SOC 420 Lesson 2 SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1: Epistemology and the Sociology of Religion
Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.
—Mahatma Ghandi (as cited at brainyquote.com )
First Things First—Basic Concepts and Required Reading
Welcome to Lesson 2 of our Sociology of Religion course! Hopefully you’re getting all the time you need to fully process the concepts we’re reading about. In case you were curious: A “concept” is a topic, subject, complex idea, etc. We read about the concepts of sociology, religion, and Rational Choice theory in the previous unit, for instance. In this unit, we are reading about the concepts of social theories, methods, epistemology, and so forth. Please start by reading the assigned text chapters. There are other readings in the remainder of the lesson that are recommended, but also optional. As I’ve previously noted, I generally err on giving you access to more information than you’ll probably need, rather than not enough. In any case, there are some additional key concepts to cover in this lesson, so let’s jump into it.
The Wide Wonderful World of Epistemology
In the sociology of religion, especially as we consider the importance of studying religion scientifically (for Assignment 2 purposes), ( it’s useful to understand a little of the discourse of epistemology, or how we know something is true, valid, or correct. To introduce this topic, let’s consider a classic poem by English poet John Godfrey Saxe, based on a Hindu parable: “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” (See the link for both the poem and some insightful commentary.) First published in 1872, the poem recounts an analogy of six blind men who encounter an elephant. Not knowing the whole animal, each man goes to a part of it and says what he thinks the elephant is based on that. One finds a leg and says the elephant is a tree, and so forth. The elephant is also characterized as a fan (ear), wall (side), spear (tusk), rope (tail), and snake (trunk). Then the men argued about what the elephant really was, still never truly seeing or understanding the entire elephant itself. All of them had perceived a part of the elephant, but none of them had actually seen or comprehended the elephant’s nature, character, and totality. And so, as Saxe concludes: “Each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong!”
Saxe, as he states near the end, was directly commenting on religious squabbles. The point he was trying to make was that people try to pick and choose which religion they favor, perceiving a small part of the totality of Objective Truth, though nobody sees anything close to all of it. But we can apply his overall ideas to epistemology. We don’t necessarily see all of the whole picture when we try to know something or investigate a question that interests us, either. But we try to understand as much of the problem as we can—given the substantial risk that it’s entirely possible we might be completely misunderstanding the true scope of the problem at hand. We may have much more to learn about what we’re investigating. As in the poem’s analogy, maybe we just aren’t seeing the whole elephant for what it Really Is.
In any case, remember, as in the last lesson, we in the sociology of religion aren’t trying to figure out the truth, validity, and/or correctness of particular claims of belief or doctrine. Rather, we are looking back at our own observations and asking ourselves if we got those right: Did we really observe what we thought we observed? Was that measurement valid and reliable? Are our conclusions valid and based on a correct interpretation of our data?
In the sociology of religion, our epistemological concern isn’t whether we know a given religious belief is or isn’t true, valid, and/or correct—it’s whether we can reasonably know that our data, interpretation of that data—and the conclusions that result from our analysis—are true, valid, and correct. So, to pick a broad example of a given religious belief, we aren’t trying to establish whether God exists. That’s impossible for empirical science, as explained below. However, we are trying to establish whether we have correctly understood, interpreted, and explained what it means that a given religious group believes God exists. (If you follow that.) ( As I mentioned elsewhere, we’re considering that a social fact. It’s debatable based on the scientific method whether God exists, or even whether the scientific method can assess that issue to begin with (more in just a bit), but it’s unquestionable that many people believe God exists. That’s a social fact.
In brief, in the sociology of religion, we also often ask ourselves: Do we know we’ve correctly grasped the issue we’re researching? In other words, regarding the concept of epistemology, in the context of the social research methods we often use and their validity but this time using the “plain English” translation: ( Do we really know what we think we know? Do we “get it”? As we’ll see, part of the answer involves the method we use to ask the question.
Another caution as well: Just because we are setting aside the notion of the truth of a given religious claim does not mean that we are either affirming or denying it. We are NOT saying that any particular religious belief—or for that matter, religious belief as a whole—is true or false. We are simply affirming that the veracity (truth or falsehood) of any particular religious belief is beyond the power of scientific verifiability or explanation. Instead, we are considering what it means that the belief exists as a social fact. Back to the example of the existence of God, science—especially social science—has no power to confirm or deny God’s existence. The same is true of any other idea, concept, or principle of religious belief. To confirm that God exists from a purely scientific standpoint, and assuming a monotheistic perspective for the sake of argument (polytheism really, really adds new levels of complexity to this question), ( we social scientists would likely have to accomplish this: Search the universe, find and observe God directly, bring back evidence of God’s existence, explain to the satisfaction of our peers at minimum (though probably also to everyone else, too) ( why we normally can’t see God directly, and rule out any possibility that our observations can be attributed to any other cause.
Interestingly, empirically ruling out God’s existence is even more difficult, and much more so. To do that, we social scientists would have to search the entire known universe AND whatever we DON’T know, fail to find God, show that our search was sufficiently thorough to account for any other possibility for our failure—perhaps God was actually in one spot while we were searching another, or our tools or methods weren’t sophisticated enough to allow us to discover God, etc.—and altogether rule out the existence of God by establishing alternative explanations for every single phenomena that have been historically attributed to God. This must also be done to our satisfaction, to that of most of our peers, and to the public. It is similarly difficult, if not impossible, to empirically verify any particular precept of religious belief or doctrine. Heck, modern scientific-minded adventurers have trouble enough trying to detect, much less confirm, the existence of Bigfoot on our own Earth, even using highly advanced technology and modern empirical methods, let alone many of the rest of us trying to search the entire universe for deity! (