Friday, April 02, 2010

Faith and Dogma in Science and Religion

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Grand Dialogue Conference in Grand Rapids, MI. The speaker was Allan Wallace and his topic was "Experience, Reason, and Faith in Science and Religion: A Buddhist Perspective". Today I want to bring just a few of his ideas to you. His entire talk will be available soon at the Grand Dialogue website. His PowerPoint presentation is available now.

Wallace began by talking about the role of faith in both science and religion. It’s not common for us to think of science as a “faith based” enterprise, but if you ask working scientists they will tell you this is true. Wallace is in the presentation using a particular definition of faith - by "faith" he means "trust".

Science is based on faith in the discoveries of others. Scientists trust the results of others. No scientist redoes every experiment to prove its correctness for themselves. Scientists simply must trust each other. Scientists also have faith in the reliability of the equipment and methods they use. Galileo may have made his own telescope but today, few scientists make their own equipment. They must have trust in the people who make the instruments and they must trust those who maintain and repair them. Scientists must also rely on the public's faith in them and their work. They must have faith that others have faith in them. As Wallace pointed out, doing science is very expensive and science will not be funded it people don't have faith in the scientists and their results.

Faith plays a remarkably similar role in religion. Religions have faith in the revelations of "saints and sages". Religion has faith in the practices and teachings of the tradition. Finally Wallace says out that religion has "faith that the insights and realizations of past adepts can be replecated in the present." Now for people of faith, this discussion of faith is incomplete, but isn't it interesting the ways science and religion are both deeply dependent on the trustworthiness of others?

Wallace also talked about dogma. His definition of dogma is:

"A coherent universally applied worldview consisting of a collection of beliefs
and attitudes that call for a person's intellectual and emotional allegiance. A
dogma, therefore, has a power over individuals and communities that is far
greater that the power of mere facts and fact- related theories. Indeed, a dogma
may prevail despite the most obvious contray evidence, and commitment to a dogma
may grow all the more zealous when obstacles are met. Thus, dogmatists often
appear to be incapable of learning from any kind of experience that is not
authorized by the dictates of their creed."

Based on this definition, he then discussed dogmatism in religion and science. Religious dogmatism holds that the source of its beliefs is infallible and therefore its beliefs are true. Because its beliefs are true, its religions practices are the only valid practices.

Materialism on the other hand, claims that there is no other world beyond the physical, natural world and this natural, physical world is the sole source of knowledge. The only way to know about the world is by physical evidence.

Notice that Wallace has changed from talking about "science" to talking about "materialism" because certainly not all scientists are materialists. As a method, science excludes all supernatural or nonphysical entities because they can't be quantified or measured. Science as a method cannot have an opinion about the non physical. If the non physical exists, it exists outside the area of expertize of science. Also notice that he does not talk at all about God in his discussion. I suspect his goal was to point out particular areas of similarity and not give an exhaustive discussion of faith and dogma.

Wallace in his talk has quiet a bit more to say about knowledge and truth and his proposal for a way forward. You are invited to listen to his presentation to learn the rest. His presentation of faith and dogma reveal some interesting similarities between religion and materialism/scientism. So I would like to know, what do you think? Does this juxtaposition work? Is it valid? Is it helpful? Does discovering this common ground help us understand each other better?

I will have limited or no Internet access for the next several days. I have asked several questions and I am interested in your response but I won't be able to actively participate for about 10 day. until I return. So please discuss among yourselves and I will check in on April 5th.


John Shuck said...

The issue to me is that if it is "material" science can tackle it. If "God" does anything that has effects in the "material" then science can figure it out. The religious idea that there is a realm of truth outside of the material is rather meaningless. What is the point of something happening in a realm that we can know nothing about? Is that much different than saying nothing happens?

John Shuck said...

Not to hog the comments, so I will offer just one more. I agree on the issue of trust. However trust is earned. I trust scientists far more than theologians or preachers.

Scientists have shown us a magnificent universe and a fascinating natural history. I trust them to uncover even more.

I can't say the same for theologians. Mostly what I get from them is defensive posturing, special pleading (and within the church), power plays.

I am open to hearing something else. I would like to move to something other than atheism, but so far, theologians have proven themselves to be less than trustworthy.

I look forward to his presentation.

Nancy Janisch said...

Hi John, You don't think there is a realm of truth outside of the material? I suppose we may need to back up and define truth- before we go too much farther. But, can beauty or love be manifestations of non material truths? I'll admit both beauty and love can have physical/material expressions.But aren't they more than that also?

John Shuck said...

I am not sure if love or beauty must be more than the natural processes of evolution to be valuable.

A change of heart for me happened when I was in college (the second time around). My English professor showed us a photo of a sea lion and said: "Some people think that it is degrading for humans to think of themselves as related to these and other animals. I think it is an honor."

I recall that now because I think I don't need an "outside of this world validation" for anything. I think it is a devaluing of humanity to think that love and beauty are not our creations even as they are unconscious, unguided creations.

We created love. We created beauty. We created God and all the gods, and behold, they are good.

Sarahlynn said...

John, I can't agree that love and beauty are our creations, nor God. After all, the first two existed well before we were here to see them and call them good. The third, well, I agree with you that scientific evidence is not the way to look for proof of the existence of God.

Nancy, absolutely.

John Shuck said...


I should be more precise, we created the concept of God. You still may disagree.

Did love and beauty exist before we were here? Or are love and beauty as well as all the virtues products of biological and cultural evolution?

Sarahlynn said...

If water falls from a cliff in a forest and no one is around to see it, is it still beautiful? Interesting philosophical question, but my position is that the point of view of the observer is moot.

Happy Easter!

John Shuck said...

Happy Easter to you, too, Sarahlynn!