Monday, September 8, 2014

Religion Answers the "How" Questions

It is oft said that where science answers the "how" questions, religion answers the "why." Put another way, whereas how the world came to be, may eventually be answered, so to speak, in the laboratory, the question of why the world came to be, is one that is to be answered in a house of worship. Religious moderates will cite this as an attempt to show the equal importance of science and religion, as well as there compatibility

Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion" chastises this way of thinking: 
"It is a tedious cliché (and, unlike many clichés, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with the how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word 'why' is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer." 
When I first read these words, I remember being swept away by their objective and rational precision. It was true, after all, that some questions are so outlandish that to answer them insults the person who wasted the time. Yet, are the "why" questions religion claims to answer as ridiculous as such questions as: Why are unicorns hollow? Does inquiring into the purpose of existence, seeking the meaning behind the universe constitute a question undeserving of an answer? In a completely rational sense, yes, these questions are as strange and irrelevant as to inquire into the nature of a unicorn's biology. Perhaps, they are unworthy of answering if we are judging questions by their practical applicability

However, as I once heard from Martin S. Jaffee, a recently retired Professor at the University of Washington who spent the majority of his career studying and teaching Judaism and comparative religion, "These questions are important because people are asking them." 

Jaffee was telling me that whether or not these questions are answerable, whether or not the answers religions have provided are true, we must address the fact that man, unlike any other species that we know of, has been asking these questions for centuries. These questions, therefore, are real, and of utmost importance. Yet, we must ask: Can they really be accurately answered?

Dawkins seems to preempt this challenge and closes the paragraph quoted above with: "Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can." This, in my opinion, is a far more accurate objection to religion's "how/why" sentiment. 

Let us, for a moment, accept that perhaps religion is capable of answering the seemingly unanswerable "why"questions of man. Is that really all religion attempts to do? Is the Bible really just a moral guide making no claims as to the nature of the world? 

Upon brief reflection, or rather upon glancing at the very first verse in Genesis, one will discover the fallacy of such a statement. Genesis 1:1 begins with the "fact" that: "In the beginning God created the heavens and earth." Is this not a claim as to the nature of the universe? Whether God exists or not is a fact, perhaps an impossible one to prove in any scientific sense of the word, but it is, or is not, a fact. Whether or not such a Being created the earth and is constantly attentive to it, is yet another fact, or not, about the world. 

The Bible recounts many times that the Divine Hand intervened with the natural course of events. God allegedly caused water to turn to blood, hail to come crashing onto the Egyptians property, and all the Egyptian firstborns to simultaneously fall over dead. Not to mention perhaps the most glamorous of all the miracles, that of the splitting of the sea. Where, according to the Bible, the Israelites marched through the raging sea on dry land. These were but a few miracles of the plethora found in the biblical narrative of the Exodus. Are these not meant to be read as accurate accounts of history? Are we to read these supernatural events as mere metaphors? 

It may be impossible to answer any of the "why" questions without making certain "how" claims, but that does not justify making claims about the universe without evidence. Therefore, if religion truly wants to answer the "why" it may have to either admit it's rejection of science, or be quiet. 

It would seem that up until science destroyed the "scientific" claims made by the Bible, religion was able to claim to know the "how" of the universe as well. Once science advanced to a point able to challenge the origins of the world, as well as it's age, religious moderates were forced (reluctantly in some cases) to resort to religion's comforting values. Though science has answered, or is in hot pursuit of answering the "how" of the entire world, religion will always be able to comfort man's searching soul with the "why" answers. This, religion claims, was always their intention. 

Science of course, will not be able to take away these "powers" from religion, for science does not, nor will it ever, pretend to know the unknowable. As of now however, science has shown that chances are, there isn't a "why" to be worried about. Though this conclusion, if it is indeed true, is uncomfortable and will leave the contemplative rather disappointed, there is some good to be found in it. Mankind can stop worrying about why we are here, and instead focus on the fact that we are, and get to planning what we should do about it.
The point is, whether or not religion is comforting to the "why" questions that so plague humanity, we need to face the reality that religion was not meant to simply answer such questions, but attempted at answering the "how" questions as well. Lucky for mankind, science broke through these answers and found them to be what they are: primitive guesses made by men who were collectively more ignorant about the universe than a child in the grade school today. 

That religion was only meant to answer the "why" questions is a thinly veiled attempt to distract from the fact that for centuries they had professed absolute knowledge of the "how" questions, as well. They were effectively, through openminded inquiry, proven to be utterly mistaken. The Bible is an attempt of man to understand the earth (which was thought then to be flat). Today, ancient poorly-educated guesses should be considered for nothing more than an accurate account of how man thought before he knew basically anything about the universe. 

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