Again, watching the BBC’s The Big Questions, I stumbled across a question I would like to discuss. The format of the show ― and, no doubt, the decisions the producers have to make for the sake of the audience and time ― limits the ability of the surely great minds on the panel to have the full discussion. And I’d like to go through much of the warm up that the show was unfortunately unable to cover.
It strikes me that the important questions are what one means by religion, which we can explore briefly in terms of claims of truth and how religious people come to sustain knowledge of that; and what one means by evidence, particularly whether science is some stand alone issue here, or whether other “philosophy, reason, maths, logic… other forms to truth” is relevant.
Religion is not a simple thing to pin down and I certainly have no intention of resolving the question of what constitutes a religion in the preamble to a post, but I think it is worth putting a few flags down to notice the different ways people define their religions. There are those to whom religion is a true story of a community’s journey with a deity and often also some form of wise prophet, and the story itself is a literal historical truth. This is the standard form of religion, where the content of the relevant books make claims relevant to historical textbooks. There are deviations from that basic structure, then, that recognise the stories relevant to that community ― the first of the faithful ― were oral traditions first and the book may be far from a perfect record.
But then there are those who believe a religion is narrative that doesn’t necessarily have any literal truth claims, but instead speaks to an identity; goals shared among a community; the religion Joseph Campbell writes about. The ideas of an Exodus and a promised land, for example, are nothing more than cultural myths people tell each other knowing they are not true, because they speak to a cultural identity. There is something in that which may be called a cultural wisdom, but God doesn’t seem to be anything but a protagonist in cultural identity.
On first observation, then, it appears that only one of these is even susceptible to evidence. The cultural wisdom version of religion is merely a story, and no more undermined by evidence than Deadpool would be: the truth of the matter is not the point. It is that first religion, one where the book is believed to be a point of historical truth, that could be vulnerable to evidence.
The next part of religion is to understand the believers: do they, and how do they, expect to sustain belief? This relates to that laughable cliché of ‘evidence’ merely being here to test one’s faith. It is a philosophy of asking why one would trust the human mind’s model of reality ― all evidence included ― when one could simple trust in God. I feel this philosophy misses one very important step: it is not God one is trusting, but one’s personal understanding of a God; if the human mind is fallible in understanding reality, then equally it is fallible in understanding God. Therein lie a big problem. However, that is an aside. The ‘test of my faith’ approach to evidence is clearly indicative of a person who expects to maintain their exact literal faith in the face of all evidence. To those people, reality will never undermine what they believe.
There is another epistemology, where people claim to have a relationship with a God. Similarly, that epistemology doesn’t need to have a relationship with reality, either (and that is a criticism).
But those who expect to be able to take both a literal religious and intellectually honest approach to reality are walking much thinner ice. They can add ‘crumple zones’ to their religion, saying God simplified certain passages for the contemporaneous readers or that details somewhere along the line were corrupted by man ― but the fact seems to be to be clear, the literal religion is on a collision course with evidence.
I don’t think evidence is a standalone thing. So, there is a discussion also worth having about how evidence functions. I consider evidence a reliable fact from which reasonable conjectures can be made. The definition of reliability is tied up in some philosophies of science, which I shall discuss in a later post, and the definition of reasonable is tied up in Occam’s razor and falsifiability. However, the point is that evidence needs to exist in a context of a human effort to understand, else it is an artefact of reality ― not evidence. And, any archaeologist can tell you artefacts belong in context.
And so, I don’t see that evidence can really be thought of as distinct from human efforts to understand a topic, and so the word ‘evidence’ invokes words like science and philosophy. Even science cannot be separated from philosophy and logic. You can think of those three topics as concentric circles of a Venn diagram: Logic > Philosophy > science. (That’s not the most sophisticated or accurate way of doing explaining the relationship, but suffice to say that when one calls upon ‘evidence’ one invokes a bit of necessary baggage if they want to do anything with that evidence.)
As you can see, all this has a bearing on the direction of the question and the answer. And you end up with a few answers.
In a strictly evidential sense, evidence only undermines specific stories from religions when they are interpreted as literally true stories. And even then, the religious person can install the crumple zone into the narratives, of an imperfect, humanly authored text. The person claiming a cultural wisdom interpretation of religion doesn’t really mind ― in the same way I’m not too concerned by the lack of thick webbing around New York when enjoying Spiderman.
In the broader sense, taking on the baggage of philosophy and science, the literal religion is on a much more serious collision course with science, and the crumple zones are not always sufficient. The critical nature of scientific reasoning requires that claims are supported by evidence to be believed. The evidence can be steeped heavily in philosophy and logic (indeed, it’s inevitable), but the evidence must be there. And it must lead reasonably to the belief someone is trying to hold.
The evidence that undermines literal religion in this sense isn’t the evidence itself, then. Religious people have managed to fold evolution and models of cosmogony and the age of the universe into their religion. (Not every religious person has, and more rigid crumple zones make for a much more jarring collision.) The evidence that undermines belief, in the intellectually critical sense, is its conspicuous absence. For the claim that a deity had a relationship with a particular community in its founding years, or still has that relationship with reality now, the evidence is simply lacking.