilitres or moles, but ultimately it’s about counting.  As soon as you start to say that only things that can be counted are important, and that if it can’t be counted, it must either be irrelevant or false, you are straying into very dangerous territory indeed, and territory that not even the most ardently scientistic anti-theist actually ever really strays into, although they would almost certainly deny it.

Claiming that prayer and miracles can’t be studied scientifically might appear to be a cop out, but claiming that if they can’t, they are false or unimportant is terrifying.  The most important things in life cannot be counted or measured; hope, love, grace, mercy, loyalty, kindness, courage, compassion.  Can you weigh love or take the temperature of courage?  How many moles of compassion can you fit into a beaker?  The ideal world of the adherents of scientism must be a cold, hard, mechanical, angular, inhuman but wonderfully efficient place to live.

And then there’s God Himself of course.  Above and beyond and behind and beneath and through and around the world, how should we go about measuring Him?  If He is the omniscient, omnipresence, omnipotent being that we believe Him to be, what should we break Him down into so that we can count him, and if we can’t, must we therefore discount even the concept of Him, let alone the Reality?

I put the C. S. Lewis quote at the top of this page there for a reason.  It may well be that the things we hold dear are unmeasurable and uncountable and unscientific, and are irrational and illogical and subjective, but as far as I am concerned they are far better and far more important than anything that can be weighed or measured or cut up in a laboratory.  If that makes me irrational and illogical, then so be it.

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