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The Question is Worth Asking

A few more loosely connected thoughts and links for a (holiday) Monday morning…

The Stone” is a New York Times philosophy forum that I have enjoyed spending time at recently. Yesterday’s post by Tim Crane called “Mystery and Evidence” is one of the best attempts I have seen from an atheist to honestly lay out the difference between religious approach to the world and a scientific one. Crane critiques the view popularized by Richard Dawkins (and others) that religion and science are two competing alternatives for the same explanatory slot—as if religion were a kind of primitive science that offered the same kinds of explanations that science now offers in a much more comprehensive, rational, and intellectually satisfying manner.

Crane reminds us that both science and religion are indeed attempts to make sense of the world, but that they do so in very different ways. Science analyzes what is and attempts to show how events and occurrences fit hypotheses. Science deals with how things work. But religion, according to Crane, is not primarily about how but why. Religion seeks the significance or meaning of events in the world and is convinced that what is seen is not all there is. Pretty standard stuff, but a nicely explained reminder nonetheless.

Perhaps one of the  most welcome claims in Crane’s article, though—especially in light of the persistent examples of both sides of the atheist/religion divide attempting to portray the other side in the most unflattering terms possible—is this one:

But to understand a world view, or a philosophy or system of thought, it is not enough just to understand the propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral to the view. Religions do make factual and historical claims, and if these claims are false, then the religions fail. But this dependence on fact does not make religious claims anything like hypotheses in the scientific sense. Hypotheses are not central. Rather, what is central is the commitment to the meaningfulness (and therefore the mystery) of the world.

Again, nothing particularly new, but I think Crane articulates this important feature of the debate between atheism and religion in a very helpful way.  There is a lot more going on in discussions of God’s existence/non-existence than simply the evaluation of evidence and the weighing of explanations. What is central to a religious approach to the world is often peripheral to a scientific one and vice versa. If we can’t at least try to understand this, our conversations about atheism and religion in the public square are destined to remain the ill-tempered, unilluminating shouting matches that they so often are (read the comments section to any online newspaper column that dares broach the subject of religion, if you have the stomach for evidence).

On a related note, René Breuel over at the Wondering Fair rightly points out that nobody discusses the question of God’s existence objectively. We are not dispassionate evaluators of evidence. Each of brings an existential soup of experiences, dispositions, biases, hopes and fears to a conversation in which we all have a vested interest:

I have a feeling most people drift to or away from God. We believe ourselves to be self-made people, who consciously and independently make up our minds. Yet our spiritual choices may be more a product of our relationships, upbringing, and lifestyle preferences than we may want to acknowledge. A friend’s approval may be more determining to our belief than Aquinas’ arguments, for instance. Or our emotional preferences may already predispose us in one direction or another, say, if we long for God’s stability or fear his authority, or if we fancy the prestige of morality or the pleasures of boundless exploration.

The question of God is not a theoretical exercise; it spurts from our guts as well as from our minds. To know God or to reject God includes knowing oneself. We will not be more intellectual if we run from our hearts, but less.

The question of God spurts from our guts.  I like that. It means the question is worth asking.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think Crane treats religion, or Christianity especially, as scientists treat the objects of their research. He wants to have control over it.

    I suggest that religion and science represent ways of life. Many of us in the west live by both today. Each offers us power. Science is ultimately concerned with control of nature and other people. Perhaps religion (Christianity) is too. But I think it is not. I think it is ultimately concerned with transcendence of suffering and the ordering of ordinary life. I think science, understood as an attempt to control nature, asserts that we do indeed live by bread alone. And we know that religion says we do not.

    I think that most of the vociferous critics of religion are fools.

    September 6, 2010
  2. mdaele #

    My engagement with the persistent dichotomy drawn between religion and science is quickly waning. There are clever attempts (as Crane has done) to mark the fictitious chasm between what is most often described as two competing ideological perspectives. But even these clever attempts barely conceal the rhetorical battle lines that are inevitably drawn. In order to do this apologists on either side of the debate typically seem to choose two predictable courses of action. 1. A refusal to embrace the clear problems that each side has within its own camp as an ideology (eg. religion’s tendency toward bigotry or the giant gaps that exist within much of scientific theory) 2. An aggressive attack on the other camp as demonstrably poor for social advancement. What is at stake of course is the claim to the existence of God.
    When will the wisest among our thinkers hold up our own failing human intellect and ability to the light of this farcical debate. We would do better to start with Aaron Neville’s famous line sung to Linda Ronstadt ( From that vantage of honesty perhaps we could drop the dichotomous constructions and live in the true wonder and exquisite pain of the existence that has been granted us. Perhaps to that end Breuel comes the closest.

    September 7, 2010
    • Wow. First time I’ve ever heard Ronstadt and Neville used in a philosophical discussion. Well done, Dale :).

      I agree with much of what you say here—especially re: the twofold strategy employed by both sides of the discussion and the reality of human limitations. But I don’t think Crane’s piece is a “clever attempt” to “mark a fictitious chasm between ideological perspectives.” The chasm is real. I think Crane helps us to see some of the reasons why it exists.

      September 7, 2010
      • mdaele #

        it might exist because it has been created as such but I challenge the pertinence of framing this issue in this dichotomous way precisely because it has been fabricated by rhetoric. I’m not sure that Crane does much to walk away from the predictable motifs that exist – it still seems like a largely either or choice (with just a few less barbs). Perhaps I am not well versed enough in the nuances of this debate to understand the distinctives in his ideas but then I guess that just confirms my basic disinterest.

        September 7, 2010
      • I think Crane is actually trying to move the discussion beyond the either/or thing that it often is. If we can start to see that many of our differences have to do with what we emphasize (i.e., the whole what is peripheral/what is central distinction he makes) within the same general project of sense-making, then we might be willing to back off the false dichotomies.

        September 7, 2010

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