As I said the morning prayers today, I realized something: That act sets a context for my whole day.
No matter what happens to me today — good, bad, or indifferent — the prayers remind me that it’s not all there is. The events of our lives occur in a larger context: a benevolent reality guided by a benevolent God.
Both science and religion provide context for our lives, but in different situations and for different purposes. Both start by making observations, then tell stories to explain them. They test the stories by making further observations. The difference is in what kind of stories they tell and what kind of observations they make.
Consider a scientific example: You’re an astronomer in the year 1845. You observe odd irregularities (“perturbations”) in the orbit of the planet Uranus. You tell a story:
There is an undiscovered planet outside the orbit of Uranus. Its gravitation pulls Uranus slightly out of its predicted path. Based on Uranus’s deviations from its orbit, the undiscovered planet should be in location (x,y,z,t).
A year later, in 1846, someone finds the unknown planet exactly where you said it would be. Your story is confirmed.
Or consider a religious example: You’re driving and another car crashes into you. Your car is damaged but you are unharmed. You tell a story:
God wants me to learn a lesson from this experience. Was I paying enough attention? Should I have noticed the other car moving erratically?
You decide that you might have avoided the accident if you had paid more attention to the other driver’s behavior. You found a lesson. Your story is confirmed. And it’s helpful. It encourages you to drive carefully.
In both cases, you used a form of abductive reasoning:
“Abductive reasoning involves constructing general principles as explanations for particular events, such that if the principles are true, the event or phenomenon in question is explained.”1
Your reasoning went like this: “I observed event Y. If story X were true, then that would make Y happen.” You then go looking for X, and if you find it, your story is confirmed. In the scientific case, you found a planet; in the religious case, you found a lesson.2
The main difference between scientific and religious stories is their purpose. Science tells stories about the observable world that help us understand and control things. Technical jargon aside, scientific stories are “in the vernacular” of normal language. We understand them easily.
Religion tells stories about transcendent reality to help us find meaning and joy in our lives. Unlike scientific stories, which are based in reality as we perceive it, religious stories can seem logically meaningless when we look at them carefully.
Consider the story about the car accident. A critic might say: “Seriously? You think that the Creator of the universe wanted to remind you to drive carefully? Are you nuts?”
In reply, you might give a more sophisticated explanation of your story. You might invoke metaphor. You might point out that it’s useful to take a positive attitude and learn from experience.
But in the aftermath of the car accident, such an abstract explanation doesn’t provide you with what you need. It doesn’t help you make sense of what happened. Your original story was better. It’s an example of what cognitive scientist Jason Slone calls “theological incorrectness:”
“While religious believers produce theologically correct ideas in situations that allow them the time and space to reflect systematically on their beliefs, the same people can stray from those theological beliefs under situational pressures that require them to solve conceptual problems rapidly.”3
Why tell religious stories?
Why tell religious stories at all? Because an ineffable and transcendent reality doesn’t provide a context that helps us face the challenges of life. We need something more immediate and comprehensible.
The “meaningless” stories of religion actually are meaningful, but their meaning amounts to “Don’t worry. There’s more than this.” We all need that, though different people need different kinds and amounts.
People who are scientifically oriented can sometimes find enough context in the austere and beautiful working of physical laws and their mathematical relationships. When atheist biologist Richard Dawkins looks at what we might call “the majesty of creation,” that’s the kind of grandeur he sees, and it’s enough for him to feel that life makes sense.
People who are spiritually inclined look at the same facts as Dawkins, but see them as evidence of something more: of a transcendent goodness just beyond the limits of their sight. They know it’s there: they can almost smell it, but they can’t quite see it. So they put their faith in something they can’t explain. They tell simplified stories about it to bring it into their lives at a practical level, to provide the context that they need.
The English writer Alexander Pope (1688-1744) put it very well:
“What future bliss, He gives not thee to know, But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.”4
Pope, A. (2012), Essay on Man and Other Poems. Dover Publishing, Mineola, NY. Kindle edition.
Slone, J. (2004), Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle Edition.