Religion 101

Some observers suspect that, as science continues to advance, it may eventually succeed in eclipsing religion altogether. According to this perspective, both religion and science are essentially all about explaining or accounting for various mysteries of existence; if and as science’s answers to such mysteries continuously prove superior to those offered by religion, then religion may eventually wither away to nothingness, once and for all displaced by science’s superior explanatory power.

Others, however, have reason to doubt that science, nor matter how advanced it may become, can ever render religion obsolete, or irrelevant, or passé. Why? Because, in their view, science and religion, when properly understood, can in fact never actually challenge or genuinely contradict each other. And that is so because, according to this view, religion and science simply operate in two fundamentally different areas of inquiry — in two completely different “back yards.” As such, religion and science address and provide answers to altogether different, and non-overlapping, categories of mysteries.

Put simply, science deals exclusively in empirical (observable, detectable, testable) matters, whereas religion trades primarily in non-empirical (non-observable, non-detectable, non-testable) matters. Religious entities or spiritual concepts such as God, the sacred or holy, the soul, the afterlife, or even “the meaning of life” are inherently non-empirical matters; as such, they are simply not amenable to empirical examination or experiment. Science, being a strictly empirical method of investigation, is therefore inherently unable to detect or test such religious or spiritual matters.

Consequently, science can never in principle have anything to say, one way or another, regarding such non-empirical matters as God, the soul, or the afterlife. Science thus can neither confirm nor deny, affirm nor debunk, “prove” nor “disprove,” the reality or otherwise of such things — ever. When it comes to matters of religious or spiritual truths, science must always and forever simply keep mum, since science lacks even the tools to investigate such inherently non-empirical matters, much less issue pronouncements upon their objective veracity or validity.

Likewise, the primary focus of religion (and spirituality) lies most squarely upon precisely such non-empirical realities and verities as God, the soul, and the afterlife. Religion specializes in those very things which, being non-empirical, are in principle forever beyond the investigative and confirmatory (or disconfirmatory) reach of empirical science.

So long as both religion and science each sticks to what it does best, to its own properly delineated areas of inquiry, then any possibility of genuine conflict or dispute would seem to be ruled out. So long, in other words, and science and religion each stay within their own “back yards,” as it were, then how can they possibly ever conflict with each other?

If science deals only with the empirical, and if religion deals only with the non-empirical, then insofar as the empirical and the non-empirical are two completely different and non-overlapping spheres (or areas of inquiry), then surely neither science nor religion can really have much to say about the other.

If so, then why is it that we do, in fact, see instances of conflict (or at least of seeming conflict) between science and religion?

Some have suggested that perhaps such instances arise only if, or when, either science or religion ventures beyond the confines of its own “back yard” or proper area of inquiry, and inappropriately or illegitimately trespasses onto the property (or into the “back yard”) of the other.

For instance, if science started issuing claims about the existence or non-existence of God, critics of science might then rightfully point out that science has thereby exceeded the limits or boundaries of its own competence, offering opinions on non-empirical matters which (by definition, and in principle) lie beyond the empirical boundaries of science.

But what happens if, or when, religion goes beyond its own area of specialization or expertise in purely non-empirical or strictly “spiritual” matters, and starts offering opinions or making claims regarding empirical (observable, detectable, testable) — matters which are perfectly and squarely within the particular boundaries and special expertise of empirical science to investigate and assess?

(To be continued, in Part Three.)







In some of the community college world religions courses I teach, as the end of the semester draws near we sometimes begin to shift our focus away from looking just at individual religions, from exploring the details of their particular origins and histories or their specific beliefs and practices, in order to sort of “take a step back” so as to look at them all, more or less collectively, and in some sort of perspective.

After studying where all of these various religions have come from, and where they have been (or what they have been through) over the centuries or even millennia of their individual histories, we might begin to wrap things up by wondering where all these religions might be going henceforth. The various challenges of modernity have had significant impacts, in varying ways, upon each of the world’s major faiths. What new challenges may they face tomorrow? How might religion fare, in the future?

One particularly noteworthy challenge that modernity has posed for religion today has been religion’s encounter with modern science. That encounter has undermined a number of formerly widespread beliefs and assumptions of old, many of which were (and in some cases still are) part and parcel of certain religious worldviews.

For example, it was once widely believed that the earth was flat. The understanding or picture of the cosmos which even the Bible seems to assume, and to reflect within its pages, is one in which the world consists of a flat earth, covered by a kind of solid dome (the sky or “firmament”); sun, moon, and stars were affixed to the surface of this arched dome-like ceiling, above the earth. Some believed that beyond the solid vault of the sky lay God and heaven.

Science has, of course, long since discredited this ancient cosmology.

Later on in history, the Church affirmed a cosmology which maintained that the earth (by now a globe suspended in space, rather than a flat plane covered by a solid dome) was in fact at the very center of this vast universe, the actual axis point of the entire cosmos, around which therefore everything else in the cosmos quite literally revolved. This geocentric view held that the sun, the moon, and the stars all rotated around the earth, which was regarded as the very pinnacle of God’s creation. (Galileo famously got himself into hot water with the Church for challenging its geocentric view of the cosmos.)

Once again, of course, science has established that this medieval view of the cosmos is also incorrect.

Primitive religions of the prehistoric past, and many indigenous religions of today, likewise believe that behind many natural phenomena and events — from lightning and thunderstorms, to plagues and famines or other natural disasters, and even to dreams and nightmares — lie supernatural forces or spiritual causes. Science, by contrast, has repeatedly and increasingly demonstrated that behind such events and phenomena lie perfectly mundane and natural explanations.

Many observers detect a definite and constantly repeating pattern here, according to which as science advances, religion often must beat a hasty retreat. New discoveries undermine and disprove old assumptions about many things. As science continues to advance, will this pattern continue? Will religion continue to be forced to retract claim after claim, assertion after assertion, gradually diminishing and withering away until it eventually vanishes from the scene altogether, for lack of any remaining explanatory power — all of its claims and assertions having disproven and debunked by science as mere myths, thereby rendering religion redundant?

Some suspect so. Others, however, have reason to doubt that this will ever occur. Why? Because, in their view, science and religion, when properly understood, can in fact never actually challenge or genuinely contradict each other.

How can that be so? Stay tuned!

(To be continued, in Part Two.)







A fair percentage of my community college world religions students (and also of the general public, whom my students probably represent a fairly representative sample of) often exhibits some confusion or uncertainty over the precise meaning of such terms as atheism and agnosticism.

As discussed in previous blog entries, atheism can refer either to a belief in the unreality or non-existence of any God or gods, or to a mere lack of belief in any God or gods. (There’s a subtle but important difference.) But what about agnosticism?

If theism refers to a belief in God or gods, and atheism (note the critical presence of that “a-” prefix) refers to its opposite, then likewise agnosticism refers to the opposite of gnosticism. And “gnosticism” refers not to matters of belief, but to matters of knowledge. One who is gnostic (from the Greek gnosis, “knowledge”) is one who claims to “know”; conversely, therefore, one who is a-gnostic (or “agnostic”) is one who does not claim to “know.”

In a religious context, a gnostic would be one who claims to know (not just “believe”) whether or not God exists; by extension, a gnostic would obviously also affirm that it is indeed possible, in principle, to know this (not just to “believe” it, but to actually have certainty regarding the matter — to “know it for a fact”).

By contrast, an agnostic would be just the opposite: one who neither claims to know, one way or the other, whether or not God exists — and one who also, again by extension, would also go so far as to assert that it is impossible, in principle, to know or have factual certainty one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of God (in other words, nobody knows, and nobody can know, for sure).

A couple of caveats: firstly, some readers may know that there was an ancient religious movement called Gnosticism, whose members believed in the reality of a special kind of esoteric “knowledge” regarding divine matters which it was possible to obtain; however, that’s a sidebar issue not really relevant to the matter at hand, which has to do with defining agnosticism in the broader sense.

Secondly, in contemporary colloquial or popular usage, the meaning of the term “agnosticism” is most commonly identified with a somewhat “softer” position regarding the existence or non-existence of God: instead of flatly asserting that it is, in principle, impossible to know the answer to that question, many who self-identify  as “agnostic” merely mean by it that they themselves, personally, are unsure or remain uncertain or unconvinced, one way or the other, as to whether or not God exists.

They do not necessarily assert, like a “hard” agnostic might, that it is simply impossible for anyone to ever know; instead, they merely take the position of “soft” agnosticism, which simply says that, for themselves at least, “the jury is still out.”