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April 15, 2024

Religion Is Not Unreasonable

By Bernie Pilarski

I was thinking about the story in the news of the young woman found hanged with her feet tied together and her hands tied behind her back. As incredible as it sounds, the police have determined that she committed suicide.

Here, interestingly is the conflict of science and religion.

Forensic science, and I suppose some good old-fashioned police experience, saw past the obvious in this case -- a woman hung from a rope with hands and feet bound. I would have assumed that she had been killed. But there was a way, demonstrated by the police in a video, by which the woman could have done it herself. This is good science -- observe the situation, propose a hypothesis that would explain what happened, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, run the experiment and see if it confirms the hypothesis.

But why would the woman do what she did? We can guess about the motives, maybe even gather some anecdotal evidence (like the note she left behind) about what she was thinking, but ultimately we can never know for sure what was in her mind at the end. There is no science that can be conducted on the dead's thoughts; might be some day, but not now.

Is there nothing that can be known about motives? Of course not. We can draw on all the information we have, we can compare notes from similar situations, we can examine our own actions and feelings and gain an understanding, and we can ultimately choose to believe what we want about why the woman did what she did.

Would we be right? After all, there would be no proof available -- we could not confirm the hypothesis. What we would conclude would only be an inference from the few things we knew for sure, from the science available to us.

Could we be right? The probability of stumbling on the right answer purely by chance is, I suspect, not much different than the chances of random inert elements coming together to form sentient life forms, yet sentient life forms abound.

The young woman's family understandably rejects the police findings. From what they've seen and what they know, they can not believe that she would kill herself. The inference they make, from the things they know, adds up to an entirely different conclusion.

Science is the language of how things happen. Religion is the language of why things happen. Of course there is bad science, and there is bad religion. I am always dismayed when people try to use religion in place of science, or science as a religion. However, I've never found them to be incompatible or mutually exclusive.

We are insatiably curious creatures. Unlike the animals that appear to be content with simply being, we want to know everything about ourselves and our environment. We want to know how the woman managed to hang herself with her hands and feet bound, and we want to know why she did it. We want to know where we are, what is this place in which we find ourselves, and we want to know why we are here.

The discovery of how and the discovery of why are two distinctly different disciplines.

I make this point in part because recently my beliefs were described to me as being superstitions. Superstition is defined as a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like. That's not an apt description of what I believe.

Suppose I believed that holding a toad would give me warts. Fine. As a Catholic, I am taught that my belief can and should be informed by reason, so I would have to consider all the information presented to me. There is compelling science that proves that toads are not the source of warts. If now I persist in my belief that toads cause warts, I could rightly be accused of being superstitious.

However, to look at the intricacies of the universe, to marvel at the sheer wonder of improbability of sentient life, to contemplate the beginning and the irrevocable end of all matter, and to then infer from this that there is a benevolent direction occurring is not irrational. In the language of science, this is not fact, but neither is it superstition. It could be described as a hypothesis, one that there is currently no way to test. In the language of religion, it is called faith.

The young woman who hanged herself is dead, and we feel compelled to determine how and why she is dead.

We are alive, and it is no less important to determine how and why.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-09-05
3 Reader Comments
clearly, r. voza
07:00:35 PM
disagreement 1: "Religion is the language of why things happen."

religion is not the language of "why." it is the language of what we believe. science is the language of both how and why. why does an apple fall to earth? gravity.

disagreement B: "The probability of stumbling on the right answer purely by chance is, I suspect, not much different than the chances of random inert elements coming together to form sentient life forms..."

those random elements had billions of years to get the job done. they came from light years apart, riding on comets and meteors and the afterbirth of supernovas.

as for the death of the woman, i'm not sure if your "why" is for "why did she commit suicide?" or "why did she stage such a situation?"

if it's the latter, she obviously staged that situation to spare her family the shame and pain of the suicide. following most suicides, the family painfully wonders "why" it happened. they beg to know what they could have done to help, and they often blame themselves for not having noticed any signs or being close enough to help. but then you mentioned a note left behind. therefore, she did the binding of the hands for a very specific reason - to be unable to reverse her decision. she bound herself and then hopped to the noose. there's a natural reaction to save oneself. if her hands were free, and she employed the noose, she'd have an overwhelming need to remove herself. by binding her hands, she couldn't. it's why many people get very drunk before doing so.

as for why she chose suicide, well, probably nobody will ever know, and i'm not sure if we should know.
06:15:15 PM
Thanks for your observations, Mr. Voza. Regarding disagreement 1: I will quibble and say that science can confirm only that the apple did fall, and explain the role of gravity in the process. But what if the apple was caused to fall in order to make a point? What if the initiation of the action was from an as yet unmeasurable force?
Disagreement B: I think we agree. Some things do happen that just statistically shouldn't. Life is a complex and improbable event, but it happens.

As to why the woman might have staged her death, your observations are very "religious" in nature. They are inferences from circumstantial (but reasonable) evidence. "She obviously staged that situation to spare the family..." could be an explanation. You may be right, or you may be wrong. Because your statements are unprovable does not make them irrational or fix them in the realm of superstition.

There is a great deal of inference in religious belief, but I would argue that that does not make religious belief in invalid.
clearly, r. voza
01:10:10 PM
oh, i would never say religion is invalid. one of the beautiful things about it is that it can be neither proven nor disproven, which is probably why we call it "faith." while it doesn't work for me, and while i put no personal value in religion, i wouldn't dare tell someone else that their beliefs are "wrong." i would easily say "i disagree," but i can also easily be wrong. if my reponse suggested otherwise, then i apologize.

as for the apple, please expand. these types of discussion are far more interesting that attempting to prove where a comma does or doesn't belong. :)
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