I posted an article by Mike Young, “Living with Theological Diversity” over a year ago and I thought I would post it again.
It is about seeing theology (and atheology!) as language. Seeing it as a model rather than reality; seeing it as a pointer to human experience rather than seeing it as a true or false proposition.
The appeal of this approach is obvious: making the truth unknowable allows for humility and to put all perspectives on an equal footing. More than that, it introduces the idea that common human experiences underlie this diversity of theological opinions, so it encourages a sense of unity and mutual understanding (which seems otherwise incredibly difficult for people of different world views). It asks us to “look where the finger points, not at the finger,” with the implication that every theological finger is pointing to the same set of human experiences.
I find this challenging. Firstly, I don’t think the same set of human experiences are pointed to in each case; I think the different philosophies evoke different sorts of experiences. It seems the experience of a Buddhist in meditation practice is quite different from the experience of a Christian speaking in tongues for example. These produce measurable effects on the brain and altered states of consciousness which I think are different from each other.
Secondly, I am all for seeing theology as stories portraying the human condition rather than as truth, and I do find that it can sometimes be an interesting and meaningful way of framing the human experience even if I don’t believe in it literally. But should I be prepared to put my own naturalistic world view on the same footing? Am I prepared to do that?
Science too is just a model for reality, but a more useful and accurate model for practical purposes. Much of our modern life, technology, medicine and so on, all rely on the success of the scientific method. Evolutionary biology and geology describe the factual history of our world much better than religious myths and I would not put these on the same footing. Sam Harris says that religions are failed sciences. There is more to religion than that, but on the level in which science operates, yes, they have failed to account for the way the world is.
Religion can always accommodate science, of course, as these myths can be reinterpreted as allegorical accounts operating in the realm of meaning rather than literal truth. This pushes God further and further out of the picture; he becomes less of a personal agent actively engaging with the world and more associated with sustaining the deterministic order that science reveals underlying the universe.
My question is how far can this go? How far can God reasonably be pushed out? At what point does physics become metaphysics and speculation, and therefore on an equal footing with supernatural or non-materialist world views? How much truth is knowable? Is my scepticism a sort of awakening, or is it a more arbitrary conditioning of my thinking due to the kinds of environments I’ve been in?
A couple of commenters on the previous post mentioned evidence from near-death experiences that might suggest the possibility of disembodied consciousness. I realise with some concern how sceptical I have become in that I automatically have no faith that looking at this evidence will convince me. This comes directly from my belief that everything boils down to material causes. How did I get to this belief? I suppose I believed in a “God of the gaps” and then enough of those gaps were closed for me to become jaded about the possibility of science ever supporting my belief in that God. Others clearly feel differently. Why should I think I am right?