Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Religions are both True and False

Here is an internationally recognized symbol of an atom. I ask you, dear reader, if this symbol is true or false? Please answer this question in your mind before reading further.

In the first chapter of my economics textbook there is a page about conceptual models as they relate to economic theories. I teach my students that a model is an abstract and simplistic representation of a greater truth. A model is a simplistic way of thinking about something more complicated. A scientific theory is a model, a set of coherent logic that is useful in portraying a bigger reality. Such scientific models are imperfect, and subject to scrutiny and modification. There is typically much resistance to changing established models or theories but paradigm shifts do occur over time as more knowledge is obtained and as the most staunch and established proponents of obsolete models die off.

About this time I draw the symbol of an atom on the board and I tell my students that this is a model. Then I ask them if it is true. Pause. Is this really what an atom looks like? Has anyone ever seen an atom? No, and no. If no one has ever seen an atom then how can this be a true picture of an atom? Do scientists believe that electrons orbit the nucleus (planetary model of an atom)? No. Then why do scientists who know better still use this inaccurate symbol and model of an atom when teaching children about atoms?

The answer is simple. A teacher cannot very well begin to teach the concept of an atom by teaching quantum electrodynamics. Rather, the teacher must employ some pedagogical strategy that usually includes some historical background and a graspable visual picture, a model. Years of teaching experience have confirmed to educators that teaching something that is not exactly true or up to date, such as the planetary model of the atom, may indeed be the best way to teach a greater truth, if it is a stepping stone in the right direction. Then I talk about the usefulness of models in spite of their limitations. Of course models also may contain errors and need to be updated.

Now, to answer my first question, the planetary symbol of the atom is both true AND false. It is “true” in the sense that it is “useful” to teach this model first before continuing to more complex models. It is “false” because it is not exactly what an atom looks like (electrons do not orbit the nucleus on planes).

After the class is dismissed and I am alone I continue the lecture in my head. I say that religions are also models, both true and false. They are true inasmuch as they are useful and adequately capture the ineffable truths that science and philosophy have heretofore not been able to capture. For instance, philosophers have come up with existentialism, a philosophy that is obsessed with the themes of absurdity, anguish, void, dread, and despair but have not yet come up with its opposite; until that day there is a place for religion in this world.

Just as scientific models need to be updated as a matter of course, so also religious models need to be updated too, but it seems to be the propensity of religions to resist change which ironically leads to their becoming less relevant in the world.

Religions are their own worst enemy.

No comments: