A sophisticated theologian claims that religion can’t be falsified

May 15, 2012 • 5:45 am

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.

70 thoughts on “A sophisticated theologian claims that religion can’t be falsified

  1. Religions asks different sorts of questions, questions about meaning

    Questions about meaning or asking why imply that you’re already assuming an agent behind things. There doesn’t have to be a reason.

  2. Gilkey makes a major error in his statement. Religion doesn’t “ask” any sort of question, it supplies a ready made answer: God did it. There is no questioning, no search, no attempt to understand “why [there is] anything at all” or “who put [you] here”. The answer is always the same. It’s one of the worst parts of religion: rather than asking questions it cuts them off, gives a horrible answer, and punishes people who don’t accept it.

    1. I agree that it is one of the worst parts of religion. I like how you inserted the [you] to replace Gilkey’s “I”. The “I” makes christians seem more innocent than they really are when they also think they know the answers for [you] and [they] as well. Just by inserting [you] and [they] into Gilkey’s list of “I” questions its possible to sense the inherent problems with thinking they have answers, when all they are actually doing is wildly speculating. Just by christians thinking they know instead of knowing they are speculating they create problems.

      1. Your reply made me think, maybe religion does ask at least one question: “What did I do wrong?” Or, if they’re a particularly fundamentalist version of their faith, “What did *you* do wrong?”

    2. “Religion doesn’t “ask” any sort of question, it supplies a ready made answer.”

      QFT. But I don’t see NOMA challenged in this most apt manner very often. Usually we claim that science can so answer the questions traditionally reserved for religion. And that’s all fine and dandy, but I think your argument is even more incisive.

      1. Thank you. I think it’s important to notice that the religious often get the tense wrong. Science *can* answer questions, religion *has answered* questions. And often gotten those answers wrong. But either way, there’s no reason to believe that the pre-packaged answers are any more correct to new questions (or new questioners asking about things they don’t know) than they were to old ones.

    3. I heartily agree…. if religion was about anything other than indoctrination, you wouldn’t see so many stories that go “I was religious, but I asked to many questions and they told me to stop.”

      I think the only people in religion who actually are asking questions are the ones who found them, and I think that’s only because a good way to seem smart is to ask hard questions and then supply your canned answers authoritatively.

  3. Science asks how questions… Religions asks different sorts of questions, questions about meaning.

    The distinction between how and why questions is not very deep. “Why does God punish people by making them sick?,” after it is processed with a little science, can become “How do germs and genes explain the bulk of human illness?”

  4. ““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.””

    Pretty damn funny when theists try to claim that those *other* religions are wrong all of the time.

    1. An excellent point. His statement is silly. Maybe you can’t use an instrument to measure “special sorts of experience” but you can certainly compare what different people experience. If Mary says we are here to love Jesus and John says we are here to obey Allah, they can’t both be right.

    2. Yes. If you think of revelation as a detector, Gilky’s complaint amounts to saying that we have no right to complain about its accuracy, since the objective value isn’t available to us.

      Which may be true. But we can certainly point out that its horribly, horribly imprecise. 6 Billion people use this detector to measure the same thing, and 6 billion people get back different answers.

      1. Does it improve the argument if the actual figure is currently estimated at 7.013 billion?

  5. Theology is what happens when people try to talk themselves back into belief.

    But I’m curious, why are you spending precious time reading this second-rate stuff? Life is so short, and science is so much more rewarding and interesting!

    1. “Theology is what happens when people try to talk themselves back into belief.” – that’s good.

    2. I actually appreciate Jerry’s efforts – his posts on “sophisticated theology” have been fascinating. (He’s diving onto the grenade, as it were, to spare the rest of us. ;))

      It occurs to me that there might be enough material for a book: “How Do You Know That?” – A Scientist Investigates Theology.

      1. Subtitle: “When you were a child you reasoned like a child. When you became an adult, why didn’t you give up childish things?”

      2. But theology isn’t really a grenade, or a sword or anything of substance, it’s just a cloud of obfuscation and circular reasoning. Those things that look like arguments are just props. In fact debating theology seems a lot like attending an amateur dramatic performance. Unless a family member is involved, why would you do it?

      3. If anyone is so bold as to write such a book, be sure to read both Spinoza and Thomas Paine, as they both contain important insights into the question of first hand experience and second hand.

    3. I certainly appreciate Jerry falling on the sword of theology for us, if just to give us an objective eye at the stuff. I remember trying to read some of the more theological books in my church library when I was younger, and it all just seemed like obtuse nonsense… its nice to see that mostly is.

  6. Religions asks different sorts of questions, questions about meaning. […] 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?

    I still contend that “why” questions are really “how” questions.

    The “who” question above assumes an agent out there, which IMO makes it a specious question. “Where are we all going?” is about the same.
    The question about everything being wrong is just ridiculous; and sad.

    1. What steams my onions about religidiots who think they are answering “why” questions is that their answers are as shallow as the questions are pointless. How, e.g., is “God” an adequate answer to a question like why are we here? What is a deity’s purpose?

      1. At dinner with some friends a while back I was asked why I thought I was “here”.
        I gave a simple answer that my parents had sex and produced me, their parents had them…and so on.

        She responded with something like, “No, WHY are you here?”. I really didn’t get what was wrong with my answer and she didn’t get how simple it really is. And people tell me I think too much.

        1. You should have answered: “I’m here for an approx 70-year exam, the result of which will determine where I will spend the rest of infinity of years.”

        1. Your /r9k/ term is a year old now and may already be trending down. Time to start looking for a new one.

  7. It’s true that specific religious claims and beliefs — Adam&Steve, Noah’s boat, God Allsmitey creating the world in a week — have been thoroughly falsified.

    But the fuzzier claims — “God” exists, for example — remain out of reach. I don’t mind that the god-blatherers play this game of NOMA, but I wish they would admit that their beliefs — precisely because they can’t be tested — are, as the philosophers say, not justified beliefs and therefore cannot be considered “knowledge.”

    1. But are the “fuzzier claims” like God really untestable and unfalsifiable? Or is that only an immunizing strategy, rather than a defining characteristic?

      Ask the simple question: what would believers do if some extraordinary events and discoveries were made, and a reasonable person would characterize this as “science finds God?”

      Would the believers celebrate, feel vindicated, and expect an honest atheist to at last admit that they were wrong and the theists were right?

      Or would they shake their heads, shrug their shoulders, and hasten to reassure the atheist that the evidence can safely be ignored because science doesn’t deal with divine issues?

      We know damn well where they’d come down. God is no more inherently unfalsifiable than dowsing is. If the dowser passes a fair test, then dowsing works; if the dowser fails the test, then apparently dowsing isn’t the sort of thing science can deal with.

      Oh, spare me. ..

      1. But are the “fuzzier claims” like God really untestable and unfalsifiable?

        Yes, the are. And they remain so until someone unfuzzes the claims by larding them up with attributes that are within science’s reach.

        Okay, you’re spared now.

        1. Frankly, I fail to see why they should be even *considered* as being worthy of scientific attention. Why give Christianity’s stories more consideration than Scientology or Mormonism? Because they’re older? *All* of them are made up fairy stories without a *shred* of real evidence and, more importantly, since they’re made up there *never will* be any. Besides, everyone knows “The Silmarillion” is the only *true* history and that Tolkein was a prophet.

          1. Ironically, there actually is a religious group in the USA centered on Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

      2. They will be sad that there is no longer any need for faith since the existence of a god has been shown beyond any reasonable doubt and no longer ambiguous as before.
        Furthermore, by showing himself he has violated their free will, leaving them no other choice but to believe in his existence. And having violated your free will in that fashion is worse than going to hell.

        Ah no, wait, I’d say they’ll crank up the schadenfreude over the fact that they could really stick it to us evil atheists. There will be a lot of hollering and cackling and Walter-Huston-dancing while we are eating crow.

  8. “I’m reading lots of sophisticated theology” – really, I appreciate that you do this on our behalf as I for one would find it difficult to justify spending precious hours on that subject when I could more profitably be watching paint dry!

    I am with you on the how/why question issue. ‘Why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing?’ etc seem to be valid scientific questions to me. Equally religion has as you say made plenty of (absurd) claims for how things happen. The christians believe that miracles happened & that a partial god/man was born by the intervention of another manifestation of their god & then at a certain point died but then came alive, all the way offering (feeble) religious explanations. Most airport novels have more meaning & value.

  9. religion is evolutionary much older than science and as such it has a much deeper cultural roots than science

    it does not serve humanity well but that is how life is

    science will only be embraced by a subset of population for as long as the system can support overpopulation

    at some point the downward spiral of population attrition in response to dimishing carrying capacity will begin and will not end before science as oposed to “faith” and “belief” become the shepherd of human condition

    only science can be the basis for sustainability and it is therefore reasonable to think that over evolutionary long jhorizon only science will “survive”

    the point in the future when that happens from our today probably can be called “extinction of homo sapiens sapiens” but i prefer to call that subspeciation of homo sapiens sapienss into homo cogitans; that is the subspeciation of “arrogantly knowing” man into “thinking and heuristically adjusting” man

    1. aboc zed, I believe you are in error.

      Living beings use the principles of Science even without being human (watch a racoon fiddle with mechanisms sometime). The feedback loop of make an action, observe the result, make another action based on the observation — that is doing Science!

      This happened loooooooooooong before religion appeared on the scene.

      1. i may be wrong but i suspect you are talking about “accumulation of knowledge” being evolutionary “older” than religion – yes that is the case because the process of evolution of life can be viewed as accumulation of information and “fitness” being the product of that process

        I was talking about the realm of “human condition” – the phenomenon that can only be attributable to evolutionary process _after_ most recent adaptation of “deliberative capability” – genetic property of anthropoids that is behind “primitive beliefs of religion” and “science” as well

        clearly the condition of overshoot and inability of mankind to achieve eusociality beyond the scale of nuclear family is the reason to think that evolution of deliberative capability continues

        the next 100 or 200 years over which the population bottleneck unrevels will provide necessary pressures for mankind to go to the next level which would mean sustainability or keep on ignorantly messing up with evolutionary process until the total population dwindles to the levels that have minimal impact on planetary dynamics

        there is no middle ground – we either learn and become sustainable or we will knock out the stool from under ourselves and will be non-issue

        religion is opium for the masses – masses are asleep and as such will be drowned by the tsunami of extreme weather events, lack of food, war, desease and general unpreparedness to live only on the energy provided by sun without supplementation of stored sunshine in the form of fossil fuel

  10. Calling religion a theory striving for truth in life is ludacras. You can not call something a theory or even truth when it is built on irrefutable dogma. Something can not be called a theory when the only validating evidence is that the very theory itself says that it is true. Religion is an intriguing study in logical fallacies gone amok.

  11. Religious theories or beliefs cannot, therefore, be falsified by evidence or by new evidence.

    So the Mormon belief that native Americans are descended from one of the Lost Tribes of Israel is not subject to falsification through genetic or archeological evidence?

    The belief of various apocalyptic sects that the world would end at various times in the past is not an example of falsifying their belief?

    Heck, even the Bible gives examples of empirically demonstrating the superiority of the Jewish god over other local deities (see, e.g., 1 Kings 18:21-39).

    1. Recent studies of population DNA has shown that, contrary to Mormon teachings, the Polynesians are not related to American Indians. [I know I’ve got the “Polynesian” part right, but not being intimately familiar with Mormon nonsense, may have made a mistake in the “American Indian” part.]

      There have been reports that as this news has spread throughout Polynesia, the Mormon church there has lost members.

      Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the same thing has been discrepancy has been demonstrated about the claim that American Indians are lost Israelites.

      Poor ol’ mormons! The geography implicit in the fabulations of the Book of Mormon has no recognizable relation to the actual geography of the Americas. There is no archaelogical trace of the civilizations that Joseph Smith fabulated. The BoM is full of anachronisms in its descriptions of pre-Columbian New World societies: horses, iron, any number of other sillinesses.

      At least the RCC has one advantage over LDS: while RCC is founded on a rock, the LDS is founded on sand. Cue appropriate biblical quotes.

  12. Other things that never happened:

    3 guys getting out alive after being thrown into a fiery furnace.

    A mass exodus of slaves from Egypt to Palestine (Hint: Palestine was part of Egypt at the time).

    A massive tower built to reach “heaven”.

    A talking donkey.

    A guy being eaten whole by a giant fish (or a whale) and being spat out alive after 3 days.

    …and on and on.

    The entire bible is nothing more than a collection of “just so” myths, revisionist Jewish history, and dietary guidelines for people with no ice. Along with a primitive moral code in a time when strangers and women were considered property or potential property.

    To say you can’t put any of this to an empirical test is just plain nonsense.

  13. When a religions goes to such extreme care to make certain that their gods are untestable their assertions are no more grounded in truth than Bertrand Russell’s example of a hypothetical claim that an undetectable celestrial teapot is orbiting the Sun.

  14. I’d have to go through the transcripts again, but this sounds an awful lot like some of K. Miller’s testimony in Dover, as well.

  15. I am at best an amateur philosopher, but even I know that being unfalsifiable is excellent grounds for dismissing a theory. Unfalsifiable means unverifiable, which means the truth of such a claim can never be assessed. Such claims are at best fiction and at worst deception.

    I read the title of the post as something like: “A sophisticated theologian claims religion is indistinguishable from something completely made up.” Even if he managed to support his position, which he could not, his conclusion defeats him anyway.

  16. Religion asks no questions. Read any holy text. It is all answers.

    Shame philosophers and theologians are too stupid to understand this fundamental point. But it must be hard to have a job where you can’t just jack off your brain on a daily basis.

  17. To be fair, Gilkey seems to making these arguments to support the position that creationism cannot be allowed in the science classroom.

  18. Religious theories or beliefs cannot, therefore, be falsified by evidence or by new evidence.

    Mark Twain put this more directly: “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  19. Slightly OT, but has anyone read Gilkey’s book about his POW experiences? It’s Shantung Compound . Horrific yet fascinating.

  20. Any theistic claim is perforce within the ambit of science.

    Oh I git it. Yu atehists jus wanna kill all us chiristians using lazer ray guns.

    (Seriously though, I’ve never seen better wording of that particular point. So precise and economical. Well done, Professor Coyne! I’m using it from now on.)

  21. You want a “sophisticated theologian?”

    How about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He wrote that singing in harmony was a sn. Life Together, The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community


    1. He doesn’t say its a sin, just that’s its needlessly show-offy. But it is a rather silly statement.

  22. Gilkey gets a mention in Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” in which Sagan takes him to task for misunderstanding what scientists mean by laws of physics, though Sagan seemed to like Gilkey’s overall spirit.

    Ironically, it is really Eastern religions more than Western that confine themselves to strictly metaphyisical propositions without making specific historical claims. Liberal theologians all seem to !*wish*! that Western religions were more like Eastern ones and do so by making all the traditional beliefs just metaphor and symbol.

    I met Gilkey at his summer home when I was in junior high school. We had both just seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” (this was 1968) and were in agreement it was the most wonderful movie we had ever seen.

    1. In my experience the Eastern religions tend to make lots of claims about innate human paranormal abilities and miracle doing. Wise old Gurus and their disciples love asking questions about the world and assuming their pet answer wins when you don’t have a ready reply. Questions like “why don’t newborn babies eat meat”, for example,. Failure to provide them an off-the-cuff answer is taken as proof of the vegetarian nature of us peeps. There’s no attempt on their part to actually look for answers. I’ve often had friends show me internet clips of paranormal acts and put the onus on me to explain them. They make no attempt to do the research themselves, preferring to believe by default.

      1. There’s a lot of miracle belief in Eastern religions (especially in Indian ones- a bit less in the Far East), but they don’t seem to be elevated to the status of dogma- they’re easier to disconnect from the core ideas.

        On the other hand, the ones that get the most hype in the West are the ones that don’t have as much of the miraculous, leaving out Shintoism, so you probably have a point there.

  23. One thing is not like the other?

    Why is grass green?
    How is grass green?
    Why did you buy that ugly shirt?
    How did you buy that ugly shirt?
    Why is there something rather than nothing?
    How is there something rather than nothing?

    I don’t like why-questions…

  24. James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” carefully traces the origins of religion to the magic beliefs of early man. Hence we can make the equation

    religion ≡ magic

    Now magic makes specific claims: sacrifice a black cock in such-and-such way at thus-and-so place and time, and umpty-ump will happen. Except that it doesn’t. Hence magic, and by implication, religion is falsified.

    More modern falsification: recent tests of the efficacy of prayer on the recovery of hospital patients concluded that patients who were prayed for recovered more slowly.

    Slightly funny falsification: After a particularly damaging wave of tornados swept the south, various mouthpieces for Dog claimed it was because of some sin on somebody’s part. Minor detail: the areas hit the hardest are molto religioso. Dog sure has bad aim.

    1. Minor detail: the areas hit the hardest are molto religioso. Dog sure has bad aim.

      Well, that also explains why most religions are so adamant on punishing blasphemy.
      If they don’t kill the blasphemer (or at least punish him in a somewhat less draconian fashion in more enlightened societies) then their god might deem it necessary to take care of this himself.
      And with his bad aim collateral damage is almost inevitable. Worse yet, he may even miss the miscreant but still harm or even kill a lot of innocent bystanders.

  25. I’ve been reading about a hypothesis about how we reason and why. It proposes that reasoning evolved as an aspect of communication, to persuade others, and not to improve knowlege and make better decisions.
    They claim it is not a just so story as it better fits the evidence that has been mounting up and is empirically testable.

    It is based on a dual process understanding of cognition that distinguishes between intuitions and reason.
    So you have al these inferential mechanisms that are domain specific, and function unconsciously. People reach conclusions, which are the outputs of inferential processes, with no awareness of the process.
    These would be the intuitive beliefs. We can reflect on those beliefs and be aware of reasons to hold them, such as authority, or consistency with prior beliefs.
    This covers the revelations and special insights Gilkey talks about.
    Reasoning comes in when you need to persuade or convince others of this ‘intuitive knowledge’, and is motivated reasoning.
    From the point of view of the evolved function of reason being argumentative, cognitive biases are what you’d expect. It is only if you work from the supposition that reason’s function is to clarify the truth of things that cognitive biases are flaws. If it evolved to persuade others then confirmation bias, etc. are what you would expect.

    If this approach bears out as a good explanation of the origins of reason, along with the unconscious inferential mechanisms generating beliefs as evolved, it easily accounts for how religious revelations and insights are such a common human feature.

  26. The only reason that religion can’t be ‘falsified’ is that it already is false. That is to say it has nothing to do with the reality it claims to represent. The only question is: is anything true, yes but not from any existing tradition or theology!

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence. Ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our moral compass with the Divine, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,

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