Should Skeptical Inquiry Be Applied to Religion?
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Skeptical Inquirer magazine : July/August 1999

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.

... Should the skeptical movement extend its inquiry
to religious questions? Some influential skeptics think
we should not. In my view, skeptical inquirers definitely
need to investigate religious claims.

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... Religious behavior has been investigated by a wide
range of disciplines:

  • Anthropologists deal with the comparative study
    of primitive religions, examining prayer, ritual, the
    rites of passage, etc.

  • Sociologists have investigated the institutional as-
    pects of religious behavior, such as the role of the
    priestly class in society.

  • Ever since William James, psychologists of religion
    have studied the varieties of religious experience,
    such as mysticism, ecstasy, talking in tongues, exor-
    cism, etc.

  • Similarly, biologists have postulated a role for reli-
    gious beliefs and practices in the evolutionary pro-
    cess and their possible adaptive/survival value.
    They have asked, Does religiosity have a genetic
    or environmental basis?

  • Others have focused on the neurological correlates
    of religious piety, and still others have attempted to
    test the efficacy of prayer.

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One can deal with religion in contemporary or historical

A great deal of attention has been devoted to the histor-
ical analysis of religious claims, especially since the great
classical religions are based on ancient documents (the
Old and New Testaments and the Koran), as are some
of the newer religions (such as the nineteenth-century
Book of Mormon).

These texts allege that certain miraculous and revelatory
events have occurred in the past and these warrant reli-
gious belief today; and it is often claimed that belief in
them is based upon faith.

I would respond that scientific methodology has been
used in historical investigations to examine these alleged

Archaeologists seek independent corroborating evi-
dence; they examine written or oral accounts that were
contemporaneous with the events (for example, by com-
paring the Dead Sea Scrolls with the New Testament).

The fields of "biblical criticism" or "koranic criticism" have
attempted to use the best scholarly techniques, historical
evidence, and textual and linguistic analysis to ascertain
the historical accuracy [insert -- and inaccuracy -- end in-
sert] of these claims.

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... What is the truth value of theistic claims? In the great
debate between scientific or philosophical skeptics and
theists, agnostics/nontheists/atheists maintain that theists
have not adequately justified their case and that their claims
are unlikely or implausible.

... God talk is by definition difficult or impossible insofar as
it transcends any possible experience or reason and lurks
in a mysterious noumenal realm.

There are surely many things that we do not know about the
universe; but to describe the unknown as "divine" is to take
a leap of faith beyond reasonable evidence.

... God talk should be construed primarily as a form of per-
sonal and social moral poetry. If this is the case, then reli-
gion does not give us knowledge or truth; instead it expres-
ses mood and attitude.

... religion should not compete with science about the
description and explanation of natural processes in the uni-
verse. Science deals most effectively with these questions,
not religion. To claim to believe in the theory of evolution,
and yet insist the "human soul" is an exception to evolution-
ary principles because it is created by a deity, is an illegiti-
mate intrusion of an occult cause. Similarly, to seek to trans-
cend the "big bang" physical theory in science by postu-
lating a creator is to leap beyond the verifiable evidence.

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... The key question that I wish to address is,

Should skeptical inquirers question the regnant sacred
cows of religion?

There are both theoretical and prudential issues here at

I can find no theoretical reason why not, but there may be
practical considerations.

For one, it requires an extraordinary amount of courage
today as in the past (especially in America!) to critique

One can challenge paranormal hucksters, mediums,
psychics, alternative therapists, astrologers, and past-life
hypnotherapists with abandon, but to question the revered
figures of orthodox religion is another matter, for this may
still raise the serious public charge of blasphemy and her-
esy; and this can be dangerous to one's person and career,
as Salman Rushdie's fatwah so graphically demonstrates.

... acquiescence by skeptics to the fideist's [a fideist is
one who relies on faith alone, rather than scientific rea-
soning or philosophy in questions of religion] rationalization
for his beliefs is profoundly mistaken.

Similarly, in answer to those theists who maintain that there
is adequate evidence and reasons for their belief, skeptical
inquirers should not simply ignore their claims, saying that
they are beyond scientific confirmation, but should examine
them. Since the burden of proof is always upon the claim-
ant, skeptical inquirers may question both the fideist and
the partial-evidentialist in religion, if they do not believe that
they have provided an adequate justified case.

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The upshot of this controversy, in my judgment, is that scien-
tific and skeptical inquirers should deal with religious claims.
Not to do so is to flee from an important area of human be-
havior and interest and is irresponsible.

... I disagree with those who counsel caution in applying sci-
entific skepticism to the religious domain. In my view science
should not be so narrowly construed that it only applies to
experimental laboratory work; it should bring in the tools of
logical analysis, historical research, and rational investigation.
In this sense, I submit, religious claims are amenable to sci-
entific examination and skeptical inquiry.

... Although disbelief about religious claims is higher among
scientists (an estimated 60 percent) than the general popula-
tion (perhaps 10 percent), some scientists fail to rigorously
examine their own religious beliefs. They may use rigorous
standards of inquiry in their particular fields of expertise, yet
throw caution to the wind when they leap into questions of
religious faith.

... questionable religious claims are proliferating daily and
they are not adequately evaluated by skeptical scientists.

In my view, we need more skeptical inquirers who possess
the requisite expertise and are able to apply their investiga-
tive skills to religious claims. Such skeptical inquiry is sorely
needed today. It could play a vital role in the debate between
religion and science.

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... About the Author

Paul Kurtz is founder of CSICOP and author or editor of
over 30 books. ...

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