Does religion answer factual questions?

In a recent article in The Guardian ‘s “Comment is free” opinion section, Keith Ward defends religion as a source of factual knowledge that eludes science. Thus, Ward rejects (as do I) the principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) advocated by Stephen Jay Gould – according to which, religion and science, properly construed, have separate epistemic territories or areas of authority. According to this view, religion and science investigate different sorts of questions and so can never give conflicting answers unless they stray from their legitimate roles.

Instead, Ward argues that, “Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims.” I agree with this – various religions do make factual claims that could be just plain false: false in an empirical sense.

It could be – I think it most likely is – just plain empirically false that someone approximately meeting the traditional description of Jesus of Nazareth was executed by crucifixion, then rose from the dead, approximately 1980 years ago. However, it does seem like a factual issue, and one about which Christians have traditionally made claims. To that extent, Ward and I are in agreement. The claims made by religion, or at least some of them, can be seen as answers to factual questions.

Ward also thinks religion can make such statements as, “the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose”. This, he suggests, is a factual claim that science cannot make but religion can (apparently with some confidence).

I don’t want to dispute the meta-claim that there is at least some sense in which “the cosmos exists because it is created by a God with a purpose” is a factual claim. I suppose the claim may turn out to be incoherent … if, for example, the definition of “a God” turns out to be incoherent. On the face of it, however, the claim looks as if it is a factual one. It seems that the nature of reality, or something about it, could make the claim either true or false.

It’s also clear, however, that the kinds of claims I’ve discussed so far are (sometimes) intended in a metaphorical or otherwise non-literal sense. A particular religious person who claims that Jesus rose from the dead might, for instance, mean something like, “Jesus provides us with an inspiring example of personal transformation through self-sacrifice.” I take it, though, that the traditional Christian idea of the resurrection is quite literal. Most Christians think something to the effect that the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth literally recovered and resuscitated, coming back to life after the functioning of organs and organ systems had irreversibly ceased (as judged by our usual understanding of what is irreversible).

I am what is now known as a non-accommodationist: i.e., I think that it is, at best, misleading to claim that religion and science are “compatible”. There may be some kinds of logical consistency between certain religious claims and certain scientific claims, but, overall, the relationships between religion and the various forms of scientific inquiry into facts about the world are such as to create worries about religion’s truth claims. So it appears to me. I don’t, however, take the position that religion makes no factual claims at all, or that it is somehow illegitimate for it to do so. That would actually make religion and science oddly compatible. It would be a version Gould’s NOMA principle.

Ward’s conception of religion does not especially trouble me. In fact, I accept that religions have often acted as encyclopedic explanatory systems, making many kinds of claims about the world (and other, supernatural, worlds), including claims that look to be, in some reasonably familiar sense, factual. It’s when Ward talks about the limits of science that I think he goes badly wrong. He appears to misunderstand the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, as well as their joint relationship to religion.

That, however, is a topic for another post.

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