Friday, July 27, 2007

Religious Truth

Is there such a thing? If so, what epistemic metric can we use to know we've actually discovered it? This question is explored by Simen on the de-conversion blog. The conversation was about whether or not religious truths should be subject to empirical scientific investigation. Following is an only slightly modified version of my comments on the issue.

Heather (and perhaps others) have touched on the Argument From Disagreement, which says: Because theological claims conflict, at least some of them must be false, and all of them could be false. Now, I'd like to take that argument in a different than usual direction.

There are two ideas in the comments that I've been thinking about. Agkyra started things off at the top by asserting that theological questions are outside the domain of empirical science, and I believe it was Kramii who mentioned a toolkit for investigating reality.

If what Agkyra says is true, and the resolution of theological questions is ultimately outside the purview of empirical science, is there an alternative method for discovering religious truth? Considering that various strongly held, yet diametrically opposed, religious beliefs continue to cause warfare and other forms of human suffering, wouldn't it be a worthwhile endeavor to resolve such conflicts? I'm not talking about ecumenism, although I find that worthwhile as well. I mean the actual methodical determination of which theological claims are in fact true.

Doing this would certainly make the world a more peaceful place. And for those who believe in a loving God, I think he'd certainly be pleased if everyone were on the same doctrinal page rather than fighting over scriptural interpretations or which church or religion was the "right" one. And just think of all the deconverted who could now reconvert with confidence that they're on the right metaphysical track.

If any believers have an idea how to do this I'd be interested to hear it. Such a project would sure beat pastimes like the Sunni vs. Shiite "games" in Iraq. Sure, there would still be different denominations of the certified One True Religion, just to accommodate different tastes in worship services, but people wouldn't have to waste precious time accusing each other of practicing a religion that's "of the devil", or wondering whether or not God really cares if they use condoms.

Does what I'm saying sound facetious? It could be taken that way. It could also be taken as a serious challenge for believers to find a way to revolutionize metaphysical inquiry, and put the Argument From Disagreement forever to rest.

Another thought: maybe I'm making a different category mistake than Agkyra claims is being made by those who attempt to assess theological truths using empiricism. Perhaps theology is more analogous to aesthetics than any type of methodological investigation like science.
Poetry, paintings, and music may contain references to facts, but they're not about empirical truth, although they're definitely not without meaning for those who appreciate them. They may speak to us about the human condition, point out flaws in our societies, cause us to examine our darkest selves, or strike deep emotional chords that inspire us to do great things. There isn't one "true" religion any more than there is one "true" form of artistic expression. Now I'm getting ecumenical, and universalist here...

If religious beliefs and experiences are a close analogue to artistic expression and appreciation, then they can have great power for those individuals whose lives they touch. They also, like art, may inspire individuals but never dictate to the masses. A novel may inspire individuals to change from its lament on the failings of society, but has no right to impose its narrative on that society. And a painting may depict the law, but never legislate. Because religion and art are both "in the eye of the beholder" they can have no authority over those who do not choose to appreciate them.