“When different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: it’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s quip to Stephen Colbert was met with rapturous applause.
The scientific method – first developed by Christians in early modern Europe – has proved to be a highly effective tool for discovering truths about the the natural world. But is science the only tool we have for accessing objective reality: truths that are true, whether or not anyone believes in them? Is it arrogant, exclusive, and even dangerous to suggest that there is objective truth in the realm of religious belief? Is science the laser pointer in our search for truth, replacing religion’s magic wand?
The challenge historical truth
In order to answer that question, we need to first consider the legitimacy of historical truth. One of the valuable insights of the postmodern movement has been to make us more aware of our individual and cultural biases when it comes to questions of truth. When we look at historical evidence, we must not be naive: sources have often been manipulated, distorted or selectively destroyed, and we all bring our own biases to historical analysis. So should we abandon the search for objective truth in history and content ourselves with personal truths that can make no claim on the beliefs of others?
The need for historical truth
Perhaps the clearest example of what is at stake if we abandon the search for objective truth in history comes from the Holocaust. Acknowledging that the Holocaust happened is vital to any understanding of twentieth century history. While there have certainly been attempts to deny that Hitler’s NAZI regime systematically took the lives of six million Jews, those attempts have been and must be vigorously resisted. The Holocaust is a brute fact of history. We may bring biases to the evidence, and for the most part, the scientific method is not the tool we use to amass that evidence. But it is nonetheless crucial that we accept the Holocaust as a truth that is true irrespective of anyone’s beliefs. Likewise, the history of slavery in America or the assassination of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King jnr. These things happened. Period.
The scope of historical truth
But what about questions of more distant history? The further we go back in time, the harder it is to be so sure. For example, we have documentary evidence that Julius Caesar was assassinated. We even have good evidence that the exact date of his assassination was March 15, 44BC. Is it possible that the historical sources are unreliable on this question? Is it possible that Julius Caesar was assassinated on February 15th, or that he was not assassinated but rather secretly imprisoned until his natural death? Yes, it is possible. But even if we have less certainty about this historical event than a more recent and large-scale event like the Holocaust, this does not move the assassination of Julius Caesar into the realm of subjective reality. Julius Caesar was either assassinated on March 15, 44BC or he wasn’t. The assertion is true (or false) whether or not we believe it.
Truth in our histories
If we shrink the historical lens to the present day and an individual’s life, we see the need for objective historical truth just as vividly. Perhaps you have had the experience of being accused of something you did not do. You may not be able to prove your case, but you know that you are being misrepresented. Of course, some issues of personal history are subjective. A divorced couple might legitimately tell different stories about who was to blame for their separation. Both might in some sense be true. But each story must take account of objective facts: Did he leave the house after the fight on the evening of March 27 and spend the night with another woman, or did he stay and watch TV in the spare room?
Truth and justice
In the most serious cases, our personal histories are assessed by a court of law. If someone is accused of murder, we go to great lengths to examine the evidence and judge whether the accusation is true. Sometimes there is an element of scientific evidence in a court case, but we cannot use the scientific method and conduct a repeatable experiment to find out whether the accused is guilty. And yet – and even in cases where the evidence is inconclusive – we would never say that there was no objective truth to be discovered. The accused either murdered the victim or he did not. The truth remains true, whether or not anyone believes it.
Perhaps we all agree that we need a concept of objective truth to undergird history and to ground the criminal justice system. But surely we can safely categorize religious truth-claims as subjective. Religious beliefs are often connected with cultural practices, and shaped by personal experience and preferences. Surely the concept of objective truth, if not limited to science, should be kept well away from religious “truth,” so that Christianity can be true for you, while Islam or Buddhism is true for me.
One problem with this line of thinking is that it is impossible to untangle religious truth-claims from historical truth-claims. For instance, while the claim that Jesus rose from the dead cannot be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, it is still an historical claim. In the same way that Julius Caesar was either assassinated on March 15th 44BC or he wasn’t, so Jesus was either raised from the dead in ca.33AD or he wasn’t. Our believing or not believing in the resurrection may change us, but it does not change the objective reality of what took place 2000 years ago. And this is a question on which the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – disagree. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Muslims believe that Jesus did not die, but that another body was substituted for his on the cross, while he was taken up into heaven. Jews (and atheists, agnostics, Hindus and Buddhist, for that matter) believe that Jesus died but that he was not raised from the dead. Any one of these views is logically defensible on its own – however improbable the first two may seem, if you don’t believe in a miracle-working God. But they cannot all be true. Indeed, it is disrespectful and patronizing to all concerned to claim that Jews, Christians and Muslims are really saying the same thing here. As Oxford mathematician and philosopher of science, John Lennox, puts it, “All religions do not agree with each other and it’s idle to pretend that they do.”
Science is a vital tool for exploring the natural world. But science does not have the monopoly on objective truth. If we relegate all non-scientific truth claims to the subjective realm – true for you, but not for me – we lose our grip on history, our grasp on justice, and even the bare facts of our own lives. However well-intentioned the attempt may be, we cannot effectively separate out religious truth from historical truth in an effort to reconcile all religious views, because different religions make conflicting claims on history.
While science is our laser pointer for discovering truths about the natural world, a magic wand is not our only other tool. To shed light on many of our deepest questions – about God, our purpose, and the meaning of the universe – we need the flickering, dangerous light of a torch.