Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Churches, Science, and "Truth" Claims

'True information' from religious prophets about the present and future affairs of human civilization hasn't been very forthcoming as of late.

While at a theology conference, I heard a well-received bible scholar claim that the mission of the church is "truth telling." Alas, if only it were true. The problems with such an optimistic view of what information churches (or religious groups in general) supposedly dispense are many.

First, as is well attested in history, churches have made empirically false claims about the present state of affairs, and these being supposedly based on some exclusive channel of information (something called, "special revelation") For example, the Roman Catholic Church during the Medieval times is well known for clashing with Galileo on the structure of the solar system. Their theologians had apparently gotten it right (via special revelation to a Pope) that the Earth, not the Sun, was at the center. But that didn't turn out to be so accurate. As a more recent example, the Seventh Day Adventists and conservative baptist churches worry themselves (unnecessarily, of course) about the earth being 6,000 years old and about why Evolution must be false, though these are (bad) deductions from certain woodenly literal ways of reading the bible. Thus, their mistake is to draw deductions from (allegedly) special revelatory information encoded into biblical manuscripts, information imparted by God to the original authors on scientific topics. Those geology and biology claims are not turning out well, either, for conservative churches.

Second, even if some churches have a set of specially revealed truths, their members do not have a trustworthy method for verifying such truths in the public arena. Unlike Science, there are no reproducible methods, nor ways to quantify evidence for the various churches' claims for truth. In fact, when empirical claims are made, such as for the efficacy of prayer for healing diseases, every well-structured study has shown no cause-effect links between these claims and disease healing rates. (The most famous and well-designed one even showed a lower than expected link for heart patients.) To be accurate, however, some prayers can have benevolent effects on people's health, since they are likely (from what we can tell) particular (and benevolent) occurrences of placebo effects, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Third, leaders of churches seem especially worried about ethical truths (even more so when these concern what people do when naked.) But ethical truths are most acutely the kinds which are controversial and nebulous everywhere; for, they are not open, or at least not obviously open, to resolution on scientific grounds. (There are no Geiger counters for goodness or wickedness, for example. This is most fortunate for politicians.) But that leaders of churches would camp on ethical issues is understandable, since churches have been embarrassed by making what turned out to be false claims about empirical truths in the past, as was noted earlier.  Happily for preachers and spiritual advisers everywhere, it's far more difficult to show that certain ethical principles are outright false (as compared to empirical claims), if such can even be shown for ethical claims at all.

Finally, in terms of actionable future information, note how in the present time that no revelation-filled prophets have arisen among various religious leaders to offer solutions to pressing contemporary problems (i.e., as regards cheap engineering techniques for world energy needs; safe methods for genetically modifying plants for plentiful food supply, etc.)  Surely a great alleviation of suffering could have already been accomplished if key aspects of (almost-here-anyway) technologies would have been revealed from a few prophets reporting information communicated from the On High.  Furthermore believers claim that in biblical times prophets often foretold dire political and economic events.   Contrast this with foretelling today -- although two or three economists were (after the fact) found on record to have been clanging a warning cymbal about the possibility of the current Great Recession, every Christian and Islamic group that I'm aware of was caught flat-footed and suffered great financial loss, as did virtually everyone else. Thus, the very religious organizations which hold the possibility and precedent of prophets appearing always seem to be fresh out of them when the need is greatest!

Therefore, as an overall assessment, it is hardly surprising that people competent in assessing evidence find such pious announcements concerning "truth telling" (whether of the present or future variety) by religious leaders unconvincing.  Granted, sometimes truths are uttered by the pious.  But holding positions, even correct positions, for non sequitur or just plain bad reasons is either an indication of 1) luck, 2) ignorance, or social or political maneuverings--and that's a truth worth noting!


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