Science and religion

I’ve never been able to clearly articulate why it irritates me so much when people want a nice, tidy, clinical objective proof of whatever Weird Stuff is going on in their lives (I admit I’d like “real” evidence, because I think it would be awesome, and I’d like to know what’s going on in a way that physics and/or biology could explain, but I don’t feel I need it), or when people who have a strongly science-only, atheist/agnostic viewpoint refuse to accept anything as valid unless it can have that kind of proof, but I think this says it nicely.

Claiming scientific backing or proof for spiritual ideas where none exists isn’t just bad science, it’s also bad religion.

Why do we even bother with this? Why is it important that our beliefs are validated by science? Few accept the authority of the Bible or the Church or of governments – we want to see proof. We want studies and data and the incontrovertible evidence that exists more in TV crime dramas than in real laboratories. Science has become the arbiter of truth in our materialistic society and we want science to bless our religion.

At the root of this desire is the idea that the only truth worth having is the kind of truth science can validate, that the only knowledge is literal, material knowledge. This is why fundamentalists insist the Bible is literally true – if it’s not literally true then they think it’s worthless. They ignore the value of mythical and mystical truth.

When we look for science to affirm our conversations with nature spirits we devalue mystical experiences. When we look for science to affirm our communion with goddesses and gods we devalue mythical experiences. When we look for science to affirm after-death communication we devalue spiritual experiences.

Emphasis mine.

I have similar “grr argh!” feelings about people who refuse to accept personal experiences or knowledge of deities/other spirits (call it UPG or whatever you want) as worthy of consideration as even potentially valid UNLESS they match up with one of the few scraps of historical “evidence” we have of what people used to believe/know about our gods. I know accepting personal experiences/knowledge as “true” is a complicated thing, and I think that’s good, I don’t think people should instantly rush to accept every bit of personal experience as universally true or useful – but I often see a similar sort of reliance on the printed word as The Only Valid Truth There Is as I see in accepting scientific evidence as The Only Valid Truth. (Because of course there’s no bias in the academy or the printing world that might affect what gets published.)

I value science, and I value historical documents and scholarly analysis of documents and historical evidence, but I do not think they are the most truest highest purest forms of truth there are when it comes to religion or faith or spirituality or interacting with spirits, etc.

(There’s probably something to be said about what this need for Science says about our culture’s generally materialistic worldview; someone has no doubt written a great study or even just a good rant about how this is related to all the other shitty things going on in the world, but that someone, alas, is not me, I’m just a cranky anti-capitalist.)


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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3 Responses to Science and religion

  1. Myriad says:

    I think “bad science makes bad religion” is very true. Not only do we not need hard evidence, but in fact, I’d argue that what remains in the presence of proof is not religion at all. I don’t know what place exactly the concept of faith has in your everyday practice; for me, faith is the core “business”, and faith kinda ceases to exist if you get scientific proof into the equation.

    And that would be bad, because if anything has been asked of me from my Fulltrúi, faith is among the most valued (by Him!) gifts I give Him. So there—it’s not only that we don’t need hard evidence, but that hard evidence would sabotage the very practice, since faith cannot exist in its presence.

    [I use the word “faith” in its modern sense, not the original Latin military-fealty meaning—apparently one needs to make this distinction, lest some stray ancient Romans who read online blogs misunderstand one. (Seriously, this came up in a discussion on fb!!). Nevermind that fealty also has its place in religious/mystic experience I think, But that’s a whole different can of worms…. :-) ]

  2. I suppose it depends on what your definition of “faith” is. If you mean “trust,” then yes, that is vital to both my primary spiritual relationship/duties and, well, I suppose to all of them, now that I think about it: I trust that the gods and spirits I interact with – especially the deities and my ancestors – are acting for my and/or the greater good, so even if They (especially Loki) have me doing something that feels horrible, I trust that there is a good reason for it. And I trust They are there, even if communication is weird or flaky or rarely happens.

    In terms of “faith that the gods exist,” well, that’s important, too, but it’s about on the same level my faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, that gamma rays exist, and so on.

    I had an argument with a very non-religious person about faith, someone who thought that being religious required “faith in the unprovable,” in the sense of requiring denying you could ever prove the existence of the unseen, and that if you could objectively prove gods exist, your religion goes away. And on the one hand, of course it does require that faith, because we seem to be unable to have that objective proof, but I don’t think that having scientifically-accepted proof of the existence of non-corporeal beings would necessarily make religious/spiritual practice worthless – after all, there are still relationships to be maintained, and things to learn, and personal growth to be had, and that would be true regardless of whether you had to rely solely on your own faith that those beings exist or you had independent confirmation of it. Having no -scientific- evidence, and having murky communication, does, of course, add extra layers of faith/trust challenges, but I tend to look at divination by others as a form of outside-my-own-head proof that at least some of what I hold to be true actually IS. Especially when repeated divination turns up the same basic themes.

    (I think if stray ancient Romans can navigate the internetl, they can handle different definitions of “faith.” Wait. No. This is the internet. This would just lead to yet-another silly internet flamewar, because who takes time to think about how clearly they are communicating! or whether they’ve totally misunderstood the writer! Or, in other words, business as usual.)

    • Myriad says:

      Trust definitely is a part of what I mean, but it’s not all. Trust means, for instance: Him trusting me not to pitch a bitchfit over certain developments that He had an influence on in the past. Or me trusting Him not to screw me over beyond what is necessary or deserved (by whatever standard). In general terms, by trust I mean trusting that someone will behave in a certain way, without a priori proof that they will do so. Trust… well to make matters even more confusing: trust is the leap of faith :) I think trust is what is necessary to act on an assumption that something will be done.

      Faith… is trust that something is, even though I don’t know that something is. So yes, faith I think is intricately related to not-knowing. I don’t even mean primarily faith that They exist… that kind of assessment I would call belief.

      I believe in a lot of things that I don’t know are true, but that I still believe to be true. For instance, I believe that the classes of computational complexity, namely P and NP are non-equivalent, i.e., P is a true subset of NP. This is something quite important, since a lot of stuff relies on it (for instance cryptography), but it has not been proven. (Basically, if someone could prove P=NP, they’d be rich but would have no opportunity to savour it because it would be instant nuclear or bio-chemical apocalypse).

      Important as the non-equality of those complexity classes is, it’s not object of my faith. The object of faith is one that would affect me deeply if it were false; the object of belief, not necessarily so.

      That being said, you are of course right—even if someone turned up on your doorstep and prove to you that the Gods exist, it wouldn’t mean the end of religion. But it would mean the end of non-knowledge and thus, the end of faith in the above sense.

      The question is, how important is the part of that faith in your religion and, even more importantly, your practice. I for one have been given to understand that it’s a highly valued gift. One that I would not be able to give anymore.

      All that being said: on some level, I do envy your certainty. :)

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