Posted by: dacalu | 2 October 2010

a monopoly on truth

I’m teaching a class on science and religion this term and, as we wade into the Galileo controversy, I’ve been thinking about the question of truth.  Some of my students feel convinced that science has brought many benefits, but the greatest has been the freedom from religious belief.  I’ve never particularly understood that, but recently I’ve had some ideas.

I certainly agree that there have been some dangerous beliefs held by religious people and religious communities.  I’m glad that the progress of science has led us away from the geocentric (Earth centered) picture of the universe to a heliocentric (Sun centered) one.  Of course, the most profound impact of that for me has been theological – it makes it harder for us to think that humans are the most important thing in creation.  Likewise, evolutionary biology has shown us that humans are very much animals – even though we might be something else as well.  Mind you, neither of these is a triumph of science over religion.  Both reflect triumphs of new science over old science at a time when religion favored the old science.  Copernicus’ new model (heliocentric) didn’t manage to explain the movements of stars and planets better than Ptolemy’s model (geocentric) and the scientists were divided for many years.  True, the church liked Ptolemy’s model, but they liked it because it was established and it worked. [Mind you, Kepler and Newton added to the Copernican system in a way that made it far more useful than the old system, but no one knew that at the time.]  Likewise, Darwin was not nearly as troubled by the religious reactionaries as he was by other scientists with other notions of how evolution worked.  It can be easy to forget that scientists had been working on these problems for millennia.  Just because the new science is better doesn’t mean the old science isn’t “science.”

Make no mistake; I think science has been magnificent in pushing knowledge forward, despite the conservative forces of religion.  All large institutions tend to be reaction, because of inertia if nothing else.  With the skeptics, I agree that scientific authorities can be an important check on religious authorities.  When religious leaders tell us the Earth is 6014 years old – or that women are simply imcomplete versions of men – scientific experts can move in and say “no, the evidence tells us otherwise.”  In some ways science broke the Church monopoly on truth during the Enlightenment.  [Mind you, there were other checks on church authority, notably states, universities, and corporations – but we’ll stick with the simple story for now.]  Science has given us valuable ways to critique our beliefs about the world.

And, in a naive analysis, this would be enough.

But the world is more complicated than that.  It will not come as a surprise to my scientifically minded readers that more of a good thing is not always better.  Specifically, just because a little power is good, it does not mean that more power is better.  Some of us have decided that because science produces some good knowledge, scientific authorities should be the final arbiters of all good knowledge.  That’s just silly.  Even if we set aside for the moment the idea that some things lie outside the ken of science (e.g., justice, love, and duty), it would still be desirable to have a balance of powers.  It would still be important for no one institution to massively dominate the way we look at the world.

I’m an American.  I like a balance of powers and I dislike monopolies.  And, for the same reason I distrust fundamentalist Christianity (and Islam), I dislike scientism (the idea that science is the best if not only judge of all knowledge).  Both require closing your eyes to useful perspectives on the universe.

Do I still think geology is the best way to measure the age of the Earth?  No doubt.  But that doesn’t mean I leave the question of Earth’s significance in teh hands of geologists.

Do I still think that evolutionary biology tells us how humans are related to other animals?  Certainly, but I don’t leave the definition of “humanity” up to the biologists.

Life calls for important choices and complex understanding.  300 years ago, and 150 years ago, and today, it would have been a terrible mistake to allow the Christian churches a monopoly on truth.  And, though it seems like a new thing (it’s not) it would now be a terrible mistake to allow science a monopoly on truth.  Not because science is good or bad, but because monopolies are inherently dangerous.  They stifle creativity and encourage laziness.  Let us always remember that the way forward lies in having multiple avenues open – so that we can choose between them.  Science is and long will be an important avenue.  Likewise, I find Christianity indispensible.  But in the end neither method nor community make the decision for me; my goal is the truth that lies at the end of each.

This week, I wish for you options.  Some will be better than others, but you’ll never know until you assess them all.



  1. Thanks for this. There are so many points that I love in this post. I was talking to a friend of mine who was a Dawkinsian Atheist but then become more of Pan-psychist after he had a spiritual experience, and we were trying to find bridges of commonalities between our beliefs and the “militant atheists” Richard Dawkins supports. (Or at least figuring out a semantically acceptable way to dialogue with our friends who think all spirituality is anti-science and all “true” science is anti-spiritual.) You’ve managed to eloquently state what we were talking about, while also bringing some phenomenal reframing to the table. So, again, thank you. 🙂

  2. I am actually in this class, and have been thinking of “truth” quite often. Though I may never present my case as eloquently as you do, I guess I can try.

    If science is gaining a monopoly on truth, then the church’s “product” must somehow be made competitive. While science has progressed by leaps and bounds, the church has largely remained stagnant, even to the point of trying to refute scientific truths. Because of this, many people feel that they must choose one method of discovering truth over the other.

    I would like to suggest the need for a new holistic approach to human truth in which neither science nor dogma commands, and the church evolves spiritually alongside science.

    I feel that religion has a fundamental truth at it’s core; one that science is boring toward. The chaff thrown off by science’s drill should be discarded by the church in an effort to bring people closer to that Truth. Unfortunately to me, I see many churches clinging to a shell that has splintered and no longer protects it. He did not come to tell us of observances or dogma, but of a larger truth that His churches seem to have forgotten.

    • Dear Danielle,
      This is a wonderful comment. Thank you for posting. I’ll be digesting for a while, but would say off the top that I think religion has been changing dramatically. Catholicism (the biggest branch of Christianity) has been moving steadily toward dogmatism and centralized authority for the past 200 years – not a move I appreciate, but definite change. Meanwhile, the most mainline protestants have been moving toward what we might call contextual Christianity with the “new criticism,” the liturgical renewal, civil rights, and post-colonialist theologies. Fundamentalism, though few people remember this, arose in the late 19th century and was a sever departure from related forms of Christianity. This move included scriptural inerrency and a move toward charismatic holiness focused Christianity. Now that I think about it, Christianity has been anything but stagnant over the last 200 years.
      That said, I do think we need to be offering concrete, pragmatic good news and I’m sorry we do so so rarely. I hope you’ll join me in trying to think about how we can make the “eternal verities” more available to the particular people around us.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly that religion has changed- I just don’t feel that many religions have changed enough to keep up with science’s advances in ‘truth.’ Many churches I’ve been to seem to focus on the material rather than the spiritual. This to me is not the message of God that we should be focusing on. If we have intellect and believe that He is, who are we to deny what he has made and shown us? I think this “scientific boom” is a great time for churches to “spiritually” advance their teachings, but I see so few taking that opportunity.

    I think it is also a possibility that the “marketing” of religion and church has been sub-par, to say the least. Whist science has given us answers and “gifts,” I have mostly seen churches as bigoted, scientifically primitive, and archaic. It’s time for an overhaul, in order that we may more effectively “market” the spiritual.

    • Amen!
      You might be interested in the book

        More Ready than You Realize

      , by Brian McLaren.

  4. I read that book a few years ago, and while I don’t remember specifically the content of that piece, I thought that McLaren’s writings as a whole cohesively put together a very compelling template for overhauling Christianity on all levels, including the marketing aspect (especially in the NKOC Trilogy). One thing that I’ve been struggling with, though, is my own crassness when I recognize that I am being targeted with marketing. I think of salespersons who are just happy and excited because they really are passionate about a thing without being dogmatic or pushy, and I am way more eager to buy something from them because their attitude is infectious.

    Just the other day there was a kid who came by selling extremely overpriced candy, and I bought some just because he was such a cool kid. I didn’t want a ten-dollar box of peanut brittle, but how could I resist his awesome sales pitch when it seemed so genuine?

    On the other hand, when I see commercials on TV for “The Cool Church,” for example, I sometimes find myself getting angry, because it’s such a clear marketing strategy. Well, that and they have a homophobic agenda right on their Web site. Churches trying to be hip, or cool, or trendy, or that meet in a coffee shop solely because they want to be part of the Emergent Movement just drive me up the wall (perhaps because I was once a minister myself, and used to get magazines full of ads for workshops on how to market and grow your church).

    So, I think “marketing” as a euphemism for outreach is a good one in some ways, but also highlights the slippery slope of attracting members just to grow the church’s numbers. I’ve only been coming back to more traditional Christianity for a few weeks, and reading through some of the blog postings here seemed more like effective marketing than anything else I’ve come across lately, mostly because they aren’t just passionate, but also genuine, heartfelt, and humble.

    It’s not just enough to believe in a product to sell it. That little kid that came to my door with the expensive junk food wasn’t just passionate. He was also just a cool kid with a great attitude, and I wanted to support him. He made my day, and that made me want to participate in what he was doing.

    I think that’s what people are craving. When Time Life sells “worship music hits” via TV commercials, the last thing I want is more Christian hype or dogma. But reading a blog post like a couple of the ones on here, which made me cry as something long-sleeping was stirred inside, well, that’s good “marketing” in my opinion. It’s touching someone with something more than simple passion or hype.

    And I think the reason people get so impressed with science is that there’s something concrete to it, something tangible and real. When one can offer spirituality with the same sense of realness, even if it is more diaphanous or experiential (rather than quantifiable), I think it really makes an impact. That kid’s attitude and enthusiasm (as opposed to dogmatic wrangling) were palpable. I got that same feeling from reading prior posts last night, and it inspired something deeper in me.

    Anyway, I’m starting to ramble (or maybe even pontificate). It’s been a long time since I’ve engaged in a dialogue like this, but I’m glad I asked to be notified of follow up comments, because this is exactly what I needed. I’ve gotten a lot out of it, so thanks to both of you. 🙂

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