Religion And Explanation

Although the primary function of religion is to mediate between people and the gods or forces beyond everyday existence, it may additionally provide explanations of the natural world. In many human societies, natural phenomena are frequently explained by reference to supernatural causation. The sun shines or rain falls, but some sort of personal causation is involved in producing this effect. For example, the Brazilian Kuikuru people "know it was the wind that blew the roof off a house, but they carry the search for explanation one step further and ask, 'Who sent the wind?'" A human or spirit personality "had to direct the natural force of the wind to produce its effect" (Carneiro 1983). Sickness; death; meteorological phenomena such as rain or tornadoes; the existence and location of mountains and other landforms; earthquakes; volcanoes; the passage of seasons; and the positions of the sun, stars, and planets also frequently have religiously based explanations. In fact, for most people living in tribal, nonindustrial settings, the natural world and the spiritual world are not divided but are blended, in contrast to the modern Western cultural view.

In earlier times in Western society, it was common for biblical statements about the natural world to be accepted as authoritative and for God to be viewed as the direct cause of natural events. If plague struck a community or if a comet blazed across the sky, the event was attributed to the direct action of God, specially intervening in God's created world. Gradually, though, some of these statements in the Bible were discarded as they were found to be inaccurate—for example, that Earth is a circle (reflecting early civilization's belief that the world was disk shaped rather than spherical). Livestock breeders found that coat color in cattle was not affected by watering them at troughs in which peeled sticks had been placed (as claimed in Genesis 30:35-39), and thus the Bible came to be taken less as a source of information about the natural world and more as a guide to understanding the relationship of man to God. St. Augustine, among other early church leaders, argued in the fourth and fifth centuries that it was bad theology to accept biblical statements about the natural world uncritically if such statements contradicted experience. He felt that too-strict adherence to biblical literalism regarding statements about the natural world would diminish the credibility of proselytizers:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, while presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. ...If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about the Scriptures, how then are they going to believe those Scriptures in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven? How indeed, when they think that their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (Augustine 1982: 42-43)

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, science was developing as a methodology of knowing about the natural world. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was regarded equally as a means to understand the mind of God and a means to understand the natural world. A considerable increase in knowledge about the natural world was obtained through the systematic methodology of science, in which natural phenomena were explained as instances of natural laws or theories. God was by no means ignored, but the focus was on discovering the laws that God had created. Isaac Newton, for example, was a highly religious man who sought to discover the natural laws by which God governed the universe. He felt that a God who worked through his created natural laws was a God more worthy of awe and worship than one who constantly intervened to maintain the universe. To Newton, God was more awesome if God caused planets to orbit about the sun using gravity than if God directly suspended them. Of course, as an omnipotent being, God could intervene at any time in the operation of the universe—miracles were possible—but it was not considered blasphemous to conclude that God acted through secondary causes (interpreted to be God's laws).

By the mid-nineteenth century, the success of science as a way of understanding the natural world was clear. It was possible to explain geological strata, for example, by reference to observable forces of deposition, erosion, volcanism, and other processes rather than by reliance on the direct hand of God to have formed the layers. By the late nineteenth century, science was well on its way to avoiding even the occasional reliance on God as immediate cause and to invoking only natural causes in explaining natural phenomena. This change in emphasis occurred not because of any animosity toward religion; rather, limiting science only to natural causes came about because it worked: a great deal was learned about the natural world by applying materialist (matter, energy, and their interactions) explanations.

Twentieth- and twenty-first-century scientists limit themselves to explaining natural phenomena using only natural causes for another practical reason: if a scientist is "allowed" to refer to God as a direct causal force, then there is no reason to continue looking for a natural explanation. Scientific explanation screeches to a halt. If there were a natural explanation, perhaps unknown or not yet able to be studied given technological limits or inadequate theory, then it would never be discovered if scientists, giving up in despair, invoked the supernatural. Scientists are quite used to saying, "I don't know yet."

But perhaps the most important reason scientists restrict themselves to natural explanations is that the methods of science are inadequate to test explanations involving supernatural forces. Recall that one of the hallmarks of science is the ability to hold constant some variables to be able to test the role of others. If indeed there is an omnipotent force that intervenes in the material world, by definition it is not possible to control for—to hold constant—its actions. As one wag put it, "You can't put God in a test tube"; and, one must add, you can't keep God out of one, either. Such is the nature of omnipotence—by definition. So, because God is unconstrained, any test of an explanation that involves God would be impossible to set up: all results or outcomes of the test are compatible with God's acts.

As a result, scientists do not consider supernatural explanations scientific. We will encounter a contrary opinion when we discuss intelligent design. Of course, limiting scientific explanation to natural causes has been extraordinarily fruitful. In the spirit of the adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," scientists continue to seek explanations in natural processes when doing science, whether they are believers or nonbelievers in an omnipotent power.

A topic to which we will return at the end of the chapter concerns a difference between a rule of science and a philosophical view—between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. We have been discussing a rule of science that requires that scientific explanations use only material (matter, energy, and their interaction) cause; this is known as methodological naturalism. To go beyond methodological naturalism to claim that the universe consists only of matter and energy—that is, that there is no God or, more generally, no supernatural entities—is philosophical naturalism. The two views are logically decoupled because one can be a methodological naturalist but not accept naturalism as a philosophy. Scientists who are theists are examples: in their scientific work they explain natural phenomena in terms of natural causes, even if in their personal lives they believe in God, and even that God may intervene in nature.

Christianity and many other religions rely at least in part on truth revealed from God. When a revelation-based claim about the natural world is made, it may come into conflict with knowledge gained from experience—as St. Augustine described in the quote earlier in this chapter. A classic example of revealed truth conflicting with scientific interpretation is the seventeenth-century debate regarding the relationship of Earth to the other planets and the sun. Traditionally, the Bible was interpreted as reflecting a geocentric, or Earth centered, model of the universe. The sun and the other planets revolved around Earth. Early astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo challenged the geocentric view, based on their empirical observations, inferences, and mathematical calculations, holding instead the heliocentric view that Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church rejected these conclusions partly on scientific grounds, but primarily because heliocentrism contradicted the accepted interpretation of the Bible that Earth had to be the center of the universe. God had created humankind to worship him, and, in turn, had made the whole universe for us. Because Earth was the place where human beings lived, logically it would be the center of the universe. Bible passages such as Joshua 10:12-13 reinforced this view. In this passage, Joshua requests God to lengthen the day so his soldiers might win on the battlefield; God lengthens the day by stopping the sun, reflecting the geocentric model of the universe extant when the book of Joshua was set down. Although at one time, heliocentrism was considered blasphemous, today only a tiny fraction of Christians interpret the Bible as a geocentric document; for the vast majority of Christians, it is no longer necessary to interpret the Bible as presenting a geocentric cosmology.

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