On Science and Faith, Part II: Of Seekers, Heretics, and Organized Religion

In August, I argued that faith and science have a lot more in common than popular understandings of them suggest. In response to arguments raised in the comments, I’m writing two or three more posts on the subject.

When I argued a few weeks ago that belief in religious teachings and belief in a scientific theory have more in common than people usually recognize, a few commenters objected that most religion isn’t really based on evidence but on simply accepting what you’re told. That’s why (in their view) churches establish and enforce orthodoxies: because their beliefs are ultimately unfounded, and free inquiry would expose them as such. If they really cared about the truth, they would encourage everyone to question everything and figure everything out for themselves.

The unspoken assumption here is that questioning everything and figuring things out for oneself is the best way to come to the truth. But this assumption is an unfounded dogma. It bears almost no resemblance to the way people actually discover truth, whether in religion or in science.

Even in its early days science was not about individuals questioning everything, despite the impression one sometimes gets that geniuses like Galileo and Newton made their discoveries in a vacuum. Both Galileo and Newton were participants in a budding European scientific community and a tradition of astronomy and physics stretching back through medieval Christian scholars to Aristotle and Ptolemy. From this tradition, they inherited many of their key questions and concepts, including the all-important idea of using mathematical models to understand physical phenomena. Newton frankly acknowledged his intellectual debt in a letter to Robert Hooke: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

But while imagining Galileo and Newton as solitary truth-seekers might be superficially plausible, imagining today’s scientists as such is simply preposterous. Today’s science is produced not in isolated brains but in truth factories, in universities and private labs where teams of researchers work together or on closely related questions, participating in constant dialogue with other scholars in the same field.

The reason for this is that the resources of any one person for discovering truth are puny and powerless before the vastness and complexity of truth itself. Truth has therefore always been pursued most effectively in communities where groups of individual truth-seekers work together on a shared project of discovery. And in order for a community of truth-seekers to work together effectively, they need to be working on the same questions. They need to share a language with which to ask those questions, and they need to share assumptions in terms of which they expect their questions to be answered. Their shared language, questions, and assumptions are in effect an orthodoxy, and they are inevitably enforced as such.

To illustrate: a biologist who rejects one or two of the conventional questions and assumptions of biology might be labeled either “innovative” or “eccentric,” depending on what you think of her work. If she rejects a few more, the labels will change: “unorthodox,” “gadfly,” “maverick,” “rogue.” But if she rejects enough conventions, or important enough conventions, at some point she will stop being an unorthodox biologist and become simply not a biologist. Biology journals won’t publish her papers, biologists will stop reading them, she’ll stop getting invited to biology conferences, and if she’s not already a tenured professor of biology, she certainly won’t become one. Even if she has tenure, she’s likely to face numerous subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to return to the fold.

I point this out not to accuse science of hypocrisy, or to bemoan the narrow-mindedness of university faculties—though admittedly there is sometimes plenty to bemoan. I point it out in order to argue that orthodoxies are a necessary tool for the pursuit of truth. Biology could not function as a scientific discipline if it did not draw such boundaries, and disciplines like biology, and the specialization and collaboration disciplines make possible, are necessary for scientific progress. In the real world, scientists make progress not by questioning everything about their disciplines but by questioning a few very specific things and taking the rest on faith. In the real world, people who eschew disciplines and seek scientific truth entirely on their own are fated to become not epochal geniuses but epic crackpots.

Yet somehow, eschewing orthodoxy and questioning everything is often held up as an ideal in religious matters. On this view, the intelligent approach to religion is to be a “seeker,” a “none,” or “spiritual but not religious.” The members of religious groups who reject the shared questions and assumptions of their church are assumed to be the smart ones who think for themselves, and being called a “heretic” is in some circles a badge of honor.

I’ll happily admit that there are reasons to believe that an individual search for truth might be more fruitful in the context of religion than in, say, astrophysics. That’s because I believe in a personal God and in the reality of God speaking to people. But even acknowledging that, it seems odd to me the extent to which the value of communities in a search for religious truth goes so unappreciated. If religious truth is really truth—that is, an effort to understand a complicated world based on all available evidence—then it will be more effectively sought by communities than by individuals. Religious truths, once discovered, will be passed on and become traditions. Religious groups will form around those traditions the way scientific disciplines form around the great discoveries of the past, and, like scientific disciplines, they will inevitably become uncomfortable places for people who reject their core orthodoxies. If religious truth really is truth, then the idea that the best way to find it is to ignore everything that has already been discovered and start from scratch simply makes no sense.

I suspect sometimes that one reason the religious groups and their orthodoxies come in for so much abuse is because many of their abusers assume that religion is not really about truth at all but rather a purely subjective outlook on the world—a set of irrational preferences that one might take up or discard as one fancies—and that the orthodoxies of organized religion are therefore unwelcome and pointless constraints. But an equally likely explanation is that the abusers are simply partisans, that the accusations of dogmatism are really just disagreements with the content of the dogma, and that the real reason the heretics are admired is not that they have thought for themselves but that they have rejected the orthodoxies of their faith in favor of ones more pleasing to their faith’s critics.

And, to be clear, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. The critics are right sometimes. Not all orthodoxies are true or good, and sometimes even good ones become too narrow or inflexible—in both churches and academic disciplines. But one should not assume that blind orthodoxy is the only reason for a religion to accept ideas with which one disagrees; nor should anyone conclude that because a religion’s search for truth follows different questions and assumptions from one’s own, its believers must not be really searching. Most importantly, no one should reject all orthodoxies as inherently bad, because to do so is to reject the communal search for truth entirely, and thereby to reject organized religion, and science, and any hope of coming to a meaningful understanding of the world.

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