Monday, August 16, 2010

What is "religion," anyway?

Karl Giberson, Vice-President of the BioLogos Foundation, frequently writes at the Huffington Post about science and religion. His latest post brings up a helpful point:
The most trivial part of the relationship between science and religion, and yet one that generates lots of debate, is the simple question of compatibility: Can they co-exist? I have written a bit about this, but I have to confess that this question is boring. Establishing that two things can exist at the same time is not an engaging enterprise, because it leaves unanswered the question of whether either of those things should exist at all. Pornography, as we know, is compatible with unbridled free enterprise (yawn). But should either, or both, of those things exist? Now that is a real question.
The article goes on to give a defense of religion's existence. I don't find his conclusion very helpful. I admit that it's interesting in terms of connecting the beauty of mathematics with religion, but ultimately I find his argument to be another version of the "God-of-the-gaps" argument. We've all heard one form of this argument or another: Science can tell us lots of things, but there's always something that it can't tell us, and that's where religion comes in.

I think a more fundamental question that our culture needs to be asking itself, especially with regard to science and faith, is, "What is religion?" Our society wrestles with questions about the compatibility of science and religion because we have a hard time critically analyzing our use of the words "science" and "religion."

Just for fun, I thought I'd go to and search the word "religion," to see what the Bible says about it. I checked a few different translations, but the largest number of results I ever got was five. Five times in the entire Bible is the word "religion" mentioned--and not one time in the entire Old Testament. Kind of interesting, isn't it?

And what does the word appear to mean when it is used? I think the perfect verse to examine would be James 1:27--
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
In this and other contexts, the word "religion" appears to mean the way we serve God. It might in some other passages include things like belies and doctrines, but on the whole it seems to have more to do with tradition and practice than anything else.

Evidently, the word "religion," once upon a time, did not mean anything like "how we learn more about the world" or "how we learn what is true." Of course, religion might be based on certain truth claims, but the word "religion" itself was not used to mean the pursuit of those truth claims. It wouldn't make sense, then, to say that we need religion to answer questions that science can't answer. It's only in modern times that we think of religion this way. This probably has to do with the influence of Christianity, which has always stressed belief in certain propositions. But to use the word "religion" in the ancient sense, there is only one logical answer to the question, "Why should religion exist?" The answer is, "Because God ought to be served."

Questions about the compatibility of science and religion come up in many different contexts, and the modern tendency to lump all of these questions together is silly. A Christian has vastly different questions about science and religion than does a Hindu. For the Christian, the questions mostly boil down to how we ought to read the Bible. This is not a new question. The early Church Fathers almost 2000 years ago were asking questions like whether or not Genesis should be taken literally. The assumption that modern science presents new challenges to Christianity is pretty naive. Christians have been arguing for centuries, both with non-Christians and with other Christians, about the historicity of the Bible and the compatibility of scientific discoveries with Christian beliefs.

The point I'm trying to make is this. Every time someone asks the question, "Are science and religion compatible?" they are, knowingly or unknowingly, using a definition of "religion" that automatically diminishes all particular religions. We have come to use the word "religion" according to the assumption that science is what's actually helpful, while religion is just some impulse in humanity that we have to tolerate because it just doesn't seem to go away. There are indeed many people who believe this to be the case, but there are many other people who use the word "religion" to unwittingly support that assumption.

My own opinion is that science can and should inform and/or correct some of our religious beliefs. For instance, the modern view that the earth is billions of years old is not consistent with some of the traditional claims of Christianity. This doesn't bother me so much. I don't think the Christian religion is an all-or-nothing deal. If it is, God only knows which of us are actually Christians. On the other hand, neither do I subordinate all religious belief to science. Science is the study of the repeatable. Not everything worth understanding is repeatable, in my opinion.

When you get right down to it, you just have to start asking more specific questions than, "Are science and religion compatible?" or "Is religion useful?" These vague questions only perpetuate the assumption that science is good and religion is tolerable at best, without providing a serious critique of that assumption.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!