Saturday, February 09, 2013
Read, believe, learn
When I saw this Internet meme, I had to laugh. It was the usual, half-baked criticism of religion by atheists. Yet I wasn't upset, precisely because I know there is more than a grain of truth in it, and I'd rather focus on that as a spur on than get all upset and defensive. That style of Christianity is not my thing.
I'm a Christian, a wannabe theologian and a scientist (strictly a trainer with a PhD who wants to get back into active research this year).
Let's look at the first part. Scientists do read a lot - probably more than dozens of books and quite often far more research papers in their discipline. There is the belief that knowledge is important and worth gathering, and often an epistemic humility that they don't know it all, and want to know more. But there is also often a tribalism, a weddedness to a particular scientific tradition, and a metaphysical one too. Just look at Einstein's stubborn quest to deny Quantum Mechanics, the climate change denial of some scientists, the infighting in academic departments, and the so-called assured atheism of some like Richard Dawkins (yeah, that's epistemic humility alright!)
Science is a useful set of methods, it delivers an ever closer approximation to truth (if you're a critical realist at least) and useful things for society, as well as further ills. And often it outpaces the ethical considerations of society. It isn't always value neutral (well never) and it follows a teleology of progress.
Now take the average religious believer. I'll consider Christians since I am one. How many have read their entire bible? How many understand hermeneutics? History? Biblical languages, archaeology, etc? Well at least some theologically trained people, as well as many curious lay people. We really do need to take the challenge of this meme seriously; not in its hopeless caricatures, dichotomies and myths about science, but it the plain fact that many religious people don't think as much as they should, don't read enough and don't put the world and their beliefs together in a cohesive whole beyond either pure rejection (fundamentalism) or pure acceptance (liberalism). Liberal churches often nothing beyond the world and simply atrophy. Fundamentalist churches (and their less obvious versions as well) provide a number of false certainties.
We need to know the bible, understand it, wrestle with it and at times throw up our hands in incomprehension, doubt or disgust - yet always allow for faith to seek understanding. Even with fear and trembling should we open various books in history, science, philosophy and so on, willing to live as looking through a glass dimly, willing to live with a certain ambiguity and uncertainty. We also need to be able to challenge others of all faiths or none (which is itself a faith) and show that we all live with such things - or they too become as fundamentalist as the soapbox hellfire preacher.