I often hear the comment that religion by nature disallows questions and requires the believer to check his or her brain at the door. My experience with religion has been somewhat different. The Bahá’í Faith is not shy of honest differences of perspective and encourages a healthy dialogue in the search for truth. Here Abdu’l-Bahá is setting out guidelines for consultation during a meeting of a spiritual assembly (the elected guiding body of the Bahá’í community), but the principle of approach applies to any topic of consultation.
The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. (‘’Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘’Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 86)
I suppose it goes without saying that this open and frank exchange requires moderation of speech and respect for human dignity where disagreements occur:
He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century.
(Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 264)
Use of Language in the Science and Religion Debate
A key assertion from the atheist “side” of the aisle is that there is “no evidence” to support the existence of God. This is a strong claim that begs answers to the following questions:
- What is exactly meant by “evidence” to provide a suitably objective definition in both a scientific and religious context?
- Who gets the right to decide on what even qualifies as “evidence” in favor of or against claims about the existence of God?
The atheists with whom I’ve conversed wish to set the rules and conditions for debate as is suggested by this scale that ranges from: “absolute certainty” to “absolute impossibility”:
“absolute certainty” <<——
——— “fact” ———
—— “evidence” —— “inference” —— “belief” ——
——— “faith” ——— “superstition” ———
——>> “absolute impossibility”
My question is: How does one define the relationship between different words on this scale for objectively identifying a phenomenon as it relates to science and/or religion?
A good place to start may be with a definition of “evidence”. From the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (on-line) we get:
evidence: n. one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true:
—The police have found no evidence of a terrorist link with the murder.
—Is there any scientific evidence that a person’s character is reflected in their handwriting?
—There is no scientific evidence to suggest that underwater births are dangerous.
Merriam-Webster’s On-Line Dictionary offers:
- an outward sign
- something that furnishes proof
- one who bears witness; esp. one who voluntarily confesses a crime and testifies for the prosecution against his accomplices
The Limitations of Science in Acquiring Knowledge
In the interest of clarity, I’d like to define, also, the scientific method. The scientific method is a systematic and algorithmic means to piece together a worldview (i.e. paradigm) of understanding the nature and structure of the known Universe.An essential part of the scientific method is experimentation under laboratory conditions to test theories. The scientific method is undeniably successful in offering explanations about structures within the known Universe, from subatomic to cosmological length scales. On its own, it provides no insight into the underlying purpose behind our existence, or that of anything else within the known Universe.
Science is a social activity and, as such, is practiced by a wide variety of human beings. Human beings, of course, are endowed with the ability to perceive “reality” with a sense of self-awareness and the awareness of other people or things. This makes them ideally suited to observing and discovering the nature of the observable and known Universe. However, without proper instrumentation, the capacity to perceive the known Universe with our senses alone is limited by a number of factors, including the length of the human lifespan and the relative vulnerability of the human mind and body.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that observations are subject to any limitations or filtering in the perceptions of the observer. Which means that human observations are subject to human interpretation and capacity for self-deception.
Given that every question about the Universe leads to more uncertainty and further questions, what exactly does it mean to know something as opposed to believing in it?
This question makes me think about a film like “The Matrix” and its concept of “reality” in perceiving our immediate environment. Is it possible to distinguish between the “real” world and the computer-generated world of “The Matrix” solely by using our senses? This, of course, leads to a further question: Would any form of material evidence be sufficient to satisfy the atheists’ need for “proof” of God’s existence?
I’d like to explore that in context with the nature of belief, next time.