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Is One False Story as Good as Another?

Is one false story as good as another? The obvious question is, ‘good for what?” I have argued vociferously in favor of verifiable ideas and against fanciful ones, particularly religious ideas. My argument has been that I don’t like believing in something that requires outright denial of what appear to be obvious facts and I don’t like believing in something that requires a suspension of either logic or critical judgment.

But aren’t all so-called facts only true from a particular perspective and don’t many of the beliefs of modern science derive from scientific and mathematical operations that are obscure and inaccessible to most of us? This has probably been true of most of the great discoveries of science for centuries.  Newton’s assertions about gravity were based upon a mathematics few people of his day could understand and were no more obviously true to the average person than the counter assertions about ether or elements that caused attractions between bodies. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was also based upon complex mathematics (some of which turned out to be wrong) and was more counter intuitive than the common man’s observation that the earth was stationary and the sun and the stars revolved around it. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution was not a story about the origin of species that coincided with the observations of the average person and his version of natural selection was less obviously true than his contemporaries, such as Lamarck’s ideas about inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Even now, we can debate about the big bang theory of the origin of the universe and champion it over, say the continuous creation theory without, unless we are astrophysicists, understanding either the mathematics or the science behind either theory. Yet we are comfortable believing that one or the other theory is true and claiming that the biblical creation theory is clearly false, when, for most of us, the only evidence we have is the opinion of scientists.

Newton’s theory of gravitation was shown to be only approximately true for a certain range of phenomena when Einstein developed his theory of relativity and Einstein’s theory was then shown to apply satisfactorily only for another limited range of phenomena when Bohr and others developed quantum theory. Sigmund Freud turned the field of human personality and behavior on its head when he developed his psychoanalytic theory of unconscious motivation. Nowadays, Freudian theory is generally taken to be an outmoded, unnecessarily anthropomorphic story about how thoughts and behavior emerge from a person and has been replaced by neuroscience theories of the functioning of systems of brain cells.

It is difficult not to believe that nearly everything we “know” now, in the early decades of the twenty-first century will turn out to be either wrong or limited in application or perspective sometime in the future.  Does it really matter, then whether we believe in “scientific” explanations of ourselves and the world we live in or “religious” ones?

 Most religious beliefs are based upon premises that are difficult to prove, scientifically, at least in the world in which we now live. The assumption that there is an all-knowing consciousness either directing, observing or judging everything in the universe is not something that can be proven or disproven. That some aspect of our own consciousness persists after we die is another unprovable and undisprovable belief. Even the personal feeling that a particular person has of being “in touch with,” “possessed by,”  or  “at one with” a supreme being, may be the kind of culturally generated quality of one’s consciousness that, for someone within the culture that generated such a feeling, is impossible to doubt or to examine objectively, since one cannot stand outside of one’s own culturally determined personality to examine oneself and a second party’s observations about such a phenomena cannot overrule what one experiences first-hand.

Karen Armstrong’s remarkable book, The Case for God, makes it clear that there have been times and places in history when, at least in the view of some leading thinkers, religion and science were not at odds. St. Augustine, for instance, favored a “principle of accommodation,” which asserted that God presented his revelations to humans in the language that fit their understanding at the time. Thus, according to St. Augustine, Biblical stories were not literal descriptions of objective events that could present a challenge to scientific explanations of those same events and new scientific discoveries and explanations of nature presented no threat to religion. Certainly Copernicus, who was highly religious and, in fact, presented his ideas in more or less religious terms, subscribed to this view. To Copernicus, the beauty and symmetry of a heliocentric system of the sun and the planets was a testament to God’s wisdom and glory, not a challenge to it.

Galileo did not share Copernicus’ religious view of the heliocentric theory. In fact, he saw no conflict between science and religion in general or between scientific verification of Copernicus’ theory, which he thought he had provided, and Biblical stories. Galileo believed and argued as such, that much of the contents of the Bible was poetic expressions of religious truth, not to be taken as fact in the way that scientific evidence provided fact. As Karen Armstrong points out, such a view was espoused in St. Augustine’s principle of accommodation and was acceptable to the Catholic Church until around the 16th century, but after that, the Church became more dogmatic and pushed for a literal interpretation of all of the words of the Bible as well as accepted assertions of the Church that were based upon Aristotelian philosophy.

Even today, with “Creationism,” and fundamentalist religion gaining greater favor, we see religious narratives being portrayed as plausible alternatives to scientific narratives (e.g. evolution), rather than as two different ways of expressing ideas, a scientific and a poetical one, that cannot be in conflict, since they do not belong to the same category of explanation. Taking the words and stories of the Bible literally, would be like taking Christina Rossetti’s poetic words, “My heart is like a singing bird,” literally and being forced to disavow centuries of discoveries about human anatomy. Science provides one kind of narrative about the world and human existence while religion provides another, but they are not equivalent nor should they compete with one another.

Scientific theories, discoveries and explanations do not provide a guide to behavior because, even if they can predict the outcomes of different actions, they do not include values that would lead to favoring one outcome of an action over another. Religious beliefs do include values, so one could base one’s decisions about how to act upon his or her religious beliefs, but not upon one’s scientific beliefs.     

 Because religious beliefs express values, these values may differ between different religions. Hindu’s place a value on not injuring other creatures and generally refrain from killing animals for their meat, as do monks and some followers of Mahayana Buddhism, for similar reasons. Monks of the Theravada sect of Buddhism, do consume meat, but do not kill animals themselves to provide the meat. Christians, Jews and Muslims have no prohibition against killing animals and the latter two religions have a history of animal sacrifice.

The values inherent in a religion are not always easy to discern nor do they always determine behavior. The inclusion of a ‘golden rule’ type dictum to behave toward others as you would want them to behave toward you, is often cited as occurring in nearly all of the world’s religions. However, this is a dictum not often followed by members of most religions and even by the religions’ leaders. Many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism prohibit killing of human beings, yet followers of these religions have waged wars, mounted terror campaigns and may even have sanctioned legalized killing of criminals, “witches,” “blasphemers,” and members of other religions, often in the name of their own religion.

So does the story one tells oneself matter? Most likely it does and if what matters are the values that one tries to use to guide one’s behavior, then religion is a potent source of such values and may offer a ready narrative about the person, his or her relationship to others and to a supposed god. I have often wondered whether, when one kills in the name of religion or when one ministers to others in the name of religion, the religion is the cause of such behavior or if it is just an after-the-fact rationalization for the behavior. The answer is probably that it may be either one.

If people do not have religious beliefs, what is their source for the values to guide their behavior? Certainly philosophy has offered candidates that rival those put forth by any religions. A good example would be Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ to "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." In other words, act in such a way that you would desire that all people acted similarly. Because such a rule still leaves room for the person who, say desires that all people seek to kill members of a certain race or religion, Kant added a second and a third imperative such that one should, “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end,” and, “therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.” These three imperatives, taken together insure fair and humane treatment to any and everyone.

The work of Franz de Waal with chimpanzees demonstrates that some of what we refer to as moral behavior is also evident in primates and may be the basis for human morality. Altruistic behavior, at least directed toward members of one’s own family or colony is not uncommon in chimps, bonobos and capuchin monkeys and involves some capacity for empathy. Such behavior appears to be tied to the emotions in these primates. Now primates do not have external language of any degree of sophistication and presumably also lack an internal dialogue to guide their behavior. Yet they show some elements of the types of behaviors that we associate with being guided by a philosophical or religious stance. Does this mean that human philosophic-religious narratives are rationalizations for ways of behaving that are genetically wired into us when we are born?

In his book, Primates and Philosophers: how morality evolved, De Waal and his commentators agree that primate “moral” behavior is mostly limited to the circle of family and colony members and does not include a “universal” notion that includes all members of the species or all living things, which is something many human philosophies and religions do include. Of course, despite such inclusions, religions particularly have provided a source of antipathy toward other religions, nations and races and a marked lack of empathy toward one’s enemies, which is usually described as seeing people who are different from oneself as “less than human.” There is often marked discontinuity between the universal morality espoused in the writings of a religion and the behavior of the people who espouse that religion.

The religious or philosophical narratives we develop and try to live by may have their source in behavioral and emotional tendencies that are part of the genetic endowment of our species. In this sense, they are a sort of grand, after-the-fact rationalization for how we find ourselves feeling and behaving. It may be a limitation of that genetic endowment that such moral tendencies are directed mostly toward those we see as similar to ourselves. We can only overcome this tendency by creating narratives that are more inclusive and universal. So far, in my opinion, the world’s religions, as well as the national identities that have been developed have not been successful in extending the tendency to act morally to people’s interactions with people whom they see as unlike themselves. In some cases both religious and national narratives have fostered suspicion and hatred toward those who do not share one’s religion or nationality. It is time to assess whether such insularity is endemic to religion and national identity and if so, to develop narratives based upon different premises.                                                                     





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