What Will Save Us from Our Own Subjectivity?

What Will Save Us from Our Own Subjectivity? January 20, 2015

school_athensOne thing that modern science and the Christian religion share is an appreciation for the fallibility of human beings. Both skepticism (which lies at the heart of the scientific method) and faith (particularly the Christian faith) recognize that, as much as we want to be rational beings, we don’t always do the logical thing. We have a mixture of motives in almost everything we do, and we can be highly skilled at fooling ourselves into believing what we want to believe.

Both worldviews can agree to that. What they cannot agree on is how to get outside our own subjective thought processes. How can we rise above the unreliability of our own minds? What can save us from this inherent weakness?

A Question That Eats Itself

Some would answer this question with a philosophical approach, logically analyzing the ideological underpinnings of the two competing ways of knowing. Apologists championing the presuppositionalist method aim to do this. Unable to find concrete evidence for the claims of their religion, they retreat into philosophical games, shifting the burden of proof onto the rest of us like a radioactive hot potato.

I see two major problems with this approach.

First of all, using logic to analyze logic brings an obvious and inescapable limitation. You always have to start somewhere—with some basic assumptions already in place—and your starting point will invariably determine your destination. A logical argument can be internally cohesive and flawless, but that doesn’t ensure that its premises were correct to begin with. So this can only get you so far on your quest to escape your own subjectivity.

Second, in their efforts to transcend the limitations of their own minds, these folks are retreating further into their own minds in order to solve a problem of which the mind itself is the cause. That strikes me as untenably circular. But if a philosophical approach won’t do, what is our alternative?

We need some kind of test, some kind of objective assessment tool which stands apart from our own subjective wishes and philosophical presuppositions. We need a second opinion. For that, we turn to empirical observation. I’m submitting to you here two diagnostic questions which, if answered honestly, will reveal which of these two competing ideologies—revelation or reason—we can trust to save us from our own personal biases.

Can It Learn New Things?

Q1: Can your ideology learn from its own mistakes? Does it even possess a means for revising its own beliefs or for discovering new things?

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, those entrusted with healing the sick believed that illnesses came from an imbalance of the four humors (blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm). This belief was established by centuries of tradition and led to relatively ineffective treatments like changing the temperature of your food or cutting open your veins and draining them of blood until you nearly pass out.

Today you will not find a major hospital or university still operating from the four humors theory of disease because the medical profession has long since disposed of that belief. It learned from its mistakes as it increasingly came to rely on experimentation and empirical observation to validate its beliefs. In the mid- to late-19th century, Hippocrates’s ancient humorism was replaced by cellular pathology and eventually with the germ theory of disease, which yielded a cornucopia of measurable improvements within the medical profession.

Treatments today are significantly more effective in treating disease, and eventually gene therapy will likely eliminate many diseases entirely before they can even take root. The forward march of progress continues, thanks to the scientific method, objective experimentation, and empirical observation.

What about a religion based on authoritative revelation like Christianity? Can it learn from its mistakes and let go of its incorrect beliefs? Does it even possess a means for examining whether or not its beliefs are “correct?” Is it capable of acknowledging when it has made a mistake? Let’s take a handful of beliefs as a test case.

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, the church taught that it could not make a mistake because it is endowed with the infallible authority of God himself (by means of either the pope or else the councils of the church). Church leaders taught at that time that salvation from sin is impossible apart from the sacraments administered by the Church of Rome alone. They taught that sins must be paid for, at least in part, through acts of penance. They taught that the wafers and wine of communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus upon their ingestion. They baptized babies and prayed to dead saints. They taught that people who aren’t fully ready for heaven must first spend time in Purgatory to pay off their remaining sins, and that things done by the still-living can help expedite the departed’s passage into heaven.

Now fast-forward to today and what do we find? Guess what? They still believe the same things today!

And yes, if you’re a Protestant, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, wait a second! We don’t believe any of those things anymore! See, you’re wrong!” Ah, but not so fast. Not only did those beliefs not die away (like the four humors theory of disease did), but those Christians who subscribe to those beliefs still outnumber those who don’t almost 2 to 1. The Catholic Church still teaches every one of those things.

The only reason you were raised in a church that taught something else is because people were eventually chased out of the Church of Rome at the point of a sword. They had to start a totally new church, often at cost of great bloodshed. That’s the only way to “change” a religion which claims divine authority for its beliefs. In such an environment, new ways of thinking are rejected and their advocates are excommunicated—kicked out and forced to start something totally new.

If you don’t think your particular denomination suffers from this same rigid inflexibility, then I’d suggest an experiment: Choose a core belief of your group and challenge it, then see what happens next. For example, you could walk into a Southern Baptist church (the largest Protestant denomination, yet still outnumbered by Catholics 85 to 1) and suggest that the Bible can be wrong about some things. Suggest that same-sex relationships are valid expressions of love, or that women should be allowed the same leadership positions as men, then see how they respond.

Can dogma legitimately be questioned, or do people just have to start a separate group in order to follow their own teachings? More to the point, how does one even determine which teaching is “right?” Do you consult an authoritative book? What if the book is wrong? What is your criteria for determining if what you believe bears any resemblance to reality? Subjective impressions? You feel it in your heart? This leads me to my second reality check for our two competing epistemologies.

Is Consensus Even Possible?

Q2: Does the passage of time produce an increasing convergence of interpretations and conclusions about important things? Does your worldview move progressively towards consensus, or does it just keep splintering further and further into competing sects?

This second test is related to the first, since any ideology which can learn from its mistakes will be always improving, while the inflexible ones remain static.

When the germ theory of disease came of age in the late 19th century, people still thought that “night air” was bad for you, as if some diseases were caught through impurities in the atmosphere. During every transitional phase of scientific discovery you will find a similar divergence of thought, not to mention an almost vicious battle for the minds of the general populace.

But when you move forward in time, you see that those previously-held scientific ideas which cannot survive scrutiny falling away until most folks eventually acknowledge the facts that have been discovered. For example, among scientists today you will not find a significant number who reject the Tectonic Plate Theory of the Earth’s crust and continental drift, nor will you find many who reject the Bohr model of the atom. Come to think of it, after the Higgs boson was confirmed in Geneva a few years back, it’s become much more difficult to find scientists who will impugn the Standard Model of particle physics.

Among biologists today you will not find a significant faction denying common ancestry of the species (as best as I can gather, it’s less than one percent, and those are strictly for religious reasons), nor will you find a significant proportion of climatologists in denial about global warming (most surveys put the number just under three percent). Those last two remain controversial in popular American media only because of the lingering cultural presence of evangelical Christianity (fueled as much by FOX News as by their theology). In time, these controversies, too, will die away as the steady march of scientific progress continues. Soon the deniers of evolution and global warming will look as ridiculous as today’s Flat Earth Society. Eventually consensus becomes obvious and the old ways of thinking die away.

But what of the consensus among practitioners of religion? Is there one? After three or four thousand years, has a majority of the world’s religious practitioners even decided upon the correct number of gods, much less what they want from us? Even those who have decided there’s only one true God disagree with each other (quite violently at times) about which one is the right one.

Come to think of it, even those who agree on the Christian God cannot agree on how he wants to be worshiped. Their disagreements have famously multiplied over time so that Christianity is now comprised of over thousands of denominations, each one disagreeing with the other on how things are supposed to be done. The majority of those are even using the same authoritative canon of scripture, yet they cannot manage to worship under the same roof on Sunday mornings because their disagreements are so sharp and non-negotiable.

After 2,000 years, you’d think the disagreements would decrease in number (especially since Jesus named Christian unity as a proof of his legitimacy). That’s how it works in the sciences: Over time, a consensus forms because they demand hard evidence for their views, and whenever a better explanation comes along they get rid of the old one and adopt the new. Not so with religion, for theology is an exceedingly subjective enterprise. Even the experts in that field cannot reach an agreement about the most basic things after many centuries.

Related: “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History

Science’s Greatest Strength

My Christian friends are fond of disparaging science (always a bad sign) and reminding me how many times science has gotten things wrong in the past. “See? You can’t trust science!” they tell me.

But hold on a second there. How would you even know that science got it wrong if it had not been for further science exposing the flaws of the earlier views? In other words, what they fail to acknowledge is that science is correcting science—it’s improving upon itself—which is perhaps the most convincing demonstration of the superiority of skepticism and empiricism over faith as a way of discerning reality.

The very fact that science can learn and grow and revise its views is the most impressive thing about it. Theology cannot do that, and faith cannot reconsider or revise its dogmatic assertions because one of its assertions is that you have to believe even when empirical observation appears to contradict it. That’s why it’s called “faith.” It’s diametrically opposed to empiricism and skepticism by its very definition (at least as presented in the Bible).

Muhammad Ali said, “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I think the same thing about the history of a religion. If your ideological tradition believes and teaches the exact same thing today which it taught two hundred years ago (or five hundred, or two thousand!), that doesn’t instill me with confidence. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I’d rather go with an epistemology that is capable of self-correction, self-improvement, and continual learning and growing. If your ideology can’t pass these two tests, maybe you should reconsider if it bears any resemblance to the real world.


Note: My  progressive Christian friends will identify less with the dichotomy I’ve laid out here. Their beliefs have likely changed a great deal over the course of their lives, and that puts them in a much better place to learn and grow than their evangelical counterparts. To whatever extent they are willing and able to allow reason and experience challenge the dogmatic assertions of their religion, they will be affected far less by the pitfalls I’ve described here. But in their case, I would argue it’s precisely because they’re allowing the former to trump the latter, so that still doesn’t really take away from the point I’m arguing here.

About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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