Re: M & I

Tue, 9 Apr 1996 09:28:00 PDT

Bill Lesley writes:

> While I agree that it is questionable to teach students that their
> religion is "false", I feel that allowing them to consider that it is"true"
> presents an equal problem. Unfortunately,it usually follows that if "mine"
> is "true",that of "others"is "false".This certainly is not the case, but
> human nature tends to operate that way.

Science does not deal with "true/false" dichotomies in the way these terms
are used by practitioners of a particular religion. If I consider my
religion to be "true," it is not a position I arrived at by means of
scientific observation, but by belief. Science has goals such as
understanding phenomena by processes amenable to human intellect,
observation, validation, etc. It follows that the science of anthropology is
not concerned with the "truthfulness" or not of religion from the viewpoint
of belief. While it is reasonable, in terms of scientific discourse, to
consider whether or not such and such a claimed process will or will not have
its claimed effect (DOes the laying on of hands actually cure persons? Do
various forms of "magic" have their alleged consequences?), such discourse,
regardless of its outcome, neither "proves" a religion "true" nor "false."
(Except in a trivial sense that would arise if one were to equate a religion
as being true if and only if a certain factual claim is verifiable--but most
belief systems are quite robust with regard to contradicting evidence!) To
put it another way: This whole discussion about religions being "true" or
"false" is, in my view, erroneous with respect to what anthropology is about
(hence what anthropology should be teaching). Anthropology as a science
should simply set to the side issues of "true" of "false" as these apply to
religions. These are non-scientific issues. They are not falsifiable
except by removing the discourse from a religious domain to a scientific
domain (which already nullifies what is at issue as the topic of "true" of
"false" as it applies to religion is already outside of scientific
discourse). Anthropology is concerned, as a science, with the phenomena of
religion as a belief system and how it relates to the functioning of the
brain, how it relates to the set of meanings that individuals use in how they
go about their existence, how it relates to social form, structure,
organization, etc., even how is it that we are "wired" in such a way that we
can maintain belief in alleged processes that demonstrably do not have their
claimed consequences. We can include religion as a phenomenon within
scientific discourse without making claims about whether a religion is "true"
or "false" as is meant by the practitioners of a particular religion.

D. Read