Reality Based Religion

One of my new friends this semester is a member of the Nation of Islam. I’ve learned that they have some pretty odd beliefs. The first one I learned of was that Pluto (the ex-planet) is larger than earth. Though this apparently has something to do with founder Wallace Fard Mohammed starting the group in 1930, the same year Pluto was discovered, I haven’t discerned what role this belief plays in the religion.

A second odd belief, though more common in the world, is that the holocaust didn’t happen. I understand racism and antisemitism. Again, I don’t understand what role this belief plays in the religion and why it is important.

I take both of these beliefs to be indicators that the Nation of Islam is not a reality based religion. There are standard methods for determining the size of planets. Pluto has been tried and found wanting. While I was saddened to learn of Pluto’s demotion it never crossed my mind to argue that it had been mis-measured. It also never crossed my mind to think that the size of Pluto mattered very much.

I’m not an astronomer so I lack the training to be able to calculate planetary sizes and masses on my own. I have studied a fair amount of history, including the more theoretical classes like historiography and philosophy of history. I understand how the work of history happens. To deny the Holocaust one has to deny physical evidence, contemporaneous records, and testimony of victims, perpetrators and observers. Holocaust denial is a conspiracy theory. The great thing about a conspiracy theory is that no evidence can be offered against them. Anything that looks like it might be counterevidence is just a sign of how wickedly clever the conspiracy really is. To me, adherence to a conspiracy theory that ignores all evidence is a sign that the Nation of Islam is simply not reality based.

But is being reality based a good thing? I’ve argued before that sometimes we need to argue against calls for more realism. Christianity itself is perceived by some to not be reality based. Just consider the Christian conviction about the resurrection of Jesus. Here’s this dead guy. He’s not just apparently dead, but certified as dead by expert executioners. Three days later he’s alive. Yeah, right. Our uniform experience has been that dead people stay dead, and yet here’s this Jesus fellow, supposedly alive again. David Hume would surely say Christianity is not reality based for this conviction alone.

Consider another belief held by Christians that is not recognized as reality based – the idea that the earth was created just 6000 years ago. As with the measurement of Pluto, every scientific theory leads us to believe that the earth is much older – billions of years older.

We value being reality based. Some Christians have considered the desire to be reality based and rejected the resurrection. What happened was not the resurrection of the man Jesus, but the “rise of Easter faith” in the disciples. What we call the resurrection was not an event in the world but an even in the lives of the disciples. Other Christians look at the science of origins and deny that the faith requires belief in Young Earth Creationism. A person can be a faithful Christian – even a “conservative evangelical” – and accept the findings of science as to the age of the earth.

I believe the conviction about the dating of creation is very different from the conviction about the resurrection of Jesus. If I were a Popperian, operating in terms of falsifiability, I’d see problems with both the Nation of Islam and Christianity. But I’m not a Popperian. I’m more in line with the philosophy of science of Imre Lakatos. Using his approach not just for understanding science, but for the noetic structure of the Christian tradition, I find a way to make helpful distinctions.

First, the resurrection plays a different role in the Christian faith than does the belief about the date of creation. If there’s no resurrection (as in resurrection of Jesus, not just a “rise of Easter faith”) there is no Christianity. Using Lakatosian terminology, the resurrection of Jesus is part of the hard core of the tradition. Christian belief is creation is important, but the particulars of that belief, especially as it bears on dating, is not part of the hard core. It’s more likely to be found as what Lakatos calls an auxiliary hypothesis. Auxiliary hypotheses can be changed, adapted, added or dropped as needed when the tradition encounters challenges and new or revised knowledge.

I was thinking of Lakatosian philosophy of science when I wondered about the role the size of Pluto and denial of the Holocaust play in the Nation of Islam. From what I know of the religion they are not part of the hard core of the tradition; if these convictions were different the tradition would not be significantly different. Drop the resurrection of Jesus from Christianity and you have a huge difference: the resurrection is intimately connected to almost every other doctrine. But what would dropping the conviction that the size of Pluto is larger than the earth do for the Nation of Islam? The best I can guess is that they are operating with a doctrine of inerrancy of some sort. Some founding figure said something about Pluto. Since that figure is inerrant, we must believe Pluto is larger than the earth. Otherwise we’d be questioning our founder and undermining our religion.

A doctrine of inerrancy has played a role in some parts of the Christian tradition. Some speak of the inerrancy of scripture. Others speak of the infallibility of the pope. Both types of argument have been well-qualified over the years. Whether one thinks these qualifications go far enough or not, at least the making of qualifications is a sign that even the adherents recognize that the bald assertion of inerrancy/infallibility without explanation of qualification either falls apart or is incoherent. It’s possible the NOI will go that direction; I’m not a scholar of that religion so it’s possible some have already gone that direction and I just don’t know about it.

So what about being reality based? What counts as reality is still contested – and I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where it’s not. That said, I do want to be as reality-based as possible.

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2 Responses to Reality Based Religion

  1. Julia Robb says:

    Richard, with all due respect, no faith, nor most tenets of any faith, can be proven. That’s what faith is all about and that’s our challenge.

  2. rheyduck says:

    I’m not talking about proof, Julia, or at least not proof as the word as commonly used. I’m talking about rationality, a rather different concept. I’m postmodern enough that I don’t think there is just one monolithic version of rationality that every system, every person, every putative belief must fit with.

    Every system of belief/thought has a rationality peculiar to it. Some of these systems cohere and stand up under the pressures of competition & life better than others. My guess is that a system that (a) insists that Pluto is larger than the earth, and (b) holds that with certainty while (c) NOT having that belief occupying a central place in its system is not very rational and will not prove very hardy when it faces competition.

    When I teach on proof, I’m pretty minimalistic. I tell people if they want proof – certainty – they better stick to math. That said, in other areas we’re not just dealing with mere guesses. Some things believed can make more sense than others. This sense is made in the context of a network of other beliefs, not an absolute foundation of certainty.

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