Evidence and faith

I find it increasingly difficult to make sense of what is going on today. All the terrible things I had anticipated for the future are suddenly happening now. And things I never imagined, like the assaults on truth and science, come at a time when they are desperately needed.

There are all kinds of ways to divide/categorize the American public: there’s the urban/rural divide, the differences between Republicans and Democrats, people who are college educated versus those who are not…One distinction that is rarely highlighted but incredibly important doesn’t even have a descriptive term–it’s the difference between people who recognize and respect evidence and those who don’t.

Think of it as the difference between people who accept the Enlightenment emphasis on empirical reality and those who are “faith-based.” Being faith-based, at least as I am using the term, doesn’t necessarily mean “religious.” It means preferring an ideological commitment–something taken on faith– to demonstrable reality, and a number of people–many of them highly educated–fall into that category.

There’s nothing wrong with theory, but it’s a framework for empirical exploration, not a substitute. In the end, real world evidence is what matters.

Prize for Evidence, Sheila Kennedy, 10/17/2021

One of the first lessons I learned as I began my career in medical research, was to make sure I wasn’t trying to make evidence fit into my preconception of what the results should be. And I was impressed to discover further research sometimes made sense of a piece of the puzzle we discovered previously that had not fit my expectations.

Or new data might provide further evidence that my preconceptions were wrong. That strengthened my faith, that there is much beyond what we think we know. Mysteries to unravel.

Kennedy states faith-based, as she is using the term, “means preferring an ideological commitment–something taken on faith– to demonstrable reality.” A choice to hold onto beliefs even when the evidence refutes those beliefs.

The question is whether it is possible to continue to believe something when evidence shows that to be false? My answer is no, because I believe the framework of science, a system of verifiable evidence, is part of creation.

But others profess to believe the opposite. People who are told to not believe what they see. Which leaves them open to being manipulated. And not open to persuasion, even when shown evidence contradicting their belief.

It has been common in western thought, from ancient times up until the present, to view reality as divided between an ideal world of spirituality and perfectedness, and a counterpart world of material and practical reality which is fallen and corrupted. This concept began with Plato and was given a theological overlay by Christianity.  It invites the idea that truth and beauty are attractive but insubstantial, and that they are impossible of realization, while the demands of practical reality inevitably require various violent and ugly compromises, and radical departures from ideal concepts of purity and goodness.

Quaker spirituality, as well as other minority streams of Christian mysticism, and most eastern spiritualities, reject this dualistic view of reality.  They affirm a true understanding of our situation, which is that the mundane and the divine are one.  What so many mistakenly see as realms separate and apart are, in truth, so interdependent that one cannot be understood, or even spoken of, without the other.

Peace or Justice: Which Has Precedence? A Quaker Perspective on the Papal Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris Issued by Pope John XXIII on April 11, 1963
By Daniel A. Seeger

To me, faith-based includes truth supported by evidence in science. But it also includes beliefs that are part of a spiritual framework. There is so much in our world that cannot be proven with scientific evidence.

I was raised and continue to be part of a faith community, the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers. I attend Sunday meetings for worship, where we sit together in silence, trying to hear what God, or the spirit, or the Creator, or Inner Light is saying to us. Sometimes someone discerns a spiritual message they share with the meeting, speaking out of the silence. We believe the Spirit continues to be active in the world, in our lives, today.

These days, as remains of thousands of children who attended the Native residential schools continue to be located, the question is how this could happen? Especially since those institutions of forced assimilation were run by various religious groups, including Quakers.

I don’t know. Such a terrible history does make me question what I thought I was being led, by the Spirit, to do, that might be causing harm today. I’m praying to be shown what I might do now related to this tragedy.

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