Thursday, January 8, 2009

Doubt vs. Dogma

It has become quite common, especially with the slippery, post-modern turn that lots of defenses of religion have taken in recent years, to characterize an empirical/scientific worldview and religious worldviews as mere differences in personal preference. They are different frameworks or different language games, as the Wittgensteinians put it, with alternate sets of rules of dialogue. But it’s a mistake to evaluate one in terms of another. It’s also a mistake to assume, as most atheists do, that one is better than another. They are dedicated to different domains, and are not incompatible.

A variation on this theme is the “they are all just systems of faith” response that is frequently made to atheists. Ultimately, a belief system cannot be grounded on anything other than personal choice, and once you’re in, they all proceed by faith. The empirical approach is just as guilty (virtuous?) of believing without evidence as religious approaches.

The point of the latter is always baffling. Suppose that all “belief systems” as they put it, are based on faith. Is that a defense of a religious perspective? Is the point that since we always have to have faith, it doesn’t matter which one you pick? Or a person is blameless for having faith since it’s inescapable? But surely no one, except someone deep in the grips of some bizarre post-modern ideology, thinks that there’s really no legitimate or reasonable grounds of preference. You don’t really think that the view that women should never be allowed to go out in public without a male-family escort or shouldn’t be allowed to drive really serves Muslims just as well, or just as legitimately as another approach. Sure, they are managing to limp along and it serves them in their own way to a point. But you don’t really think that there are no legitimate criteria by which we can differentiate.

At their cores, there is a fundamental difference between a religious ideology and the scientific method that cannot and should not be glossed over. And the difference reveals why the latter serves us vastly better. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the religious tradition, we see this essential theme. The approach to the world is fundamentally authoritarian. The source—God, church, magical documents—gives us the “facts.” It issues the rules for behavior, a picture of humans’ place in the world, and it puts humanity into a subservient role. The institution is structured from the top down. As we expand our experience and investigate the world, insofar as that is allowed within the tradition, we are faced with the problem of incorporating new information into that high inertia system. The policy for the religious mind is this: given that my doctrine is true, how can we make all of the information we discover conform to it? How can that information be interpreted such that it corroborates, or is at least consistent with the doctrine? Ultimately, if those discoveries can’t be incorporated, co-opted, or adapted to fit with the immovable bedrock of religious belief, then it is the new information that has to be rejected. We can see the struggle between religious doctrine and what we’ve come to realize is true about the origins of life on earth in the evolution/religion conflict right now. The uneasy compromise that lots of people have reached is this: It appears that life on earth evolved, so given that God exists and God created life, then evolution must be the means by which he created it. Polling data shows that this is the most popular view in the middle, with smaller segments either denying that evolution happened altogether, or insisting that evolution was the entire means of development of life on earth.

When the tide of empirical evidence grows strong enough, or social and political necessary make it absolutely unavoidable, religious institutions will sometimes slowly shift their doctrines. But for the most part, the institutions have their roots deeply seated in the past and the inertia is massive. The resistance to change and the temptation to fight new ideas are powerful.

The scientific/empirical approach embodies a fundamentally different model of the relationship between world and knowledge, however. Here the policy is to make our model of what the world is conform to what we find in the world, not the other way around. There is no authority, no doctrine, no sacrosanct scriptures that are infallible and above all doubts. Given all of the empirical observations we have made and information that we have, what is mostly likely to be true about reality that would explain those observations. No doctrine or principle is true a priori or immune to being revised or overturned in light of new information. Here doubt, skepticism, criticism, revision, and defeasibility are the essential virtues. Here we make the most vigorous efforts to guard against our mistakes and our tendencies to lapse into authoritarianism and dogma. A claim is never true because it was said by someone, it’s well-justified to believe it because it’s the best, most predictive, description we have found. Once it reaches a certain level of justification, we can say with confidence that it is true. But if that gets overturned, then so be it. We must go where the empirical observations take us, no matter what we thought in the past.

So in a word, the profound difference between the two approaches comes down to doubt vs. dogma, skepticism vs. faith. Will we embrace the approach that enables us to expand and clarify our place in the universe as is indicated by our empirical observations, or will we abandon the self-correcting methods of science for authoritarian edicts, issued from sources that allege to know better than us and who demand uncritical obedience and acceptance. Will we swallow our doubts, have faith, and hide behind the false security of an imaginary daddy figure, or will we have the courage to follow inquiry where it takes us?

12 comments:

Player Piano said...

For many people I have talked to, religious faith is an activity distinctly different from scientific inquiry and beyond it altogether. This is especially true for those I know who accept evolution and religion together.

Many people would say, "I believe in science, and that evolution is true as well, but I also believe that there is a larger spiritual reality beyond the comprehensions of science or even human beings".

The bottom line: if people want to believe in science and in religion, they're just going to let their religion evolve into a form that they feel does not conflict with science/or conflicts less with science.

As long as religion satisfies some basic needs of certain people that would otherwise go unfulfilled, religious belief will be prevalent in some particular form no matter how far evidence from science conflicts with the specific tenets of any individual belief system.

Religion in general, and a few religions in particular, has an amazing ability to transfrom and adapt. Soon most Christians in the U.S. will believe in evolution, if this is not already the case. For most of them, evolution probably won't be much of a challenge for religious faith. I say this as an ex-Christian who also believed in evolution at the time, and I can tell you that science didn't really have that much to do with my de-conversion. Perhaps if I had thought more about the implications of evolution it would've influenced my faith, but I just didn't think about it. Lots of people I knew were Christian and believed in evolution, so I reasoned to myself that the two beliefs must be compatible. It's easy to say something like that when no one or nothing challenges your beliefs.

So yes, doubt is a wonderful thing. It can cause some trepidation at times, but I believe we are all better off for having doubted, no matter what we resolved, because doubt usually justifies or modifies pre-existing beliefs or shatters illogical beliefs, if people have an open mind to their doubts. However, many people don't have an open mind to their doubts. It also annoys me when people claim that science is a dogma, because it accounts for new evidence when religion almost always fails to do so. Doubt is better than dogma.

steve martin said...

There is no faith without doubt. If you have no doubts, then you are certain. Certainty requires no faith.

proofthatgodexists.org said...

I suggest you guys read Vincent Cheung's works

www.vincentcheung.com

Brigitte said...

Player Piano and Reginald: thanks for your responses, I just left you some on the other threads.

I buried my 18 year old son, last week. I've blogged about it. I thought some might know.

I don't know when I'll get to Reginald's reading assignments. I'll try.

In terms of "doubt" vs. "dogma", I think that these things are always in interplay in all areas of life for thinking people. There is something organic about these developments. (Holy Spirit?) That does not make things relative.

Why believe in Jesus Christ?

Because the pope said so--hardly.

Because my parents and grandparents believed, taught and lived it--much more compelling.

Because it is scientific or not scientific--does not really enter into it, different sphere.

Because it makes moral people?--Maybe; I don't know. There was a study recently published that showed that conservative protestants have a 39% lower chance of adultery than the average. Mormons, Muslims and other had the same as the average. Which tells me that preaching lots of law (as the Mormons, Muslims) does not help.

The central organizing doctrine/dogma is that man is declared good, not based on what he does, but on the goodness and provision of God. That is what I need to know. That is what I believe. That trust makes me happy and strong.

steve martin said...

"The central organizing doctrine/dogma is that man is declared good, not based on what he does, but on the goodness and provision of God. That is what I need to know. That is what I believe. That trust makes me happy and strong."

Brigitte is right. We are not declared righteous not because of anything at all that we do...rather because of what Christ did on the cross...forgiving us for our sin (including killing Him)and dying for us. Trusting that is all that God desires from us. He wants us to trust that so much that He Himself gives the required faith to us, as a gift, through His Word and sacraments(baptism and holy communion).

Brigitte is going through what has to be the worst kind of pain and grief that anyone should have to endure. But I know that she knows her son is in Heaven with the Lord, and that it will not be too long before the day comes when we will all face our Maker.

What a glorious day that will be! To be reunited with our loved ones and the God who loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us on a bloody cross...that we might have authentic life, with Him...forever.

I cannot prove any of that. But I am a believer...because He has made me one.

Bror Erickson said...

"We can see the struggle between religious doctrine and what we’ve come to realize is true about the origins of life on earth in the evolution/religion conflict right now."
Now what theory about the origin of life have we come to believe is true based on Science? undirected panspermia, directed panspermia, life forming on the backs of crystals, the RNA theory that spends half its time explaining why there is no evidence for it?
I will agree with you Matt though that there are criteria we can use in choosing a faith or religion. Many Christian Apologists argue the same.

Anonymous said...

I have had doubts.

Doubts that all existence, life, mind, and objective reason itself, are the product of mindless forces.

Such has not been demonstrated, and perhaps can not be be, even in principle.

If I express my doubts, will cool atheists be mean to me?

I mean, I am a little humbled by their intellectual and moral superiority, expressed to me at every turn on this campus...and who is some lowly sophmore to doubt a PROFESSOR?!

Of PHILOSOPY no less? Not some simple subject like chemistry or engineering!

No sireee!

And all those atheist SCIENTISTS? (You know, the real GENIUSES who have made it possible to fill the world with wmds that could corrupt the gene pool of all future generations of home sapiens...assuming any were left.)

So, will you forgive my weakeness?

Or will you be meany meany to me? LOL!


Your pal, James C.

Matt McCormick said...

Sneering sarcasm won't substitute for real reasons, James. Do you have any, or are you just mad?

MM

Reginald Selkirk said...

Doubts that all existence, life, mind, and objective reason itself, are the product of mindless forces.

Has anyone ever demonstrated the existence of doubt without a mind; indeed without a physical brain?

Matt S said...

I think this is a great post.
I myself have recently come to the position that:
once a person has studied religions, science, folk tales, and etc, understanding that the Jesus story is too similar to other mythologies, etc etc, then at that point you must make a choice to believe in a god that has no proper name and requires continuing study and thought (as a very smart mystic-type prof I have is doing) or you can disbelieve in gods.
I chose to disbelieve, but I respect those who search for the truth among all stories and ideas. Usually they're harmless and don't end up hating gay people. I only wish they would push their strategy more often, that way we would at least have a kinder gentler religious world faith system.

Player Piano said...

James C.,

I'd love to reply to your comments. I'd love for you to reply to my comments. So here we go.

"I have had doubts."

Good for you. So far we are in agreement.

"Doubts that all existence, life, mind, and objective reason itself, are the product of mindless forces."

I have had doubts that all existence, life, mind, and objective reason itself, were the product of a divine and supernatural being, when we have no evidence that such a being or beings exist. I especially doubt more specific and elaborate claims about the nature of a god or gods, as these claims typically assume more on even less evidence.

You have a mind. Therefore, it is reasonable for you to assume that other things operate by the same mechanism. However, you are missing a large part of the picture. Did it take an intelligent mind to form the Grand Canyon? Is such a majestic natural wonder proof of a deity?

No. It's rock, water and time. Not intelligent mind is required. The same is true for many other natural processes.

"Such has not been demonstrated, and perhaps can not be be, even in principle."

Yes, the existence of a god or gods has NEVER been demonstrated, and cannot be demonstrated, even in principle. You are definitely correct about that!

Oh wait, that's not what you're referring to. Look, the burden of proof for these supernatural claims are on those making the claims. Come up with evidence as to why I should assume your particular belief system, and I'll start taking your claims seriously. For now, you're just making a mockery of yourself.

"If I express my doubts, will cool atheists be mean to me?"

We already agreed that doubt is a good thing. If you express your doubts about all things, including your religious beliefs, I would be even more "cool" with that. However, I do not believe in being "mean" to people with differing beliefs.

Though I am fully willing and committed to pointing out irrational arguments and to telling commenters when they are dodging my questions. I don't put up with smoke screens.

"I mean, I am a little humbled by their intellectual and moral superiority, expressed to me at every turn on this campus...and who is some lowly sophmore to doubt a PROFESSOR?!"

It's sophomore, not sophmore. But you're just being sophomoric. ;)

I am also a college student, but I am only a lowly freshman. Of course, technically I have enough credits to be considered a sophomore, but what's the difference between a few friends, right? My philosophy professor last semester never talked about religion. Nor has my biology professor this semester.

However, would you like to guess which class helped me deconvert from my religion?

It's a shocker -- a comparative religion class.

What's even more hilarious, is that my professor is Jewish and never intended to influence anyone's beliefs. It's just that a critical evaluation of the things which he said about the similarities of various religions led me to start doubting my personal beliefs.

"Of PHILOSOPY no less? Not some simple subject like chemistry or engineering!"

It's "philosophy", not "philosopy", nor some simple subject like spelling. ;)

What did chemistry and engineering tell you about religion? That's like me saying I learned about the French Revolution in United States History since 1945, a ridiculous claim.

"No sireee!"

Now you're just talking out of your behind. As (Prof.) Matt said, sarcasm is a terrible substitute for good argumentation.

"And all those atheist SCIENTISTS? (You know, the real GENIUSES who have made it possible to fill the world with wmds that could corrupt the gene pool of all future generations of home sapiens...assuming any were left.)"

Wow, on that thought, maybe you should study history, too. Spelling and philosophy aren't your only liabilities.

Science is a collaborative effort. The knowledge required to build those WMDs to which you're referring was relatively common knowledge among the scientific community. What would you have advocated? Let Nazi Germany and the USSR have a monopoly on these dangerous weapons of annihilation? Do you know anything about game theory? If each side has weapons that can obliterate the other side, and knows that the other side is willing to retaliate if the weapons are used, then most likely neither side will use their weapons. However, that concept may just be too nuanced for you to understand.

"So, will you forgive my weakeness?"

Yes, of course I'll forgive you; I'm more forgiving than your god, probably. Supposedly making us in a way where we are vulnerable to sin, and then blaming us for it when we commit one small offense, when we had know no knowledge of "good and evil", and didn't know any better? Not only does that not make sense in the context of modern parenting, it's also not very forgiving. But yes, I'm willing to forgive you. Also, it's "weakness".

"Or will you be meany meany to me? LOL!"

I'm not being mean to you -- I'm just pointing out your mistakes. You'll be better off for it in the long run. In a way, it was the most loving thing I can do.

However, you deserved the spelling critiques, for making a fool of yourself. ;)

"Your pal, James C."

Your pal, Player Piano.

Not "Piano Player", as has been noted previously. ;)

Anonymous said...

RE: Matt S

"once a person has studied religions, science, folk tales, and etc, understanding that the Jesus story is too similar to other mythologies, etc etc, then at that point you must make a choice to believe in a god that has no proper name and requires continuing study and thought (as a very smart mystic-type prof I have is doing) or you can disbelieve in gods."

If this was true then we ought to see a lot less people believing in God. However, there are just too many acedemics as well as common folk that do believe in God.