Can Religious Knowledge Be Verified?

If you read my last post you were introduced to the poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal and his argument for the reality of both religious and scientific empirical knowledge. That particular post referenced a conversation with some of my Introduction to Philosophy students. Now it’s time to go a little deeper and, accordingly, talk about conversations with one of my best former students (now moved on to grad school).

If religious knowledge is empirical, as Iqbal argues, it seems like it is a sort of knowledg unlike scientific knowledge in that it cannot be verified or falsified. I.e, it is like knowledge of many historical events: derived from experience, but not testable. But does it seem the way it is? Let’s see.

Iqbal 2
Iqbal

Iqbal

A short review of Iqbal is in order: Knowledge, he says, is born of reflection on experience. We humans can have scientific knowledge born of reflection on sensory experience, and also religious knowledge born of reflection on religious experience. He says memorably:

“The facts of religious experience are facts among other facts of human experience and, in the capacity of yielding knowledge by interpretation, one fact is as good as another.”

So religious empirical knowledge is possible. Iqbal emphasizes knowledge gained through mystical experience, especially Sufism.

Lewis

Now Christianity also has an empirical basis. Here’s C. S. Lewis on that subject in Mere Christianity:

“And that is how Theology started. People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and yet he was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic. He made them believe Him. They met Him again after they had seen Him killed. And then, after they had been formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before. And when they worked it all out they found they had arrived at the Christian definition of the three-personal God.”

As Lewis says elsewhere in the same book, if we ignore the particular doctrines of Christianity then it is just another moral code (on a level with Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Confucius’ Analects). And those particular doctrines have an empirical basis: the experiences of those who knew the living, miracle-working, crucified, and resurrected Messiah of the Hebrew religion.

That’s a pretty serious bit of experience, if you think about it (or even if you don’t).

And that is my own (primary) reason for believing Christian theology: the historical testimony based on those experiences.

The Objection

I’ve explained my views to my student, yet he remains skeptical of the possibility of any serious religious knowledge. He’s fair: He’s suspicious of historical knowledge for reasons which apply to Socrates and Caesar as well as to the miracles of Jesus.

Ok, his objection runs, so maybe a religion can have an empirical foundation. But this knowledge is not as secure as scientific knowledge: You can’t test it!

It’s important not to overstate this distinction between religious and scientific empirical knowledge. The historical foundations of any Abrahamic faith are open to at least some degree of verification–and even falsifiability–from other historical sources and from archaeology. (Even if the discovery of the Holy Grail near Alexandretta is fictional, the discovery of the tomb of Caiaphas isn’t, as William Lane Craig reports; and neither are the Hittites and numerous other relevant archaeological finds.)

Nevertheless, this objection is right on: Insofar as religious knowledge has a historical foundation, it remains somewhat less testable–at least before the point of death–than scientific knowledge.

That doesn’t mean it’s not knowledge. What it does mean is that, insofar as its foundations rest on empirical knowledge, religion knowledge a different sort of empirical knowledge than is scientific knowledge. Specifically, it’s less certain (or, to be precise, less probable) than scientific knowledge; and knowledge that is less certain (or less probable), though it may be knowledge indeed, is a poorer sort of knowledge.

But that’s not the whole story.

James
James

James

William James explains one reason the verification of religious belief might be possible, but might not proceed in the same manner as verification of scientific knowledge:

“The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; and any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here. For instance, although in one sense we are passive portions of the universe, in another we show a curious autonomy, as if we were small active centres on our own account. We feel, too, as if the appeal of religion to us were made to our own active good-will, as if evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way. To take a trivial illustration: just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would ear,–so here, one who should shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance.”

So religious truth might be verifiable after all. But not verifiable in the same way scientific truth is verifiable. God, like any other person, might require us to exercise our faith in excess of the currently available evidence.

Yet this may be only temporary. The evidence of our relationship to God may come from God, as it did to Beatrice from Benedick and to him from herafter the belief in it–even because of our belief in it.

Lewis Again

Lewis concurs entirely in James’ use of the analogy from human persons to divine:

“Theology is, in a sense, experimental knowledge. . . . I mean that it is like the other experimental sciences in some ways, but not in all. If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side. They cannot either help or hinder. But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. That is a bit different from studying rocks. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. Unless you keep very quiet, they will. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.”

Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person. If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. You have to win his confidence. In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship.

Lewis
Lewis

Lewis, finishing up the same analogy, is a bit stronger than James in saying that some verification is dependent on God:

“When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others-not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as a clean one.

“You can put this another way by saying that while in other sciences the instruments you use are things external to yourself (things like microscopes and telescopes), the instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred-like the Moon seen through a dirty telescope. . . .”

But note that God’s initiative in verifying religious belief depends in part on the state of us who are trying to verify it. We have to not only be willing to believe if we want to experience the verification, but we also have to be good.

Lewis explains that man, made in the image of God, can know God best when they–no longer he, but they–are living like the God-knowing and God-imaging beings they are meant to be:

“God can show Himself as He really is only to real men. And that means not simply to men who are individually good, but to men who are united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another. For that is what God meant humanity to be like; like players in one band, or organs in one body.”

And now Lewis tells us more about how that verification may take place: through the life of the Church:

“Consequently, the one really adequate instrument for learning about God, is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together. Christian brotherhood is, so to speak, the technical equipment for this science-the laboratory outfit.”

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter.”

So James gives us a nice insight: The verification of knowledge derived from religious experience might be partially out of our control, just as any other knowledge derived from experience with other people. And that verification might be provided only if we are prepared to act on such (pre-verified) evidence as we currently possess.

Taking Lewis as our guide to Christian theology, it has a historical and empirical foundation. It is subject to testing–including some degree of verification or falsification from archaeology as well as what happens after death. And it is subject to a yet further degree of verification, but to really experience this verification you must join the community that is busy verifying it.

But the verification is not objective in quite the same way scientific verification is. You have to join the community if you want to see the verification for yourself. (Or, then again, maybe it’s very nearly the same as science in this regard–if Thomas Kuhn is right. But that’s a big if, on which I’m a bit undecided myself.)

If you want to hear from someone in that community, I can give you my testimony: Yes, it really does work.

(First posted at Ricochet.com.)

7 Comments
  1. James Taylor
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  3. Mark Boone
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