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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: July 22, 2006
Latest Update: July 22, 2006
It is particularly important if we are to guide our communities in governance and public sphere discourse that we realize the difference between religious belief and truth. The history of the United States has been largely secular from an historical perspective, though a general acceptance of Christianity characterized those who founded the colonies, and those who have held power and led the first two centuries of our existence.
Religion encapsulates our ultimate beliefs in our existence, in the mythology of creation and destruction, our morality, and our prescriptions for living the good life. Believing is in and of itself magical. Magical because we have no rational explanation that can be tested and shown to be "true" in any rational or scientific sense. But magical also because belief is often enough to change what the rational would not regard as possible.
Truth is very different, and very important to illocutionary discourse. Truth is also magical, for it changes depending on our beliefs. Truth is a social construct created by the community of believers. Science has a truth, on which scientists can usually agree. That truth is that science can only decree the "scientific truth" of any theory through the examination of physical, measurable evidence by the scientific method.
As we learn more, and develop better techniques for measuring physical evidence, theories once thought to be "true" will have to be modified to fit new evidence. That is happening now in our conception or social construction of the concept of gravity. Anomalies in the understanding of the weakness of such a significant force as gravity mean that we have to look for new social constructs, new theoretical explanations for the evidence we can measure for gravity. "String theory" offers a mathematical explanation and possibilities for the discovery of new evidence. But there is as yet no way to measure such new evidence, so scientists can only hypothesize what we might eventually know about gravity. Scientific truth remains open to further discovery through both creative imagination and actual physical measurement and study. String theory suggests as one possibility that the universe might be flat, not spherical, as we have so long thought. In that theory, only gravity can escape the flat plane on which this universe exists, opening the possibility for other universes on other planes, and offering one plausible explanation for the observed physical evidence of the weakness of gravity compared to other forces. Scientists can't tell us what the "truth" of our universe is. We have to wait until that "truth" is revealed through ever greater knowledge.
Social science is not rocket science. What that really means is that it's even harder to measure effectively something called "social attraction." And how you measure it will determine to a very large extent what you find. Try measuring race, or discrimination, or profit, or gender. All near impossible. You keep running into problems with definitions that we can agree on. And you have to agree if you want consistent observations for scientific method.
Some social scientists keep mistaking the science in the term "social science" for a need to reframe theories on social, political, and economic issues in the terms of hard science. That's silly. We don't need to do that. All we need to do is recognize and define "truth" so that we can all agree on it, on some definition of "truth." That's still hard to do. Postmodern issues remind us that truth, like any other observation or conclusion, has a perspective, a story. and that each person has a unique story.
Again, that's not so hard. Science offers us an example that has worked spectacularly well in the development of technology and its improvements to our way of life. The trouble is we can't agree on what "improvement" means there. And we will never be able to, given the limitations on what we as humans can measure at this stage in our skills. But we can agree on possible theoretical solutions that we believe will one day be able to be shown as "scientific truth," still not absolute, and still dependent on ever-growing knowledge. The only thing we have to do is agree not to adopt an "arrogance of knowledge" that assumes that "I know" and "you don't know."
Adopting "humility of knowledge," (an assumption that no matter how much I know, it is always possible to learn more, or to "know" more if one can exceed what humans today can know through their senses and their understanding,) leads us to a respect for what others "know" or "believe they know."
Humility of knowledge carries us over into religion. Through "belief" we can "know." Such knowledge often serves to guide us, serves to bind us to others who share our beliefs, serves to provide role models for the many situations that confuse us. But such knowledge does not serve to produce "new scientific truth," nor to overcome the dilemma of how another's belief, differing from ours, may lead ultimately to violence as a means of resolving whose truth is true. As in "scientific truth," we must always remain open to the discovery or revelation of new skills or understanding.
Since every religion I know is founded ultimately in an understanding of some greater collective good, heaven, karma, the universe of souls, whatever, humility is built in to our religious constructs. We do not worship Man. We worship God, some greater collective good. Man remains humble. Man must remain humble, for he is mortal. (Generic "Man" and "he" here.) Religion deals with issues that go beyond the mortality of Man.
Today we are dealing with issues of fundamentalism in almost every religion we know. Yes, that includes Zen Buddhism. Someone always forgets humility and starts teaching what he/she claims to "know" as "truth." Karen Armstrong addresses this dilemma and its consequences today in The Battle for God: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism in Western Culture and Politics .
I should also appreciate if you would look at the following excerpts from Alan Finder in "Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties," New York Times, July 22, 2006, at p. A 1:
Southern Baptist colleges are affiliated with the state conventions, and it does not make sense to many members of the conventions to provide significant annual subsidies to Baptist colleges that they view as out of tune with conservative positions on central religious tenets, including how to interpret the Bible. “I did feel that Georgetown was not on the same page as most Kentucky Baptists,’’ said Dr. York, who was president of the Kentucky Baptist Convention last year. . .
David W. Key, director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, put it more starkly. “The real underlying issue is that fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist form is incompatible with higher education,’’ Professor Key said. “In fundamentalism, you have all the truths. In education, you’re searching for truths.’’
From Backup of Alan Finder's "Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties," in the New York Times, July 22, 2006, at p. A 1.
- Why do we need to discuss religion at all?
Consider that President Bush has ushered us into an age in which religion is being offered as a reason for the enactment and enforcement of laws. Consider also that in our discussions, both in class, and online, we will have to discuss these laws as they affect social, economic, and political issues. This is a course in illocutionary discourse and it demands for each of our participants respect. Thus, we need to have some basic understanding of each others perspectives of "truth" in order to remove our discussions to a level of technical understanding where affect will not run so high.
- Karen Armstrong's Battle for God: Understanding Religious Fundamentalism in Western Culture and Politics. Ballantine Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-345-39169-1.
- Backup of Alan Finder's "Feeling Strains, Baptist Colleges Cut Church Ties," in the New York Times, July 22, 2006, at p. A 1.