Should Skeptical Inquiry Be Applied to Religion?

  • by  Paul Kurtz

The relationship between science and religion has engendered heated controversy. This debate has its roots in the historic conflict between the advocates of reason and the disciples of faith. On the current scene, there is a vocal hallelujah chorus singing praises to the mutual harmony and support of these two realms or "magisteria." I have serious misgivings about this alleged rapprochement, but I wish to focus on only one aspect of the controversy, and ask: To what extent should we apply skepticism to religious claims?

By the term "skepticism" I do not refer to the classical philosophical position which denies that reliable knowledge is possible. Rather, I use the term "skepticism" to refer to skeptical inquiry. There is a contrast between two forms of skepticism, (1) that which emphasizes doubt and the impossibility of knowledge, and (2) that which focuses on inquiry and the genuine possibility of knowledge; for this latter form of skepticism ("the new skepticism," as I have labeled it),1 skeptical inquiry is essential in all fields of scientific research. What I have in mind is the fact that scientific inquirers formulate hypotheses to account for data and solve problems; their findings are tentative; they are accepted because they draw upon a range of confirming evidence and predictions and/or fit into a logically coherent theoretical framework. Reliable hypotheses are adopted because they are corroborated by a community of inquirers and because the tests that confirm them can be replicated. Scientific hypotheses and theories are fallible; and in principle they are open to question in the light of future discoveries and/or the introduction of more comprehensive theories. The point is that we have been able to achieve reliable knowledge in discipline after discipline because of the effective application of skeptical inquiry.

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source: Skeptical Inquirer magazine



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