Posted by: Tobias | October 29, 2008

Separate Magisterium!

I just went through about 200 open tabs in NetNewsWire to clean up a bit and stumbled on an old entry by Eliezer Yudkowsky over at Overcoming Bias in which he discusses the common claim that religion inhabits a separate magisterium and is therefore outside the purview of scientific falsification:

Back in the old days, people actually believed their religions instead of just believing in them. The biblical archaeologists who went in search of Noah's Ark did not think they were wasting their time; they anticipated they might become famous. Only after failing to find confirming evidence – and finding disconfirming evidence in its place – did religionists execute what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, "I believe because I believe."

Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud and grasshoppers having four legs. (Which is a metaphor for…)

Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent – it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history – excepting only those invented extremely recently – tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.

[…]

The modern concept of religion as purely ethical derives from every other area having been taken over by better institutions. Ethics is what’s left.

Or rather, people think ethics is what’s left. Take a culture dump from 2,500 years ago. Over time, humanity will progress immensely, and pieces of the ancient culture dump will become ever more glaringly obsolete. Ethics has not been immune to human progress – for example, we now frown upon such Bible-approved practices as keeping slaves. Why do people think that ethics is still fair game?

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