We’ve heard them all. Science is a religion. It takes more faith to believe in science (or the big bang, or evolution, or an old earth, or climate change, or…) than it does to believe in God. Today brought another set of comparisons of science to religion and religion to science in a Facebook discussion but from a different angle. It’s not the first time I’ve discussed these things and I finally decided that I need to do it here so that I have answers at the ready rather than spending time on replies only to watch them disappear into Facebook wall purgatory and have to go looking for them later with mixed results. It was a long thread and I hope to lay out only the relevant bits and my replies. It began, I with a link to an article about a White-only Pastors conference, and my comment, Anyone can make the bible say and mean whatever suits his or her purposes, which I believe is absolutely true.
A friend then posted something about scientists who are also “nut jobs,” and accusing me of wanting to crush Christianity. I cannot quote this person with certainty because he later removed all his comments and removed me as a friend. But I know it must have been something like that, because of my reply:
[S]cience takes care of its own nut jobs through peer review, replication and results. It’s falsifiable. Religion is not. There is not a “correct answer” that can be proven or disproven. I am not hell bent on crushing christianity, I am committed to the well-being of sentient creatures, and often religion is enemy #1 when it comes to that as this article and a number of my other posts demonstrate. If you are looking for a common thread, it is that. Very grateful for those who “get it” and I have a number of dear friends who do, thankfully. Personally I don’t think religion is necessary to “get it” but everyone’s path is her own, until it violates the well-being of sentient creatures. Then I feel compelled to jump in.
I then issued a revision:
Correction… there are some claims of religions that CAN be disproven, especially those that involve claims about our reality in time-space. I was referring to the stuff that theologians have historically spent time with – the nature of cherubim, the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin, who will sit at whose right hand, what Jesus did on Holy Saturday – that stuff cannot be proved or disproved, and fortunately, we can also safely say that as far as we can know, none of that stuff matters anyway other than as novelty, history, and keeping theologians employed. I guess that’s ok. 🙂
And this is where things got interesting. I will call my friend “John” in the interests of discretion. He replied:
Ojo, Jesus did provide a litmus test, falsifiability, if you will: “You shall know them by their fruits.” The Westboro folks and Terry Jones clearly fail the test, and this is widely affirmed by church leaders. (I won’t attempt to speak for other faiths.) This is comparable to the science world, I would think, in that while the mainstream scientific community applies standards, many, many crackpots put forth little-accepted theories every day. It’s a bit disingenuous to lump “religious” people together while picturing “Science” as a neatly unified front. There are crackpots in ALL fields.
[T]hat falsifiability test might work if it actually worked. Throughout the ages and centuries, all kinds of “fruits” have been alternately accepted, heretical, blasphemous, worthy of death or glory. If it was so, if there was a genuine set of christian behaviors that truly was actually and practically falsifiable, why have they changed so much over the years?
John jumps on this, but in arguing that what he says is a criterion for falsifiability “has not always been followed,” it seems he is actually saying that Christianity (in this case) is falsified! Now perhaps I am not reading him correctly, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt:
Joe, first you suggested there was no form of “falsifiability” in religion (by which it appears you primarily mean Christianity). I pointed to one, and now you discount it because it has not always been followed. Is Science thereby nullified because its standards have not always been followed? Scientific history is full of theories once accepted, now discounted (swamp gas, humors, bleeding, Newtonian mechanics, spontaneous generation, expanding earth, continental drift, steady state theory, etc., etc.). I perceive a double-standard here: Science is “self-correcting” when it discards once-accepted ideas, but Christianity is proved false when it does the same thing. You also seem to view Christianity as including every “religious” idea ever articulated, no matter how absurd, but do not apply this same standard to Science; if you did, Science would look considerably more ridiculous.
Another very bright friend, Jeff jumps in with a very good question, one that becomes central to the discussion:
John, can you show us, in practice, how the Christian community follows this falsifiability principle that you espouse? I’ve seen a similar principle (and several more) work in science, to the point where there are standard models of gravity, evolution, particle physics, chemistry, the periodic chart, and so on. And while these are always open to refinement or even being supplanted by more generalized models, the models we have are generally consistent with ALL current, reliable experimental data.
Can you give me an example of a “standard model” that is agreed-upon by all non-fringe theists of every tradition?
I again felt compelled to clarify my comment on the falsifiable test. I am rushed and not as thoughtful as I would like more often than I would like.
John, I’m afraid I was not too terribly articulate or clear in my reply. I had a lot of time to think about it on my drive from LA to Tucson last night! It’s not that it has not always been followed that concerns me, but that there is not, as Jeff suggests, a standard model that everyone agrees to and there should be. But ok, perhaps we can get past all that hair-splitting and give Christianity the benefit of the doubt here and say that the fruits of the faith are love, which the Bible also would agree with in places. But there are some who will NOT agree with that, and will say that “Correct beliefs and doctrines matter!” I get that comment all the time, so what are those “fruits” that you mention? Perhaps they are Paul’s Fruits of the The Spirit. Putting aside those who still will say that correct doctrines are also important (and I think this an important dynamic), what are we to say of those who bear fruit but are outside of Christianity? Believers do not show any more virtue or character than those of other faiths or no faith, and in some cases (teen pregnancy and divorce rates in the South, for example) are actually worse than among those of other faiths and no faith. So if we are to know them by their fruits and if this is truly a falsifiable principle among Christians then how does it apply, how does it work or show up? I think Jeff’s question is a good one.
I did not hear from John for a number of days, but we’re all busy and some of us at least have lives outside of Facebook, and John is a very talented and busy guy. After some of the other usual bunny trails on the thread, John sent three replies in quick succession. His first:
Hey, Joe, taking a moment to respond to your long entry (Sorry I’ve taken so long–been majorly tied up). I’ll deal with these issues one at a time if/when I can. Re. A standard model: Yes, Christianity has a standard model, and it is agreed upon by leaders of all the major branches of the Church (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism). As a guest speaker […], I spoke at churches from all of these bodies and was rarely even asked my doctrinal beliefs. This was because they knew I shared their core beliefs about the centrality of Christ in God’s plan of salvation, the need to love God and neighbor as oneself, etc. Churches that have abandoned or seriously distorted these core issues (Mormons, Moonies, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) are considered by all but themselves to have abandoned the standard model. This would be parallel the pseudo-sciences that exist on the fringes of the scientific community, I believe. More to come?
Re. Correct doctrines: Of course they matter, especially when they are what people consider key issues. But while the mainstream churches may disagree (as do scientists) over many issues, they do not consider secondary issues to be deal-breakers. The reason Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, etc. accept one another as authentic (read their statements of faith) is because of where all stand on the central issue of saving grace. Indeed, what sets those recognized as non or quasi-Christian cults apart is not only their lack of authenticity on this central issue, but their insistence that only THEY are the real thing. Again, I see a parallel to science in that there are certainly unorthodox “scientists” who are both rejected by and reject the mainstream as well.
And his third, which also included an embedded link to this article by the Barna Group called Self-Described Christians Dominate America but Wrestle with Four Aspects of Spiritual Depth:
Re. Fruits: There certainly are plenty of these in the world of religion ;>). Seriously, the issue, I believe, is separating Christianity from “Christendom.” Western culture has been identified as “Christian” for so long that true life-changing faith has been muddied by the much larger numbers of those with a merely religious affiliation (“wheat” vs. “tares,” in Jesus’ prophetic words). The Barna organization has been doing spirituality polls for years. When they look at the “fruits” born by standard-issue “Christians” (Christendom), the results are, as you point out, not impressive. But when they look at the fruits (level of charitable work and giving vs. divorce, abuse, alcoholism) among those who identify their lives as profoundly centered on Christ (a very small percentage of those calling themselves Christians) the results improve dramatically. We should not be surprised that tares (a sort of pseudo-wheat) do not produce real wheat kernels. I wonder what percentage of people calling themselves “scientists” produce bad fruit, i.e. do irrelevant, poorly supported work leading to questionable conclusions. I suspect they may be the majority. Yet I do not consider them proof that science is, therefore, a false discipline.
That’s the long background for my long set of thoughts and rebuttals below. I had had some time to think some of these things over, but it was the constant comparison of science to religion and religion to science that got my engines fired. I can let one or two go, but this stream seemed to demand a more thorough answer, also because these things come up often.
Although it was not specified, let us first establish that by “fruits of the spirit” we are most likely talking about those listed in Galatians 5:22-23, a short list of some traits that show character: “…love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (NIV) WIth that in mind and all the background, my reply to John follows.
Is Christianity the Standard Model?
First, in reviewing the comments we’ve each made so far, John said, “I won’t attempt to speak for other faiths,” but as far as ascertaining whether or not Christians or any religion can demonstrate higher character and virtue as a result of their faith, that is critically important! I was deliberate when I said that “religion” is not falsifiable. I did not specify nor am I singling out Christianity. All religious traditions make specific claims. Jeff’s question was clear too. “Can you give me an example of a ‘standard model’ that is agreed-upon by all non-fringe theists of every tradition?” He did not single out Christianity or any other religion but specifically mentioned “theists of every tradition.” Nowhere was this addressed, or perhaps it was addressed indirectly by suggesting implicitly that Christianity is the one knowably true, correct religion and that its practitioners are known and its truth verified by its fruits (Gal 5).
So first, John only presented a sort of standard model of Christianity, not for theism or other traditions. Or perhaps he is saying that orthodox (small “o”) Christianity is the standard model of theism. If so, then he has only shown that it is considered so by fiat, by a consensus of church fathers perhaps beginning with Constantine in the 4th Century, but certainly not much earlier (and the historical record and apocrypha are clear on that). There is no data, no research, nothing at all that would logically require anyone to accept the claims of the “leaders of the major branches of the Church” as necessarily, factually, actually and absolutely correct and true, and in fact most of the rest of the world would simply disagree and there is no basis by which anyone can prove that anyone is right or wrong!
Another implicit aspect of Jeff’s question is that the things we know, we know everywhere. They are universal. There is no such thing as Muslim or Christian mathematics. There is only mathematics. There is no European vs. Asian theory of gravity. There is only the theory of gravity. That’s why it is a Standard Model. It works and it works everywhere throughout the known universe. Hawking hinted at the same, and while some consider his statement over the top, I consider it simply a statement of fact:
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
More on that below, but let’s consider that for a moment, and assume that religion and specifically Christianity (since John invoked it) does work using his own metric – fruitful lives.
Are Christians More Virtuous And Fruitful?
The article posted from the Barna group is interesting and I might even agree with a good chunk of it, at least the parts that seem to be a research-driven operationalization of what it means to really be a devout or more sincere kind of Christian using his four parameters (Commitment, Activity, Repentance, and Community). I do not mean to minimize it, because maybe he’s right in his model. But it does fall short in our discussion because first, it does not advance the idea that even those Christians are any better off or any more “moral” or fruitful in their lives using Galatians as the standard, even though John suggested that “the results improve dramatically” over presumably less committed Christians.
Maybe the book makes the point, but the article doesn’t. But even still I will grant the point because Barna’s model makes intuitive sense for any religion or non-religion (and I have adapted it below). But second, it only considers Christianity. There is no assertion that these deeper Christians are any more fruitful than deeper Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists or atheists. Anyone who is going to assert that Christianity is the true Standard Model because its adherents are more fruitful than adherents of any other tradition or by those with no tradition (who are equally committed to their own personal growth) has a stiff burden of proof. It has yet to be shown and this article does not get us there. And that, as my initial assertion using the broad term “religion” and Jeff’s question highlight, is the real question; are Christians more virtuous or fruitful, even the deeply committed ones, than the deeply committed practitioners of other traditions?
What about those with no religious tradition? I could also somewhat easily adapt the article and its four parameters for unbelievers. Commitment, activity, and community are all critically important. We don’t need religion for any of those and hopefully that’s an uncontroversial statement that we can agree on. But repentance does seem unique! I have no need for what Barna calls “abandoning the lure of sin and handing total control of their life to God.” So is this truly a necessary ingredient to living a fruitful life in the Galatians sense? I think not, but what is necessary in my opinion, and what I think is the overarching parameter rather than repentance is a sense of humility; that I am human, that I am no better than any other, that I can fail and have failed personally, that I can cause harm, and that my life is more meaningful when I am in the service of others. Again, we do not need religion for any of that. Humility is a human phenomenon first, not a religious one. I believe we all struggle with these concepts, not just Christians.
(Dis)Agreement Among Major Christian Sects
I think John is too generous on the idea that the major Christian sects simply ”accept one another as authentic” or that the only thing that divides them are secondary issues. I could discuss many such articles of division, but does anyone think, for example, that the Catholics consider the primacy of and submission to the authority of the Pope a secondary issue? Or the belief that the literal and actual body and blood of Christ are present in the Eucharist, which the Catholic Catechism calls (in a paragraph heading) the “Source and Summit Of Ecclesial Life?”
According to their Catechism:
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: ‘Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation (CCC, 1376).’”
The Council also declared anathema (accursed and consigned to damnation) anyone who:
…denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue” and anyone who “saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session)
The Catechism itself says that The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.” (1324) and, “In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” (1327).
How much wiggle room is there on this issue? In light of all this, does it make sense to say that this is really a secondary issue to Catholics?
Does Raul Ries from Calvary Chapel believe that the Pope and the Catholic Church are on a spiritual plane equal to his? Here is an excerpt from one of his radio talks, (the audio of which can be found here). At 20:53 he says this:
[T]he thing which is sacrificed by heathens is sacrificed to demons and not to God. Notice [Paul] explains it. And I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the Lord’s table and the table of demons or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy or are we stronger than He. Now maybe not here in America but maybe not more in America (sic) because of all the Latins that come from Central America and South America and Mexico. We have what we call santaria. Or what we call ‘white witchcraft’. And that is practiced in the Catholic Church. Believe it or not. You’re dealing with the supernatural in the burning of the incense and the candles and then the laying hands and doing the chanting and then the (transis?) and the calling of demons up from hell. And some even kill chickens and the blood of chickens or animals are used to sprinkle on the altar. In Brazil, man, this is big time. And I think it’s important to understand that we’re not putting anybody down, but we are putting the system down because the system is not biblical. You see.”
Of course, anyone who has been around the Calvary system for any length of time knows of Pastor Raul Ries’s toxic points of view on Catholicism.
And what also of the differences between say, Calvin, Wesley and Luther? Are they also secondary? Do they have the same standards for communion with God, eternal life, or the same ideas about redemption, sin, forgiveness of sin, predestination, expiation and reparation? Are these secondary issues to them? Do they all think that members of the other sects will all be eternally present with God? Perhaps there are those who have (thankfully) transcended their in-group’s doctrinal codes, but what are the official positions, as I have just outlined for Catholics on the Eucharist?
I think the supposed kumbaya of the major sects within Christianity is a fantasy. I would argue that there is much more disagreement than agreement, even among the primary issues (the nature of Christ and his work, the nature and mechanisms of salvation, the role of baptism of the holy spirit in salvation, whether salvation can be lost or not, etc.). There is no agreement on all these major issues and many, many more, and that’s why we have the divisions we have with all the attendant consequences and discord.
How Can We Know Doctrine and Theology Are True?
But again, let me grant the point anyway and concede for the sake of argument that there is agreement of the major sects! John wrote, “Correct doctrines: Of course they matter, especially when they are what people consider key issues.” So that’s the assertion. How are we to know that the doctrines and theologies are correct and true? What proof can we submit them to in order to prove their veracity? What is the method? If it is by tradition or by religious or scriptural authority and fiat, what mechanism exists that requires us to accept that tradition or authority rather than acknowledging that they are wrong and simply tossing them out like we have so many other specious authoritative claims? In what way, in other words, are these doctrines falsifiable? Those questions lead to my final point.
I am amused and a little perplexed at the frequency with which John compared religion and science throughout his replies. It is as if (and I am not sure here, and again, I hope he corrects me if I have this wrong. I’m only trying to do my best to understand) he is equating the two, putting them on the same playing field. I don’t believe that’s warranted. Let’s look at the issues listed in John’s replies.
1) There Are Crackpots On All Fields
With regard to types like Westboro and Terry Jones:
This is comparable to the science world, I would think, in that while the mainstream scientific community applies standards, many, many crackpots put forth little-accepted theories every day. It’s a bit disingenuous to lump ‘religious’ people together while picturing ‘Science’ as a neatly unified front. There are crackpots in ALL fields.
My Reply: I don’t believe I said that science was a neatly unified front. In fact, I said, “science takes care of its own nut jobs through peer review, replication and results.” Science has it’s nut jobs, quacks, charlatans, and incompetents. I admit that. But I consider that a strength, not a weakness! It is the second part of my sentence that elevates the scientific method over the religious way of knowing things. Peer review, replication and results is something only science can lay claim to. Religion cannot. Those mechanisms are what weeds out the crackpots. It’s also what makes science more robust. There is stiff competition for publication, for showing other theories wrong, for data-driven innovation, and for answering unanswered questions, for pushing the boundaries of our knowledge farther and father. If someone in science did what was suggested, and simply put out garbage, “little-accepted theories,” then their careers are either over or seriously marginalized. Westboro Baptist simply goes on and on, criticized, but toothlessly. They are not weeded out at all, they just grow right along with the rest.
2) Discounted Scientific Theories
Is Science thereby nullified because its standards have not always been followed? Scientific history is full of theories once accepted, now discounted (swamp gas, humors, bleeding, Newtonian mechanics, spontaneous generation, expanding earth, continental drift, steady state theory, etc., etc.). I perceive a double-standard here: Science is ‘self-correcting’ when it discards once-accepted ideas, but Christianity is proved false when it does the same thing. You also seem to view Christianity as including every ‘religious’ idea ever articulated, no matter how absurd, but do not apply this same standard to Science; if you did, Science would look considerably more ridiculous.
My Reply: First, science is not nullified when its standards (a curious word, by the way. I assume he means method) are not followed. The incorrect method and any conclusions that result from it are nullified. That’s the way it works. That’s why science exists. It is a method, not a belief system. Religion is not a method. It is a belief system. Science makes no claim for inerrancy or divine inspiration. Religion does. If there is a double standard, it is only because it is inherent in the claims of each.
A bad idea or methodology in science is just that. But in religion, it must become a metaphor, or explained away somehow to preserve claims of inerrancy or divine inspiration. All theories that have been shown to be false, fallacious, even fraudulent have been shown to be so because of the scientific method, not in spite of it. So yes, science is self-correcting, and not just because somebody says so. I am not giving science any special consideration on its bad ideas. It is self-correcting only because it has results that work, that are verifiable, that are replicable.
What similar mechanisms does religion have? What proof can we submit religious bad ideas to in order to prove their veracity? What is the method? That’s my point. Westboro and Terry Jones are easy. Everyone, religious or not knows these guys are nuts. But what about ideas such as hell, sin and redemption? How can we know with the same certainty that we have when we purpose to land a vehicle on Mars that these ideas, what I would consider very bad ideas are actually, factually and absolutely true? We know how science weeds out its bad ideas. How does religion do that, especially with those I just mentioned? Or if they’re not bad ideas, but really great ideas, then how can we know with certainty (taking into account what I said about tradition and religious authority above)?
Now perhaps some will argue that “well, we don’t know all the answers in science either.” That’s true. But then, we don’t require people to believe those things either, nor are they central to any of the theories like sin, hell and redemption are for Christianity. I am not concerned with how ridiculous science may look because of the ideas that have been discarded in light of its overwhelming track record of actual and meaningful results as we learn more and more.
But when someone attributes something to “the Word of God,” and here I mean even well-accepted mainstream ideas that can no longer be considered viable, then because it had the initial imprimatur, it is in a different class. Rather than the Church saying that the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe is tentative, they made it doctrinal and authoritative. When it was shown otherwise, it means much more egg on the bishop’s face than it would have for a scientist who operates under the presumption of tentativeness. Failure, error, mistakes, folly do no damage to the scientific method. That’s why it exists. They do, however cause fatal damage to religion when its discredited tenets are doctrinal, considered inspired, inerrant, authoritative.
3) The Fringes and Pseudo-Science
With regard to Mormons, Moonies, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, they…
…are considered by all but themselves to have abandoned the standard model. This would be parallel the pseudo-sciences that exist on the fringes of the scientific community, I believe.
My Reply: The pseudo sciences can be ruled out because of the failure of their method and results. The sects mentioned are ruled out because they diverge from what John called the standard model of Christianity. But that model again, is arbitrary in that “…it is agreed upon by leaders of all the major branches of the Church (Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism).” That’s all we’re given on support for a religious standard model. In science we hold things to be true because they work, not because a bunch of people got together and agreed that this is the way things are. The standard is much, much higher and more stringent, grueling and unrelenting actually (as anyone who has read published dissent and reviews knows). Now maybe there is more to the support of the religious standard model than agreement by the leaders of all the major branches of the Church, but I don’t see that in the reply, nor have I seen or heard it anywhere else. How do we know the tenets and claims of the religious standard model presented are actually, factually and absolutely true? Without that, how can we thus compare religion and science?
4) Dissent and The Mainstream
But while the mainstream churches may disagree (as do scientists) over many issues, they do not consider secondary issues to be deal-breakers. […] Again, I see a parallel to science in that there are certainly unorthodox ‘scientists’ who are both rejected by and reject the mainstream as well.
My Reply: What is the criteria for the disagreements among mainstream churches? For science, it is because there are unanswered questions, research not yet done, done poorly, inconclusive results, not yet replicated, not yet published, incomplete theoretically. Again, the comparison does not hold up. Those unorthodox scientists who can deliver results are not unorthodox! Some madman in a basement in his home, uneducated and illiterate may come up with a revolutionary and correct theory and explanation of dark matter! If it works, if it’s replicable using the scientific method, if it’s thus verified, then in what sense is that person unorthodox? The only unorthodox that are rejected by the mainstream that I am aware of are those whose conclusions and results are either spurious or non-existent. Believe me, anyone who can show that evolution is false needs only write it up, have it replicated and verified and collect her Nobel Prize. This is not at all how religion works.
5) Bad Fruit
I wonder what percentage of people calling themselves “scientists” produce bad fruit, i.e. do irrelevant, poorly supported work leading to questionable conclusions. I suspect they may be the majority. Yet I do not consider them proof that science is, therefore, a false discipline.
My Reply: I’m not sure, but my guess is that science could not be considered a false discipline because it works! It gets results! But let’s just say that even 99% of all scientists’ work is irrelevant, poorly supported, and leads to questionable conclusions. I think most scientists would agree that the work in question should be rejected at least until it has been revised, refined or corrected and not a minute sooner. I think they would also agree though that this does not threaten the scientific method in the least. In fact, as I said above, it supports it. It is precisely why there is a scientific method at all! Hawking was right. Science will rule the day because it works, and results matter (this reminds me of a law that I teach my students regularly¹: Results ≠ No Results + Excuses)
In the end, maybe there actually is a planet or star called Kolob that is the nearest celestial body to the throne of God. Maybe the Temple Garment “when properly worn…provides protection against temptation and evil.” Maybe Bigfoot, chupacabras and Nessie exist, and maybe people have been abducted by extra-terrestrial aliens. Maybe there is a hell and maybe there are cherubim. People believe some interesting things. My own view is that if any of these things exists, it will be science that discovers them. We are not left only with the alternative of having to believe such things under pain of eternal torment at the hands of God because tradition or religious authority says we must. The world is no longer ruled by popes, priests, prophets or pastors, and I am personally left wondering how much they are actually part of the ongoing discovery of our universe and the human experience unless they too are working as scientists, and only then independent of their self-interest, prejudices and passions. The powerful coercion of those offices may have been compelling and may have been sufficient for driving assent of the masses in pre-science Palestine, or for Constantine, the Council of Trent, the Dark Ages, for Joseph Smith, or for the very many pseudo scientists. No more.
I also recommend this related blog post, A Theology Sandwich.
¹ – I am grateful to my friend Miles Holliman for exposing me to the simple beauty of this formula, which I have since co-opted and which my students know as “Ojo’s Law #2.”