On the Progressiveness of Science and Conservatism of Religion

We all know how often science and religion are pitted against each other. And it happens in so many ways. Various inherent differences are suggested between these two enterprises. They say that science appeals to reason while religion appeals to authority; science improves society while religion hinders society’s progression. We’ve all heard the fairy tales – you might not call them fairy tales, but I do. Anyway. There’s one particular difference that I commonly hear suggested as existing between science and religion, which I want to address here. And that is that science is inherently progressive, while religion is inherently stubborn or static.

What does that mean? Well I’m sure many of us have heard, somewhere along the way, an atheist boasting on behalf of the scientific community for its willingness to change its mind on things according to changing evidence, the implication being that religious communities do not do this, but rather hold on to the same doctrines for thousands of years at a time. Surely the religious are falling behind the times, no? Science has undergone innovation after innovation even in the past 100 years, to the point where scientists today view the world completely differently to scientists a century ago. And it’s all because they’re willing to change their minds when new evidence comes along. Given how much more we understand about the universe since the inception of, say, Christianity, it would seem archaic, or perhaps wilfully ignorant, for the Christian community to hold to the exact same doctrines today that it held to 2000 years ago.

Now this argument comes in many forms, and from various angles. I do not wish to deal with all of them here. Nor do I wish to offer all possible rebuttals of it in a comprehensive refutation. In this article I only wish to deal with two of the core ways this argument fails structurally – in its mishandling and misunderstanding of concepts. Before doing that, I’ll mention that, as an epistemological argument (epistemology = the philosophical inquiry into the nature and proper grounds of knowledge), it relies on certain epistemological values. Some versions of arguments like this depend on faulty epistemological values. But I have no qualm with the underlying value of the present argument. I fully adhere to it in fact. The value I refer to is that one’s ability to change their mind is one of the highest virtues in the pursuit of truth. Given the undeniable, inescapable fact, that we humans are fallible creatures, able to get stuff wrong, it is then virtuous for us to be able to acknowledge the possibility that we are wrong – on whatever we believe. In fact, I think this is a principle that the Bible itself teaches us. But we won’t go into that here.

Communities or Individuals?

Now the first conceptual error this argument could be making is that it can be interpreted to insinuate that Christians are stubborn people: that, since Christianity hasn’t changed its doctrines in 2000 years, if you bump into a Christian on the street he will probably be intellectually stubborn – unwilling to change his mind upon the presentation of new evidence. Conversely, the scientist is often portrayed by the same arguer as the quintessential example of intellectual humility – a courageous hero on the side of reason, ever fearlessly willing to see new evidence and always listening to both sides. But this dichotomy is simply confused (as well as empirically indefensible). It mixes up communities with individuals. The ability to change mind is a characteristic more aptly applied to individuals than communities. All communities are made up of individuals. Strictly speaking, communities cannot change their minds, nor can they be stubborn – they can’t even really have beliefs; such things are phenomena present at an individual level. Whatever doctrines a community may or may not “believe” over thousands of years says little about the intellectual honesty of the individuals who have been part of that community. Why? Because a religious community is defined as a group of people who believe certain doctrines. Of course, many communities are not defined according to their beliefs, such as the rowing community, or the video gaming community, or more obviously, geographical communities such as Parramatta or Nigeria. Were one of these communities, particularly geographical ones, to be unchanging in their beliefs, this may warrant criticism. My present argument does not regard them, because I am speaking of religious communities, which are defined according to beliefs, and (at least in the case of Christianity) are not bound to certain geographical locations.

As long as the Christian community has existed, it has believed roughly the same things – but whether or not the individuals who have joined and left that community within their lifetimes did so for intellectually honest reasons is another matter entirely. If a person grows up in an agnostic family, then in his university years considers and weighs up the evidence and decides to become a Christian, we can hardly accuse this individual of being intellectually stubborn just because the beliefs he has come to have been believed by a succession of people over a period of time. He does not suddenly become stubborn the moment he changes his mind from agnosticism to Christianity. The community hasn’t changed its doctrines in millennia, however individuals will buy in and out of this community for all sorts of reasons, good and bad.

The Conservatism of Christianity

But this doesn’t really settle the claim that is really being made by our secular friends. They are saying that the enterprise of science is superior to the enterprise of Christianity because the scientific community undergoes change after change, and even revolution, while the Christian community – whatever the personalities that compose it – has held onto its doctrines for thousands of years. Now this is a fact that can’t be disputed. Christianity is, in this way, a highly conservative project. Christians aim to believe, to the best of their ability, the things believed by the first Christians. Compare this to science – an endeavour whose participants feel no obligation to believe the claims of, say, Isaac Newton, who, though considered one of history’s greatest scientists, is now understood to have gotten physics basically wrong. Even the atheist’s mascot, Charles Darwin, atheists will say is largely irrelevant to the contemporary study of evolution, even though he did so much to pioneer the theory. Science is constantly reinventing itself, constantly correcting itself and gaining new understanding. Why don’t religions do this?

Christianity as a Theory

Well let me stop you right there and take a second look at this whole conversation. We are comparing science to a religion – Christianity or otherwise. But we’ve got to get our concepts in order when doing such things. We’ve got to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. The reality is, science and religion simply don’t fit into the same hole. Science is an enterprise of inquiry into certain kinds of truth (namely, the laws of nature). It utilises certain methods, as are fitted to the detection of the kinds of truth being sought after (that is, it uses repeated observation under controlled conditions in order to determine what the truth is about particular laws of nature). Inherent to the enterprise of science is the use of theories. Theories are essentially truth claims that are believed or rejected according to the evidence gathered in support or denial of them. In the scientific community, when enough evidence is found to confirm one theory, that theory tends to be adopted by the majority of scientists; when enough evidence is found that contradicts the theory, the theory is rejected. Thus science is a method of inquiry into a particular topic, or area of truth. Of course, there are other areas of truth to be investigated, using other methods: metaphysical, aesthetic, and epistemological truth is investigated with philosophical methods; historical truth is found using historical methods. In all areas of inquiry, including science, we have theories and evidence.

What then is Christianity? Is it a method of inquiry? Surely not! How could a method of investigation include so numerous and particular an index of substantive doctrines concerning everything from the creation of the universe to the ethics of sexuality to the nature of man to what happens after we die? Christianity is a comprehensive view of the world. Science is not a worldview but a framework in which we develop a part of our worldview, but science itself has no inherent doctrinal content. Note that, in stark contrast to religion, the scientific community is not defined according to its doctrines. This ought to have rung our “disanalogy” alarm bells from the outset, for we must compare apples with apples, fruits with fruits, trees with trees, methods with methods, and theories with theories. What am I saying? The reality is, science is a method of inquiry utilising theories and evidence. Christianity is a theory.

When individuals enter into or exit from the Christian religion, just as they are buying into and out of a community, they are also buying into and out of a theory. Christianity, as a particular religion, being a view of how the world is, is not analogically comparable to science as much as it is comparable to, say, the theory of relativity, molecular theory, or the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems of cosmology. These are all scientific theories, and if you’ll notice – they do not change. While every scientific theory undergoes tweaks, improvements and reforms, such changes are no less peripheral to these theories than are the changes that have been seen by Christianity. Scientific theories don’t change; they just get thrown out. This is because after a certain degree of substantial change, a theory stops being the theory it was and starts being another. If relativity were to have removed from it clauses like time dilation, the transmutability of energy and mass, and the relativity of simultaneity, it would cease to be the theory of relativity; if the Ptolemaic system were to lose its geocentrism it would cease to be the Ptolemaic system; if molecular theory were to lose claims about, well, molecules, it would cease to be molecular theory.

Why don’t all these scientific theories change?!? Is it because they’re subscribed to by conservative, stubborn traditionalists who fear change? No. It’s because changing them would be like changing a square into a circle: it’s impossible by definition. The same is true of Christianity; you can’t change Christianity lest it become something else entirely, at which point it would be silly to keep calling it Christianity. Christianity, just like relativity, Newtonian mechanics, quantum theory, and the rest, is just one understanding of the world that people over time and space have believed and disbelieved. People change; theories, by definition, do not.

Conclusion: The real question

Thus the question is not, “Why hasn’t Christianity changed?” The question is, “Why do people still believe a theory, an understanding of the universe, that was developed 2000 years ago?” That is the question. And to be sure, the answer cannot be because of anyone’s stubbornness. I have already shown why such a human character trait cannot be attributed to the Christian community, since individual people adopt and reject Christianity all the time for all kinds of reasons, both good and bad, intellectually honest and dishonest. I submit that the reason why people still believe in a 2000-year-old understanding of the universe proposed by an obscure 1st Century Galilean carpenter is because (apart from the fact that no new evidence has been found that contradicts it) this theory offers to people now, as it did then, greater insight, existential resonance, and empirical success, than even Newtonian mechanics.

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