Religion's Changing Domain of Knowledge
Jul 28, 2011

Religion's Changing Domain of Knowledge

Religion has long claimed ultimate Truth in two differing domains of knowledge: what is, and what ought to be; descriptive and normative; knowledge about the nature of the universe and knowledge of the morality of the universe. But these claims to knowledge in both the descriptive and normative domains are shrinking and have shrunk considerably. A third domain of knowledge, the spiritual one, turns out to be largely vacuous.

It is most obvious in terms of the descriptive knowledge. What we know about the universe through the growth in scientific understanding has been staggering. In physics, astronomy, mathematics, geology, biology, archaeology, paleontology, sociology, psychology and many other fields, the new knowledge gained through science was, where it contradicted religious claims, aggressively combated by the clergy of the times. Resisting the inevitable march of progress is, however, difficult and with time mainstream religion has surrendered these past claims to knowledge and accepted the scientific truths. This transition is infamously remembered in the story of Galileo, but the history of the relationship between science and religion is so full of such a richness of continual struggle that to overemphasize this one story is to minimize the extent of this millennia long battle.

The descriptive claims maintained by religion have been reduced to a very narrow scope. Most obviously, it retains the major metaphysical claims of the existence of a deity that created the universe and intervenes in our lives. Such a deistic claim, so lacking in predictive ability and explanatory power (the hallmarks of a good theory), has been pushed by science into a domain that is so limited in scope one is reduced to merely epistemic questions. (For More: The Slippery Slope of Deism). Proving the validity of these last few metaphysical claims is an order of magnitude harder than disproving or proving string theory which likewise makes few predictions that we can currently imagine being pragmatically testable. Religion, much more trivially, also maintains claims about a relatively narrow branch of history in the middle east thousands of years ago. One can dispute the historical accuracy of the claims, but it is a sufficiently tiny fields of knowledge that we don't need to bother.

In response to this declining ability to make descriptive claims about the universe there is a domain of knowledge that has been invented; namely, the so called 'spiritual' claims. We hear this word all the time so it is reasonable to assume it has some important meaning. Yet, unless one begins with the circular assumption of the existence of a deity, the concept would not appear to have a separate meaning from the other forms of knowledge. I challenge anyone to give me an example of a spiritual claim that cannot be immediately reduced to being either a descriptive or a normative claim about the universe. It would appear to simply be an expression that creates an allegedly new form of knowledge to which science, by definition, cannot make claims to and to which religion has ultimate lordship over. One would thus have a larger classification into descriptive, normative and spiritual knowledge with science constrained to but the former. It would appear, thankfully, that this is merely a false category that gives but a pretense of a new form of knowledge. As religion has retreated from the descriptive world it has responded by building up the supposed spiritual world.

With the descriptive knowledge so cripplingly reduced by science, and with spiritual knowledge seen as vacuous, all that is left is normative knowledge. And religion maintains its claims as the sole source of moral knowledge. It is often suggested that morality without God simply isn't possible (or even definable) or that the morality of atheists today has only come because of emersion in Judeo-Christian culture. There are many ways to dismiss these claims (perhaps deserving a more substantial post) but the principle observation I wish to note is that much like science, morality has been involved in a more or less steady progress that consistently pushes the necessity of religion further and further into the fringes. Over the thousands of years that religious canon has remained unchanged, society has undertaken an enormous transformation in its cultural understanding and practice of morality. By the moral standards of today, the homophobic and sexist (and many other forms of) comments in the bible are palpably anachronistic and immoral. We must thus reject the notion that morality (or at least societal understanding and expression of it) is somehow fixed and, indeed, moral knowledge is subject to the same progressive and modernizing forces as descriptive knowledge. In parallel to the retreating descriptive claims of established churches, there has been a retreating of previous held moral positions. These battles have been and still are being viscously fought (see gay rights, abortion, teaching creationism etc) between the church and the forces of modernism.

It is usually well acknowledged that religion has lost domains in terms of its descriptive claims about the universe. What is less well acknowledged is that the other two domains, spiritual and moral, are respectively vacuous or experiencing the same retreat into irrelevance as experienced by the descriptive claims. Our knowledge of the universe or of what we think ought to be moral claims is never going to be complete. There will always be gaps in our knowledge and in those gaps a 'God of the Gaps' can always be claimed to reside. With the march of progress in our understanding, however, the gaps become increasingly filled in and the God of the Gaps gets irrevocably smaller. 

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