Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all 'faith' is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: 'By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.' It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. 'Faith' is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. 'Faith' is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.But of course we never apply these lax standards of evidence to the claims made in the other fellow’s holy scriptures: when it comes to religions other than one’s own, religious people are as rational as everyone else. Only our own religion, whatever it may be, seems to merit some special dispensation from the general standards of evidence.And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations. Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts. But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones? At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?
The most formidable chains are forged from beliefs. Ah, beliefs! Beliefs tear out the eyes and leave us blind and groping in the dark. If I believe in one proposition, I have become locked behind the door of that belief, and all other doors to learning and freedom, although standing open and waiting for me to enter, are now closed to me. If I believe in one God, one religion, yes, if I believe in God at all, if I have closed my mind to magic, to spirit, to salvation, to the unknown dimension that exist in the firmament, I have plunged my mind into slavery. Test all beliefs. Distrust all beliefs.
[S]ince you are angry at me without reason, you attack me harshly with, "Oh outrageous presumption! Oh excessively foolish pride! Oh opinion uttered too quickly and thoughtlessly by the mouth of a woman! A woman who condemns a man of high understanding and dedicated study, a man who, by great labour and mature deliberation, has made the very noble book of the Rose, which surpasses all others that were ever written in French. When you have read this book a hundred times, provided you have understood the greater part of it, you will discover that you could never have put your time and intellect to better use!" My answer: Oh man deceived by willful opinion! I could assuredly answer but I prefer not to do it with insult, although, groundlessly, you yourself slander me with ugly accusations. Oh darkened understanding! Oh perverted knowledge ... A simple little housewife sustained by the doctrine of Holy Church could criticise your error!
In Uganda, I wrote a questionaire that I had my research assistants give; on it, I asked about the embalasassa, a speckled lizard said to be poisonous and to have been sent by Prime minsister Milton Obote to kill Baganda in the late 1960s. It is not poisonous and was no more common in the 1960s than it had been in previous decades, as Makerere University science professors announced on the radio and stated in print… I wrote the question, What is the difference between basimamoto and embalasassa? Anyone who knows anything about the Bantu language—myself included—would know the answer was contained in the question: humans and reptiles are different living things and belong to different noun classes… A few of my informants corrected my ignorance… but many, many more ignored the translation in my question and moved beyond it to address the history of the constructs of firemen and poisonous lizards without the slightest hesitation. They disregarded language to engage in a discussion of events… My point is not about the truth of the embalasassa story… but rather that the labeling of one thing as ‘true’ and the other as ‘fictive’ or ‘metaphorical’—all the usual polite academic terms for false—may eclipse all the intricate ways in which people use social truths to talk about the past. Moreover, chronological contradictions may foreground the fuzziness of certain ideas and policies, and that fuzziness may be more accurate than any exact historical reconstruction… Whether the story of the poisionous embalasassa was real was hardly the issue; there was a real, harmless lizard and there was a real time when people in and around Kampala feared the embalasassa. They feared it in part because of beliefs about lizards, but mainly what frightened people was their fear of their government and the lengths to which it would go to harm them. The confusions and the misunderstandings show what is important; knowledge about the actual lizard would not.