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On Things Capable/Incapable of Being Proven

July 20, 2010

I frequently see religion scholars use a distinction or dichotomy I am becoming increasingly suspicious of. They often distinguish between things capable of being proven from things incapable of being proven; in doing so they tend to separate out the study of gods and goddesses (i.e., “theology”) as something outside the bounds of religious studies. In effect, they say something like this: “Religious studies looks at human being, not gods and goddesses, because the former make themselves available for study, while the latter do not. Claims about gods and goddesses are beyond proof, and are therefore 100% a matter of faith—as such they are outside the bounds of scholarship.”

I can see the appeal of this sort of claim; I’ve said such things myself. This sort of thing is often said to head off speculative discussions in the classroom: “That’s an interesting question Anthony, but investigations into the nature of the trinity are not the subject matter of our course.”

I think it falls apart for two reasons. First, speculative things can be a matter of scholarly interest. For instance, Einstein’s theory of relativity was not capable of being proven when he introduced it, but that doesn’t mean that his theory was 100% a matter of faith and therefore entirely unscholarly.

Second—and this is related to the first—what is meant by “provable”? If we mean we can’t offer knock-down proofs that will convince everyone, then pretty much nothing is provable. If our standards of proof as scholars are that high, then nothing is scholarly. Just to use one example: historians cannot offer knock-down proof for what happened in the past. Does that mean that history is 100% a matter of faith?

This distinction, it seems, depends on a ridiculously absurd either/or: either we have knock-down proof or it is all speculation and a matter of faith.

If this is not a useful distinction—and I take it for granted it is not—then these things will be a matter of degree. But if we do this, we’ll have to admit talk about gods as possibly scholarly. And, in fact, I think that there is a lot of good work in philosophy on the existence of god. This work is scholarly and does a good job of demonstrating that it is highly unlikely that gods exist.

In sum, saying that whether or not gods exist is 100% faith and speculation is crap: there is a lot of good evidence that gods simply don’t exist.

So why would scholars say that this issue is beyond any and all proof? I think it is pretty clear. On the one hand there are a lot of “believers” who are scholars who are unwilling to consider the paucity of evidence in support of gods and the bulk of evidence against them.

On the other hand, those scholars who are atheists (such as myself) want to make the study of religion more palatable and non-controversial. When I’ve said “that’s a matter of faith, outside the bounds of study” it has been soften the hard edge of what I’ve been saying. It’s as if I’m doing this: “I know my studies are very critical of Christianity, but there’s definitely a chance that Christianity is 100% true—I just can’t say.”

This serves my interest in the short term (i.e., people are more likely to listen to what I have to say), but whose interests are served in the long run? Are our interests as a whole served by perpetuating the idea that belief in gods is not at all implausible?

One Comment leave one →
  1. larry c. wilson permalink
    July 27, 2010 9:21 pm

    What is this “good evidence” that the gods don’t exist.

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