The problem of the debate on religion

Oscar A. Rudenstam 2012-12-28

Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, author and emeritus fellow at the University of Oxford known for his fervent criticism of religion and theism, debated Australian cardinal George Pell on Australian TV earlier this year on the topic of religion and its place in society. The debate represents the old but still ongoing split between science and religion on many points, and more importantly the pressing question of religion’s relevance to modern society. What becomes of these debates – indeed also of this one between Dawkins and Pell – is lamentably however often of little value. The debate, rather than taking on the essential question of religion’s role in society, principally becomes a battle in the wrong dimensions, dividing the stage for the real discussion and limiting the two sides to victories in their own respective camps. In a metaphor, it can be likened to two opposing players in a game of sport, each playing by their own set of rules in what they believe to be the same sport. The solution? Play with not only common rules, but the right rules, principles and goals.

To better understand this debate and how it takes place in the wrong dimensions, we can imagine how the two sides typically devise arguments. The critic of religion and theism usually uses a scientific approach – dealing exclusively with the perceivable truth; what can be verifiable in the physical world. The proponent of religion and theism, on the other hand, often employs an approach based on faith and history – the assumption of God’s existence and religion’s positive role in the past. Indeed, both sides can find many arguments in their favor – the scientist can rightfully claim God, miracles or the resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be proven in the physical world, whereas the religious can boast religion’s role in giving us morals which helped significantly in shaping Western society as we know it. Most of this, however, becomes utterly irrelevant when considering the issue at stake – the good of society, and whether religion presently fosters or undermines that good. The assumption that truth should be the paramount virtue is unfounded, just as citing something’s historical benefit in a modern context is. In layman’s terms, science is not about the purpose of life just like religion is not about the verifiable truth of the universe. Sociological and philosophical questions must be raised in accordance with this notion – forget scientific questions about God’s existence, whether religion has been good historically, or the origin of life – instead we must ask whether we need a spiritual higher being and old holy texts – no matter their authenticity – to advance human society today.

In a future post, I will address this issue from a sociological and philosophical viewpoint. The debate between Richard Dawkins and George Pell can be found here.

Oscar A. Rudenstam