Boy looking puzzled

When it comes to religious beliefs, how do we know which ones are true?

The Modern Church website states that

Religious beliefs can and should develop in the light of new insights.

We have recently been asked

So what tests can be made on these ‘new insights’?

This post is my way of answering the question.

I have often written in defence of liberal theology; see Modern Church and Liberal Theology and Liberalism when it’s liberal. My book Liberal Faith in a Divided Church provides greater analysis.

Testing in science

Testing theories is what scientists spend a lot of time doing, so let’s start here.

The keep-it-simple lobby appeals to philosophers like Karl Popper. You collect your data. You notice patterns. You develop theories to account for the patterns. You then test the theories by doing experiments. If an experiment disproves a theory, cross it off the list and look for another theory. If it doesn’t disprove it, we still can’t be sure the theory is correct; maybe a different experiment would have disproved it. The facts we think we know are really the best available hypotheses, that haven’t been disproved so far.

Postmodernists like Kühn and Feyerabend complicate things. Scientists don’t begin with bare data and later develop hypotheses about it; on the contrary, deciding what would count as data already presupposes theories. Different world-views see different things in the world, and therefore settle for different explanations. Feyerabend argued that there are just no universal methods for testing theories; scientists settle for what seems right.

Testing in religion

Now let’s ask how this compares with religious belief. At first sight they may seem completely different. While scientists expect to find answers by studying data and developing theories, religious beliefs relate to things we cannot study in the same way. Instead we are used to the idea of a divinely revealed truth against which we can check new ideas. The Bible, the Creeds, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster Confession, the Vatican’s magisterium, etc., all get invoked as tests.

The trouble is, none of them work. The present debate over gay marriage illustrates the problem well. There are a small number of biblical texts condemning gay sex, but they are mixed in with hundreds of other condemnations which Christians ignore these days, like capital punishment for adulterers. If there isn’t an agreed method for deciding which biblical texts to count as authoritative, if we just accept the ones we agree with, the Bible isn’t really an authority. In any case, if we’re thinking of testing new theories we can’t expect old texts to address them.

Suppose we created a new test. It might be a list of criteria. These days they would have to be bullet points. In order to perform this function they would have to take priority over the Bible, the creeds and all the other authorities. We would be no further forward. If the list specified every conceivable detail it would soon become out of date. Alternatively, if it confined itself to general principles we would still have plenty of opportunities to fall out over how to interpret them. We would be back where we are now.

Theory and practice

To resolve this I think we need to take another look at the scientific method. The science-religion divide was a nineteenth century artifice which no longer works. Nineteenth century scientists thought they would eventually get a complete account of physical reality. Nobody thinks that now; the universe has turned out to be far too complicated. Therefore every scientific ‘fact’ is provisional. It will have additional complications that we don’t know yet, and perhaps never will.

Conversely, religious beliefs are never completely non-rational. Every biblical text, every clause of the creeds, every item in the 39 Articles, states what some group of people believed when they first wrote it down, and they believed it for reasons. The idea that they were directly revealed by God without any human reasoning was a later fantasy.

The history of religion, like science, reveals a constant interplay between theory and practice. We believe something because it works. Then, in some situation or other, it doesn’t work. We alter the belief to take this new observation into account. The altered belief then impacts on other things we were doing. It makes us see them in a different light, and try out something different.

Scientists have been doing this for centuries. They have studied the physical world and made progress in understanding it. At any one time some theories are disputed, some are settled, and some of the settled ones will one day turn out to be wrong after all.

Theological reflection on how we relate to God does all this too, except that now we are talking not centuries but millennia. In other words, religious beliefs just like scientific beliefs are held for reasons but are always provisional because we don’t know everything.

This approach I’m describing is more or less taken for granted, except in religious discourse. When we admit that our knowledge is neither complete nor certain, we open up the possibility that we may learn something new. In most spheres of life learning something new sounds interesting, perhaps exciting.

But the main religious traditions are in a reactionary, ‘conservative’ mood. Western Christianity still hasn’t forgotten the trauma of the Reformation. Then, uncertainty was unacceptable because people were genuinely terrified of spending eternity in Hell for believing the wrong things. Today some Christian traditions still cling to the fear of Hell and the demand for certainty.

So many people still cling to the belief that every new idea has to be tested against some criterion inherited from the past.

It’s unrealistic. In practice even ‘conservative’ religious traditions change over time. Tradition develops.

How to decide?

Still, granted that our beliefs are provisional, how can we work out what to believe today?

We inherit a tradition. How do we select from it, or add to it, in the right way? How do we test all the zillions of ideas floating around today? Here are three suggestions.

  1. It’s okay to be wrong. We are not designed to know all the answers.
  2. What we most need to know about is how to live our own lives. Sometimes the desire to know the answers stems from a desire to condemn other people. Leave that to God.
  3. To judge how to live our own lives, Christians traditionally appeal to scripture, reason and tradition. The fact that there is more than one authority means there is no simple test; in the light of our own experience we take responsibility for our own weighing up of the pros and cons.

God knows the right answers. We can help ourselves to make better judgements by making time to focus on our best understanding of God, coming close to God in prayer and meditation, opening up our minds and inviting God to fill them.