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16 February 2009

The science of faith

Many familiar religious concepts are in conflict with our contemporary body of scientific knowledge.

By David Hillstrom

For most people the idea of a scientific analysis of faith will sound like an oxymoron. Indeed for many the mere thought will be abhorrent. But I would suggest that there are a few strands of analysis that offer some interesting insights. Hopefully these insights may even be palatable to the faithful.

First it is fairly evident that religious concepts are structured as myths. By that I do not mean simplistically to contend that they are false. Rather I mean to say that religious beliefs supply a contextual framework (usually a creation story) that culminates in a view that places humans at the centre of creation; they also evoke a purpose for human existence.

They also provide rituals that serve to reinforce those beliefs. This pattern is consistent with that of myths. Myths, as the author Karen Armstrong has pointed out, are endemic in human societies. So they apparently perform a function. In fact even myths that have been discarded, e.g. Greek mythology, continue to offer both meaningful stories and symbolism for timeless works of art.

The second consideration is that we can demonstrate that religions have developed through a process of historical syncretism.

One of the best examples of this perspective is a scholarly work by James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible. This excellent book shows that many of the stories from the Old Testament have antecedents in Mesopotamian mythology. For example the story of Noah and the flood was preceded by the epic of Gilgamesh.

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Kugel also portrays the changes in the concept of God through progressive chapters of the Bible and explains the evidence that the Bible was written by multiple authors steeped in varying interpretive traditions.

The above points are generally accepted by many liberal theologians. However, the third perspective that I will now present may be somewhat less agreeable. There is a fundamental problem with religious beliefs that goes beyond agnosticism.

Many familiar religious concepts are in conflict with our contemporary body of scientific knowledge. An anthropocentric view of human existence, which places us at the centre of creation, appears as exceptionally narrow given our current scientific theories of the universe and of evolution.

And concepts of a soul and an afterlife look fanciful at best in light of those theories of mind that are consistent with contemporary neurological science. The brain is the necessary organ of thought; when the physical brain dies our thoughts evidently will cease.

Of course one could ask, “So what?” Many may respond that science is science and faith is faith. These are two different and distinct realms of the human spirit. James Kugel concludes his scholarly treatise with a chapter explaining why he remains an Orthodox Jew.

I on the other hand once wrote a couple of verses of poetry, Doubt drags its fingers through my hair / Tears holes in all belief. My personal bias is that we must not deny or even discount the knowledge that we have painstakingly amassed. As well I feel we should strive not to compartmentalise our minds.

David Hillstrom is author of The Bridge a new look at philosophy, science and religion

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