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Falsifiability and Religion

Posted on: February 17, 2019

Category: Theology

Falsifiability and Religion

Quest Thoughts: Falsifiability and Religion
The definition of falsifiability is the capacity of a proposition, statement, or theory to be proven wrong. Falsifiability is an extremely important but very ironic idea in science. Ironically, true statements must be capable of being proven false.

As a child, I often feared there was a goblin of some kind living under my bed. No matter how many times my parents told me it was not so, and no matter how many times I looked, my suspicion continued. My suspicion was not falsifiable; it was an unfalsifiable belief. Santa Clause fits the category of an unfalsifiable belief. The Easter Bunny is not far behind (but don't let anyone tell you Peter Rabbit does not exist).

Falsifiability comes from Karl Popper's book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which was written in German in 1934 and published in English in 1959. Though not everyone agrees on the details, Popper's main point stands. If there is no chance to prove something false, then there is no way to say that it’s true. Even if we can’t find a way to prove something false, it has to be open to the possibility.
Evolution is an example. In theory, evolution can be proven false. In practice, it has been impossible to come up with better ways to explain the natural history of our planet. Still, evolution remains a theory. It is a very powerful theory because it has survived about 150 years of attempted falsification. Relativity is another such theory that has past every attempt at falsification.

What about religion? Does falsifiability apply to religion? Philosophers of religion have loved this question, and have loved to answer this question with both a "yes" and a "no." On the yes side are those who will say that evolution does indeed prove creation is false. Or, in another way, the theory of creation is falsifiable and has been demonstrated to be false. We can verify that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and this verification falsifies the claim that the earth was created about 6,000 years ago. We also have lots of proof about how thing evolving over time. This proof falsifies the claim that things were created as is. So, creation as a theory is both falsifiable and has been proven false.

There is, however, a problem with claiming that creation like evolution is falsifiable. The problem is that on this level creation and evolution are both accepted as science. So, philosophers of religion will also answer our question with a “no.” Creation is not subject to falsification because it is a myth that belongs to a religious belief system. Creation-language is a separate language-game from scientific evolution. It’s not possible to apply the rules of science to a myth.

Here is where it gets complicated. If creation is presented as a scientific theory - like the State of Kansas occasionally does - then it does have to be subject to scientific rules. However, creation is a myth and cannot be falsified. That’s why it’s not science. It is an unfalsifiable belief. So, I might very well say with all evidence to the contrary that the earth is 6,000 years old, and I might claim that contrary evidence is an impression God planted in the creation 6,000 years ago. In this claim, we can see that the appeal is to the supernatural as a way to explain the natural. Once we start using the supernatural to explain the natural, we have left the realm of science and stepped off the field of falsifiability.

The only area where falsifiability applies to religion is where religion offers a natural explanation of something. There were written sources that predated the Torah, for example, and that were pulled together and edited to produce the Torah. Moses did not write the Torah. There was a Q Sayings Gospel from which Christian writers copied to compose the Christian gospels. There are alternative versions of the book of Isaiah; there are many more gospels than the four found in the Christian Bible. These claims are all based on natural research; they are all falsifiable; none makes any supernatural claim. These conclusions are as close to religious “facts” as we can get.

However, a falsifiable theory in religion is not the value of religion. The value of religion is mythic, and in our technical world, it is hard to explain why and how a myth has value. We can talk about creation and mean that we ought to value the earth as a gift. This mythic language can help the cause of environmental concern and action against climate change. Mythic language gives life feeling; it gives a sense of compassion and vitality. We could say that we are all children of God. We don’t have to believe in God to allow this mythic language help us feel the interconnection of all life. We can even celebrate Easter and know that this myth (whether it's the Bunny or Jesus) helps us invest hope in our lives and in the world. The value of religion is not that it’s true; the value of religion is that it’s a myth.

Now, just like falsification has irony in science, a myth has irony in religion. The irony is that even though myths talk about things that never happened, myths make a big difference to what does happen. Myths are how we value life. Myths teach us how to care about the world, how to act with respect, and they bring us into communities where we feel at home. Myths gone wrong are among the most dangerous things in the world. I would say that the United States myth has gone wrong, and equally the Russian myth has lost its way. The world is a more dangerous place because the myths that guide the acts of big nations have fallen into corrupt hands, that is, hands that fail to understand what the myth is. The American myth is about being a light to the nations, about equal opportunity, and about peaceful co-existence within a melting pot of nations. It has never lived up to these mythic ideals, but they have been the guide. Presently it seems the nation has forgotten that these ideals even exist.

My final point is that while the study of religion can benefit from falsification, religion itself is actually about reification. Reification means making something real; in the case of religion, it means making something real out of nothing. Myths like God or the risen Jesus Christ or the divine origin of the Torah and the Qur’an are all metaphysical beliefs. They are supernatural myths that do not describe reality. They do not exist. They are nothing. But religious traditions bring these myths into existence out of nothing. Religion reifies the myth as a practice of life. In the earliest expressions of Christianity, to say that Christ rose from the dead was not to describe natural reality. It was rather to adopt a way of life. It was to live within the reality of Christ or to live in the spirit of Christ. That act was the reification of the Christ myth. Similar things can be said of other religious traditions. Judaism is the reification of the Torah myth as Islam is that of the Quranic myth. Buddhism often talks about Buddha nature, which is the reification of the Buddha myth. Religion is about reification, and that is both its value and its danger.

What we have to worry about today is how religion is being reified. It can help to remember that religion is a myth; it is the creation of something out of nothing. This insight could make religion important, even today and possibly even more important than ever. It is possible to argue that the recovery of myth - the recovery of things that never happened - as the reification of value - the recovery of myth as myth - can change the world.

© David Galston


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