sociological debate between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge has been occurring for most of the last few centuries (Anesi, 2003a). While the concept of "knowledge" is broad, and the definitions for "knowledge" even more broad (Meja & Stehr, 2000), this paper will only examine the concepts of religious and scientific knowledge, and the debate among modern sociologists between the two. This paper will present a definition of religious knowledge, present sociologists on both sides of the debate, and will examine how religious knowledge is used in Western society. This paper will attempt to show, based on the sociological views discussed, that the use of religious knowledge in today's world is warranted, in some cases.
As stated, the concept of a working definition of "knowledge" is difficult. In the broadest sense, "knowledge" can be thought of as awareness and understanding of facts, truths, or information (Gettier, 1963). According to modern sociology, those facts or truths are context-dependant and constrained by social factors (Meja & Stehr, 2000). Thus, it is easy to see how those social factors can be responsible for placing value on different types of knowledge. Sociologists George and Fischer further this idea by recognizing that all social differences in perceptions of knowledge have origins based in social context, and thus, are easily subjected to human control (1999).
With those ideas in mind, defining religious knowledge becomes a bit easier. Sociologist Alejandro Fregario defines religious knowledge as the learning of basics ideas of faith, the rites of religion, and the understanding of religious scripture (2000). He states that through religious experience, individuals are able to gain information about the world around them. Even if those experiences are in part motivated by scripture, they are then taken as proof of the correctness of the knowledge as a whole (Fregario, 2000).
Nicholas Wolterstorff defines religious knowledge by emphasizing common sense (1995). According to Wolterstorff, religious knowledge relies not on reasoning about the transcental conditions of knowledge, but rather, interpretations of reality. Thus, he describes religious knowledge as the knowledge of God and our world in such a way that is described through scripture and derived from our realities. He sees religious knowledge as maintained and learned through our experiences in the real world, and sees the real world applications of that knowledge as proof that the knowledge is truth (Wolterstorff, 1995).
There are some sociologists who believe that religious knowledge is inferior to scientific knowledge. Anesi (2003b) states in his discussion of scientific knowledge that knowledge is obtained through observation. Additionally, he states that knowledge can only be obtained with an observation by the senses about the world around us. He argues that, since religious knowledge is based on faith and abstract principles, true knowledge can only be gathered through scientific observation, since that relies on the tangible world (Anesi, 2003b).
Jason Dulle (2002) also argues in favor of scientific knowledge over religious knowledge. Dulle explains that, to prove any theory or fact, it is imperative to show evidence. Religious knowledge, according to Dulle, is merely personal assertions of religious belief, not true evidence. Any valid knowledge based on scientific principles relies on solid arguments of scientific principles, proven to be true. Thus, he states, religious knowledge is merely a construct of belief, whereas scientific knowledge is a fact (Dulle, 2002).
Another sociologist, Edward Wilson, describes the ultimate goal of knowledge as a single complete theory for everything, and argues that the foundation for that theory must be science. According to Wilson, the only way to establish a truth or refute a theory is through natural sciences, such as dissection of ideas into tangible elements. He states that because of this, religious knowledge, which relies on theory and belief alone, is simply unable to prove or disprove anything (Wilson, 1998). Wilson agrees with scientists like Jacob Bronowski (1973), who stated that scientific knowledge is not perfect, nor always accurate, but is very precise and far more precise than religious methods. Both Wilson and Bronowski state that there is no such thing as religious "knowledge," there is only religious belief (Wilson, 1998; Bronowski, 1973).
There are an equal number of sociologists who support the use of religious knowledge. Renowned sociologist Robert Wuthnow firmly believes there is a place for religious knowledge (1992). In his discussion of the scientific method, he reasons that religious knowledge, just like scientific knowledge, relies on qualitative information drawn from observation, interviews, and archival information. He states that carefully pouring through scripture and artifacts is as much a method of knowledge as computing regression tables (Wuthnow, 1992).
Edmond Cherbonnier also believes that religious knowledge can be used (1959). In his discussion of knowing God, he discusses knowledge as a personal concept. Since God is personal, he reasons, and since God is evident in each action, seen through one's own observation, then that knowledge of God is valid. Any conclusions made about that knowledge, he continues, are products of observation and intuition, based on a posteriori knowledge of God. More importantly, he states, scripture is a narrative account of religious activities throughout history, thus making it a valid historical document. Any historical document, studied for its contents about the world, is a valid basis for knowledge (Cherbonnier, 1959).
Paul Feyerabend also believed that scientific method was not necessarily the best method for knowledge (1991). In his discussions of the scientific method, Feyerabend made the observation that since we cannot predict what form our future knowledge will come in, we should not confine ourselves to a single method of knowledge. In addition, Feyerabend discussed science as basically anarchistic, and obsessed with its own form of mythology. In his view, scientists could not disprove religious knowledge, so it therefore was no more correct than the religious knowledge held by others. Since science knowledge did not arise from a single universal method which guaranteed high quality conclusions any more than religious knowledge did, neither was more correct or incorrect. Thus, using religious knowledge was just as valid as using scientific knowledge (Feyerabend, 1991).
One of the most vocal believers in religious knowledge is that of Alvin Plantinga. In a 1981 article titled Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Plantinga argued that proof or logical argument is not required for the belief or knowledge of God. His claim was that religious knowledge is basic, in that the person with the religious knowledge is not required to produce evidence or proof. However, he points out that "one who takes belief in God as basic (that is, without proof or inferential evidence) can nonetheless know that God exists" (Plantinga, 1981, p. 190).
Plantinga furthered this idea in his discussion of religious knowledge in general in 1982. Plantinga argued in On Reformed Epistemology that there is a correct picture of knowledge, and this picture includes religious knowledge. According to Plantinga, a belief constitutes knowledge if it is true, and if it arises from the proper function of out epistemic capabilities. Religious knowledge, in his opinion, fit this scenario, and was thus true knowledge (Plantinga, 1982).
The use of religious knowledge in modern Western society is widespread. For some, religious knowledge helps act as a problem solving device for social issues. By knowing "facts" based on ones religious viewpoint, one can apply that "knowledge" to current problems within their lives as a means to assist in dealing with them (Sharpe, 1982).
Don Cupitt explains the use of religious knowledge in modern society as a way for people to explain why they are here, how they should live, and what they can hope for. He argues that religious knowledge helps people to know moral and social guidelines for behavior. It is a way to bind both values and reality into a constant state of realism (
Additionally, some argue that religious knowledge is used to gather "facts" about reality, and to make decisions based on those "facts" (Kappelman, 1998). For example, if one holds that their religious knowledge of reality implies that homosexuality is an abnormality, then that "fact" is made part of our construct. Thus, we believe homosexuality to be wrong. According to Kappelman, this belief is based on the religious knowledge we hold (Kappelman, 1998).
In a more general sense, religious knowledge can be seen in many areas of current Western thought, including the debate over evolution vs. creation, the political debate over stem cell research, the debate over prayer in schools, the crisis of the World Trade Center bombing, and the current war in Iraq. In all these cases, religious knowledge can and does form the base of "factual information" for some, while scientific knowledge forms the base of knowledge for others.
The use of religious knowledge in modern society can be of use. The basis for religious knowledge is learning by observation, and through readings of scripture and historical documents. Once a person has this "knowledge," it begins to be used as a basis for other knowledge in that person's life (Thistleton, 1996). The idea that God exists, for example, may lead a person…