12 Jun 2002 
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 25 Oct 2013 


Reconciling Religion and Reality

It might seem odd that an atheist would post a "help-sheet" for believers who have encountered difficulty in reconciling some aspects of their faith with physical evidence.  Why wouldn't I, like some other disbelievers, simply advise religious people to "give up and renounce belief"?  One reason is that I was once a believer myself, so I understand the strong hold and seeming comfort of religious belief, and have experienced the frustration of trying to blend it with modern scientific knowledge.  After all, it must be conceded that there are intellectual and emotional motives for religious belief, and while some of us have found viable alternatives, others are more comfortable with a traditional approach.  Second, as a humanist, I feel it's best to help others work out their troubles in a way that appeals to them, so long as doing so doesn't substantially conflict with the overall well-being of our species.  Though I sincerely feel that if people were to shuck religion most would ultimately discover doing so to be to their long-term advantage and happiness, in most cases nothing will persuade the faithful to shed their comfy cocoon of belief.  So, rather than wasting energy shooting for the impossible, it's better to help people the best we can within the framework of what's realistically achievable.  Finally, I have nothing to gain by converting others.  Being comfortably secure in my disbelief, I feel no threat from contrary views, and can even (if I put my mind to it) discuss them with a degree of detachment.  I am content to let others believe or disbelieve as they will, so long as they grant me the same courtesy.  Aside from differences in belief, we still have a great deal of common ground, and I feel it's a good idea to help each other out when the opportunity arises.

Now, as to the business of reconciling faith with fact, there are strategies which many use successfully.  Because my own experience is with Christianity, the methods I present are outlined in that context.  However, I suspect some of the methods will apply to other religions as well, at least to those emphasizing supernatural entities or states of existence.  Nowadays, most difficulties of belief spring from conflicts, sometimes within religion itself, or between religious teaching and personal conscience, but most often between religious scripture and scientific theory.  There are various concepts of the source of religious scripture, and these can be distilled into three general views:

  1. Scripture was conceived and written solely by man, to institute order and justice in society.

  2. Scripture was written by man, but he was guided and inspired by God in this labor.

  3. Scripture is the product of the mind and hand of God alone, without any help from man.

Because these views are mutually exclusive, different approaches are necessary for resolving the difficulties with each.  I have arranged them order of increasing difficulty of resolution, since the last is quite problematic, because its resolution entails more thorough explanation and greater flexibility of mind.

The First View: Scripture as Solely the Product of Man

If we hold the first view, then there is little point in proceeding further, for scientific discovery presents no threat to existing beliefs as understood in this context.  We may understand the scriptures as the product of people who were earnestly trying to explain things the best way they could, considering that they lacked knowledge of modern science, mathematics, and sociology.  We may suppose that scriptural laws were written with the intent of keeping order in tribal nomadic and agrarian societies, that the accounts of wars, migrations, and disasters were written (much as they are today) portraying "the good guys" (the scribe's boss and friends) in the most favorable light, and "the bad guys" (the competition) as unmitigated villains, agents of evil.  Prophets and messiahs were people attempting to update obsolete codes to the situations and needs of the day.  And creation stories were satisfying tales cooked up in order to "explain" that which could not possibly be known with whatever might have passed for "science" in those times.

Under the first view, we might either believe or disbelieve in divinity, but regard scripture (not only Judeo-Christian, but all other forms as well) as the imaginative product of perhaps well-meaning but fallible men, of a time and society in many ways quite different from our own.  Accordingly, we might judiciously sift the scriptures for ideas that have continuing merit today, and reject those that appear obsolete or even harmful.  And creation stories can be appreciated for their entertainment value, for their historical comparisons to other mythologies, as well as for the insight they give us into the worldviews of our ancestors.

The Second View: Scripture as Written by Man but Inspired by God

This view is perhaps most typical of today's religious mainstream.  Here most scriptural conflicts and omissions can be plausibly attributed to human error.  Prophets, compilers, councils, interpreters, and scribes, confined to the limited worldly knowledge of their own time and the imprecision of human language, understandably failed in some way to comprehend and express some of the finer and deeper nuances of God's grand meaning and purpose.  An alternate possibility is that God wisely refrained from telling our ancestors about such things as precise mathematics and a spherical earth, telescopes and microscopes, gunpowder and nuclear power, television and computers, democracy and capitalism, or relativity and biological evolution, since such information would obviously have bewildered the ancients beyond comprehension, and the resulting confusion would have interfered with God's purpose at the moment.

Although some scriptural events and personalities appear to be fictional, exaggerated, or misstated (e.g., Moses's fabulous Red Sea crossing having occurred rather at the Sea of Reeds—actually a swamp, not a real sea—with consequently much less spectacle than advertised), corroboration and dating for others (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Cyrus of Persia, and Herod of Judea) by independent Persian, Roman, and other records is reassuring.

However, we're still left with such discomfiting puzzles as how fossil remains of hundred-million-year-old plants and animals come to be found in rock strata, and how images of galaxies billions of light-years distant show up in telescopes, in a universe which scripture purports to be only a few thousand years old.  In other words, although most scripture seems to fit in passably with current evidence, the creation myths conflict directly with actual observation and measurement.  Many people (even such authorities as the Pope) neatly skirt the difficulty, by treating stories exhibiting such incongruities as allegory—fiction, but with important moral lessons relevant to other religious tenets and to the human condition.

With this view, we can accept scriptural laws as valid in the context of the time in which they were written, and perhaps in our own time with some updating (e.g., the burning of witches and the stoning of heretics having become unfashionable in the Western world).  Scriptural events, whether factual, embellished, or purely fictional, may be read as lessons (updating "swords" and "spears" to "guns" and "bombs" as necessary for present day audiences).  Creation stories can be accounted for as allegorical fiction providing a basis for morality in a form accessible and palatable to the ancients.  Such an approach works quite well for many religious people, even for those whose day-to-day lives bring them into routine contact with the concepts of modern culture and science.

The Third View: Scripture as the Literal and Inerrant Word of God

I've saved the literal absolutist view for last, for it represents a paradigm shift from what most people of the modern age consider "common sense."  In the first two views, we examined attitudes which, regardless of whether belief in deity is involved, accept that the reality of the physical world is, for practical purposes, pretty much as our senses and reason tell us it is.  The third view instead purports to accept scriptural dogma literally and without question.  Whenever dichotomies arise between scripture and the observed physical universe, it's the physical universe which is questioned rather than scripture.  Particularly, the third view rejects much observation, method, and thought developed since the European Renaissance, especially scientific evidence and reasoning which show that some aspects of a literal interpretation of religious scripture are inconsistent with what's actually observed.  Indeed, the literalist view places so many obstacles between itself and what most of us perceive as reality that genuine reconciliation is probably beyond achieving without some capacity for compromise.

The unreachables

At the risk of sounding defeatist, we must concede that among fundamentalists there are probably some groups that are unreachable by any means other than divine (or demonic) intervention.

On the one hand, there may be some who are blissfully ignorant of any view but their own.  To these I would say nothing.  As long as they're happy, see to their own needs, and pose no threat or burden to others or society, let them be.  However, if they decide to pose a threat or burden, such as by demanding that public funds be spent to support their sect and promote their beliefs, or that civil law be used to impose their policies and taboos upon everyone else, then that's a different matter altogether.  But while it's important that a pluralistic society confront and deal with such an imposition, that issue is outside the conciliatory scope of this article.

On the other hand, there are militant fanatics—they can be found in most major faiths: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and perhaps some others.  These are people who are persuaded that a Higher Power has chosen them to wage war against all infidels, which is to say anyone who doesn't believe as they do, including dissenters in their own faith and the religiously indifferent.  They see as the purpose of science, not to explain, create, and heal, but to cause death and destruction for the glory of who-knows-what.  It's very doubtful that any of these would be reading this, or even if they were that they'd be receptive to rational input.  But if they were, we might offer this:

If you hear a voice urging you to do harm to people in God's name, consider that every day God himself gives life to some and takes it away from others.  He's the all-knowing and all-powerful master of his craft, and thus not only doesn't need your help in this, but would likely resent your presuming to interfere.  So, if you hear that voice, it's neither God nor his messenger calling.  It's a signal for you to go for professional help, not to go on a crusade or jihad.

Hope for the less confused

Between the extremes of complacency and militancy, we find a fair number of fundamentalists with some inkling, if not of the methods of science, at least of its practical importance.  Though they might disagree strongly with some of the ideas that have come out of science, they nevertheless appreciate science's reputation for providing reliable answers to many questions, for its notable discoveries, and for its development of workable ideas and helpful inventions.  Indeed, this often grudging esteem for science is reflected in the term "Creation Science," which fundamentalists have applied to their (so far unsuccessful) attempts to reconcile some of the discrepancies between creationist dogma and scientific evidence.  Other tactics have included attempts to portray science as "just another belief system," which utterly misses the crucial point that science's views are derived from verifiable material evidence, coherent reasoning, and rigorous independent testing, not from blind faith, tradition, and emotional appeal.  When such tactics have consistently failed, most rationally thinking people would suppose it's time to try a different approach.

Here are two strategies to address the problem.  (There might be more, but these are the only ones I've heard of that are known to have been effective.)  The first option is to keep incompatible lines of thought separate, and the second is to find a plausible way to identify and resolve the source of the incompatibility.  Neither is universally popular, but each has worked for many people, and each person must decide which is the most doable for himself.  The first avoids the problem by working around it, but is easier for many people.  The second solves the problem, but requires some serious thought to bring this solution about.  Some people start with one approach and end up going with the other.  And true, some might find that neither works for them, but there's nothing to lose by trying.  So, take your pick.

Compartmentalization: an expeditious stopgap remedy

In today's world, it's important to be able to understand modern science.  Whether or not we agree with how science explains things, it's the way successful and educated people understand what makes the natural world work, hence how they can make its principles work for them, and thus how to become even more successful.  It makes possible modern developments that make life in our time longer, safer, healthier, and more enjoyable than in any previous era.  If we want to know what makes stars shine, we could satisfy our curiosity by asking either an astronomer or an astrologer; but we'd get more precise and reliable information from the former than from the latter.  Likewise, if we want improved transportation, we consult an engineer, not a flying-carpet-weaver.  If we want a cure for a disease, we go to a medical research scientist, not to a witch-doctor.  And if we want a high-paying job, we train for competence in science and technology, not for the priesthood.  (Granted, the priesthood has its own rewards, but they're hardly most people's first choice.)  Science, in short, is where people in our day and age go for results in time of need.  So, if we're result-motivated people, it's important for us to acquire at least a cursory understanding of current science.

Still, some people prefer to believe something else for assorted reasons.  Besides, science is all about the workings of nature, and many of our deepest questions concern things other than nature.  One method of coping that some people have found useful is called compartmentalization.  As its name implies, it's similar to organizing different things around the home into different compartments—rooms, closets, or drawers—near where they're most apt to be used.  We keep the cooking utensils and appliances in the kitchen, the bed and linens in the bedroom and our wardrobe nearby, the comfortable furniture and reading lights in the living room, and the vehicles and garden tools in the garage.  We keep things arranged and stored for easy accessibility, and segregated to avoid an unfortunate mix-up of incompatible items (such as beverages and drain cleaner).

But the kind of compartmentalization we're speaking of here is a mental kind, which we can use to segregate incompatible groups of ideas that we've found don't work well together.  Now, mental storage isn't a problem, since all ideas are automatically stored in the brain's cerebral cortex.  What we have to remember when using ideas is to keep tasks involving different groups of ideas separate.  We don't do stonemasonry while listening to chamber music, and we don't think about politics while trying to prepare a meal.  And unless we're extremely foolish, we don't try to read or type while driving a vehicle.  We've good reason to separate different activities and trains of thought:  No matter how good we fancy we are at multi-tasking, our senses and brains can process only so much information at once.  If we intermix categorically different ideas, especially if some of them are complex., then we can't concentrate adequately on any one, and either get confused in our thinking or sidetracked in our tasks.  So, if we want to do Bible study, it's best not to cross over at the same time into questions of the physics and chemistry of nature, or vice versa, especially if our view on one of these topics is out of tune with our view on the other.  A scriptural approach gets us the answers we want if we're studying Joshua's siege of Jericho or the prophecies of Jesus and Muhammad, but a scientific approach is more apt to get us the information we need if we're prospecting for oil or solving a crime.  Of course, compartmentalization requires a degree of vigilant self-discipline.  It doesn't work well for those in the habit of keeping all their thoughts integrated around a comprehensive worldview.  However, it can be a pragmatic thinking aid to those who find they can mentally isolate conflicting lines of thought and steer clear of any areas of contentious overlap.  Most people have this ability to some degree.  For example, movie-goers routinely temporarily suspend disbelief while watching an action film, but snap back to reality after the film is over.

The view from the mainstream: a solution that works for millions

What most mainstream believers have come to realize is that religion's apparent conflict is not with the institution of science, but ultimately with the evidence that nature itself provides and that science merely investigates.  In other words, the fundamental disagreement—if there really is one—would appear on its surface to be between God's word and God's creation.  We can't very well dispute the hard material evidence of nature.  Facts can often be interpreted in different ways; but stripped bare of interpretation, the raw facts themselves remain what they are, and must be dealt with as such.

As to God's word, in scripture it's obviously expressed in language.  And language, howsoever sacred it may be, isn't fact; it isn't a stone or a tree or a river.  Language is an interconnected sequence of ideas.  Even very precise language "gives" a little, depending on context, intent, purpose, and degree of detail.  In addition, significant shadings of meaning can be mangled or utterly lost in translation from the original Hebrew and Greek.  Others, such as the similarity of the English words "son" and "sun," can also appear, sparking curiosity but having no real significance.  So, if we assume that God would never deliberately mislead us about what he's created, we must consider the intent and purpose of God's word within the context of the created material world.  We have to ask what God's reason is for saying such-and-such when his word doesn't appear to correspond literally to what verifiable evidence shows he's actually created.

The answer that occurs to most mainstream believers is that holy scripture obviously isn't about the workings of nature.  It's about God and man, and thus we can understand it correctly only in those terms.  For God to get his moral message across to an ancient people who knew little except herding sheep and goats or building mud brick huts, and who in the early days used spoken word rather than writing for communication, it was helpful to frame complex or abstract issues in terms of simple stories to which Bronze-Age people could easily relate.  This, of course, immediately eliminates explanations involving biochemistry, germ theory, nuclear physics, plate tectonics, relativity, universal gravitation, and many other things that have always been part of nature, but which weren't yet discovered or understood by men thousands of years ago.  So (if you'll bear with my speculation for a moment), the psychological phenomenon of temptation could be depicted, say, by a talking serpent, and the blossoming of human moral awareness could be illustrated by a tree bearing magically eye-opening fruit.  Thus, complex or abstract concepts known to adults in the modern era could be made adequately intelligible even to children—or to ancient people who, though lacking any knowledge of psychology or sociology, could easily relate to familiar concepts of serpents and fruit trees.

What's obvious to the experienced and perceptive Bible-reader is that, while some parts of the book are more-or-less factual listings of genealogy and early law, the rest of it—even the parts relating actual events—is primarily an attempt to engage the minds, hearts, and consciences of human beings.  To this end, it often employs figurative language.  For example, when David says, "The Lord is my shepherd," he isn't literally implying that he himself is a sheep.  Rather, he's metaphorically comparing the guiding and following, providing and caring, protecting and trusting relationship between himself and his flock to the relationship between God and himself.  And when Jesus claims to be "the morning star," he isn't asserting that he literally is the celestial object we now identify as the planet Venus.  No one interprets the gospel to mean that Jesus is actually a sun-orbiting planet, much less a burning star in the firmament; for such a literal interpretation would be absurd.  The meaning which Jesus intends is that he has some quality like the morning star, such as that he brings us light (enlightenment), or that his spirit has an assigned place in Heaven, or perhaps both.  The biblical statement is clearly not literal truth, but metaphorical, using a vivid physical image to convey a strong spiritual idea, to give simple people a handle on a concept that's too grand to assimilate all at once.

Likewise, many biblical stories, such as Jesus's parables, are clearly fictional tales to teach various moral truths.  Consider, if he had actually encountered a man who'd been robbed and beaten by thieves, would Jesus have waited a few hours, or even a few minutes, for a Samaritan to come strolling along?  Wouldn't Jesus, being merciful, have immediately helped the poor fellow himself?  Though generally based on what was perhaps a not uncommon occurrence in those days, this story's particulars (the two respected community leaders who pass by, and the Samaritan foreigner who stops to help) were most likely made up in order to illustrate Jesus's point about who one's neighbor truly is.  When his questioner responds correctly, Jesus then instructs him: "Go, and do thou likewise," meaning, Be a good neighbor to all, even to someone you might not consider one of your own kind.  Fiction, in the form of parables, fables, and myth, is a valuable teaching tool for conceptual truths that can otherwise be hard to grasp.

Indeed, there are entire books of scripture (such as Job and Esther) in this category of enlightening and instructive fiction.  Genesis—The Beginning (of a world centered on a Jewish awareness of God), is not about cosmology, geology, biology, or even a specific chronology of events; it's about teaching moral lessons to early man.  It's intended to impress upon primitive people the importance of obedience to God, without needlessly overloading their brains with yet unheard-of concepts of gravity, genetics, and meteorology.  With such an understanding of the intent, purpose, and context of Genesis, we can much more easily see why figurative illustrations and fictional examples were important to get God's message across to people with no prior knowledge of moral conduct beyond natural and tribal instincts.  Even Adam (meaning "man") is a metaphor for primitive humanity!

It seems inescapable, then, that some scripture, being metaphorical or fictional, is thus not literal truth to be consumed verbatim.  We're supposed to think about it, to understand what real-world lessons the Bible's illustrative and allegorical imagery has for the rightness of our behavior.  If instead we stubbornly contend that what counts is the imagery itself rather than any underlying implications, then we overlook the real importance of scripture  We forget that its purpose is not to conjure fantasies to impress and entertain us as if we were children, but to guide us as thinking adults in our consideration of duty, morality, and justice.  If we miss this truth, and instead fall to quibbling over the physical origin of the human species or the age of the universe, then we'll have missed the point altogether.  We'll have thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater (metaphorically speaking, of course).



This article supersedes an earlier one, "The Third View" (1993), which has been retained as a possible source of insight to those interested in the development of ideas over time.


Philosophy & Religion: Articles