Science and Religion: What is Religion?

From my last post one can see how difficult it can be to tightly define a concept. Lot’s of people like to live in a sort of blurry framework where words they use are made to apply to whatever situation they want. This allows people to relabel what they are actually doing, saying, or believing into a viewpoint they can control (or not have to think about). In the modern world, “science” has been adapted for all kinds of social and political programs that have little to do with actual science. Whenever called out on this methodology, they and their supporters often retaliate with the explanation of “nuance.” But this is an illusion; this kind of “nuance” has become a sort of intellectual nihilism and is actually the counterfeit of critical thinking.

Of course, this is a blog. And anyone can disagree with my definitions. I am simply trying to hone in on the essence of two ideas which dominate modern culture: science and religion. And if my definition of science is to narrowing for some, my definition of religion will be equally uncomfortable, but in almost the opposite way.

Daniel Dubuisson writes an excellent work entitled The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. In this work Dubuisson notes nearly two centuries of eminent scholars and thinkers who define religion in many different ways, and explains that the common denominator between all these definitions is “a lack of criteria.” Religion has been equally used to describe groups, beliefs, superstitions, dreams, visions, rituals, customs, traditions, behaviors, and personal or collective psychologies. In the ancient world, there was no word for “religion.” The first use of the word as a reference to a belief system of a church came by way of Christian thinkers writing in Latin and demarcating their beliefs from all others.

I am going to offer here a strictly functional definition of religion: what religion does and how it does it. In order to do this, I am going to present what all religions have in common. I will take these commonalities and propose a broader conceptual framework for “religion.” I understand that if my definition of science was too narrow for some, my definition of religion will be too broad. That’s okay. These ideas will at least challenge people to reconsider their own views and definitions, and perhaps help some think of these things critically.

There are two kinds of religion: Public Religion and Private Religion. A public religion I call a Church. Private religion is something else altogether, and it must be understood that public and private religion are of a completely different order and are not synonymous. This is important, simply because for many decades now the demarcations between public religion (church) and private religion (one’s own belief system) have been so thoroughly blurred in our culture that they are no longer differentiated. Why is this important? Because in our secular society there is (and should be) a division between Church and State. But this division was never meant to be a separation of private religion and State, despite the fact that this is how the concept is currently being used. Now, all religious rhetoric, however that is being defined, is being banned from any public campus or discourse. This was never the intention of the division of Church and State, and this calamity of culture and intelligence comes to us because we have changed the meaning of words.

Public Religion. A Public Religion is a social institution. We call it a Church.

1. A Belief in a Supreme Good. All social institutions have a supreme ideal for which they are built. One enters the social institution in order to aspire or in some way reflect to that ideal. This ideal I will call the Supreme Good, and for most religions, this supreme good is God(s). The central deity of a system is the ideological, moral, intellectual, ethical, and social perfection of that system. This god(s) is what one seeks to attain within the system. However, the supreme good of a public religion need not be a personified deity. Modern versions of Buddhism have no central deity, and the supreme good within the system is Awakening or Enlightenment. One becomes a Buddha, one does not worship a Buddha. On the other hand, in Christianity, the supreme good is God, known as Jesus Christ. One attains eminence in the Christian faith by “taking up the cross” and keeping his commandments. This is an important distinction to make: a supreme good need not be a personified being.

2. Moral Directives. These are the commandments of the religion; the “Thou shalt not’s” and the “Thou shall do’s.” These commandments or moral directives are always associated with the Supreme Good of the religion. Thus, in Buddhism, the moral directives become the Noble Eight-fold path to Enlightenment. In Christianity, the moral directives are the Ten Commandments, but especially “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” These moral directives often are associated with punishments if the moral directives are not kept. Karma is the universal return of rewards and punishments within the religion of Awakening. Christianity has the Law of the Harvest; that which you plant is what you will eventually reap.Christianity also has a Hell where people will spend eternity if they have lived sinful lives. Traditionally, Buddhism also had a kind of hell in that material existence was dreaded. In early Buddhism, the end of Enlightenment was to escape the wheel of rebirth in the material world. Some modern forms of Buddhism have altered or eliminated this idea.

These moral directives are attached to the Supreme Good and offer a form of “salvation. ” If one lives worthily, one will attain to the Supreme Good of the religion. For Buddhism, living mindfully at every moment and becoming awakened as a Buddha is the salvation of the system. For Christianity, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven is the salvation of the system.

3. Social Directives. These are the rituals and customs of the religion. These customs are instituted as a social reinforcement to the Moral Directives. One cannot simply just think or believe in something, one must do something about the belief. In organized religions, all sorts of social practices are set up to help people live the religion and keep the moral directives. Keeping with our examples, in some Buddhist traditions, monasteries are set up where participants come to together in social unity to meditate and teach. There are often communal meals. Within this monastery the new neophytes are instructed on the moral directives, how one really is to journey on the path of right thinking and doing. The new participants also often do the mundane chores of the group as a way of service and refinement. In Christianity, weekly meetings or worship services are attended where a priest or priestess reads from the scriptural cannon and instructs everyone on the Christian way of moral right and wrong. All kinds of other social activities are also planned,including food and clothes drives, service projects, and Bingo night. 

Further, there are many rituals which reinforce the moral directives and attaining to the supreme good. In Buddhism, meditation takes on ritual significance, as it is done repeatedly, and in the same context. In Christianity, there are all kinds of rituals, including the Eucharist and baptism, which are ritual events reenacting cosmogonic relationships. One eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ as a witness that one will be worthy of Christ; one is baptized forming a covenant of discipleship as well as enacting a ritual recitation of rebirth.

4. Hierarchy.  Every Church has a political structure with an authoritative hierarchy. These people pronounce the moral directives, oversee the social directives, and sometimes define and redefine the Supreme Good. The Pope is the leader, his Cardinal’s are his Council, and the various priests oversee the various flocks. There are Buddhist masters that acolytes seek out to learn the right path, and some Buddhist groups have a strong master-student relationship. But unlike Catholicism, which has a strong centralized political structure, some sects of Buddhism are localized around a small group, some of which have no centralized leadership. I would not call these groups, therefore, a Church. For me, a Church must have a clear authoritative hierarchy who manage the three points above.

Private Religion.

In order to define private religion I will refer to a great insight given by Carl Jung in his essay Psychology and Religion. Jung demarcates “religion” from creeds (i.e. the Church from the private religious experience.) Jung writes “Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of original religious experience” (6). For Jung, real religion is private, internalized experience, “‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (6). Again, for Jung the numinous is an involuntary condition, an external power, that causes “a peculiar alteration of consciousness” (4). Of greater importance in Jung’s thought, is the fact that this kind of religion is part of human consciousness, and that the psyche and the numinous are intimately connected. Man is more than a homo sapien, but is especially homo religiosus; the psyche has an existential drive towards meaning and some form of transcendence.

I agree with this thinking. All human beings have a belief system linked to a set of metaphysics that adumbrate a transcendent ideal. This inner world constructs, all by itself, its own forms of behaviors which reinforce this ideal. In short, every human being is a religious being, and has an interior adherence to the exterior principles of religion stated above. That is to say, every individual has a belief in a Supreme Good, and a personal belief system of the right moral actions and behaviors which support and cause to manifest that Supreme Good. Further, every human being has an idea, even if it be a vague one, of an authoritative source from which one can learn about that Supreme Good.

For me, the inner life comes down to this: a person’s  private religion is his or her habits. But not just habits of action, what people habitually do, but also and especially habits of mind and desire, what people habitually think about and want. If you study a person’s habits you will eventually see what a person worships. And in seeing that, you will also comprehend that the individual has constructed a life around that “god.”

For me there are absolutely no atheists. There are people who do not prescribe to a Church, but everyone has a belief in a god (the supreme good), even if that god is nothing but themselves. There are all kinds of gods in private religion: success, money, power, truth, goodness, reason, beauty, etc. The greatest god in this world, however, appears to be the endless worship of the self. This is an irony to be sure, for as Jung expertly explains, many people have created a system of habits (neurosis) which hide the authentic self from consciousness. In fact, many people use public religion as the exact tool to hide true enlightenment within private religion.

Religion and its Consequences.

Now, here is the thing, if you look at my definitions of religion you will see that they can be broadly applied. And this will make many people cry “foul.”

First off, I believe everyone has a religion and everyone believes in a god (their supreme good, however that is defined). Further, everyone constructs a religious program of moral beliefs, actions, and wants within their habits. What a person habitually does, thinks, and wants is their religion.

All social institutions are constructed from private religious concerns. All of them. However, often the social institutions codify those private religious concerns into public and corporate wants. In many cases, the social institutions begin inflicting the private religions of their leaders upon the consciousness and conscience of their followers.

What my definition is doing is repealing the distinction secularism made when it was birthed during the collapse of public Church control. Secular beliefs insist that “religion” is associated with a belief in a supernatural god extolled by priests and priestesses. This is a narrative that is simply looking at the dress without seeing the body it is covering. In my definition, secularism is a religion, and many secular institutions are in fact Churches. The University is a Church. The Corporate Board is a Church. Political parties and government agencies are Churches, controlled and regulated by popes, priests, and kings who are simply wearing a different dress.

Take the university system as an example. At a secular university the supreme good is “Reason”. But what is Reason? This too is vaguely defined, and is often said to be consistent, critical, and scientific thinking. But is Reason practiced on the university campus in a consistent, critical, and scientific way? Sometimes. But more often then not the answer is No. The Reason of the University is quickly swept into a culture that has moral directives that might not be consistent, critical, and scientific. There is an “enlightened” way to “think” on campus, and which reinforces the Supreme good, which is labeled Reason but in fact is nothing more than conformity to a specific ideology. This campus quickly develops social directives to reinforce the only good way to think, and soon students are protesting this or that cause or experimenting with this or that social tradition, all under the guidance of a strict authoritative academic and socio-political hierarchy.

I am not saying any of this is bad. What I am saying is it is religious. There is no educational venture that is not religious.

Many will say that education is the opposite of religion. But they have not thought things through. It is interesting to me that for countless thousands of years human beings lived within religious institutions. The whole world was nothing but various forms of theocracies throughout history, and the demarcation of the secular world is when the Church was removed from government and education.

The Church was removed, but religion was not. Why were human beings living within religious theocracies throughout all of history? Is it because they could not think of getting rid of God? If human consciousness and culture has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, why is it modern people think they can negate such extraordinary evolutionary processes the moment they dispatch of their idea of God? The argument is we no longer need theocracies because in fact we have evolved. But this sudden reorientation to secularism as an idea that religion is no longer necessary makes biological evolution nothing but a colossal trifle, a simple and stupid thing that can be picked up and put down whenever one needs.

Biological evolution, on the other hand, has encoded into the physiology and consciousness of the human being a religious pattern. Again, we are homo religiosus. We are finite beings in an infinite universe and are always speculating and creating metaphysics about our place in the universe. These speculations will always align themselves  to an array of moral and social directives focused around the ultimate meta-physic, whatever that might be. Human beings are always constructing religion.



Science and Religion: What is Science?

Both Science and Religion are words and concepts that are widely used but rarely defined. This is purposeful; the more amorphous a concept is the wider its application can be. This is also accidental; after a while the amorphous use of words become the blurry definitions people employ when they use them. If you go to any college campus and ask only the professors of the Science Department to define “science,” and the professors of the Religion Department to define “religion,” you will get a wide array of ideas, few of which will completely agree with the other in total. This is very problematic, as the drifting meaning of words can have huge consequences in how they are used in politics, law, and culture.

Let’s begin with science. It is always nice, when assessing the meaning of a word, to look it up in a dictionary, or these days, on Wikipedia. The dictionary gives several definitions linked to a branch or system of knowledge. This, however, is a dated and colloquial definition and is not how modern scientists use the word to describe what they are doing. Wikipedia’s entry is more exact: “Science […] is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe.” This definition is good, but requires some unpacking. Below I list several aspects of what modern science is and is not.

Proposition 1: Science is not just a body of knowledge, but specifically knowledge gained by reliable, predictive rules gained by repeatable and controlled experimentation. 

This definition is a modern construction, and it should be noted that the idea of science has evolved over time. Aristotle is often called the Father of Science, simply because he is the first human being who records in writing (that we know of) a systematic approach to the gathering of knowledge and the formulation of theory. But for Aristotle, the gathering of knowledge was always a subset of philosophy. Aristotle defined science as “knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.” Aristotle’s science was highly speculative and was rooted in philosophical principles for which the gathering of knowledge was employed. Instead of performing repeated and controlled experiments testing a theory in hopes of disproving it or improving it, Aristotle would start with a philosophical first cause and then collect data that showed his philosophy to be correct. In other words, this approach is almost the exact opposite of modern science.

Aristotelian science reigned for centuries, but today Aristotle’s approach is no longer considered science. This is an important point to make, because today many people, even educated people, still employ the Aristotelian method and call it science. We shall have more to say of this below in Proposition 4.

So, according to this definition, science is the act of obtaining predictive rules, or highly informative statements which can be proved and repeated. Science does not seek generalities, but particulars. Anybody can say that it will rain next month, but this is not of interest to science. Science seeks to show that it will rain in Chicago tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm. This is a high information statement that can be proven false or true. The method by which we come to this statement must be repeatable and continue to predict high information statements.

Proposition 2: Science is NOT truth.

Science does not concern itself with truth, because truth is connected with ultimate causes and eternal principles. Truth also concerns itself with generalities. Vague statements that are true are not useful to science. False statements that are precise are useful. Science does not establish the permanency or the universality that truth seeks to establish. It is an established fact that all past scientific theory and propositions have eventually been replaced with different and very often better scientific propositions. What was thought to be true in one decade is disproved in another. Science therefore does not concern itself with truth, but with testing propositions in an attempt to disprove or improve them.

Furthermore, it should be noted that many false statements have truth content. Many false scientific theories have led to the discovery of many true scientific facts. One can disprove a person’s premises, but still have not disproved his conclusions, for in fact, the premises might be wrong but the conclusions right. In fact, most of science progresses in this way: from flawed ideas and premises to more precise conclusions as the experimentation seeks to test the premises.

Proposition 3: Science is NOT induction.

It has been taught for a very long time that the scientific method consists of gathering data, and after collecting the data, summarizing a theory from it. This is called induction, and it is complete fiction. People first put forth a theory, and then seek to prove or disprove it using the data and experimentation. Science is at all times hinged to current pre-established theories, and this is why it cannot be called truth and why it can (and does) change and improve upon itself. The invention of a new theory reorients the collection of data and the way that data is interpreted.

 Proposition 4: Science concerns itself with falsifiability. That which is falsifiable is science, that which is not, is not science.

A collection of highly informative statements that cannot be tested or experimented upon is not science. A theory which explains everything is not science. Science must be able to falsify, through experimentation, a set of statements or theories. Mind you, the statements or theories may turn out to be correct, but they must be falsifiable nevertheless. All scientific progress is rooted in falsifiability.

This is a hard parameter for people to understand, for as it turns out, this parameter disqualifies most things modern people think of as science as actually being real science. There are many large scale systems (often irreducibly complex) for which there are universal theories that are used to explain them. These universal theories are thought to be scientific, but many are not falsifiable, and therefore cannot be science.

Statistics, Economics, and Psychology are three fields which are imbued with the veneer of science, but often are couched in paradigms that cannot be experimented upon or falsified. Any current statement that says, for example, that by the year 2030 the GDP will have increased by 10% due to this or that economic policy or this or that statistical analysis cannot be falsified because the year 2030 cannot be experimented upon. These are socio-political statements and not scientific ones. When Freud introduced the concept of sexual repression as the basis of all neurosis, or when Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious and psychological archetypes, they proposed universal theories that cannot be falsified. They in fact can explain any data that comes into them. Therefore, their paradigms cannot be called science.

Cosmologies are enormously difficult to falsify because they are generally couched in truth statements that seek to explain everything. Geocentrism was eventually falsified, but this took centuries because of the cosmological truth statements that everyone believed in. The idea that the circle is the most perfect geometric form and therefore all things in heaven must move in circles is falsifiable, though everyone for centuries was proving that everything in heaven moved in circles (all those epicycles of Ptolemy for example). Yet the idea that the Earth is God’s grand creation and therefore exists in the center of the universe is non-falsifiable because it deals with truth statements that cannot be experimented upon (God’s grand creation).

As it turns out, we cannot experiment on or falsify the original particle from which the universe is said to have expanded in the Big Bang, and this is why the Big Bang must always be called a Theory. We can only infer the origins of the universe. Is the Big Bang Theory science? Well I think everyone at NASA would say yes, but the question is posed is it falsifiable? Actually, it is not, at least as framed, and therefore cannot be science.

The difference is this. What can be called science in BBT cosmology is all the principles and mathematical equations that can be tested. The Cosmic Microwave Radiation Background is something that can be tested and something that can help explain the BBT. However, a flawed premises can still have correct conclusions. What cannot be tested is the conceptual framework of the origin of the universe itself. A single particle that contains all the matter in the universe is not falsifiable, and therefore must remain philosophy.

What about Climate Change?  As science it must be experimented on, debated, refuted, proved, etc. Many mathematical models are being employed to do just that. However, any contrary models are being expunged. As an environmentalist, I support smart environmental policy. As an academic, I cringe when good scientific method is shortchanged by cultural and political expediency. History has shown that, even if the science is right, shortcuts in science lead to terrible suffering. Many academic papers trend to incorporate all data within their own frameworks, and as a result all weather events are made to explain climate change. This is dangerous, for it makes the theory unfalsifiable, and according to Science 101, this turns the theory into philosophy. Wed to political expediency, such a philosophy can take wide and destructive turns.

By now you can see that I am getting into real trouble. And yes, there are scores of educated academics that would disagree. But science doesn’t care. Science does not concern itself with truth. Science does not concern itself with values. Science does not concern itself with policy. Human being do, and they should. But science is simply a method of investigation which requires strict adherence to data collection and experimentation  which is always trying to disprove itself. We human beings almost always do the exact opposite, we are always trying to prove our views. There are no sacred cows in science, despite the fact that so many scientists have sacred cows and call them science.

I am not saying that science should not be used to examine our truth claims, or our values, or to inform our social policies. Of course it should. What I am saying is that science is a methodology to gain knowledge; it is not a worldview, nor is it a system for its social application. This is where philosophy, ethics, and religion comes in. Science can help build the worldview, but the worldview itself is something different than science, because worldviews have mixed within them all sorts of value statements that ultimately cannot be tested, proved, or remain un-examined.

Why is any of this important? Because, in our post-modern age, people in every sector of society are claiming that their worldviews are the ultimate truth and are doing so in the name of science. It is a good thing to know, right up front, that science has no claim on the ultimate truth.