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Blog Archive

Humanism and Science

Posted on: December 04, 2016

Category: Theology

Humanism and Science

Religion is full of things that never happened. Let me make a short list. The exodus of hundreds of thousands from Egypt in approximately 1250 B.C.E. never happened. The physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his ascension to heaven in approximately 35 C.E. never happened. The Buddha born walking and talking with seven lotus flowers blooming at each footstep in approximately 600 B.C.E. never happened. Rama returning to his city to be crowned king after rescuing his wife from captivity in approximately 500 B.C.E. never happened. The list can be made longer. Some stories from world religions hold partial truths that have been remade into legend and some stories are pure fiction that over time became definitive of the character of a tradition. However, it is certainly well established in the academic study of religion that no religious text can be interpreted without healthy skepticism, a commitment to cultural anthropology, and at least an awareness of the original languages involved.

For many people, the fact that something in the Bible or the Qur'an or the Ramayana (or you name the text) never happened is enough to reach an either/or conclusion. Either the text must be historically and factually true or the whole things is worthless.

There is now a growing awareness that this either/or approach to religion, its value, and its future is no longer credible. When religion is the subject, the conversation is not about science. It is about humanism. Science is important for the academic study of religion. Science is needed to investigate the history of and the evidence for textual variations or the development of legendary traditions. But science does not concern the meaning of religion, which is a humanist question. To put it bluntly, not everything has to be factual in order to be meaningful.

When it is said that religion is humanism the intention is to notice how religious stories as legends mean a lot to the human psyche and to the maturity of perspective. The Christian resurrection does not need to be a fact in order to be a meaning. Resurrection happens all the time, and our collective, deeply rooted need for this to be true inspires our lives with hope and with the relentless refusal to give up. Indeed, the resurrection is so fundamental as a myth that if it were merely a fact it would be meaningless. Religions are full of stories in which the myth is the meaning and the meaning is the myth. Birth as a sign of promise, returning home as a sign of joy, rising from the dead as a sign of hope, escaping slavery as a sign of justice. All of these myths make religious stories meaningful even though none, in the setting of their tradition, may be regarded as a fact.

To be sure, facts are important. They must guide our judgments and remain the content of our knowledge. But facts and meaning have a difficult relationship. Not every fact is meaningful, and not every meaning is factual. We live in a precarious time when we think facts are necessary for meaning and so we willingly make up non-existent facts to create meaning. That phenomenon was very much the sadness of the recent American election and remains a disturbing trend in society at large.

In place of allowing myths to play a role in forming human wisdom, we live in a world where only facts matter such that, to experience meaning, we make up non-existent evidence for non-existent facts. We have forgotten that the "meaning" side of human experience belongs to humanism, to the human ability to create story. A story is not required to be a fact in order to be a meaning. Is it possible that the role of religion today has oddly become to remind people that falsifying "facts" to experience meaning is both a misunderstanding of humanism and a disservice to science?


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