Information Age Education
   Issue Number 163
June, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

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This is the 10th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 10: Determining Credibility in Religion

Norman Metzler
Emeritus Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Portland

One of my students came to me after class and asked if we could talk for a moment. As Roger and I walked toward my office he shared his concern. He was seriously dating a young Jewish woman, and he was a committed Christian. Since Jesus was a Jew, and since we share much of the Bible with the Jews as our authoritative text, don’t Jews and Christians basically believe in the same God? And if so, would serious problems emerge if they got married?

I explained the commonalities between the two religions as well as their essential differences. The Jews, I explained, do not accept the New Testament as valid revelation from God. The Jewish tradition has rejected Jesus’ message of salvation in God’s coming Kingdom as a pure gift, rather than as the reward for keeping the Mosaic Covenant. Roger left my office dejected, because he had hoped that I might affirm his view that he and his fiancée believed essentially the same thing about a saving relationship with God. Similar religious beliefs, of course, do not necessarily define a successful marriage.

The previous article in this series dealt with validity/credibility in science and religion; while E.O. Wilson deplores the negative effects on society of destructive tribalism and competition in religious as well as political ideologies, he is respectful of religion and hopeful that the two great forces of science and religion can work collaboratively for the good of humanity. This article will also directly address the subject of credibility and validity in religion, and especially the theological bases that various religions use to assure their adherents that their beliefs are credible.

The credibility of claims about religious truth is more complex and difficult than claims about scientific truth because a spiritual faith in a god is more obviously an existential matter that involves one’s whole life, while the scientific enterprise can generally be seen as more limited to the rational cognitive investigation of causation within the natural realm. However, in reality all of life involves some faith or trust. We trust environmental phenomena, other people’s behavior, and received information that goes beyond absolute evidence. For example, a given bridge may hypothetically warrant a high level of confidence in its ability to hold you and your vehicle while driving over it. However, driving over that bridge is an existential act of faith; the reasonable probabilities are never 100%, whereas actually driving over the bridge is 100% existential commitment. Some faith or trust is actually implied in choosing to continue living at all; religious faith involves trusting in some transcendent spiritual reality.

The assertion that science is based on evidence derived from rigorous, objective, rational inquiry, while religion is based on unexamined authority, dogmatic pronouncements, subjective experience and blind faith that allows for no debate or inquiry, simply does not hold up under critical examination. The old Baconian model, according to which science “objectively” examines data that are independent of any beliefs or theories, and progresses strictly due to better equipment and investigative techniques, is no longer tenable. Some trust or faith in an existing scientific theory, with its assumptions, definitions, rules, etc., will determine in advance what evidence will count as credible. Also in science then, as in other realms of inquiry, including religion, “believing is seeing.”

Religious faith normally requires some form of evidence or corroborative grounding, and that evidence may be tested for its credibility. Four bases generally are called upon to support the credibility of most religious claims: religious writings (commonly called Scriptures), tradition, reason, and experience.
  1. Religious writings/Scriptures may involve direct recordings of purported divine revelation, or records of divine action in history. Dealing with any Scriptures or religious texts involves interpretation, though some religionists may deny that they are interpreting, claiming rather to be reading their religious texts just as God dictated them. In any case, religious texts may make references to nature, history and logical arguments that can be tested for their credibility. For example, biblical archaeology tests the credibility of references to ancient locations and events. It was originally expected by rationalist scholars to debunk biblical references, but in fact has in many instances validated references to locations such as ancient Jericho.

  2. Religions have their distinct traditions, often involving the appearance of a spiritual leader who is the founder of that religious tradition. One thinks of figures such as Mohammed, Buddha, Moses and Jesus. Their Scriptures generally arise in relationship to these leaders and the traditions growing from them. Their tradition continually transmits, develops, interprets, and embellishes the earlier Scriptures and traditions of the given religion. Again, truth claims are often embedded in these traditions, which must be tested for their veracity. For example, historical research has continued to unfold the complexities and nuances of the second temple period of Judaism, around the time of Jesus.

  3. Reason generally develops, solidifies, tests, and modifies the Scriptures and developing traditions, though some religions involve reason and logic more explicitly and intentionally than others. All religions can be described in cognitive terms, and most religions have doctrinal and/or catechetical formulations that express and define their specific and unique truth claims. Such claims can be examined and evaluated for their inherent logic and credibility. Reason and logic, for example, challenge the Mormon claims of a lost tribe of Israel that landed in Mexico, and then migrated north to what is now upper New York State.

  4. Finally, experience in real life corroborates the credibility of the given religion. The chief claims of the truth of various major living religions are validated by the experiences of their followers. Without that the religion would cease to exist. These experiential evidences of the various religions can be compared for their cogency and credibility. For example, the Buddhist understanding of life as pain and suffering can be tested phenomenologically against the daily life experiences of those who follow Buddhism.
Some religions are more contingent upon corroborating evidence than others, but all religions can be evaluated to some extent on the rationality and credibility of their beliefs. Christianity may be the most dependent of all the major religions upon the credibility of its claims, and of all religions is therefore most vulnerable to falsifiability. If Jesus did not teach what the Bible claims he taught; if he did not do the miracles credited to him; if he did not die on a cross and rise again as claimed by Christianity; then Christianity was founded upon misrepresentation and/or misinterpretation. While ultimately all religious faith goes beyond any proofs or evidence from the four avenues of support discussed above, some evidentiary basis must exist for any given religion, evidence that can be examined and weighed against the truth claims of other religions and other disciplines. It is noteworthy that some common elements can be found in virtually all of the world’s major religions—sacred spaces, worship rituals, prayer or meditation, spiritual leaders, sacred writings, and universal moral precepts. This could lend weight to the credibility of some deeper spiritual influence behind all of the major religious traditions, with all of their diversity.

This does not mean that people will continue to adhere to a religion only on the basis of its credibility. Given the cultural, familial and tribal pressures to remain within a particular religious tradition, a person may have compelling reasons to persist in practicing a religion that can otherwise be shown quite clearly to be founded on false claims, fiction, or specious logic. It still remains that the truth claims of the various world religions (and of the denominations or branches within a given religion) are rooted in a fundamental theistic belief in a higher or deeper spiritual reality. This belief transcends any evidence or proof that would convince an atheist. Similarly, an atheistic belief that no higher spiritual reality exists is a faith position that goes beyond any evidence or proof that would convince a theist. Nonetheless, religious beliefs generally are founded upon some evidence and logic that can be evaluated for the credibility of their claims.

References

Fish, S. (4/9/2012). Evidence in science and religion part two. The New York Times. Retrieved 2/8/2015 from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/evidence-in-science-and-religion-part-two/?_r=0.

Kelly, T. (2014). Evidence. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2/8/2015 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evidence/.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press. See http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/S/bo13179781.html.


Author

Norman Metzler is Emeritus Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, Oregon. He received his Master of Divinity at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis MO, a Master of Theology at Yale University, and completed his doctorate in theology with Prof. Wolfhart Pannenberg at Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, Germany. He has taught for many years in theology, philosophy and ethics, and did his doctoral thesis on the relationship of ethics and eschatology (the Christian doctrine of the last things). A practicing Lutheran Pastor, Metzler resides in Vancouver, WA with his wife, Mary, a retired nurse. They have two grown sons.

Email: NMetzler@cu-portland.edu.


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