Taking Religion Seriously

Today I would like to talk about the lack of seriousness in religion.  Religion, whether conservative or liberal, often fails to take its subject matter as something real.  Conservatives are more concerned with the sancrosanctity of  received stories about God than God Himself, and liberals are more concerned with God as a story than as a Creator. 

When studying religion, I could not help but notice that the way we talk about religion typically focuses on the terminology and ideology of the religions themselves rather than exploring the subject matter referenced by those terms and ideologies. 

For example, does it make sense to use the same word “god” when talking about the Latin Jupiter and the Jewish El (אל), since Jupiter is a creature while El is uncreated?   If a god (little “g”) is just a divine creature, isn’t that more like an angel, ghost, jinn, or fairy than like uncreated God?  

And, don’t most of these multiple-god religions have some uncreated entity backstage of the universe, bringing it all into existence, as some forms of Hinduism have their Ishvara?   If our definition of what constitutes a theos (θεός) is unclear or equivocal, then isn’t all of our talk about monotheism vs. polytheism just a lot of bunk: not just our coffee-shop-and-sports-bar talk but even the professional work of religious scholars? 

Why should the terminology of Religious Studies (as it is being called lately) be defined any less precisely than any other field of knowledge?

The relationship of religious professionals and science has long been a tense one.  We have clergy on the right denying the findings of science, which is bad enough.  But, then we have clergy on the left saying things like “science tells you how something happens, but religion tells you why” or “science is about things you can prove, but religion is about things you can’t.”  This semantic compromise hearkens back to the lame, nonsensical, and ever-diminishing God of the Gaps, the conception of God as merely the explanation for things that science had not (yet) explained. 

It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s wry observation, poking fun at the lazy thinking among scientists of his day, that electricity was the “power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.”

The problem is that God isn’t like electricity.  Electricity is a created thing, like all natural phenomena, but God is the source of all created things.  Therefore, God is responsible for the how and the why of things, responsible for things proveable and unproveable, and responsible for all of the natural phenomena studied by science.  Therefore science is a part of religion, not a partner of it.

This might sound alarmingly reminiscent of the evangelical position, that the findings of science must yield to scripture (not to mention the US Constitution)).  However, what I’m saying isn’t a statement about the preeminence of a book about God but about the preeminence of the entity we call God.  I’m not pushing the hoky fundamentalist fairy tale that science is subordinate to a Biblical understanding of the world, but that the subject matter of science is the effect/result of the subject matter of religion.  The religion/science dichotomy that has been pushed by liberals since the late Middle Ages is completely bogus: by studying the engine, we learn about the Engineer. 

 Science is a species of religion.  While fact-based science is a radical expression of the virtue of honesty, religion promotes honesty as well as other virtues. 

Religions and its species of science, in order to be valid, must both be universal.  The freezing point of water is not something that changes over time, except as a result of eternal, universal laws about pressure and salinity that apply everywhere (and everywhen) in reality.  And, if a scientific subject like the freezing point of water doesn’t become obsolete, neither does a religious subject like God’s will.  Conservative preachers who talk about God’s will as something that has become overtaken by events are clearly promoting an obsolete culture’s understanding of God, not Godself.  Our mortal understanding of things is contingent on our experience, but God is not.

But science, as a species of religion, has qualities that do not apply to the genus, like falsifiability.  This is where science and religion must differ.  As God is the source of all things, and therefore the source of all evidence, there can be no circumstance which would provide evidence against God other than the non-existence of the universe itself. 

Similarly, there can be no specific evidence that proves God, making the entire Intelligent Design argument a futile example of idolatry desperately in search of an idol.  Phenomena are falsifiable, and phenomena are creatures of God: those of a conservative mindset who try to demonstrate the existence of “God” are seeking a god that must be a phenomenon, a creature, and thus an idol. 

But, this doesn’t make religion futile.  Absence of falsifiability does tell us something about God.  If there can be no evidence against God, and God is found in all evidence, then it must be true that, in order to “be children of your Father in Heaven,” one must be impartially affirming, sending sunshine on the just and unjust, and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  (Gospel of Matthew 5:45)  It is the highest virtue, agape (αγάπη) or unconditional love, that is revealed in the all-encompassing, unfalsifiable Sourcehood of God.