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Progressives and The Church

The following was written by Dr. Roger Ray for a talk he was to give to a group in Malvern, a small spa town in Worcestershire, England. It is posted here because many may find the content relevant regardless of your geographic location. -- Sharon Kyle, Publisher, LA Progressive.

Science and religion always seem to be at loggerheads. Science is a method that is constantly searching for a better understanding of what is true, so much so that no college would consider using a physics, chemistry, or biology textbook that is more than 10 years old.

Science is not static, or at least it shouldn’t be. Science is always about discovery and innovation.

Faith, on the other hand, while it certainly has evolved generally and hopefully grown, is still typically focused on the task of not changing. While a science department would not use a ten year old textbook, the religion department of any university would assign readings from modern books while still expecting students to become quite proficient in rather ancient books, the Bible, the Quran, and their cousins. 

I shudder to reflect on how much of my graduate school education was focused on trying to know and understand what the original New Testament writers were trying to say, and what their first audience understood them to be saying.

Who among us would want to go to a dentist whose primary proficiency was in mid-first century dentistry? Still, every minister ordained over the past millennia was expected to be an expert in an ancient book, much of which is composed of horrifying misinformation and violence. 

But most of us have awareness that there are very many scientists, physicians, mathematicians, and engineers who are also persons of faith.

Do their minds operate in two distinctly different universes? Do they have a church brain where they accept certain “revealed” realities and a professional brain where they interrogate evidence in order to do critical thinking?

Honestly, I do think that I know some of those people but the task that seems to keep cropping up in the modern era is to find a way to marry these two universes to one another. In fact, if you just do a quick Google search among book sellers for books with the words “faith” and “reason” in the title, you will find many recent attempts at reconciling beliefs with the critical skills of philosophy and the sciences. 

The reason we keep writing new books on this topic, the reason why you have felt the need to have an annual conference that either directly or indirectly tries to consider the implications of rational thought and religious practice is that a definitive and final answer is impossible to discern. 

Speaking to an audience in Malvern, it is reasonable to assume that you are either from the Church of England, the Methodist, the Catholic or the United Reform church. I’ve been there three times now and I believe that I am no longer welcome in three of those churches so if any of you have connections at the Catholic Church, you might try to warm up the priest for me a bit. 

But, given the history of the British empire, you are seeing more and more Muslims in the United Kingdom, more Hindus, Buddhists, and others. Do you ever wonder why you belong to a United Reform church rather than a Buddhist temple? Why would you be a Methodist rather than a Hindu or a Muslim?

Did you ever chart out the various faiths from which you might choose and put their hypothetical truth claims to the test? Did you evaluate the evidence that supports each one and try to choose a faith based on the one that was, at least to your satisfaction, the most true?

Most of us in the progressive movement will have, at some point in our lives, found ourselves to be uncomfortable in our old skins that were defined by creeds and sacred texts.

Most of us had to eventually move on to something else, and yet, most people basically inherit their religious affiliations from their parents, the person they married, and the culture around them. 

If you managed to move from the Methodist church to the United Reform Church, you really should not see yourself as being a pioneer or trail blazer. You really just shifted the position of your lawn chair. We tend to inherit a religion based on what the people around us believe. So, it is not much of a surprise that for most of the history of the world, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists were identified with geography.

You are not surprised to encounter a Hindu in India or a Catholic in Italy! By and large, when it comes to reasoning about faith, we have all committed the logical fallacy known as the “consensus mundi” or the “majority belief.” But what if we really thought about why we believe what we say we believe?

The great divide between faith and reason is, in large part, an invention of the scientific age. Those church officials in the early centuries of the church who were trying to come up with an agreed upon list of letters and essays that would make up the authoritative collection we would come to accept as being our scripture, were certainly trying to collect reliable statements of the truth as they were able to understand it.


As I have written about in my book, Progressive Faith and Practice, one of the books that almost made it into the New Testament is a letter from Clement of Rome who was said to have been installed by St. Peter himself as the Bishop of the church in Rome which later Catholic historians rather liberally dubbed as being the “second pope,” a couple of centuries before there were popes.

There are official reasons for why Clement was not included in the cannon of the New Testament, chief of which was that he was not personally a witness to the life and ministry of Jesus but, were that standard applied to other writers, we wouldn’t have any of our four gospels nor any of the letters of Paul. 

My own suspicion for Clement being dropped from the list of approved New Testament books is because he repeated in his letter a myth about the Phoenix as if he believed that it was true. Clement wrote:

There is a certain bird which is called a phœnix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. 

While the New Testament certainly contained a lot of accounts of miracles, visions, and implausible events, the people who were compiling the scriptures would not want to include a piece that was obviously malarky.

Clement believed the story to be true but the world of the second century included many people who were much better traveled, and they would have known that the whole temple in Heliopolis with Phoenix remains was just not true. 

I have advocated for an evidence-based faith. Granting that there must be room for mystery in our understanding of the universe because we cannot know everything, I would still insist that our embrace of mystery should not be significantly different than the way that physicists and biologists embrace mystery. Humbly acknowledging that we can’t know everything, we still should try our best to avoid believing things that are not true. 

As Prof. Joseph Blitzstein has said, “Math is the logic of certainty, and statistics is the logic of uncertainty.” That is, in math we can be certain of singular right answers that make all other answers wrong. But math is theoretical. In the real world, we constantly deal with uncertainty, so we talk about probability.

I have implied that any fool knows that the account of the Phoenix is purely mythological and yet, you cannot prove a negative. I cannot know that the Phoenix does not exist in the way that I know that 2 + 2 = 4. What is the probability of the existence of the Phoenix, or of unicorns, or Leprechauns, or, for that matter, angels and demons, heaven or hell, souls, ghosts, or a supernatural theistic deity?

To take this seriously, I’m going to beg you to let me wander into that sweet spot where theology and philosophy merge with algebra. I’ll try to make this quick:

In logic classes you will see some equations that look rather like algebra. 

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Progressives and The Church

The translation of this equation is “if p then q, and if q then r, therefore, if p then r. A common teaching application of this syllogism is this: the claim that all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore, Socrates is mortal. 

An aspect of logic that is applied not only in mathematics but becomes crucial to research in all fields of science, is the whole realm of trying to figure out probability.

We all know that when you flip a coin you have a 50-50 chance that it will come up as either heads or tails. However, if you flip a coin 10 times, it will probably come close to being five heads and five tails, but it won’t always be exactly that. But here is the tricky part of logic. If you flip a coin nine times, and all nine times it comes up heads, what are the chances that it will come up heads again on the 10th time? Has the probability gone down to 10% since there have been nine heads in a row? Or 1%?

The fact is that the probability for any coin toss is 50-50 even if the previous 999 tosses had all somehow come up as heads because, men and women, coins have no memory. It may very well “feel” like it should be improbable for it to come up heads a tenth time but, and here is the point, philosophy, math, science, reality, doesn’t care what you feel. And the corollary of that is that theology doesn’t care what you believe. 

We have a certain innate ability to judge probability, but we often believe things because we want to believe them, without giving the evidence a clear priority.

Let me illustrate how sloppy we Americans are when it comes to this: We have just over 300 million adults in this country. The chances of winning the popular PowerBall or MegaMillions lottery is one in 175 million. . . and yet, a full one-third of Americans will tell you that winning the lottery is their retirement plan.

Only 2 people, out of the 300 million people in the country are actually going to win the lottery. However, over 6 million have contracted covid-19, but more than half of Americans won’t wear a mask because they do not believe that they will encounter the virus. . . they are 3 million times more likely to become infected with Covid than they are to win the lottery and in convenience stores all across America at this moment, people are lining up, without masks, to buy lottery tickets. 

I know how much you enjoy hearing me talk about how stupid Americans are but 86% of the people in the UK buy lottery tickets for their one in 50 million chance of winning. The lottery, both here and there, is a form of taxation on people who did poorly in math class. To get people on both sides of the pond to be better at critical thinking about such things as our religious life, our personal finances, and our health, we need to train ourselves to be able to weight probability beyond what we want to believe is true.

Progressives and The Church

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

And to help us with that, we have our old friend, Carl Sagan for saying it very simply. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It could be true, for example, as some have claimed, that vaccinations cause autism or that wind turbines cause cancer.

However, there is no evidence that links vaccinations to autism and there is lots of evidence that vaccines prevent polio, measles, mumps, and rubella, along with a host of other dangerous childhood diseases.

If you have any friends who are telling you that they do not plan to take the Covid vaccine when it is available, you might want to point out to them that it was vaccines that they had years ago that prevented them from having polio or chicken pox and they might want to rethink the anti-vac propaganda they have been hearing.

And we know that wind turbines don’t cause cancer because Donald Trump says that they do, and we have a high probability that he is wrong about this because he is typically wrong about everything that he says. That last one is actually what is called an ad hominem fallacy in logic, but I still like saying it . . . and wind turbines don’t cause cancer.

So, when it comes to religious beliefs, how do we approach this matter of probability and evidence? It is a vexing problem because, for the most part, the practice of religion is an invitation to assassinate your brains and believe a pre-formed set of beliefs . . . literally inheriting your family’s or your community’s predominant faith.

But what if you don’t want to just accept anyone’s pre-formed package of beliefs? What if you only want to believe what has a high probability of being true? And while there is not an “app for that” there is a formula that is remarkably helpful.

In the early 18th century there was actually an organization in London, the Fellows of the Royal Society, who discussed matters of philosophy and science, trying to enlarge the body of possible knowledge.

Progressives and The Church

A member of the Royal Society, one Thomas Bayes, a Presbyterian minister who was educated in both logic and theology, proposed what we now call Bayes theorem which attempts to put beliefs about probability into a mathematical formula, about which entire courses are taught in grad school . . . so, yes, it is both beautiful and terribly complex and yet it fits neatly onto a t-shirt, thank you Dr. Jimenez. This formula is used in all manner of scientific research but when we bring it into the realm of theology, we have to assign numerical values to the evidence that we have to support any particular religious assertion of truth. 

You can find examples of people using Bayes’ theorem to conclude with high probability that Jesus performed the miracles described in the gospels or that Jesus rose from the dead. To do that, they are granting the testimony of the New Testament tremendous weight as evidence. If they do that in a conversation with an atheist, for example, the conversation comes to an end as soon as they insist that there is any reliable evidence at all that the New Testament is describing actual events. 

I would argue that Clement was not stupid for believing in the existence of the Phoenix. He had heard many accounts from people around him and he felt that he had it on good authority. The crucial aspect of applying Bayes’ theorem to religion, is that you have to keep questioning your prior assumptions of probability and collecting new evidence. . . which is exactly what religious people have been trained not to do!

As children, we were willing to begin with an assumption of high probability that our parents’ religion was reliable. When we were given the opportunity to actually read the Bible, it may have been presented to us as being uniquely evidentiary. So, we entered our young religious life with a head full of assumptions and confidence about things, virtually all of which were just wrong. Looked at critically, we had no evidence at all to undergird a supernatural theistic faith.

When the lights are turned on in that dark cathedral of our skull, when we realize that the truth claims of our childhood faith are vacuous, the majority of people join what my friend, Bishop John Spong, has called, “the church alumni association.” 

But here's why I'm still in church. If you turn your back on church and you walk out the door, what, exactly, do you see?

Progressives and The Church

Photo by Amber Kipp on Unsplash

In America what I see is anger boiling over in the streets. Anger about police violence, anger about chronic poverty, racism, discrimination, about the inability to get ahead, to get a decent job, to get a decent education. 

What do you see when you walk away from religion? Do you see a country that has failed to meaningfully address the current pandemic and all of the inequalities it has revealed? Do you see a world that is failing to address climate change while still pouring endless resources into preparing for the next war? Do you see obscene wealth in one part of your city and inexcusable poverty in another? 

Forgive me, but what the Church of England, the United Reform Church, and the Methodists have in common is that none of them are spending enough time thinking about what really matters to people of faith, which is human suffering.

And that, my friends, may be what the dying churches of England have in common with the dying churches of America, a slow descent into moral irrelevance, an irrelevance rooted in magical thinking, an unwillingness to be self-critical, to seek out evidence, to open our eyes to the realities that exist far from our steeples and an avoidance of critical thinking about what is real, what matters, what can be known about the real world. 

Progressives and The Church

Top: Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Boris Johnson, Archbishop Justin Welby, Greta Thunberg Bottom: Malala Yousafzai, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Donald Trump, Rev. Dr. William Barber

In conclusion, may I ask you to judge for yourselves. Who in this collection of pictures is going to make a difference in the next year? Who is a part of the solution and who is a part of the problem? And, for both my American and British audiences, I’ll tip you off that the archbishop of Canterbury is pictured here and the bishop as is the Bishop of our National Cathedral in Washington. Do you know which one is which and do you know their names and what they stand for? And maybe your answer will become evidence of my point.

Dr. Roger Ray

Keep questioning your previous probability assumptions and continue to collect evidence. Try to make a difference.

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church

Progressives and The Church