Friday, March 25, 2005

Faith and Belief, Part 2

Karen Armstrong is a lay scholar and commentator on religious affairs. Salon considers her to be "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today." I couldn't agree more. (Even though, as a historian, I recognize her books sometimes contain the sloppy factual errors that sometimes distinguish amateur works on the subject.)

Her A History of God, published in 1993, was her breakaway bestseller that put her on the celebrity map. She's since written books on Islam, Jerusalem, the Buddha, and is a regular media commentator on religion, and fundamentalism in particular.

I wanted to quote from her book in order to elaborate on my last post which pressed the distinction between faith and belief. Hopefully this vignette will historicize the "science vs. religion" discourse that began in the nineteenth century with the rise of modernity, science, and religious fundamentalism, and continued on into the twentieth century.

My point is that this kind of discourse is historically contextual and of recent origin:

"During the 1950s, Logical Positivists such as AJ Ayer asked whether it made sense to believe in God. The natural sciences provided the only reliable source of knowledge because it could be tested empirically...Like Freud, the Positivists believed that religious belief represented an immaturity which science would overcome. Since the 1950s [however], linguistic philosophers have criticized Logical Positivism, pointing out that what Ayer called the Verification Principle could not itself be verified...

We have seen, however, that not all religious people have looked to "God" to provide them with an explanation for the universe. Many have seen the proofs as a red herring. Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of objective fact. Scientists and philosophers who find no room for God in their systems are usually referring to the idea of God as First Cause, a notion eventually abandoned by Jews, Muslims, and Greek Orthodox Christians during the Middle Ages. The more "subjective" God that they were looking for could not be proved as though it were an objective fact that was the same for everybody. It could not be located within a physical system of the universe, any more than the Buddhist nirvana."