I’m reading lots of sophisticated theology, so you’ll have to suffer along with me. It’s no surprise that many theologians—and religious people—argue that despite the fact that their religions make claims about empirical truth, they can’t be tested or falsified. That’s because they have been falsified, repeatedly, and by adopting the “no more testing” stance, the faithful have immunized their beliefs against both scrutiny and rejection.
One such theologian is an eminent scholar who was here at The University of Chicago: Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004). Famous for his beard, beads, scarf, and earring, he took them off (and shaved) only once: when he testified for the plaintiffs in the Arkansas creationist trial of McLean v. Arkansas. In that famous trial, Judge Overton handed down his eloquent decision banning the teaching of “scientific creationism” in the state’s public schools.
By all accounts Gilkey was a terrific teacher (specializing in the work of Reinhold Neibuhr) and a lovely person. He also had a colorful life—he moved to China in 1940 to teach English, for example, and during WWII was interned by the Japanese as a foreign alien. In that camp, he got to know Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner who took the gold in the 400 m run in the 1924 Olympics, and whose achievements were portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. Liddell, who had moved to China to be a missionary, died of a brain tumor in that camp, and Gilkey wrote some reminiscences.
At any rate, Gilkey wrote about his experiences in the Arkansas trial in a book I just read, Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985, Winston Press). There’s a long section in which he testified before the judge about the nature of science and the difference between science and religion—testimony that obviously impressed the judge, who threw out creationism because (as Gilkey testified) it “wasn’t science.” (Well, I think creationism was science at one time: it was an empirical explanation for the origin and diversity of life. But it was simply bad science and has been falsified. Unfortunately, you can’t legally reject bad science from the public schools, but you can reject religiously-motivated “bad science”, which is the grounds we always use.)
Anyway, Gilkey succumbs to two discredited tropes in his testimony. The first is the NOMA ploy, though Steve Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” hadn’t yet been published. Here’s a transcript of part of Gilkey’s testimony (from p. 109 in his book):
“Correspondingly, science asks objective questions, questions directed at knowledge in its strictest sense. What sorts of things are there here, or in the world? What causes what? What sort of invariable relations are there between events—what laws govern existence? If we do (a), then does (b) follow? Does it always follow? And if so, how can we explain that? Science asks how questions, questions about the character and processes of change. It seeks after laws of change, and thus it concentrates on material, universal, and necessary or automatic causes, structures, laws, and habits.
Religions asks different sorts of questions, questions about meaning. Thus religions myths, symbols, doctrines, or teachings answer these sorts of questions. Why is there anything at all, and why are things as they are? Why am I here, and who am I? Who put me here and for what purpose? What is wrong with everything, and with me? And what can set it right again? What is of real worth? Is there any basis for hope? What ought I to be and do? And where are we all going?”
There are two problems here. First of all, most of the questions in the second set can also be properly asked by philosophy or just secular curiosity, not just by theology. Second, the assertion that faith doesn’t make claims about what is real in the world and how it got there is simply wrong. That’s what the trial was about in the first place. Yet faith still makes those claims: one that’s nearly non-negotiable for Christians is the resurrection of Jesus. Any theistic claim is perforce within the ambit of science. And 78% of American still accept either straight young-earth creationism or the notion that God has guided evolution.
Second, science can actually answer some of its questions, but religion can’t. It can only offer suggestions that can’t be tested. Note that there are no definitive theological answers to the “religious” set of questions posed by Gilkey.
Gilkey’s other trope is to insulate faith from testing. Again from his testimony (pp 113-114 in his book):
“And, as we have seen, religious explanations are based on special sorts of experience, special insights or revelations, not objective, sharable experiences. Religious theories or beliefs cannot, therefore, be falsified by evidence or by new evidence.”
Really? Can’t be falsified? What about the religious “theory or belief” of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the Ark, and of the Genesis story of creation itself? All—all of them falsified. Bereft of life, they rest in peace. They are ex-beliefs.
This sort of NOMA-ism goes down well with the courts, but it doesn’t describe reality, at least in the United States. Religion makes truth claims (I have a whole file of statements from sophisticated theologians asserting that religion aims to find out what’s true and what’s real), and morality and meaning are not only not the sole purview of faith, but faith does a damn bad job of dealing with them.