Seeking Certainty: religious belief and scientific fact

The following is part one of the third of twelve Questions Beyond Science.  It’s a draft for the next edition of The Big Bang to Now, and any feedback, positive or negative, will be taken most seriously.

How Certain Can We Be?

We all need a certain amount of predictability in our lives to survive.  Without a regular source of oxygen, food, water, and shelter we would perish.  Likewise, we need to know there are people we can count on, to care for us and be there when we need them.

As we grow older we often start asking about other things we want to be sure about too.  What happens to us when we die?  Who can we believe?  What is the difference between a belief and an opinion? between a scientific theory and a fact?  What can we know for certain and what is just a good guess?

For thousands of years, some of the greatest of human thinkers have asked how we know what we think we know.  This is not a trivial question that can be easily answered in a few short pages.  There is one issue, however, outstanding in today’s world.

That question is whether certain knowledge can be gained through either religion or science.

Certainty and Religious Belief

The answers to some of our most significant questions have been given answers by different religions.  Religion addresses questions about values, about how we should behave, about sin and punishment and forgiveness, about redemption and what happens after we die.

Religion also often offers answers to questions about the natural world.  There have been religious answers to questions about how the universe began, why there is suffering in the world, why we get sick and die, why natural disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes happen.  Religions such as Christianity and Islam also teach that there are other worlds beside the one we live in and to which we go after death.

Are Religious Teachings Infallible?

Millions of people believe the teachings of their religion are infallibly true.  Sacred books such as scripture or the Koran are sacred sources of truth because they are seen as direct revelations from God and that the only road to salvation is through unquestioning adherence to the teachings of their holy books and religious leaders.  The faith of some believers is so certain that they have given their lives for it.

Not everyone, however, believes that religious teachings are necessarily true.  How is it that some people are certain about their religious beliefs while others are unconvinced?

Religious doctrine is based on faith.  That means that by definition it is not subject to the kind of empirical proof or disproof we ordinarily look for outside the world of religion.  Faith is based on what an individual believes is revelation, truths make known directly by God to those he chooses.  Many people are born into a faith and accept the beliefs they are taught as children for the rest of their lives.  Others have what they call an enlightenment or conversion, often an intense experience in which they believe God has spoken to them directly and whose invitation to belief they have accepted.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Religious Certainty

There are often great advantages religious belief and absolute certainty.  Religious beliefs have supported people who have dedicated their lives to the good of others.  People risk their lives for their values, are even willing to die rather than betray them.

Common religious values also help to create a cohesive society of shared principles and common goals.  This bonding of the community created by religion is so great that some people – including some who are not believers themselves – fear that without common religious values, society will disintegrate into fractured individuals who care about nothing but their own pleasure.

But this very advantage is sometimes religion’s greatest liability.  How does one determine who is right when people are absolutely certain about contradictory beliefs?  For thousands of years and to this very day, people have claimed the right to kill “unbelievers” and “infidels” whose only crime is to espouse a different set of beliefs.

It was in an attempt to reduce this carnage after centuries of murderous civil wars in Europe that the idea of separating the power of the state and that of the church took hold and was established in various forms of government called democracy.  At the same time, people began to separate certainty based on scientific evidence from certainty based on religious faith.

Can science, then, provide absolute certainty, at least in those areas in which there are established, proven scientifically verified facts?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

The possibility of achieving absolute certainty using the scientific method will be discussed in the next post.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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