May 21 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 3

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This is part three of a series. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part four is here. Part five is here.

Last post, I talked about the problems with adopting a literal approach to religions’ claims. As alternatives to the literal approach to religious teachings, I listed four reasonable approaches to religious claims beyond just relying on statements from purported authorities: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. In this post, I talk about the first three approaches.

The Gaps Approach

With the gaps approach, you re-interpret as being symbolic the teachings about cosmology that have been contradicted by modern science, but continue believing in the teachings that have not been challenged by science. You create space for belief out of the gaps that science has not, or cannot, address. For example, you might discount the idea of a creation in six days, but continue believing that God created the Earth using natural processes over millions of years.

The problem with this approach is that as scientific knowledge continues to grow, the space for religious belief continues to shrink. Moreover, it is epistemologically dubious and self-serving to accept as true the parts of your religion that science has not been able to disprove. It requires that you to ignore the glaring problem that in the areas where scientific inquiry has yielded applicable results, it has disconfirmed and rarely (if ever) confirmed any of the religion’s cosmological teachings. But inasmuch as some of religions’ claims will almost always be unprovable, this is a completely legitimate approach. Most educated religious believers in the West, whether knowingly or not, adopt this approach.

The Symbolic Approach

The symbolic approach is to look at all of the cosmological teachings in the religion or sacred text as being symbolic. This is fine as far as it goes, but it raises the issue of the value of devoting time to study teachings that you acknowledge as being untrue. In most cases, the cosmologically suspect teachings were originally put forth as being literally true. Why shoehorn meanings into the teachings that were not even intended by the original authors? There are cultural and social reasons to adopt this approach (if you live in a society dominated by a certain religion, you may have no choice but to remain affiliated and try to make the best of what you have), but it is not ideal. Even so, it is a perfectly respectable way to approach religion and has been applied by many people.

The Rejection Approach

The rejection approach is to conclude that if verifiable religious claims are usually contradicted by scientific discoveries, then perhaps there is not much reason to continue reinterpreting religious beliefs and teachings to retain a faith in the gaps – if the verifiable claims are untrue, then the unverifiable religious claims probably are not true either. Someone applying the gaps approach might conclude “well, since we have proved that there is no heaven directly above us in the sky, it must mean that heaven is somewhere else,” whereas a rejectionist might instead conclude “if the ancients were wrong about heaven being a literal place above the sky, then maybe there is no heaven at all.” While those who apply the gaps approach tend to be theists, rejectionists tend to be atheists. Many intelligent atheists have adopted this approach and it is an entirely defensible approach.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my favored approach, the Practical Approach (or Presentist Eclecticism).

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