Rationality and Religion

In Rationality and Religion, Roger Trigg points out that the social scientific approach to the study religion emphasizes the fact of belief rather than the beliefs themselves and that this approach implies a certain distance between the observer and the observed. For Trigg, the scientific formula separates the observer from the observed to such an extent that we scarcely notice how the scientific and empirical perspective of the observer overrules the spiritual and religious perspective of the observed in the search for truth: “The very fact that we stand back from beliefs, and refuse to examine their truth, will have the result that scientific explanations of such belief will have to dismiss any idea that a belief is held because it is true…” By adopting the social scientific approach to the study of religion, researchers are already concluding that religion is first and foremost a man-made response to social or psychological forces. Explanations of religious behavior involving possible connections to the supernatural are ignored because they cannot meet the strict criteria of empirical verifiability dictated by the scientific approach. Hence, anything to do with the supernatural does not qualify as valid explanation to a scientific observer.

However, as Trigg rightfully points out, while their respective methods may differ, both scientific observer and religious believer are engaged in the same fundamental activity, which is the search for truth: “Social scientists cannot claim validity for their discipline without allowing that it is motivated by the very same search for truth that they wish to suggest in others is merely the expression of social or psychological conditions.  Dangers of self-reference arise when truth is reduced to issues about the causes of belief.” It would not seem reasonable to just assume, as the social scientists do, that their search is for a valid truth whereas the believer’s endeavor is fictional. Ultimately, the scientist and the believer are merely pulling on opposite ends the same rope; each is attempting to explain the world, but on their own terms. Science cannot dismiss the validity claims of religion without in some sense calling into question the validity of its own beliefs, those being in the power of human rationality over spirituality and faith.

Science and religion are to an extent contradictory but neither is absolute. In some sense they are both competitors in the business of explanation, each with a specific target audience in mind. By design, you cannot fully accept scientific truths without at the same time rejecting religious ones.  Trigg points out that the acceptance of a scientific truth claim implies the choosing of one set of explanatory principles over another, a kind of “belief” in the superior merits of science as a method of explanation: “The assumption that anthropological and other explanations will not only be forthcoming but will be wholly adequate to explain the origins and persistence of religion not only assumes the falsity of religious claims but also relies on the truth of anthropological ones.” Accepting an anthropological truth claim with respect to religion is mostly about excluding any other theory or explanation of the matter, be it religious or otherwise. An anthropological theory of religion represents merely a singular explanation among countless other possibilities, elevated to the status of truth in the name of science.

For Trigg, this belief in the superior merits of anthropology is arbitrary and should itself be subject to the same sort of scrutiny applied by anthropologists towards religious beliefs: “The very distinction between levels of belief, between religious belief and the study of it, indicates that truth cannot be arbitrarily claimed for one level and denied at the other. Once truth is denied at one level, the same form of argumentation may be repeated at the next.” If the belief in the explanatory merits of science involves the denial of non-scientific truth claims, it follows that non-scientific belief systems should as well have the ability to deny scientific claims. Hence, science cannot deny the legitimacy of unscientific theories without compromising the status of its own truth claims. For Trigg, a scientific theory of religion which is based on the assumption that all religious beliefs are mistaken is simply another form of religious belief.


Trigg, R. (1998). Rationality and religion: Does faith need reason? Oxford [England: Blackwell.

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