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Science, Religion, and Religious Minimalism

by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp

The Need for a Profound Humility

No human phenomenon in this interconnected age is more controversial or confusing than religion. But two things are clear: secular prophecies to the contrary, religion is not going away. And despite the hopes of certain nostalgic believers, religion will not regain, at least in the West, the social ascendancy it once enjoyed.

Science and Religion are portrayed in harmony in this Tiffany window titled “Education” (1890). Photo: WikipediaThe truth is, many of us feel torn. We’re pulled between some core religious commitments we neither can nor want to escape, on one hand, and the core beliefs we acquire from non-religious sources, especially from the theories and discoveries of natural science, on the other. We find it impossible to deny that complex life forms emerged from simpler ones; that mental events are inseparable from (even if they can’t be reduced to) the operations of the brain; that the earth is a very small part, and far from the center, of an inconceivably vast universe. But we’re also convinced by personal experience – and, in some cases by philosophical reflection – that the observable universe explored by natural science is not the ultimate reality, that at least some of the ancient claims found in religious traditions are actually true.

For some decades a number of scholars – people like John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacocke, Nancey Murphy, John Haught, and Robert J. Russell – have worked to overcome the sense of irreconcilable differences, seeking common ground between scientific and religious explanation. Their numerous books and conferences have explored a wide range of approaches: sometimes isolating areas of science, such as quantum mechanics, that seemed to cry out for supernatural forms of causation (or at least leave an opening for them), and sometimes seeking methods for testing religious claims in ways that are analogous to the ways that scientific claims are tested by experimentation and critical feedback.

Despite their often heroic efforts, this project has not given rise to a broadly compelling research program. In fact, it has come under attack by scientists as well as religious persons. Why is that? Why would both sides not welcome these attempts to establish harmony? The reasons matter.

Science proceeds by the formulation of hypotheses that can be tested and refined, confirmed or disconfirmed, by a community of experts. Scientists rely on shared observations and on information to which all have equal access, at least in principle. By contrast, the claims that emerge from religious communities are “confirmed” (to whatever extent they are) by individual and shared experiences that the religious communities themselves, through their teachings and practices, enable their members to have. Because they depend so deeply on the communities and traditions that foster them, the experiences that change the lives of believers are not fully accessible to outsiders. Thus they are not available, even in principle, for confirmation or disconfirmation by a community of disinterested experts.

This difference between science and religion is fundamental and ineradicable, as we argue in a recent book, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith (2011). Critics such as Richard Dawkins misunderstand how religious beliefs are formed and defended when they claim that religious reasoning is purely circular, or that all religious claims are equally true – and therefore equally false! That misunderstanding is no doubt part of what has been driving the indignant attacks on religion in recent years from certain scientists, philosophers, and journalists. It also helps to fuel the fires of the New Atheist attacks. But the fact that a traditional claim is hard to evaluate from outside that tradition does not show that the claim is false. It merely shows that the claim is hard for outsiders to evaluate.

And we are all outsiders. All of us, no matter what we believe, stand outside traditions to which the vast majority of other human beings belong. The lesson to draw from this inescapable fact of the human condition is the need for a profound humility about one’s own beliefs, especially when they are the kinds of beliefs that one cannot fully test in the company of others. In “The Predicament of Belief,” these facts compel us to call for a “religious minimalism” across the world’s traditions. For example, those whose religious experiences and values give rise to inescapably Christian convictions become Christian minimalists when they learn to hold their beliefs with humility and a certain lightness of touch.

We suggest that the humility of religious minimalism is the right stance for everyone, believers and non-believers alike, to adopt – especially in an age in which the rich plurality of human beliefs has never been more evident, more exciting... or more dangerous.

This article was originally published by Huffington Post on December 12, 2011.