Science and Theology 5 – Motivated Belief (RJS)

Is religious belief merely a faith claim – a personal preference like that for peanut butter?

Last Friday I put up a short post pointing to a column in the Huffington Post by Paul Pardi based on an interview with Professor Peter Boghossian of Portland State University. Dr. Boghossian takes the position that faith claims have no place in the classroom or in the public square. To an extent I agree with him. Students, and all Christians, should be challenged to understand and motivate their beliefs. “Mere” faith claims have no place and do not contribute productively to the classroom or the public square. But religious belief is not merely a faith claim. The Christian faith is a motivated belief that can be explained and defended. I doubt the motivation and defense will satisfy Professor Boghossian. Whether the defense satisfies most or not, it is reasonable for him, or anyone else, to expect a motivated defense of anything that appears to be a faith claim. It is equally reasonable to expect a reasoned defense motivating the faith claim that scientific materialism is more rational than any form of theism.

This brings us to the subject of the last post on the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book, Theology in the Context of Science. Science trades in motivated belief, there are reasons for the positions taken and the theories accepted. Theology also trades in motivated belief. In chapter six Dr. Polkinghorne presents a short summary of his motivation for Christian belief. But he begins with a short discussion of why such a motivation is important.

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. … Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority …  (p. 124)

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to acknowledge that he too would have trouble with faith if it required uncritical fideism.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs. … This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they ‘know’ already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation. (p. 124-125).

What is the motivation for your belief?

How could you explain it to your friends or colleagues?

There are some distinct differences between scientific investigation and religious faith – Religious belief is not amenable to experimental confirmation. In this sense it is more like the judgement of the quality of a painting, the beauty of a piece of music, or the character of a friend, all examples used by Dr. Polkinghorne.  He also notes that “no form of human truth-seeking enquiry can attain absolute certainty about its conclusions.”

Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny. No one can avoid some degree of intellectual precariousness, and there is a consequent need for a degree of cautious daring in the quest for truth. Experience and interpretation intertwine in an inescapable circularity. Even science cannot wholly escape this dilemma (theory interprets experiments; experiments confirm or disconfirm theories). (p. 126)

Dr. Polkinghorne gives two prongs to his discussion of the factors motivating his Christian faith. The first is natural theology, and the second is personal experience including that recorded in scripture. What follows is a sparse sketch of his reasoning found in this book and in many of his other writings.

Natural Theology. Dr. Polkinghorne has discussed several aspects of his view of natural theology in earlier chapters of this book and in several of his other books. Among the factors that play a role in his thinking:

(1) The deep and wonderful order of the world suggestive of a divine Mind.

(2) The anthropogenic fine-tuning of the universe suggesting divine Purpose in cosmic history.

(3) The existence of value, both moral and aesthetic, as human participation in the Creator’s joy in creation.

Natural theology though, can only lead to an impersonal and deist view of God. It cannot distinguish between a multitude of different possibilities, and we should not expect it to.

Personal  Experience. Motivated belief for a personal God is not found in such impersonal considerations as the fine-tuning of the universe or the beauty of the equations of physics. Belief in a personal God is motivated “by reference to particular events and persons.” There is a specificity of divine action and communication that makes personal language such as father, king, or lord appropriate. This brings us unavoidably to scripture – not as a divine dictation to be believed but as a record of God’s relationship with his people.

These considerations underline how essential it is to have a right understanding of the nature of revelation. … Christian theology accords a normative status to the Bible precisely because it contains an irreplaceable account of God’s dealing with God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and the uniquely significant history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (p. 130)

The most significant piece of this revelation is found in the facts and interpretation surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All of the NT writers are interpreting Jesus.

(1) All the writers believe that the story of Jesus continued because God raised him from the dead on the third day after the crucifixion.

(2) They were driven to speak of Jesus in an extraordinary manner.

(3) They give testimony to the transforming power that the risen Christ had brought into their lives.

The resurrection is central. This is the event that provides the hinge for Dr. Polkinghorne’s discussion of motivated belief. Without resurrection the Christian story loses its power, its coherence, and its motivation for transcendent belief.

The pivot on which the claim of unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn is clearly the resurrection. (p. 135)

Resurrection is permanent victory over mortality. (p. 136)

[Christ’s resurrection] occurred within history as the unique seed event from which a resurrected destiny for all people will come about beyond history. (p. 138)

The evidence for resurrection can be sketched in two directions.  (1) The encounters with the risen Lord recorded in scripture and the impact this had on the early church. (2) The empty tomb. Here Dr. Polkinghorne points out that in controversies between Jews and Christians beginning in the first century, the debates do not deny the empty tomb but provide alternative explanations for the empty tomb.  There is good reason to believe that Jesus was laid in a tomb and that the tomb was later found empty.

Detailed discussions of the evidence for resurrection are available in books such as NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God or Surprised by Hope, and, although not referenced by Dr. Polkinghorne, in Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus may fit here as well.  A nice lecture by NT Wright from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion can be found here: Can a Scientist Believe the Resurrection?

There is coherence. The story of God’s work in the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is coherent. This is not some magical story, but a story of incarnation, God becoming man for the good of man, for the salvation of man. The Christian myth fuses the power of symbolic story with historically true story  “The Christian myth is claimed to be an enacted myth and there is evidence to motivate that claim.” (p. 142)

Given the victory of God in the resurrection, the story of crucifixion yields two profound insights.

The Christian God is the crucified God. In this profound insight, Christian faith meets the challenge of theodicy at the deep level it demands. (p. 142)

A second Christian insight … ‘he died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). (p. 142)

The elephant in the room for Dr. Polkinghorne is the breadth of religions practiced across human cultures over thousands of years. This is the question for which he has found no completely satisfactory answer, although there are hints of a way forward. Among other things, Dr. Polkinghorne is not a strict exclusivist. He believes that other peoples and traditions preserve accounts of genuine encounters with the sacred reality. It seems unlikely that God simply ignored the vast majority of people for the majority of human history. Yet he is, in another sense, an exclusivist. He concludes the chapter:

I do not doubt that I have many things I need to learn from my brothers and sisters in the other faiths, but when we meet it would be disingenuous of me to try to disguise my motivated belief in the unique saving significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. (p. 148)

We all have motivations for our beliefs, and factors that still cause concern and questions.

What motivates your belief?

What questions or concerns remain?

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  • phil_style

    The Christian myth fuses the power of symbolic story with historically true story “The Christian myth is claimed to be an enacted myth and there is evidence to motivate that claim.”

    I think Girard’s interpretation of the gospels can go some ways towards providing eve more robust “motivations” with respect to a natural thoeology, “coherence” and even Polkinghorne’s “elephant in the room”. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll do a little quote-stealing here:
    “Girard dared to assert that the shackles of sacrificial religion were broken for a large portion of mankind by the force of the biblical story in which a number of narratives reversed the classical mythological pattern by exonerating the scapegoat and showing the community to be guilty of gratuitous murder” source:

    In Summary: the gospel story establishes the innocence of scapegoats (and therefore exposes the fecundation myths of culture), in a way that no other “archaic” religious or cultural story does.

  • DRT

    Most excellent post.

    As I periodically confess, my atheist children give me quite a challenge, particularly my 19 year old. Like Polkinghorne, the breadth of religions is an argument made by my boy that I can’t answer.

    The only answer I have been able to give is to say that I have [and I have] spent considerable time getting to know multiple religions in the world. I spent more than a decade seriously shopping for a religion that I could get behind only to return to Christianity in the end. But it was not the same Christianity that I left that I returned to.

    The only answer that I could give is that one actually needs to assume that the religion under exam is correct, and examine the coherency and implications of the belief in that variety. And that takes time. And the last thing a [my] 19 year old has is time for that, though it is hard to realize at 19 that it is important to make time for it.

    Roger Olson had a post one or two weeks ago where he was battling with atheists, and in that post he says something akin to the fact that he would probably be an atheist of some sort if it were not for Christianity. I guess I feel similar since the only religion I found that I could embrace outside of Christianity is Buddhism and that is, of course, atheistic.

    So, my motivation for my belief is the result of countless hours of searching and integrating the story and the implication of the story to form a coherent picture that actually makes sense. And I have not figured out how to communicate that succinctly, except by telling people something like “you know, I have spent many many hours researching it and I am really starting to believe that he really did rise from the dead, and if you believe that it opens all sorts of fantastic doors! I recommend studying it.”

    Natural Theology – I disagree with the perspective given of natural theology. As I briefly said in another post, anyone who has lived long enough and is curious starts to realize the deeply connected nature of our existence. There are too many examples of life having an interdependence and relationship that is self-reinforcing and intertwined. I think it is these factors that point the most directly to there existing a supernatural component to our reality. The Buddhists certainly see it and so do many/most other religions.

  • Paul W

    I think I came to believe largely in part because that is the way I was raised. I continued in belief, in part, because of the interpretive force it avails in my life.

  • T

    I think the reasons he gives are good. But I was surprised to see the experience of the apostles (alone) under the heading of “personal experience.” Yes, I think the historical record and actions of the first witnesses is important. But if Jesus is still alive, if he is still Lord of heaven and earth, if the Holy Spirit is still powerful within and among us, then the part of the phenomena that the Christian paradigm adequately explains is our own contemporary, distinct story and experience with him. Testimony of the living God must continue on. In what sense has he been and continued to be “our” Father and not merely theirs?

  • Tim

    OK, so is Polkinghorne’s argument then that both within science and religion one has “motivations” for adhering to any given belief?

    Of course I would agree with this. But the thing is, “motivated belief” outside the bounds of any verification of a model’s predictions really just leaves you at the hypothesis stage. Granted, many hypotheses can have some very good reasons for their author’s having formulated them. Observational evidence. The existing scientific literature. That intuitive sense you have when you feel like you’re really on to something, or everything just seems to “click” and fit into place with your new model as far as you’re aware. All good “motivations.”

    But the fact of the matter is hypotheses still aren’t worth much until there is some validation of their predictions. And most when put to this test fail. Motivations of their proponents not withstanding.

    So is how Polkinghorne is advocating we view religion as knowledge?

  • John C. Gardner

    One should read the essay by Alister McGrath in a
    Fine Tuned Universe on Augustine and creation where he argues that Augustine’s thought is consistent with the concept of evolution. Second, I have been led deeper into faith mainly by the writings of Tom Wright and Methodist exegete Ben Witherington. I believe thus that a reasonable case(along with the work of Alvin Plantinga on basic belief) coupled with experience provides a robust intellectual and experiental case for Christian faith. I also find the work of John Collins of Covenant Seminary intellectually respectable. Thank you for writing this post.

  • John W Frye

    Tim #5,
    I think you are ricocheting off what Pokinghorne means by “motivated faith.” It is not the obvious comment you make , i.e., “…of course, everyone has ‘motivations’ for adhering to any belief.” As I read the post about Pokinghorne’s interaction with not-yet-in-the-faith-friends/fellow scientists the key issue is the rejection of an acquiescing or surrendered compliance to authority qua authority. Such as, “I believe it because the Bible says so” or “I believe it because the church tells me to.” No, our faith commitments are motivated by something in us. A convergence of energies are required by Christians to come confidently to their beliefs. A good example often referred to at Jesus Creed is the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

  • Tim

    John #7,

    I don’t think I suggested any sort of authority-based submission or fideism in any way with respect to the “motivations” behind religion. In fact, I think I compared them favorably to the “motivations” behind hypothesis formation. I just questioned whether it could ever rise above this, at least as far as Polkinghorne’s argument is concerned.

  • Amos Paul

    I agree that faith and theology are motivated belief similar to scientific belief and any other constructed worldview, really.

    I’ve stated around here before that accepting a framework of personal agency within a reality distinct from oneself is, itself, a fundamentally ‘faith’ position. It is trust in something you do not have a deductive proof for. And for many reasons! Both good and (maybe) not so good. It comes naturally to us.

    And I do not think that faith (trust) stops there. It extends to one’s entire worldview. How one sees values, science, history, philosophy–whatever. We trust experience, sources of authority, and all manner of things that cannot be *deductively* backed up at their foundation.

    So when it comes to, a much more honest question to ask is–what faith is worthy to hold and how is intellectually honest or relevant?

    When it comes to theism–God justifies and complements much of our modern scientific worldview. Indeed, this is unsurprising if we trust human history in that Christianity (and other religions) have been incredibly foundational in constructing modern worldviews. Natural theology, furthermore, is one example of there being many arguments to back up the *idea* of God.

    But more than this! Personal experience and rational theological thought, together, very often indicate to the faithful that their step of faith in God *was worth it*. That God not only justifies one’s worldview naturally–but is actually inherently a part of oneself and all of reality to begin with. As faith grows, understanding of God increases. Even if an argument originally ‘motivated’ us to take that step of religious faith, relgious people generally find God to be so objectively central to ourselves that arguments, then, become second order. They merely challenge our doubt. God is our motivation for God *and* our worldview of pretty much anything else.

    However, this secondary step of ‘faith seeking understanding’ is only epistemically foundational to the inidividuals that experience it. It cannot be taught nor demonstrated to someone religiously unfaithful. In this sense, it is unlike scientific reasoning. Religious persons may never be able to fully express what ‘justifies’ their faith to the irreligious. And, moreover, experienced religious faith is never an abstract philosophical reality. To be experienced, it must be realized within some framework–such as Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Islam… whatever.

    And, yes, I did throw Islam and there. Or whatever religion. Because I see religion, in general, as the human quest of relying upon the divine. And this is my address to the question of religious multiplicity. That question is an intra-religious question. It is a question that can only be addressed amongst the faithful conversing about our experiences and description of the divine.

    This question is ultimately personal–but if we are to address it corporately we must do so within the context of experienced faith. Because our discussion of ‘what religion’ cannot merely be philosophical arguments about why our God is deductively the correct faith option to make–but a more holistic discussion of how faith has been both rationally and personally experienced to grow our understanding of God.

    To the irreligious, we can only gesture at this experience and throw them some arguments. We can only point out the faith their worldview already possesses and how relying upon it has given them some measure of understanding (to their mind) about reality. We can only say that God can give us more and here’s some reason to think why this might be possible.

  • Susan N.

    Amos Paul (#9) – Now you’re getting somewhere with me in this conversation! Well-spoken, and thank you for that. Let me ponder on these thoughts a while in silence 🙂

  • AHH

    Tim #5,

    I think the “verification” and “prediction” you are asking for are not quite of the same nature here as in science (though they are not entirely dissimilar), but that doesn’t mean they have no validity. I think “verification” of Christian faith for Polkinghorne comes in the Christian story making sense of his life and experience and the world around him in a way that other stories do not. So there is some testing and verification, but it is more like verifying that my wife loves me than it is like verifying common descent or relativity.

    This sounds similar to me to Lesslie Newbigen’s wonderful little book Proper Confidence, which does a great job in talking about how we come to sufficient conclusions in all areas of life (including faith and science) even as we recognize that the foundationalist Enlightenment vision of pure reason and uninterpreted fact is not valid.

  • Amos Paul

    Critical Typo Correction:

    “So when it comes to, a much more honest question to ask is–what faith is worthy to hold and how is intellectually honest or relevant?”

    Should have been.

    “So when it comes down to it, a much more honest question to ask is–what faith is worthy to hold and how is it intellectually honest or relevant?”


    I’m glad we can connect on some point of thought. I’m sorry that my style of theological rhetoric has rubbed you the wrong way in the past.

  • RJS


    I think your criterion of testability here is a bit misguided.

    God isn’t a force like gravity or electromagnetism. He is a “person” in relationship, something like your relationship with your wife. Putting relationships to scientific “force” tests is destructive to the relationship.

    Of course it isn’t quite this simple as you can reach out and touch a person, even if the relationship aspects are more nebulous.

    Motivation for faith is not laboratory experimentation.

  • Tim


    How is my criterion for testability misguided?

    I am not recommending that the criterion of testability be applied to religion in general, certainly not with respect to the core, personal aspects. Where do you see me as suggesting this?

    But what I am suggesting is that if one is insistent on drawing parallels between science and religion as “ways of knowing”, the furthest you can take those parallels is up to the stage of hypothesis formation. That’s it. I’m not in any way suggesting that this is somehow wrong, that religion should do more. I’m just arguing that the degree of confidence people place in untestable religious claims appropriately reflect this.

  • Tim

    AHH #11,

    “I think the “verification” and “prediction” you are asking for are not quite of the same nature here as in science (though they are not entirely dissimilar), but that doesn’t mean they have no validity. I think “verification” of Christian faith for Polkinghorne comes in the Christian story making sense of his life and experience and the world around him”

    And how is this any different than hypothesis formation? Aren’t hypotheses frameworks for understanding the world around us, that make “sense” of the data we have at hand? We don’t say of course that hypotheses “have no validity.” Just that their validity hasn’t been tested, and therefore the confidence we can hold them in is relatively low respect to more validated forms of knowledge, such as theories.

  • Susan N.

    Amos Paul (#12) – I appreciate that and will make a renewed conscious effort to listen and hear you.

    The Hindi (derived from Sanskrit) greeting ‘Namaste’ roughly translates to, “The light in me bows to the light in you.”

    May the light and peace of Christ go between me and you, for His good name’s sake.

  • RJS


    Maybe we are not talking about the same thing.

    What is known through religious claims?

    In what way should we expect this to be testable?

    We had a conversation earlier about “experiments” probing the efficacy of prayer – as though prayer was something that could be subject to double-blind tests similar to those used for pharmaceuticals. I think this is simply misguided, because prayer isn’t an impersonal chemical. God is not an impersonal force or element of matter. What kind of test would you propose?

  • Tim


    I think that certain religious claims are testable. I think that other religious claims are not. Perhaps there is a third group, such as you’ve alluded to, of claims that could possibly be testable, but shouldn’t in fact be tested on an individual level due to the potential damage that may result to the faith/relationship of the person testing the belief.

    In my above posts, I am addressing the religious claims that are beyond testing (for whatever reason). For such religious claims, the appropriate parallel would be the scientific equivalent of an untested hypothesis.

    For correlational (i.e., non-experimental) research on the efficacy of intercessory Christian prayer on patient health outcomes, that would fall into the realm of potentially testable religious claims. Whether you feel the difficulties inherent in correlational research design can be overcome or not is a different matter, but in principle the claim could potentially one day be subject to scientific testing and validation/invalidation.

    Other religious claims, such as those made by young earth creationists relating to a recent global deluge and descent from a special creation of humanity and “kinds” are more easily tested, and in this case refuted.

  • AHH

    Tim @15,

    You seem to be making a very Enlightenment dichotomy between tested facts and untested hypotheses. But every belief about something, whether in the realm of science or religion or their intersection, is a hypothesis, and they all get tested in various ways appropriate to the subject matter. Some hypotheses do better (by agreeing with scientific data, or by making sense of our experience, for example) and are held with a higher degree of confidence.

    I’m not sure what you mean in drawing a distinction between “hypothesis” and “theory” as those 2 words are basically synonymous, at least in science.

    If your only point is that the nature of the verification is such that one can’t really hold the same near-absolute level of confidence in religious faith claims as in, for example, the hypothesis that smoking causes cancer, I’d agree. But I think Polkinghorne’s point is that we can’t go from there to dismiss all religious truth claims as mere personal preference or argument from authority or untested/untestable hypothesis, because there are tests and reasons that can validate such hypotheses sufficiently to motivate committing to such a belief.

  • Tim


    “I’m not sure what you mean in drawing a distinction between “hypothesis” and “theory” as those 2 words are basically synonymous, at least in science.”

    Come again?

  • DRT

    Tim, I don’t think I agree when you say that the un-testable truth claims are the equivalent of an untested scientific hypothesis. The best you can say about scientific hypotheses are the conditions under which you can claim that the evidence you provide supports the claim. The more independently verifiable the hypothesis them stronger the claim to validation of the hypothesis. Isn’t it the same with religious claims? Even the resurrection is substantiated in many ways including eyewitnesses, the seemingly strange conduct of witnesses, the veracity people’s faith in spite of their jeopardy, the congruency of the accounts etc. The truth claims of Christianity have evidence by which we can test them as hypotheses. Untested scientific hypotheses are by definition not tested.

    I also believe that Jesus did set us up with a faith that he wants us to test. He wants it to be a living faith, not a dead faith. If we find things in the faith that are not reliable (young earth, Calvinism, misogyny, no gay marriage), then we can bind and loose those things. And we do indeed need to make it a living faith. I shudder when people want to make rules. Christianity is not a religion of rules, but of love.

    But, I also agree with Amos, that someone has to take a step first. I had a long conversation with my son where I was simply asking for him to spend some time assuming that the Christianity I talk about it true, and to do his own research into the intellectual and emotional cohesion of Christianity but he cannot take that step. Without that step, the willingness to put oneself in a place of jeopardy, one cannot see the sense in being religious.

    Again, another of the reasons I also like Buddhism. It is based on testability not authority.

  • DRT

    …and I see AHH went down the same path….. but at least I had some additional points.

  • Tim


    I disagree. Hypothesis can absolutely be based upon pre-existing evidence. Hypothesis is not synonymous with “wild speculation based on little to no evidence whatsoever.” How much evidence any given hypothesis is based on can vary of course. I’m not suggesting that all hypotheses are created equal. But even many of the most well thought-out hypotheses formulated to explain (quite well up till that point) pre-existing data fail when tested. Making sense of the past is a lot harder than predicting the future.

  • Tim

    “Making sense of the past is a lot harder than predicting the future.”

    Strike that. Should read:

    “Making sense of the past is a lot EASIER than predicting the future.”

  • RJS,

    Thanks for this post and the wonderful series on the book. I think Polkinghorne’s motivated beliefs are supported by evidence to a similar level in both his science and theology. It’s very important to remember that he was a theoretical physicist so his view of the philosophy of science is a bit different from mine and likely yours.

    From what I’ve read of his works, he has evidence for many of his theological positions. What I appreciate so much about him is when he doesn’t have evidence for positions. He doesn’t throw the whole enterprise out because of the coherence be sees with the other beliefs that are supported by evidence. But he also doesn’t glibly accept them. He wrestles with them and admits as such. I highly respect that.

  • AHH

    Tim @20,

    This is a side-track, but here goes …

    Having been a working scientist for about 25 years now, I can tell you that the terms “hypothesis” and “theory” both refer to posited explanations for observations about the natural world. You seem to be assuming that “hypothesis” means untested guess and “theory” means well-tested explanation, but that just isn’t what the words mean. Both can span the semantic range from wild guess to well-supported explanation. Often it is a historical accident whether a scientific explanation is termed a “theory” or a “hypothesis” or a “law” or something else.

    Sometimes one sees amateur philosophies of science in which an idea starts out as an (untested) “hypothesis”, then is promoted to “theory” as evidence supports it, and finally if there is enough evidence it reaches the ultimate status of “law”. But that is not the way those terms are actually used.

    Which is not to say that their usage has no difference at all. I think “hypothesis” tends to be more one idea that might not be completely worked out in mechanistic detail (like “smoking causes cancer”) whereas a “theory” more often tends to be a more thoroughly developed explanation (a specific mutagen in smoke causing X effect on cells). But both terms can refer to ideas that are wild guesses or that are supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and anywhere in between.

    I am sensitive on these terminology issues because the terms are abused by the “creationist” movement, wanting for example to dismiss evolution as “only a theory” as though theory equates to wild guess. Unfortunately, sometimes those who answer creationists argue in terms of the artificial hypothesis -> theory -> law hierarchy, which isn’t correct either.

    Semantics aside, Polkinghorne’s point is that beliefs like the truth of the Christian story can be validated to some degree by the way they make sense of our lives and the world around us. Not quite the same as scientific testing, but valid in its own sphere and sufficient to justify (but not compel) motivated belief.

  • AHH

    This post also has a lot of overlap with the recent book by Alister McGrath Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How we Make Sense of Things, which I happened to be reading on my day home sick from work today.

    While I’m only 2/3 through the book, it seems like a nice short accessible introduction to this same idea, how we come to believe hypotheses about the world because they make sense of our experiences and observations, and how similar reasoning also works in coming to see the Christian story as something worthy of belief.

  • Susan N.

    I have been preoccupied with this post and the questions posed all day, and could only answer by telling a long story of my faith experiences. Within that story, I could tell of others with whom I have been connected, and how their stories have impacted me and confirmed my faith.

    DRT (#21) – Your discussions on faith with your son reminded me of my husband’s agnosticism during the early years of our marriage. Nothing could prove to him that, a) there is a God, and b) Jesus is the way that we can know and find peace with God. Finally, exasperated with the debate, I challenged my husband to take a chance on faith in Christ based on the logic of, “What have you got to lose?” If he were wrong, I mean, it isn’t like he believed in some other god. And if there’s no god, who is going to fault you in the end for following Jesus? I know that might sound like a lame, cheap, theologically-lazy reason to give someone, but the way I figured at the time, we can only begin to know and follow Jesus if our heart is open to find out who He is. You just start somewhere. And, my husband did begin to allow himself to hear about Jesus and the Christian faith (though that only really began to happen for him at the point of spiritual crisis upon his father’s sudden death), and finally was baptized to publicly profess his commitment 6 years ago.

    I would sell faith in Christ to your son a different way — not as being willing to put yourself in a place of jeopardy, but as having everything to gain and nothing to lose. Matt. 11:28-30 comes to mind (I know, I know…Me and my Bible verses!) — check out The Message version 🙂

    Well, and that was my attempt at a *short* version. Sigh. I’m hopelessly *not* a woman of few words 🙁

  • DRT

    Thanks Susan N., your story gives me cause for hope. The jeopardy is that he thinks he will be seen as foolish (or be foolish), and that is what he feels he has to lose. The ego has a tough time letting go..

  • DRT

    …and do you get Fr. Rohr’s daily meditations? I think you would enjoy them, just google it. First thing I read on my computer every day.

  • RJS


    “The jeopardy is that he thinks he will be seen as foolish (or be foolish)”

    This is a big challenge – and one that is constant in our educated secular society. The tactic of many (implicit, explicit, or accidental) is to use ridicule and fear of being thought foolish to turn off any serious consideration at all.

    Big, big, problem … and one I think many pastors, and perhaps even youth or University ministry workers don’t really appreciate.

  • Susan N.

    DRT (#29) – Yes, I can begin to understand your son’s dilemma. Maybe you could use Ayn Rand as a case in point for the unreliability of rational egoism? Rejected validity of surgeon general’s warning on cigarette package. Flaunted her smoking habit. Got lung cancer and died of it. (Refusing till the end to retract her previous denial of hazards of smoking, whereby potentially warning others to quit smoking. Stubborn and selfish!) That story is on Wikipedia, however credible the details may be 🙂

    I will believe and hope with you on your son’s behalf.

  • Susan N.

    DRT (#30) – I will look up Fr. Rohr’s daily meditations. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I get a daily devotion from the Henri Nouwen Society which I also LOVE. Do you know of that site and its resources?

  • DRT

    Nope, thanks for the lead Susan.

  • Paul W

    I’m coming back to this discussion a bit late. I’m a little surprised given all the “hypothesis testing” talk that no one had mentioned the philosopher of religion John Hick or brought any kind of eschatological verification into the discussion. If I remember correctly the uptake was that if Christian religious belief is correct it will be verified upon death.

    Hick tells a parable/allegory of a theist and atheist walking down the same road. The theist thinks there is an ultimate destination (a Celestial City of sorts) while the atheist doesn’t. The tricky part, however, for the atheist is that if they reach the destination the theist will have been validated but if there is no destination but only an endless road then the atheist can never ultimately be verified. If the theist is right then one can expect a type of verification upon death. However, if the atheist is right, they will simply both be dead with no validation forthcoming.

  • Tim

    AHH #26,

    I don’t believe I’m using hypothesis in the way you are implying. Please see my post #23 to DRT on this matter.

    Also, while I recognize that “hypothesis” and “theory” exist more on a spectrum, and refer not only to degree of testing but also comprehensiveness of explanation, I don’t at all feel that that is then justification for equivocating these terms.

    Far fewer things in life truly exist as pure categories. Take any species, for instance. When do they become distinct? Look to ring species, you know that by the time you complete the “ring”, you have two distinct species that can’t procreate, but as you trace it back along the ring, you can’t find any definite breaking point.

    So do we then claim that the word “species” is useless? We might as well do the same for bike, car, or what have you. This just results in linguistic anarchy.

    The common academic usage of the term hypothesis and theory have definite meanings. As they are applied in real life, sure things are messier. When is the exact, precise moment a hypothesis becomes a theory? Often, there isn’t one.

    Again, I am not at all representing hypotheses as just wild, unsupported guesses. But what allows the public to have the confidence they do in science is a direct result of the method of validating those hypotheses. When enough evidence accumulates through verified prediction after prediction, the professional scientific community recognize them as theories. For example, we don’t have a Germ hypothesis. Or an Atomic hypothesis. Or an Evolutionary hypothesis. We have Germ Theory, Atomic Theory, and the Theory of Evolutionary. If you disagree, please name one very well supported scientific explanatory framework that is known by a label of “hypothesis.” I don’t believe you’ll find one. *Though strangely you do find one example that works the other way – String Theory – but that’s a separate issue entirely*

  • DRT

    FWIW, I hypothesis and theory differently. A hypothesis, to me, is a statement made to test a theory. First, I would have a theory which could be a wild guess or whatever. I make a hypothesis specifically as a tool to test my theory. A hypothesis is simply a construct that you desire to test. Therefore, a hypothesis, to me, is not tested. Once tested it either is incorporated into the theory or refuted.

  • Tim


    When we last discussed these topics in an earlier part of this series, you stated:

    “Polkinghorne’s discussion of motivated belief involves reality checking.”

    So here we are in the discussion on motivated belief, and it looks like the closest we’re getting to “reality checking” as parallel to science is making sense of previous information (which really in science just represents a model or hypothesis to be “reality checked” via testing, not something that has been validated already), with any future personal experiences perhaps representing prediction in some sense, but really, the only prediction there is that you will have experiences more or less generally in line with your fellow members of the faith. This is a reasonable prediction regardless of whether or not the faith is true, so it in no way differentiates a true from an untrue faith, and so contributes little in the way of “reality check.”

    So what did you have in mind in your previous comment? How do any of the faithful, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or what have you “reality check” their faith?

  • RJS


    I am not entirely clear on the kind of “reality checking” you want.

    Christianity is a religion based on historical events in real places. Thus reality checking means exploring those events in standard manners. Polkinghorne does this extensively with the NT. The OT is a somewhat different kind of book – and reality checking is still possible, but we need to look at genre and purpose carefully.

    Christianity assigns significance to historical events and experiences – reality checking asks if those meanings and purposes cohere.

    These are a basis for motivated belief.

    But you seem to want to be able to assign “supernatural” as a natural force and test it with a hypothesis and objective empirical observation. Why should we expect this to work?

  • Tim


    First, I want to be clear that I am not being prescriptive with respect to what the religious “should” do in validating their claims, I am merely being descriptive as to what it looks like they “are” in fact doing with respect to validating their claims.

    As Polkinghorne is choosing to parallel science with religion as “ways of knowing”, I am aligning my description accordingly. If the parallel chosen was, say, a humanity, then this conversation would be very different.

    To continue along this parallel…

    I would note that when you developing a hypothesis in science, it is common to review the existing relevant scientific literature and formulate your hypothesis accordingly. A well constructed hypothesis should reasonably account for the data already at hand. Now, you may have a number of alternative hypotheses that have been formulated, perhaps by other scientists, that do the very same thing. Prior to any verifications or falsifications of the various hypotheses’ predictions, scientists can argue over which hypothesis is more consistent with the current evidence.

    However, such argumentation never really seems to lead to confident conclusions until they are put to the test. And it isn’t always the most highly esteemed hypothesis that wins out. So in this respect, this is highly “parallel” to what we see in religious claims. I’m not in any way suggesting that certain religious communities can’t have robust arguments for their truth propositions, just as I would never suggest the same for various well formulated scientific hypotheses. I am only arguing that if you are looking to identify a parallel between science and religion, this is the most appropriate comparison in which to find it.

    This parallel would also hold up when you realize how most of these differing religious claims never seem to resolve. Just as we see in science up until predictive verification/falsification eventually resolves the issue more or less to the professional community’s satisfaction.

  • RJS

    But Tim, A parallel (but not identical) construction of “knowing” means that it has to be evaluated on the appropriate terms. One does not evaluate the historicity of Alexander the Great and the impact and reaction to his campaign the same way one evaluates the properties of an electron or of DNA. Alexander is not a figment while an electron is real.

    Certainly we can know and have motivated beliefs in history, as we can know and have motivated beliefs in relativity. There is a parallel here – in the line of critical realism etc. but not an identity. The objection that Polkinghorne is countering is that religious beliefs are not motivated – they are no more than cultural faith claims and wishful thinking.

  • Tim


    “The objection that Polkinghorne is countering is that religious beliefs are not motivated – they are no more than cultural faith claims and wishful thinking.”

    I am not making this argument. This may be the impetus behind Polkinghorne’s arguments, and I expect it in fact is. But I am merely addressing the appropriateness of his drawing parallels between science and religion. One, I think these are two fairly distinct fields, so I question the wisdom in even drawing parallels between them in the first place. Two, if parallels are to be drawn, perhaps fields such as history and literary analysis would be more appropriate. But given where Polkinghorne has brought this conversation, I am addressing it accordingly.

  • RJS


    Science itself encompasses some rather different disciplines. The motivated belief in paleontology is different than cosmology or elementary particle physics, and the motivation in both of these is different than in chemistry.

    Motivated belief, however, is a common denominator across many fields including science, religion, history, …

    He doesn’t say religion is science – he says both are motivated and involve motivated beliefs.

  • Tim


    In the sense that both science and religion are “motivated” by beliefs, I’ve done my absolute best to highlight where I believe the parallel lies.

    But really, any field of knowledge has sources for “motivated” belief. The main distinguishing factor in science is the ability to apply a strong dose of reality checking to the various competing hypotheses in the way of confirmed or falsified predictions. This is why science is able to attain such exceedingly high levels of professional consensus among its diverse professionals, while other fields are often riddled with multiple competing claims with often no end in site as to a resolution.

    However, if you removed the differentiator of predictive validity from science, you’d still have a field of knowledge, but it would look more akin to a humanity. The ability to “reality check” your truth claims would be dramatically lessened. So my suggestion was, for those religious truth claims beyond the reach of predictive validity, a humanity might allow for a more meaningful comparison. Just a suggestion as I think it could lead to some more useful discussion on the matter, and (not at all coincidentally) would be more suited to your examples of historical claims concerning Alexander the Great, etc.

  • RJS


    So you remove paleontology and most evolutionary biology from the realm of science? I don’t, but the predictive ability here is more a question of consistency and mechanism than anything else.

  • Tim


    I don’t remove paleontology or biology from the realm of science. When did I suggest this? Both fields generate testable predictions. Again, seriously, where did I ever suggest this?

  • RJS

    Certainly biology makes predictions and runs expire nets experiments to test them, but I didn’t say biology. I specified “most” (not all) evolutionary biology. What kinds of predictions and tests are there and how are they different from history?

  • Tim

    Historically, Evolutionary theory has predicted (please note this is not meant to be exhaustive):

    1) A sufficient age of the Earth necessary for life’s diverse organisms to have evolved.

    2) A method of descent that would provide for the necessary novel variation from which evolution could select

    3) A fossil record that consistently places new emergence of species within a framework consistent with common descent (e.g., no per-cambrian mammals)

    4) That phylogenetic analyses examining inter-species genome homology across even multiple, disparate, non-coding regions would adequately generate the same phylogenetic trees.

    5) That evidence for fusion would be found on human chromosome 2

    6) That certain transitional forms, within the confines of what should reasonably be expected from the fossil record, will be discovered and continue to be discovered.

    7) That pre-cambrian fossils should one day be found.

    8 ) That small-scale evolution should be achievable in the lab among organisms with short generational lives – including generation of novel capabilities.

    9) That mutational rate itself should be seen as contributing to a species fitness (specifically, resistance to extinction).

    10) That biogeographic distributions (both fossil and live) will align with Evolutionary theory.

  • RJS


    Most of those are not really “scientific” predictions of evolution … and many of them were not carefully expressed before observation. They are powerful motivations and consistent with evolution – in fact many of them shape our understanding of evolution (i.e. evolutionary theory was formed around them and accounts for them in a coherent way).

    But motivated belief in many other areas of intellectual pursuit also have such sorts of predictions, coherency, and motivations.

    If the Christian religion is true we will expect to find evidence for the basic truthfulness of the gospel accounts … say things like the stone with an inscription referring to Pilate, the mention of David, bits of OT scripture.

    How is making such a statement any different from saying if evolution is true we expect to find transitional fossils?

  • DRT

    Let me try to help.

    All records in antiquity and the subsequent actions and records of later times comprise the proving ground for religious claim testing.

    The material universe comprises the proving ground for scientific claim testing.

    Religion and science are parallel methods for knowledge claims, and their claims, their theories, should be tested using the appropriate mechanisms.

    Part of what gets in the way here, I think, is what Tim said in #40 – “A well constructed hypothesis should reasonably account for the data already at hand.” I anticipate that Tim considers the historic record to be contain in the “data already in hand”. But I don’t think that is the case. A religious claim can take into account the current interpretations of what they consider to be the relevant data. Therefore, the parallel between all the records in history [in the case of religion] and the material universe [in the case of science] are on equal footing.

    I will give an example. In science, everyone pretty much had all the data that they needed to theorize about gravity, but they didn’t. So Newton theorized, formed hypotheses, tested and incorporated the results into the theory of gravity.

    In religion, people theorize that first century Judaism was not critiqued by Paul so much as being works based in the sense that they thought that works would save them, as much as a works religion that used the works to demarcate the elect from the non-elect. This theory generates hypotheses which can be tested by researching the extant history to find consistency with the hypotheses, and upon finding that this thought is then incorporated into a new theory of the dynamics of Christian religion.

    Does that help?

  • DRT

    Wow, I have been trying to figure out what kind of science RJS is talking about in “expire nets”. Sounds like a cool new statistical analysis or something. I finally realized, “experiments” after a few google searches….

  • Tim


    Some were very clearly expressed before hand. The fusion site on Human Chromosome 2 would be an example. Several are also still ongoing predictions as new data is examined. Currently new phylogenetic analyses are routinely being conducted on new species’ genomes, and homologies being compared. Predictions as to what we expect to find in the way of such homologies still apply, with such predictions for example on ERV and Pseudo-gene homologies predicted (and of course routinely confirmed). Other predictions are implicitly and obviously necessary for the Evolutionary model to work. The age of the earth would be one such example.

    But here’s the most important part. Each prediction presents a real opportunity to falsify the theory. One fossil Cambrian mammal, and the game is up. Phylogenetic analyses on genome homologies that fail to adequately align along the lines of common descent would be another opportunity to falsify the theory. And I could go down the list.

    Even more recently, our knowledge of evolution has been considerably expanded by what were once doubtful hypotheses but have since been validated as their predictions have been born out. Endosymbiotic Theory is one example.

    Again, this is why we get the consensus we do in the sciences. What reality checking mechanism is there that is even remotely comparable in religion? What would falsify the Resurrection for instance? Or the other miracle claims relating to Jesus? Every day there is opportunity to utterly falsify evolution. Can the same be said for religion? How do you falsify Mormonism? How about Buddhism? Or Christianity? As I mentioned on one of your previous post in this series, if you are wrong, how would you know you are wrong? Science allows you the opportunity to do so more or less definitively. But religion not so much. And of course, the numerous competing truth claims within many of the humanities are similarly irresolvable. Thus the reputation, consensus, and practical success based on knowledge in science.

  • RJS


    Suppose that a Cambrian mammal was found – what would be the response within the scientific community?

  • RJS


    Argh… sometimes the auto correct on iPad drives me crazy. I am not sure what spelling error I had, but that was a weird correction.

  • Tim


    The response would be the same response that you see anytime an anomaly is first discovered. The response would be to first suspect that there is something incorrect regarding the discovery (which, by the way, is most frequently the case for anomalies). You saw this was the initial reaction to the Tetrapod tracks dated to 395 MYA in Poland. You would then see a number of alternative interpretations of the evidence proposed and tested. Also seen with respect to those Tetrapod tracks. If the anomaly is genuine, you will eventually see the community run out of plausible alternatives and accept the find. Also seen with respect to those Tetrapod tracks.

    More recently, you are seeing this same approach with the faster-than-light neutrinos. It should be impossible, but the professional community has converged to test it. If it is eventually validated, people will accept the results and the scientific theories will have to be updated/overturned as necessary.

    So, it would take some time to validate the anomaly of a Cambrian mammal. But eventually the scientific community would accept the find if genuine. If the genuineness of the anomaly remained unclear, but sufficiently threatening, you would see a flurry of research to determine either way. Turn up another impossible fossil in a readily datable different geological stratigraphical location and there you have it.

  • RJS


    the scientific theories will have to be updated/overturned as necessary.” Exactly. Even a mammal in the Cambrian would be data … of course there would be a flurry of effort to explain it or explain it away … but if confirmed and reinforced, it would constitute data that would reshape aspects of biological theory.

    But in science and in religion we reshape to an extent in the face of data … the data is part of our knowing.

    And the reshaping of a portion doesn’t require throwing out the parts that do cohere and work (Newtonian physics for apropriate sizes and speeds is an example here). Likewise, losing the geocentric universe didn’t require tossing Christianity into the wastecan.

  • Tim


    I’m sorry, but I don’t follow.

    Science provides the investigator with the opportunity to seek out confirmatory or contradictory data – with the control over which one they receive essentially surrendered to the universe. This is what allows for “reality” to “check” your truth claims.

    How does religion facilitate anything similar?

    Can you please give me an example?

  • Tim

    …a quick follow-up.

    Were you in any way implying that a fossil Cambrian mammal would only “reshape” aspects of Evolutionary Theory rather than overturn it? I should probably clarify then that I should have said Common Descent to be more specific. If you would disagree with this more specific claim, however, I would certainly like to know why.

  • RJS


    A fossil Cambrian mammal would not erase all of the genetic evidence of relatedness that has been uncovered, it wouldn’t undo the laboratory experiments on mutation rates and “micro”evolution. Certainly it would require a massive rethinking of the historical process, I have no clue where it would all lead – and I don’t think we have to worry about it as a serious possibility.

    Religion also looks for coherence in putting together a view of the world. But data goes into this coherence. There is a reality check of sorts … but I am not at all claiming that there is a one-to-one correspondence between scientific investigation and all other forms of human thinking and knowing – including, for example, history or religion.

  • Tim


    “A fossil Cambrian mammal would not erase all of the genetic evidence of relatedness that has been uncovered”

    I disagree completely. A fossil Cambrian would be completely incompatible with relatedness by descent. There would be absolutely no way to resolve it. It would require a full paradigm shift. And, quite honestly, special creation would be looking pretty good right about then. Now, I know how absurd this all seems. Overturning all that evidence for common descent. Which is why no one ever expects to find a Cambrian mammal. We’re fairly certain it will never happen. But if the Common Descent were to be patently false, there of course would be no reason to expect it wouldn’t.

    “it wouldn’t undo the laboratory experiments on mutation rates and “micro”evolution”

    I agree. Like I said, I should have been more specific to just Common Descent. This would be analogous to saying something like, “While we’ve falsified that Jesus is divine, that in no way eliminates everything about Christianity.” True, if such a thing were to ever happen. But Christianity after such an event would bear little resemblance to Christianity before it.

    “Religion also looks for coherence in putting together a view of the world. But data goes into this coherence. There is a reality check of sorts.”

    How is this a reality check of sorts? People develop beliefs to make sense of the world around them. To give “coherence” to the data. But once you have that “coherence”, how do you test it against reality? When will reality be in the drivers seat to validate or invalidate your “coherent” belief?

  • phil_style

    “People develop beliefs to make sense of the world around them. To give “coherence” to the data.” But once you have that “coherence”, how do you test it against reality?

    This is not an institutional process written into the fabric of the religion, I would suggest, but a historical one(only science has that, because once it becomes institutionalised as the process of authority, the system becomes science).

    One only needs to look at the historical development of christian theology to see how it has been reality checked by data.

    The rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy lead to developments in christian theology in the 11th-13th centuries.
    Evolutionary biology has influenced theologies of divine action and theodicy
    20th century developments in neuroscience has led to changes in theological anthropology (the “soul” debate)

    It’s highly likely that many (if not most) first to ~15th century Christians really believed that heaven was spatial, located somewhere above the clouds. Find a Christian today who would believe that. Why the change? Is this “reality checking”? If not, why not?

  • Tim


    Please see my post #18 that addresses this issue.

  • phil_style

    Tim (#18) – as referred to in #62

    “I think that certain religious claims are testable. I think that other religious claims are not”

    I would agree with you.
    For those that are not “testable” – we are left with coherency/logic as the remaining “reality checker” I suppose.

    If a claim is un-testable, but logical and coherent: i.e. specifying the number of universes – then I suppose we are left without the ability to reality check for certain.

  • Tom

    Nice picture of Dean Nelson’s interview with Polkinghorne at Pt Lome’s writers conference. Nelson authored a great book ‘Quatom Leap’ on Polkinghorne as well

  • Tom

    Nelson’s book is ‘Quantum Leap’

  • scotmcknight

    Tom, is Dean Nelson’s book available?