Religious Minimalism: Good Idea Or Dead End For Religion?

Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp have written an interesting blogpost on the religion-science dialogue. They describe this dialogue as a stand-still or, even worse, as a doomed enterprise.
According to Clayton and Knapp,

“this project has not given rise to a broadly compelling research project. In fact, it has come under attack by scientists as well as religious persons.”

They wonder why this is so:

“Why would both sides not welcome these attempts to establish harmony?”

Their blogpost is about analyzing the reasons for the assumed failure of the religion-science dialogue. And they offer a solution too: “religious minimalism”.

Let me first comment on the assessment of the science-religion dialogue Clayton and Knapp offer. I’m not sure if this dialogue is in such dire straits as they claim it to be. Maybe their expectations are just unrealistic? Is it realistic to engage in any complex interdisciplinary project, without expecting critique from the concerned disciplines? And are critical questions not what keeps any research project going?
In other words: I prefer to see the ‘attacks’, to which Clayton and Knapp refer, as a sign of good health for the science-religion dialogue rather than as a sign of its demise. Moreover: this dialogue is about ultimate, metaphysical questions. Can harmony be established on questions of meaning?

That’s where the concept of “religious minimalism” steps in. Clayton and Knapp claim that we are all “outsiders”:

“All of us, no matter what we believe, stand outside traditions to which the vast majority of other human beings belong.”

Because we are “outsiders”, we face difficulties when trying to evaluate some of each others claims. Some claims belong, Clayton and Knapp state, to a certain tradition and thus can only be assessed properly from within that tradition. Therefore they argue for an attitude of “religious minimalism”: holding our beliefs

“with humility and a certain lightness of touch.”

In a pluralistic world this attitude (although I would prefer a term like ‘religious humility’ or ‘metaphysical modesty’) at first sight seems fruitful indeed, enabling us to engage in inter-religious dialogue. One would like to see how “religious minimalism” succeeds in avoiding relativism, but maybe Clayton and Knapp discuss this in their book “The Predicament of Belief”: I must admit not having read it yet.

But there is one presupposition in the proposal of a “religious minimalism” as a way to further the science-religion dialogue that bothers me. As explained above, Clayton and Knapp assume that, because a religious statement belongs to a certain religious tradition, it can only be understood and evaluated from within that tradition. To me, that seems like an attempt to shield off religious statements from public debate, thereby rendering them irrelevant (because: incomprehensible, thus: meaningless) outside their ‘home tradition’.
When “religious minimalism” means that we back off from what an other is saying, refusing to assess the claims another makes because we are “outsiders” to his/her tradition, and when we expect the same attitude from any other towards our own claims, there can be no real dialogue between us and an other. That goes for the dialogue between religions and for the dialogue between religious traditions and science.
As long as we are not willing to lay our cards on the table and tell each other which cards we play, how we got those cards, how we play them and why we play them, we can only play poker with each other, never really knowing with who we sit at the same table. We collect our wins or take our losses, but whatever the case: we remain strangers for each other. Real dialogue is a different kind of game. It is not about winning or losing, it’s about getting to know each other and thereby learning to know ourselves.
It appears that Clayton and Knapp see the science-religion dialogue as a poker tournament, with religion on the loss. They tried to save religious claims from scientific critiques by an appeal to tradition(s) that isolates religion and may lead it to the dead end of irrelevancy. Reading their book will make clear whether my fear is justified.

I do believe Clayton and Knapp have a point when they say:

“But the fact that a traditional claim is hard to evaluate from outside that tradition does not show that the claim is false. It merely shows that the claim is hard for outsiders to evaluate.”

But I think it shows foremost that the claim has to be further clarified, as well as that the questions asked about the claim may be besides the point. In no way does this give any tradition, be it religious or not (could we not regard atheism, art, science,… as cultural traditions amongst others?) a safe zone where claims

“(…) are not available, even in principle, for confirmation or disconfirmation by a community of disinterested experts.”

Religion and science are both, together with many other systems, part of the wonderful cultural niche we have inherited from our ancestors. I believe it is the vibrant interaction between all elements of our cultural niche that enables us to be human in the fullest sense. Creating safe zones around certain elements of our cultural niche blocks that interaction and deprives us of possible ways to become what Philip Hefner has named: a created co-creator. But to fully clarify that would take another blogpost (even a few more), I’m afraid…

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