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Free Inquiry

Dec 7, 2007, Wausau, Wi   An issue that commonly comes up in discussions with skeptics is the role of free inquiry.  Skeptics frequently see themselves as being free to ask questions and to go wherever the answers may take them, while religious believers are bound by the teachings of their religion.  Religion, then, is automatically seen as bad because it limits our ability to learn.  As with many of the criticisms of skeptics this view is not only self-serving, but false.

Built into our very being is the desire to seek explanations.  Parents see this desire all the time in young children and their seemingly never ending question of “Why?”  To be sure these questions can at times be very frustrating for the parent, or even teacher, who has reached the limits of their own personal knowledge, but such questions are the foundation of our quest for knowledge, of our seeking to understand.

Over time, most cultures have decided that questions can dangerous to the status quo, and this decision is not completely without reason.  All societies are based on some sort of agreement, either formal, as in the case of laws, or informal as in the rules of etiquette.   Some of these agreements are arbitrary, such as where on the road should one drive. But just imagine what would happen if tomorrow the societal agreement about driving was somehow removed from everyone’s memory. It would be chaos. And this is just driving.  Such societal norms govern virtually every aspect of our interactions with each other, often without our even realizing it. For us, the reasons are lost in antiquity and it is now just how things are done. 

Thus there is, and must be, some sort of balance between norms and questions.  Societies that stress the norms too much stagnate.  Societies that question the norms too much, loose the cohesion to remain a society and collapse. Loss of societal cohesion was one of the factors in the fall of Rome.

So whether from desire to maintain society, or just simply the frustration at not knowing the answers, at some point all societies teach their children to limit their questions in some fashion. 

One of the things that made Western Civilization different is that at during some periods in our history there have been groups that encouraged questions, beginning with the early Greek city states. Granted such freedom of thought was not unlimited, nor necessarily was it for the general public, as questions could still lead to dangerous ideas that could undermine society.  But it was allowed for a few, and still had some limits, as Socrates sadly found out.

As we saw last time, contrary to how history is commonly taught, this freedom of inquiry appeared again in the Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages were a time or great intellectual development that, rather than suppressing inquiry, actually laid the intellectual foundations for the Renaissance and modern science.  To be sure there still were some limits on inquiry, and a thinker who strayed too far beyond those limits could find themselves, like Socrates, in trouble.

Modern critics act as if these limits were some sort of aberration to be condemned.  The problem is that, at least until very recently, the norm has never been free inquiry, but rather limits on inquiry and normally quite strong limits.  What was unique about the Middle Ages was not that there were limits, but rather that those limits were loosen enough to allow for intellectual development, development that led to things like our current understanding of human rights, democracy and science. In addition these were not seen as contrary to Christianity, but were developed from it.  The origin of Human Rights for examine has its roots in the belief that we are all created in the image of God, and what God has given no one can arbitrarily take away, not even the King.

Contrary to the skeptic’s self-perception, they also have limits on inquiry.  During the Middle Ages, if one questioned church orthodoxy, one could be in trouble. Today, if one questions scientific orthodoxy, one can also be in trouble. The history of science if full of people who questioned the established science of their time, to find themselves ridiculed, rejected, denied employment, or otherwise punished. The theories of some of these people were later shown to be correct and have since become part of the established science of today. 

This limiting of inquiry continues today, as scientists who question the theory evolution a little too much, or who begin to consider the possibility of intelligent design have found out. The only thing that has really changed is where the limits are and what the societal norms for punishment should be if one challenges those limits.  Contrary to the charges of skeptics the punishment during the Middle Ages was not always burning at the stake. As with most things punishment was determined by the norms of the time. During some periods it was simply excommunication from the church.

So the skeptic’s view that religion limits inquiry while they are free, is simply false. While it is true that Christians have at time suppressed inquiry, history shows that this is the norm. It is also true that contrary to the norm, Christians played a role in expanding inquiry.  After all as Paul wrote, “Test everything, hold on to the good.” (1 Thess 4:7)

This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.  

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