Religious Doctrines and Social Progress

by Karen Bellenir

Earlier this year, Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig debated the question of whether current cosmological understanding has theistic implications (watch the video). Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in California, offered a resounding Yes. Carroll, a theoretical physicist and professor at Caltech, said No. During the debate, Carroll offered a series of statements about what he would expect to see if a spiritual reality actually existed. For the past several installments of this blog, I've been discussing these assumptions.

First, Carroll complained that theism was poorly defined. He readily accepted that advances in science led to evolving theories and new paradigms, but when the same kind of growth occurred within faith communities seeking to understand a transcendent reality, he objected. History, however, seems to support the notion that people do indeed learn and grow in all realms of existence—physical and spiritual.

Next, he argued that if God existed, God shouldn't be hard to find. This appears to be true. God, or whatever other name a culture uses to identify a transcendent spiritual entity, is not hard to find. Millions—no, make that billions—of people claim that they have done just that. Although some naturalists choose not to look in spiritual places, it seems probable that they could find God, too, if they did.

Another of Carroll's suppositions rested on the notion that if there were truth in religious arguments, all people would hold the same beliefs and interpret spiritual experiences in the same way. Diversity of interpretation seems to be a fundamental manifestation of the human experience in all other realms, so it doesn't seem surprising to discover that people interpret spiritual experiences in different ways. Within the physical world, it appears to be the norm that different environments yield different results. Bird beaks change and adapt based on available food supplies. Arctic foxes developed fur of a different color than their brethren in more temperate climates. Why shouldn't different spiritual climates also be expected to produce different manifestations of spiritual reality?

And that brings me to the next two suppositions. According to Carroll, if a spiritual realm existed, he would expect religious doctrines to endure in a stable form rather than to be affected by social progress, and he would expect superior moral teachings that did not reflect local customs or tribal preferences. These points are really just ways of reiterating some of the topics we've already discussed, but let's look at them more closely.

I'll start with the concept of doctrine. Doctrines, whether they are religious or scientific, are created by people and institutions to help make sense of things that are not fully understood. Within the realm of spiritual reality, people with different perspectives often disagree. Sometimes they report vastly divergent mechanisms of accessing the spiritual dimension—even to the point of disclaiming the validity of each other's data. This reminds me of the way scientific research seems to progress.

Consider the evolving nature of medical doctrines. During the nineteenth century, some investigators proposed an idea called germ theory. They believed unseen microorganisms caused disease. Their creed was not immediately embraced by many of their fellow physicians (and even today there are controversies over the causes of some diseases). Yet, many scientists do not deny the value of medicine simply because its dogmas have proven to be unstable over millennia. The underlying realty—whether or not germs caused certain diseases—did not change. Human understanding changed. The same applies to religious doctrine. The underlying spiritual reality may remain constant, but human attempts to describe it evolve as history unfolds and innovative minds work together to explain what they've experienced.

Other examples can be found within the field of cosmology. Early in the twentieth century, scientists disagreed about whether the universe was static or dynamic. The currently favored "Big Bang" theory, which posits a dynamic universe, received its name from a derisive comment made by Fred Hoyle, who believed in a steady state universe. Scientists embracing the rival doctrines bitterly opposed each other for years.

In our own century, dark matter presents yet another opportunity for disagreement and controversy. Many physicists, including Carroll, believe that it exists even though it has never been directly seen. Others think it is an illusion created because we do not fully understand how gravity works. Controversies and changes in doctrine, whether related to physical or spiritual realms, don't mean that the observed phenomena don't exist. And, creative new ways of thinking about the phenomena don't even mean that the phenomena themselves have changed. The march of innovative ideas just means that people don't agree (at least not yet) about how to describe things and what causes them. Furthermore, if the past provides an indication as to what might happen in the future, once all people do agree, someone will likely come along and peek under a new corner to introduce an entirely new set of questions that hadn't before been addressed.

In a similar vein, spirituality produces moral teachings that are influenced by changing environments and transient social conditions. As humanity opens new avenues for interactions among diverse people, the experiences create the need to rethink past interpretations—not because the fundamental spirituality that underlies our sense of morality fluctuates, but because human cognition and expression are limited.

Contrary to Carroll's assertion, it seems more in line with reason to state that if a spiritual reality existed, ethical understanding would evolve as the story of the human family unfolded. Additional data produced by the march of history would yield a growing knowledge base causing communities to reevaluate facets of morality. No doubt, ethical progress would be marked by disagreement as groups grappled with conflicting explanations. There might be strides forward—such as the enlightenment of a Buddha or the arrival of a Christ—that would leave traditionalists clinging tightly to preserve what they previously believed. Yet out of this confusion, each generation would integrate fresh happenings into its databank and forge a new narrative for itself. Future generations might look back and be baffled by their ancestors' lack of vision, but each generation in turn would continue the process.

Carroll didn't explain why he would accept moral stagnation as an acceptable sign of spirituality or why he thought that human understanding of transcendence ought not to grow. If anything, the pattern of evolutionary changes observed in biological beings seems to suggest that changes in spiritual understanding are probable.

The remaining assumptions Carroll offered about spiritual reality involved contrasting the physical world with an ideal. I'll look at those topics next time.