Aug 122012

The two links below provide the background to this post. I’ll just quote enough to lead into what I want to say. I believe the sources below show that I haven’t significantly distorted the original statements by taking them out of context.

Chris Mulherin [is] an Anglican clergyman with a substantial academic background studying and lecturing in science and the philosophy of science. He is now doing his doctorate on the relationship between scientific and theological ways of knowing. He argues they are different but complementary ways of understanding, and summarises the difference by saying that while science deals with mechanics, religion deals with meaning.

I don’t need to say much about science: sooner or later science works. But anyone who claims “religion deals with meaning” needs to answer some questions!

Question 1: Is this claim merely “religion deals with meaning” or is religion more useful and “informs us about meaning”? (“Deals with” may merely mean “waffle”, in which case who cares? We surely want “answers” or something similar?)

Although Peter Kirkwood suggests that Chris Mulherin says “religion deals with meaning”, mostly Chris Mulherin talks about Christianity, as though that is what “religion” is about.

But across this world, 1000s of gods are worshiped and 1000s of religions are practiced.
All religions are minority religions.
Whatever a person’s religious beliefs, most religious people in the world have contradictory beliefs.

Question 2: Is the claim reallyreligion as a whole deals with meaning”? Not just Christianity, or not just Islam, or not just (etc). But really “religion considered as a comprehensive body of beliefs, doctrine, practices, theological texts, etc, developed across history and geography”?

Given that individual religions tend to be incompatible with one-another in fundamental ways, (otherwise they wouldn’t be separate religions), I doubt if the people making this claim actually mean religion as a whole, but the following question has to be asked in case I am wrong:

Question 3: Is there an identified common core to “religion as a whole” that is capable of proving useful when informing us about “meaning”. If so what is this common core?

Question(s) 4 (in case the answer to question 3 is “no, there isn’t a useful common core“): Is the claim actually that a specific religion deals with meaning? If so, which religion is it? Why is that particular religion singled out as the one that deals with meaning? Why should we reject equivalent claims made on behalf of any other religion? (For example, is Islam the “meaningful” religion? Why not Hinduism? Or Scientology?)

I think the killer question is this one:

Question 5: If “religion” or “a religion” tells us something about meaning, how do we know it has told us the truth?

The very existence of multiple incompatible religions is a pretty good clue that we do not know when “religion” or “a religion” has told us the truth! We are supposed to take it on faith, and ignore the fact that other people are taking different views on faith. And faith is demonstrably inadequate at resolving these fundamental differences between specific religions, otherwise by now we would have resolved those differences!

Perhaps the final question should have been asked first:

Question 6: Why should we believe there is a meaning behind the universe, other than what we decide for ourselves?

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