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Applying Critical Realism to Theology

A very influential array of scientist-theologiansSee Barbour, Ian, Religion and Science (London:SCM Press, 1998) pp118-20, Polkinghorne, John, Reason and Reality (London: SPCK, 1991), Peacocke, Arthur, Theology for a Scientific Age (London: SCM Press,...have argued that theology, like the sciences, is a critical realist discipline, which considers data, draws inferences to explanations, and submits these to testing closely analogous to that outlined for a scientific hypothesis.

This is a problematic claim. What are the ‘data’ of a religion which correspond to those of a science? Some might argue that they are the scriptures of that faith, others the liturgy, others religious experience. Again, can it be said that there is a genuine critical element which can lead to theories being discarded, or are religious data privileged against falsification?

Willem B. Drees (see Drees’ Typology) dismisses the claim of theology to be regarded as a realist discipline like the sciences. In his view theology shows no parallel with the spectacular success of science. With the science of the last three hundred years there is a cumulative success, an ongoing fertility in the development of new theories, which is simply absent from theology.Drees, Willem B, Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) pp141-42Polkinghorne concedes that ‘One could not assert that (theology) has been characterised by the same power of its community to reach conclusions, which is such an impressive feature of the cumulative advance of science.’Polkinghorne, 1996, 17He points out that ‘Theology depends for its moments of transparency to the divine upon events and people that are unrepeatably unique.’Polkinghorne, 1996, 18So its data are going to be more precarious and less testable for that reason alone.

Click on the ongoing debate on critical realism and theology to follow the argument in more detail.

Or go to consonances between science and religion.

We can understand more about the similarities and differences between claims to realism in science and in theology by looking at the role played by model and metaphor in these two rationalities. Click on the role of model and metaphor to explore this.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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