Friday, October 09, 2009

Religious revolution? (Sunday Reflections for October 11, 2009)

Almost fifty years ago a little book was published that shook up the academic world. It generated a whole new way of understanding how groundbreaking ideas come about, summarized in an innocent sounding phrase invented by the author: paradigm shift. The book was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) by Thomas Kuhn. While Kuhn’s interest was in how new ideas came about in science, people quickly realized that the concept of paradigm shift could be applied to any field of knowledge or any way of understanding the world.

A paradigm shift is a dramatic, even violent, change in the way some aspect of reality is understood. One of the most well-known examples is the Copernican Revolution. Prior to Copernicus, people believed that the stars, sun and planets all orbited the earth. This was mostly theoretical until the late Middle Ages when increased commerce caused sailing ships to get more adventurous and head out across open seas.

To do that, sailors navigated by these heavenly objects. This required accurate charts telling them exactly where they would be in the night sky on specific dates and times. The only problem was that it couldn’t be done, at least not very accurately. Astronomers had the mathematical tools but no matter how much they tweaked the existing system they could never get it quite right. And even slight errors could send ships far off course.

They couldn’t give up on the earth-centered system, however, because there was no alternative—until Copernicus. He proposed that everything in the heavens orbited the sun, including the earth. Knowing how controversial his ideas were, he delayed publishing them and they didn’t become public until after his death. Thus it fell to Galileo to lead the charge for this radical new theory—and take the heat. Yet as emotionally and theologically distressing as it was, ultimately the Copernican system won out for one simple reason: it worked.

Kuhn showed that paradigm shifts are not gradual or evolutionary. Rather, they are complete breaks with the past which are, as Kuhn says, revolutionary. Other well known “scientific revolutions” include the theories of evolution, genetics, relatively, quantum mechanics, continental drift, and the Big Bang.

A new paradigm never makes sense from the perspective of the old one it replaces and is always disturbing to people accustomed to the old. Believers in previous paradigms are rarely converted. Adoption of the new idea really only comes about, according to Kuhn, when proponents of the old idea finally die off. The eminent British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) went to his grave convinced the “steady state” theory of the universe was true long after most everyone else had accepted the Big Bang—a term he had coined to make fun of it.

As is true of their political versions, intellectual revolutions produce great results but they often aren’t very fun to live through. During the time of upheaval most people aren’t sure who’s right and who’s wrong. There is an awareness that the old system isn’t working—“but could this new idea really be right? It doesn’t seem to make sense.” The new proposed paradigm is usually so different and so disturbing that most people would rather put their efforts into fixing the old one. “It’s gotten us this far, hasn’t it?” People often have a lot invested in the old system. Some have built their lives and careers on it. “Do we dare give it all up?”

I have been convinced for some time that we are living at the beginning of such a revolutionary period. The article which reminded me of Kuhn’s book (I had to read it in college) was about the growing awareness of major problems with our economic system. Last year’s credit collapse revealed fundamental flaws in banking, finance and their regulation. Do they just need to be tweaked or is some more fundamental change needed?

Similar questions are being asked about nearly every other area of culture and society: health care, education, government at all levels, marriage and the family, energy, communication, transportation—you name it. The fact that we are much more aware of the problems than of solutions has spawned an ambiguous yet descriptive name for this period of human history: post-modern. It’s as if people of Galileo’s day had called their time “post-medieval.” Only in looking back do we call it the Renaissance—they didn’t know that’s what they were living in.

This time of pre-revolution also applies to another area of culture: religion. Notice I didn’t say Christianity, though it’s certainly included. The crisis (for that’s what it is) goes further than that and really includes all religions and indeed the very concept of religion. The reason is because we are becoming a global culture. Wherever one goes in the world, where globalization is taking hold, religion is on the defensive.

The most violent reaction to this, of course, is fundamentalism, some form of which has arisen in nearly every religion. Yet it clearly is a “fingers in the dike” response rather than a real answer. It will only hold back the water for so long. The dam, it seems increasingly obvious, is beyond repair.

Could religion be going away? The idea is probably as incomprehensible to us as the notion of the earth going around the sun was to people 500 years ago. But notice that these revolutions never do away with human experience. Rather they give us a new way of understanding and looking at that experience. Galileo didn’t say the heavenly bodies didn’t exist but that we needed to understand them in a different way.

I think we may be on the verge of something similar in religion. Clearly for hundreds of millions of people traditional religion has grown stale, tired, irrelevant, and even offensive—in short, it doesn’t work. People’s lives and the world they live in are putting new demands on religion that it isn’t able to meet. It’s not keeping our ships on course, if you will. We need something new to guide us and get us to our destinations.

What will religion’s paradigm shift be? We don’t know. That’s what makes living in this time so awkward, uncomfortable and indeed, to some, even frightening. Yet Kuhn’s survey of history shows that eventually the new idea appears. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of this phenomenon. Where and why it develops is a mystery. Indeed, we might even call it a miracle: the miracle of human imagination and creativity. And this is why we can yet rely on a traditional practice, faith. Somewhere, the Spirit is at work—still, again—showing someone the way ahead. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


Anonymous said...

Well, I'm a research scientist, so maybe we're an exception, but I find these times of change very exciting. Discovery isn’t always so quick. When presented though, it often is surprising.

As for Boyle, he was so funny. He made fun of the big bang because it implied a creator, but when he predicted nucleosynthesis (how elements heavier than hydrogen and helium are made in stars) and calculated that carbon (which of course is required for life) was so unlikely (see to be formed in the amounts found that he decided it must have been find tuned by some intelligence. He stopped being an atheist after that.

Anyway, yes, you’re right. There are big changes in store for religion. That’s why I returned. David Mc

Anonymous said...

By the way, I didn't read this book, but I'm so glad the term "Paradigm Shift" fell out of favor. Just like "quantum leap"- a quantum leap would describe the very tiniest leap possible!

Hey, read the one star reviews in your link. I guess even Kuhn retracted most of his ideas. Science doesn’t work like this. Truth and discovery in science is earned in patient, careful baby steps.
Remember the 3rd of Arthur C. Clark's 3 laws- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Like real magic- it's not really magic. David Mc

Simon Cozens said...

I take it you've read David Bosch's "Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in the theology of mission"? He'd argue that paradigm shifts in religion have already happened, several times, and yes, we're in the middle of one now.

Great, great, great book.

Doug said...

I think it's an exaggeration to say Kuhn "retracted most of his ideas." He continued to modify them, as most scholars do, but his basic tenets remained. He also said late in his life that "paradigm" was the most misunderstood of his ideas. Probably for that reason he had basically stopped using the term sometime earlier.

That's why I don't think Kuhn would disagree at all, David, with your description of progress in science as "careful baby steps." That's what takes place within a pardigm and is "normal" science. A paradigm shift, however, is much more rapid, dramatic, and rare. The term got over used because it was applied to too many situations which were actually normal trasitions within a prevailing paradigm.

Simon, I haven't read Bosch (if I can respond to 2 comments at once) but I researched him a bit and I think he makes the same mistake. I doubt that the multiple changes he identifies really rise to the level of paradigm change.

Certainly the rise of Xty and ethical monotheism and its adoption by the empire was such a change. Probably the Reformation would also qualify. But I think we are only now on the verge of another.

It hasn't really begun yet, however. We are only in the crisis state of the old paradigm where most of the energy is going into fixing it. "Emerging Xty" is the most recent example of that. It's adherents think it's a big change but it really still follows modern Xty's basic assumptions. A genuinely new paradigm has yet to appear.

Anonymous said...


You're good at juggling two comments. Bravo- David Mc

Anonymous said...

Wow, I typed Boyle when I meant Hoyle. arrg.

He was a "gas" though. Considered by many as the first modern chemist.

In 1690 he developed his theological views in The Christian Virtuoso, which he wrote to show that the study of nature was a central religious duty." Boyle wrote against atheists in his day (the notion that atheism is a modern invention is a myth), and was clearly much more devoutly Christian than the average in his era. David Mc

Anonymous said...; You saved my day again.