Faith Isn’t about Evidence from Experience; Or Is It?

Empiricism refers to the idea that we get knowledge from experience. There’s a popular idea out there that religious faith and empiricism are inconsistent — faith relies on authority, but empiricism tests everything; faith has beliefs that can never be questioned, but empiricism questions everything; science relies on evidence, but faith doesn’t; etc.

Here’s some old news: That’s a myth. (See William James, Kai-Man Kwan, William Alston, and Richard Swinburne on the subject.)

And here’s something new: While studying these matters, I noticed that each of the five greatest religions of the world has a twentieth-century philosopher claiming that religion can be empirical and that their religion is empirical.

They are:

These renowned religious thinkers also recognize the following standards for empirical belief, although not all five emphasize all three:

  • we should base our beliefs on the evidence of experience;
  • we should seek to test our beliefs in future experience;
  • and we should hold our beliefs tentatively in case future experience turns up evidence against them.
Best philosopher mustache (Iqbal)
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Best philosopher beard (James)

It turns out that, if these guys are right, religious belief can meet these standards. Some religious beliefs can even be verified or falsified. (For one insight in that area, see my previous post on C. S. Lewis.)

Clean-shaven?!?!!? (Lewis)

Of course, there’s a lot more. Some religions are dogmatic; does that mean they can’t be empirical? (Hint: It depends on which of the three standards of empirical belief we’re talking about, and also on which definition of dogma.) How exactly would we falsify a doctrine like the Resurrection? And so on.

And so what? Well, if you’re the kind of nerd I am you might find it interesting. Beyond that, the myth described above really should be laid to rest, and we could do with a better understanding of the origins of Christianity in experience. And we need to keep in mind how responsible belief is formed: not from experience alone (see my earlier series at TTC), but not separately from experience either. Experience matters.

Not that experience is everything. Christian theology draws from experience, but it also relies on the authority of Jesus and the Bible.

And those things are connected. Lewis wrote about the experience of the Messiah as foundational to Christian belief. The same experience points towards the authority of that Messiah and of the Bible. My next post will consider the sort of warrant a Christian can have for believing in the authority of the Bible.

If you’re interested, keep a look-out for my article on this in Science and Christian Belief. (Video abstract of the article here!)