I was just asked how I respond when my religious beliefs conflict with what I believe on the basis of other sources of information. I think this is a common experience (certainly common for me), and that many people wrestle with it in different ways. My short answer is that I do what I do whenever any two beliefs of mine conflict. But that answer itself presumes certain views regarding the nature of religious beliefs and knowledge, and there are perhaps some slight differences worth exploring. Here are a few thoughts about how I approach the issue, and ways I think are dead ends.
I do not accept the view that religious beliefs are categorically different from other beliefs about the world, including various kinds of knowledge. Philosophers tell me that knowledge is warranted, true belief; that is, it is a belief which is believed on the basis of some warrant (a reason) and which is also true. We would not want to call it knowledge if it were false, or if you had no reason to believe it, or if you didn’t believe it. The practical problem with this definition, however, is that we have no comprehensive infallible guide to the truthfulness of all assertions. (Some people think they always know whether something is true or false. In my experience, those people are universally poor guides to the generation of new knowledge, and therefore I do not accept their self-assessment.) But without an infallible built-in truth-meter (verimeter?), every other method for determining the truthfulness of assertions about the world, ourselves, and spiritual matters is either limited in scope (e.g. the Bible), fallible (e.g. historians’ interpretations), or both (e.g. the empirical method). Therefore our categorization of an assertion as knowledge is always only approximate.
Some people profess to resolve “contradictions” between their religious beliefs and their non-religious knowledge by regarding them as different sorts of assertions. That is, the non-religious knowledge is simply factually true, while the religious beliefs are “true” in some other sense. To the degree that I have encountered such views in practice, “true in some other sense” seems to be a convoluted synonym for “false but pleasing.” If a statement, for example, asserts that X happened, and someone says that it didn’t happen but we can believe that it did, I conclude that that person has lost his mind. I reject Twain’s fictional schoolboy’s definition of faith: “Believing what you know ain’t so.” If you know it “ain’t so,” then you believe it “ain’t so,” and therefore you don’t believe it at all. There is only one kind of truth (the true kind, naturally). The advocates of the “differently true” approach seem to be claiming extrinsic (usually social, sometimes financial) advantages by claiming to believe, when in fact they have ceased to do so. I call this approach dishonesty.
A slightly different approach is Stephen Jay Gould’s proposed “non-overlapping magisteria.” It is different because Gould acknowledges that religious assertions might be “true,” when they are speaking of values rather than facts. According to this approach, science is what teaches us about facts, whereas religion teaches us about values, and both are valid in their mutually exclusive (hence “non-overlapping”) domains. This approach is too limiting to religions, which in fact always have asserted particular facts about the world (whether the monotheist existence of God – not a value but an ontological statement – or the Buddhist view of reincarnation due to uncontrolled attachments). As a historian, I also find it bizarre to characterize science as the sole source of factual knowledge, since the empirical method cannot tell us anything (directly) about the past, and yet knowledge of the past is one of our largest repositories of factual knowledge. The two meet in the assertions that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead. These are factual assertions about the past, and if they are false, then Christianity is bunk.
But if all beliefs are true or false in the same sense, and my religion is a source of assertions about the world, about me, about God, then it might well come into conflict with other assertions about those same topics, derived from another source. Whenever two beliefs (call them A and B) conflict, there are logically four options:
- A is true and B is false
- A is false and B is true
- both A and B are false (I’m all wrong)
- both A and B are true (the contradiction is only apparent).
The question is which option is the correct one, and on what basis can we decide that? The basis for deciding which is correct depends, of course, on the nature of the assertion. Assertions about the past require historical reasoning. Assertions about the way the world usually works often require empirical reasoning. Evaluating any assertions usually involves some form of logic. So we consider the type of assertions and do our best to discern the truth and falsity of A and B.
But we also need to evaluate whether we have enough information, evidence, or data to evaluate A and B. We need to remember that our reasoning processes and truth criteria are themselves limited and fallible. We might very well be misinterpreting what A or B is saying, or we might falsely think they have implications they do not possess, or the general rules that lead us to believe one historical reconstruction rather than another may break down in this case. All evaluation of truthfulness depends upon interpretation of meaning, and all human understanding is prone to misinterpretation. So in addition to evaluating the different assertions, we need to maintain a humble awareness of our own weakness. When intellectuals get arrogant, they go wrong.
Our threshold for concluding that we know whether A or B is true rises with the importance of the question, and rightly so. If it does not matter whether A or B is true, to me or anyone else, then I am quite happy to take my best guess. B looks more likely to be true than A, and I could be wrong, but who cares? I’ll call it for B, and won’t look back. But if the question really does matter, for example if people might die (or worse!) based on a false belief (such as whether there is a scriptural injunction against modern medicine as a whole), then the threshold is higher, and I am obligated to put in greater effort to find an answer which meets the burden of proof and clears the threshold of believability, a decision about the truthfulness and falsity of these two ideas which explains both what led me to believe A in the first place and what leads me now to believe B instead. The greater the importance, the more we must be cautious.
And all of that is as true for religious questions as for non-religious questions. Sometimes religious questions matter a whole lot more than disputed reconstructions of medieval events, but sometimes they don’t (e.g. church carpet color). We consider the possible outcomes of the contradiction (including the possibility that there is no contradiction, and we have merely misunderstood), and assess how well we can evaluate those options, especially whether we can meet the standard required by the importance of the question.
But there is perhaps one difference here, for me as a Christian. My God knows everything, and he might choose to clue me in. I can ask! For contradictions, especially important contradictions where I do not think my available evidence and knowledge allow a slam-dunk case for one side or other other, I pray that God would correct my misunderstandings and help me see the best solution. Sometimes he answers right away, and I have an “Aha!” moment that allows me to put things back together coherently. Other times I need to wait. On some questions, I’m still waiting (but they weren’t urgent). If it turns out that there is no God, then my non-rational activity of asking what doesn’t exist to help me shouldn’t lead me astray, at least, while if there is an omniscient deity, it only makes sense to ask. But again, this need not be restricted only to religious questions; I have asked God to help me understand the historical sources I read and the scholars who contradict each other. But I don’t pray over every contradiction; some are already clear, and others are not sufficiently important for even that little effort on my part. I probably pray over contradictions involving religious assertions more than over contradictions which do not involve religion, but that’s probably because it’s brought to mind.