A faith system is intended to answer certain questions. These may be questions about the temporal life and the human condition, or they may be about things pertaining to the non-physical, the afterlife or alternate realities. As we’ve discussed before, each of these systems vary wildly and blatantly contradict each other in what they teach about the afterlife, not only in the rewards they promise, but even the essential nature of such an afterlife and the way we get there. So how do we know which is true?
If we are simply to examine the mystical claims of a faith system, there is much that we just can’t know. It’s not as if we can find Heaven with a telescope (despite what silly tabloids tell you) or test for a God residue when someone claims to have a near-death experience. The world beyond – at least for the time being – is precisely that: beyond. It is beyond the reach of our eyes and ears, our microscopes and simulations.
However, faith systems don’t just make claims about the spiritual or the ethereal. Very often they will also make claims about the physical world we live in. This is not too surprising. Humans have been inventing deities or explanations to the questions we have about how weather works, how the stars move or what makes for a good harvest since the dawn of the human race. Since faith systems typically require that you take them in an all-or-nothing format, then we have to weigh these claims about the physical world in tandem with the claims about the supernatural world. This is particularly true in religions that claim divine revelation such as Mormonism or the great Abrahamic faiths. Given that, it seems accurate to say that, if a faith system can’t get the world around it right then we have good reason to reject what it says about the world beyond. I suppose an analogy might be: If we can’t trust you to do basic math, you sure aren’t going to be doing my taxes.
What this does is it gives us one point of evaluation on the truth claims of a particular faith system. It gives us an opportunity to look at what a religion teaches that can be tested, verified or falsified on the basis of history, science, or philosophy. If that particular teaching finds itself at odds with the evidence, the adherent must either:
I think a good example of how this works out in practice is the competing ideas of special creation and Darwinian evolution. I don’t intend to get into a full analysis of this topic since it’s not something I’m too interested in and it’s not the point of this blog, but for the moment we can sum up the two views like this: The bible teaches that Adam and Eve were historical people who lived and died at some point, had no human parents of their own, were specially (one could say miraculously) created by God and then procreated the entirety of the human race. Scientists tell us that Darwinian evolution produced all life on earth through a long, unguided, completely natural process of random genetic mutations, refined by Natural Selection and that humanity as we know it once separated from our animal cousins and evolved further than any other organism.
Special creation is taught as fact in most churches. Darwinian Evolution is taught as fact in all public schools. Clearly, they cannot both be true as defined above. It therefore comes to the modern Christian to find a way to reconcile these two ideas.
Does the bible require a creation period of six literal, twenty-four-hour days? If so, can we square that with science somehow? Is Jesus a myth or is there historical evidence for his life, death, and resurrection? These are the sorts of questions that are often leveled at Christians by atheists and other skeptics, but we aren't the only ones with problems that need solving. We could also apply this test to other faiths and other claims. As far back as the 16th Century, a Hindu debate about the nature of the world centered on the issue of what held up the earth.
"Others hold that the earth has nine corners by which the heavens are supported. Another disagreeing from these would have the earth supported by seven elephants, and the elephants do not sink down because their feet are fixed on a tortoise. When asked who would fix the body of the tortoise, so that it would not collapse, he said that he did not know."
This has led to modern parables and the invocation of this principle in philosophical proofs against infinite regress. Stephen Hawking relates one in his book, A Brief History of Time:
"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down!'"
I’m not certain that this idea is as rooted in Hindu cosmology as it is often purported as I haven’t read any Hindu literature (I've also seen it attributed to the Iroquois Indians) , but if we assume that it is, it gives us a specific claim about the natural world that can be examined and tested.
Naturally, we know now that the world is not supported on the backs of giant elephants or turtles or goats or dragons. We know that the earth is a free floating sphere orbiting around the sun which is, in turn, orbiting around the center of our galaxy. If Hinduism does actually make this claim and it cannot be rejected without doing murder to the rest of the faith, then we have good reason to reject Hinduism.
In fact, I believe that the problems created by the teachings of other faith systems are far more fatal than something as peripheral as a literal creation week. For example:
All of these subjects create their own can of worms and I don't want to get into any of them here (yet), but I hope that I've at least given a decent feel for how this idea of external consistency works out in practice.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.