Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Proposal for a New Christian Synthesis

A new synthesis of the Christian religion with modern and postmodern bodies of secular knowledge must be built on the principle of mutual respect, mutual charity, and mutual honesty. In practical terms, this means that Christian theology may not dismiss scientific knowledge (or its broader implications) nor deform its conclusions to fit its own preconceived schema. It also means that the scientific method cannot be applied, nor used as grounds for viewing empirically unfalsifiable statements with undue suspicion (after all, as I have mentioned previously, such an undue level of suspicion would render the vast majority of human beliefs – religious as well as secular – subject to uncalled for doubt.

As corollaries to this first principle, I offer the following principles as a tentative proposal for the guiding principles of a new synthesis.

I. Each claim or belief must be evaluated according to its nature.

While there are a variety of different sorts of claims made in the sciences, they are more or less united with the common theme: they are subject to falsification through observation. Of course, this is practically much more difficult in some cases than in others. Confirming that objects of different masses nevertheless fall to earth with the same acceleration is somewhat easier than confirming the predictions of Einstein’s relativity. Nevertheless, admitting the difficulty with which truly controlled and valid observations are sometimes made, it is conceivable that an observation could really falsify a scientific claim.

This is not the same with the variety of religious claims. In general, religions tend to make a variety of claims: mythological, moral, historical, philosophical, and theological. These claims may encompass a wide variety of fields of study, and may include claims of a biological, anthropological, social, psychological, or other nature.

In an attempt to synthesize Christian beliefs with contemporary knowledge and practice, it is necessary to admit that each of its claims must be subject to a level of proof consonant with non-religious claims of the same type. For example, a claim about the physical nature of the universe made by a religious source should require the same level of confirmation – and be open to the same sort of falsification – of a similar claim made by a secular source. We may use the famous Galileo case as an example: a certain religious body made the statement:

“We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the above-mentioned Galileo, because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you as above, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.”

Whatever else may be said about this statement, it is clearly a statement with physical implications and, like any similar statement, needs to conform to the standards of evidence of the physical sciences. Many notable Catholics have defended the Inquisition of Galileo by pointing out that Galileo was technically wrong: the sun is no more the absolute immobile center of the universe than the earth is. Very well. But the Inquisition was not condemning Galileo because Galileo didn’t realize the ultimate relativity of physical frames of reference: they were condemning him because they believed the Bible, and therefore the Catholic faith, taught that the earth was the immobile center of the Earth. Time has proven that, despite his own errors, Galileo was making a very important leap in our understanding of the physical universe simply by recognizing that a heliocentric model corresponds better to observation than the increasingly cumbersome Ptolemaic system.

So, then, whatever claims are made by Christianity regarding the physical nature of the universe should be confirmed or falsified by empirical means. Similarly, anthropological claims should be subject to the standards of evidence used in the study of anthropology. Obviously, such claims are not held to the same standards has physical scientific claims; however, this does not mean that such claims are free from empirical scrutiny. Consider, as I have mentioned before, such a broad, sweeping theory as natural law, a theory whose truth would have empirically observable effects on the universal development of human cultures. Now, a theory like natural law is quite broad itself, and not all of its claims can be studied using such methods: again, according to Principle 1, each claim should be confirmed or falsified according to its own evidence. Even if natural law’s universality claim were falsified, we would not need to jettison the entire theory of natural law: instead, the theory could conceivably be modified to take into account the way the world actually is, inasmuch as we can observe how it actually is, and would be all the better for it.

Historical claims should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other historical claim made by any other institution or piece of literature. When dealing specifically with literature, effort must be made to ascertain whether a passage is intended historically; and, when it is, its historicity is open to falsification or confirmation through archaeological, literary, and other similar historical tools.

Moral and philosophical claims made by religion – that is, those claims of such a quality that they cannot be falsified by direct observation, such as “abortion is a moral wrong” – are still subject to standards of logic, consistency, and coherence. As it happens, much of Christianity’s philosophy has been the subject of continual and rather rigorous logical scrutiny and careful refinement, yielding a body of Christian philosophy that is quite self-consistent. However, even if such claims are not directly falsifiable, I would argue that the implications of many of these theories is still subject to scientific scrutiny – or, at least, scientific observation, theory, and knowledge is not inconsequential to Christian philosophy. To use abortion as a prime example, while “abortion is a moral wrong” is not directly falsifiable; it carries with it a number of implications. For example, the reason that abortion is a moral wrong is that the developing human being is at all stages of its development considered an ensouled human person. However, the claim that a zygote is an ensouled human person requires that I put forward a coherent and consistent definition of what counts as an ensouled human person that does not have unintended side effects – a problem that can only be solved by reference to our vast body of human biological knowledge.

Finally, Christianity makes a number of important theological claims, by which I mean that it makes claims based on an assumed authority rather than by means of evidence, such as “God is three persons.” Of course, these claims cannot be confirmed, but as I mentioned before this fact alone is not reason for undue suspicion (nor, of course, does it count as a reason for belief). How, then, are we to evaluate these claims, these specifically and irreducibly religious claims?

2. Specifically religious claims must be evaluated according to indirect or circumstantial evidence; or, rather, they must be analyzed according to the authority of the claimant.

We should evaluate those religious claims which are not subject to direct falsification by means of the same sorts of indirect evidence upon which we base our acceptance or rejection of any other claim presented to us without the possibility of evidence. These types of claims come to us in two forms: claims which evidence is theoretically possible but is ultimately impractical, and claims for which evidence is truly impossible. We encounter these claims in non-religious contexts all the time, and rarely make a fuss about them or throw up our hands that we cannot evaluate them. The truth is, we do have systems of evaluating these sorts of claims, which I will call broadly “claims of authority.”

When we read an article from the Associated Press, we rarely have time or resources to personally investigate the accuracy of its report: in general, however, we accept its accounts of events as being more or less accurate based upon our trust in the Associated Press’ reporting – or, to phrase it in a different way, the level of authority we grant the Associated Press as far as accurately reporting the news. Similarly, in grade school we are commonly presented with various scientific and mathematical claims that we were simply unable to defend or understand based upon evidence but which we nevertheless accepted based upon the authority of our teacher (and, of course, based upon whatever forces of coercion could be turned against us if we refused to accept that authority). These are all examples of claims in which evidence is theoretically possible but practically unavailable.

Other claims do not admit of more or less scientific evidence at all, such as “I will meet you at noon on Wednesday.” The acceptance of such a claim and the subsequent beliefs it engenders is based entirely upon indirect evaluations of that claim: evaluations based on the merits of the claimant rather than the merits of the claim itself. If someone who in a vast number of instances has shown himself to be completely unreliable made this claim, I might place little trust in him: I would grant him no authority on the subject of where he will be and when. On the other hand, my other experiences with him might prove him to be a trustworthy individual who always honored his meetings, I might trust his statement with nearly the same level of certainty that I believe scientific claims. Practically, this type of belief is extraordinarily important, because it comprehends a vast number of beliefs without which social life would be impossible. These are often the beliefs of the community, certain shared assumptions about who will do what, when and how we should respond to each other, what projects we should work on together, what things are of ultimate importance or significance, and so forth. It incorporates elements of mythology, history, and relationships. It is, to use the word in its original sense, a matter of faith, and it is indispensible.

Now, when a religious institution makes such claims, it is clear that they should be evaluated in the same manner: through an indirect analysis of their authority. The analysis of the authority of the claimant, as I mention above, stands in place of the impossible analysis of the truth or falsehood of the statement. This analysis may involve the analysis of claims that are subject to empirical scrutiny, each of which, according to Principle 1, must be evaluated according to its own nature. So, for example, at least part of the professed authority of the Catholic Church lies in its professed historical ties to the person of Jesus; this historical claim, if falsified, would also falsify the claimed authority (or, at the very least, would force a redefinition of the basis of the Church’s authority). Similarly, if confirmed, it would provide some indirect evidence that the Church does have authority – although the confirmation of the historical basis would certainly not be enough evidence on its own.

Which leads one to ask: how much evidence is enough evidence?

3. The amount of evidence required to justify a religious claim should be in proportion to the “magnitude” of the claim.

In practice, we tend to require more evidence for a claim the broader its scope: it is for this reason that we rarely scrutinize a medicine that makes modest claims like “brings down a fever” while we tend to label as snake oil something touted as a “miracle cure.” To a great degree, this practical filter makes sense: if a claim seems more improbable or outlandish to begin with, we need a great deal more indirect evidence about the authority of its claimant in order to accept it. When it comes to religious claims, this also holds true: but so does the fact that simply the unusual or perhaps wondrous nature of a claim does not mean that it is untrue.

Take, for instance, the evaluation of claims of miracles. The evaluation of such a claim rests almost entirely on the evaluation of its claimant or claimants, and except for the especially credulous, or those who have accepted an entire framework which would make the claim more likely from the get-go, such claims would need extraordinary authority consonant with their extraordinary nature. Yet such evidence is possible. For instance, the general trustworthiness or accuracy of a person, persons, or document in describing other, more easily verifiable phenomena might be a good indicator of his likely trustworthiness in describing something miraculous. If a document is filled with historical inaccuracies, false statements about physical reality, or similar errors, this tends to discount its authority with regards to something miraculous, while a document that has verified accuracy with regards to other matters is much more likely to be accurate when describing something miraculous. Similarly, if the claimant is an individual with established credentials in the sorts of phenomena in which the miracle appeared, we would likely give that account more credence: a well-known medical doctor’s account of a seemingly miraculous cure has more authority than a self-reported “miracle cure” by a layman, especially if he can produce artifacts of record that corroborate his story. All this to say that accounts of miracles are subject to a certain sort of evaluation, and that this sort of evaluation is similar to the type of evaluation that must be made of the authority of a religious claimant.

However, it is certainly true that these matters are not subject to the same objective standards of judgment as are more scientific claims. Individuals vary greatly in the degree to which they trust or distrust others, institution, or certain types of claims; these prejudices may be based on good or bad reasons, but even a prejudice with a seemingly good basis can potentially cause the rejection of a true claim. There is indeed a continuum of personalities, from the credulous mind that accepts anything from anyone, to the hardened skeptic who has closed his mind to what cannot be proven – or at least distanced himself from it lest he accidentally believe as true something that is false. Even our evaluation of where someone falls along this continuum is a matter of subjective belief; a credulous person will call the same man a skeptic that a skeptic might call credulous.

Which brings me to the topic of Faith, as a specifically Christian concept. As I believe this framework must include the Christian tradition, it must of course include Faith; but what is Faith? Is it subject to this sort of scrutiny? The tradition has voices that answer both yes and no, and which offer a number of alternative frameworks of Faith’s relationship to rational scrutiny. But in deference to the rest of the framework, I would have to conclude that Faith, as a trust in the authority of a claimant, is at least indirectly subject to empirical examination. This does not mean that there is no virtue to Faith – indeed, I have noted before, a sincere examination of human society reveals that this sort of virtue is imperative to community, and no man, no matter how skeptical, can function without recognizing to some limited degree the authority of others without proof. So, then, it would be only a matter of prejudice to reject specifically religious faith, and if we require more evidence or a closer scrutiny on religious claimants than we do of the nightly news it is because the scope of religious claims is far greater than the weather.

4. All religions must be analyzed on the same footing, and a coherent system of cross-religious evaluation must be used; and, as a corollary to this, a coherent theory of historical, social religious development should be put forward as a means to this end.

Pluralism is perhaps the most difficult topic that a thoughtful religious individual must encounter. A Christian wakes up in the same world with the followers of a thousand different faiths, each of them waking up with a different level of commitment to a different set of beliefs, many of them contradicting the claims of the Christian faith. If my belief is not to be reduced to an accident of my birth (i.e., I am a Christian because I happened to be born to a Christian household, and so forth), I must be able to not only evaluate my own beliefs but evaluate then along with the beliefs of other religions. Now, we must all admit to practicality: I cannot track down every last belief system. Practically speaking, perhaps even theoretically speaking, it is an implausible task to discover and categorize all human religious beliefs, especially if we include all the beliefs from mankind’s long history.

However, if we could take all we can track down and mold it into a single coherent theory of religious development – that is, if we could develop the history of religion into a theory which recognizes the evolution of the idea of God and all the corresponding religious claims – we could create criteria for understanding the place different religions hold within that development. I propose as a blueprint for such a broad, sweeping theory and subsequent criteria the book by Rodney Stark called Discovering God. In the book, he presents a history of religious development and subsequent criteria by which he judges the relationship of various religions to a single, coherent narrative; such a method holds the promise of producing real criteria by which to evaluate different religions while still affirming a certain degree of universal religious validity – or, in other words, a way to understand why one believes what one believes rather than something else that does not boil down to either accident of place or simple bigoted rejection of other religious beliefs.

All this is merely a proposed framework for a project that would be quite immense and which would require the effort of individuals of every type of belief or non-belief and of a variety of scientific and liberal arts backgrounds.

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