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A pattern

10/16/07 | by [mail] | Categories: faith/skepticism

Greta Christina Says this so well:

When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands -- tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more -- of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first place... all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.

Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?

As far as I am aware, exactly zero.


Given this pattern -- thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones -- doesn't it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?

I guess that's why I'm not bothered by the things that science hasn't explained. How did life begin on Earth? What was the universe like before the Big Bang? We don't know. Some people look at those gaps in our knowledge and assume that God must be responsible. My 5-year-old daughter made that argument to me this week. First she tried peer pressure and told me that I was the only person who didn't believe in God, but when I listed some other people she changed tactics. She asked where people came from and where the Earth came from if God didn't make it.

I told her that she was asking good questions, then I asked her who made God, if he's responsible for making everything else. She said that there were people before God that made him. Who made them? And so on.

The pattern shows that the gaps are closing. This is an issue that any believer needs to think about and any apologist needs to account for. Why has religion been on the wrong side of issues of knowledge so consistently?

One way of dealing with this, and it has always failed miserably, is to attempt to deny and discredit new knowledge. The Church did it with Galileo and some are trying to do it now with evolution. The religious viewpoint just ends up looking stupid in the eyes of history.

Another way to deal with this is to say that the religion was never meant to answer scientific questions. The believer may claim that those parts of the holy book are not meant to be taken literally and the religion only answers metaphysical questions (e.g., What's the meaning of life? How should we treat each other? What actions are immoral?) There are four problems with this.

1. History proves this assertion wrong. Religion has always tried to explain the way the physical world works and how things began. As much as the more reasonable Christians may hate to admit it, the Creationists are part of a long chain of religious groups who try to promote supernatural explanations for the world, even in the face of overwhelming evidence for the natural explanations.

2. After such a long record of being wrong about the world, why would religion be considered authoritative on any subject? Not to mention the parts of the Bible that condone genocide. Do you really want to take ethical advice from a book like that?

3. If Genesis and Revelation don't have to be taken literally, then why does any book between need to be taken literally? If the creation story was just a human author's attempt to explain where the world came from, then aren't the 10 Commandments another human's attempt to prescribe how people should behave?

4. Why shouldn't we see these questions as one more area for natural explanations? Some scientific disciplines, like geology and biology, are limited to the way the physical world works. Others address the mind, society and even meaning. Psychology, ethics and philosophy, though not as exact, do take an essentially scientific approach to the deep questions that humans ask. They gather evidence, propose theories and test them, like the harder sciences. They're self-correcting and they've also replaced some supernatural explanations. I would much rather take advice on issues of morals and meaning from someone using this approach than from an ancient, pre-scientific religious book.



I’ll try to think about 1 & 4, because those seem like good points.

2 is a bit one sided. I think the reason that religious people are considered authorities on morality is because of the good that has been done in the name of god: hospitals, orphanages, shelters, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners. I know you could show me how some king or president or nut used/uses religion in awful ways, but I don’t think you can deny the good that has been done by real religious people.

3 doesn’t seem like much of an argument. We read different literature differently. Myths, letters, poetry, history, law, prophesy, novels, and letters to the editor (literature?) all do different things and should be approached differently.

Also, I don’t think god has stopped inspiring people. Christians continue to think and write about what all these things mean from a “christian” perspective now. (I know you know this.) Ideas change. If I can’t trust 17th century christian thought, how can I trust 21st century christian thought? If I can’t trust 17th century medicine, how can I trust 21st century medicine?

I’m tempted to drop presupposition back into the mix, but it’s late and I don’t think my previous graph made much sense.

The Dude abides.

matt [Visitor]  10/18/07 @ 21:52
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/10/19/07 @ 07:47

1) Right, the absence of a scientific explanation does not preclude one, but I’m also not sure that a scientific explanation always precludes a metaphysical one. One of
orthodox Christianity’s historic and perennial enemies is gnosticism which claims a hard and fast division between flesh and spirit. Christianity, almost counter-intuitively (to my mind anyway)insists that the two are intertwined in a mystical sort of way. So, for instance, there was a story on Digg recently that suggested a religious euphoria could be produced by stimulating certain segments of the brain. Ok, but why does that not mean that true encounters with spirits or Spirit might activate the same segment.

In any case, it’s interesting to me that the idea of an eternal Creator has for the vast majority of humans throughout seemed more satisfying than an idea of an eternal Universe. I can’t really wrap my head & heart around the idea of eternal matter, but for some reason the idea of an eternal creator (while no less hard to grasp) seems less impossibly weird. Not a convincing argument, I know. But then, neither is an argument based on the claim that because scientific explanations have displaced religious explanations in the past, it will always continue to do so in the future.

Then too, we could question the validity of the scientific way of knowing. We say its “better” because it tends to be more predictive and that tends to give us some control. I like it for these reasons. But if post-modernism and physical relativism has taught us anything it should surely have taught us that we can privilege what we like and center ourselves wherever we like. The Universe could actually be geocentric, it just means the geometry of the rest of the orbits get a lot more complicated.

2) Has the Bible really been all that wrong about things like “Turn the other cheek” and “Do good to those who hate you"? Genocide in the old testament is a problem. I won’t deny it. But there have been, I think, far more people motivated to do things, both large and small, that most people would recognize as “good” than have been motivated to hurt people. In fact, even though few actions have only one motive, I would posit that the Christian faith is the PRIMARY motivator for doing harm to people in only very few cases. It is more often used as a justification for acting out things one wants to do anyway. And, although I can’t really prove this, I think even more often a motivation for living and acting self-sacrificially. (Granted this is a Christian virtue, but then if you’re assuming genocide is bad I assume you’re accepting some of the general morality of Western society).

3) The point has already been made that we should read different genres in different ways. I don’t think any serious scholar of ancient literature would argue that Revelation was ever meant to be read in the same way as 1 Corinithians. It’s only Fundamentalists that make this error.

4) I think I’ve already addressed this in the above points, and really should end this over-long comment.

Stimulating post. Thanks!

Doug [Visitor]  10/24/07 @ 18:05
[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/10/24/07 @ 19:31

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