Chapter 9: Conclusions

Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion
by Ian Barbour

Chapter 9: Conclusions

In this chapter I will summarize briefly the conclusions to which the reflections of this volume seem to point and then indicate some implications for the study of religion, attitudes towards other religions and personal religious faith.

Many philosophers in the last two decades, under the influence of writings in the philosophy of science which extolled the objectivity of science, were led to assert that religion can make no legitimate cognitive claims. Accepting an oversimplified view of science as the prototype for all genuine knowledge, they concluded that religious language serves only non-cognitive functions. I have suggested, however, that science is not as objective, nor religion as subjective, as the view dominant among philosophers of religion has held. Man the knower plays a crucial role throughout science. Scientific models are products of creative analogical imagination. Data are theory-laden; comprehensive theories are resistant to falsification; and there are no rules for paradigm choice. To be sure, each of these subjective features is more prominent in religion; there is a greater diversity of models, greater influence of interpretation on data, greater tenacity in commitment to paradigms, and greater ambiguity in paradigm choice. But in each of these features I see a difference of degree between science and religion rather than an absolute contrast. These comparisons can be made without denying the distinctive non-cognitive functions of religious language which have no parallel in science.

In particular, I have tried to show that the demand of some philosophers for the specification of falsifying conditions for religious beliefs is unreasonable. Flew’s challenge, which set the terms for the falsification debate during the 1960’s, is not a reasonable one if it cannot be met by comprehensive scientific theories. Flew assumed that there are two mutually exclusive classes of statements, ‘falsifiable’ and ‘unfalsifiable’. Instead, I have portrayed a spectrum of degrees of resistance to falsification. Though no decisive falsification is possible in religion, I have argued that the cumulative weight of evidence does count for or against religious beliefs. Religious paradigms, like scientific ones, are not falsified by data, but are replaced by promising alternatives. Commitment to a paradigm allows its potentialities to be systematically explored, but it does not exclude reflective evaluation.

In discussing both models and paradigms I have defended critical realism. I have tried to show that, among the ‘wide variety of kinds of models, there are some which are neither literal pictures of reality (naive realism) nor useful fictions (instrumentalism). I have also indicated that the occurrence of major paradigm shifts, rather than simple cumulation or convergence in the history of science, militates against naive realism. The dominance of paradigms in the life and thought of a religious community is even stronger than that in a scientific community, and naive realism is correspondingly more difficult to accept. Yet acknowledgment of the influence of paradigms need not lead us to instrumentalism or a total relativism concerning truth-claims. For I have maintained that in both science and religion there are experiential data and criteria of judgment which are not totally paradigm-dependent, though I have granted that the absence of rules for choice among paradigms is far more problematic in religion than in science.

The critical realism which this view of models and paradigms supports has important implications for the study of religion. The teaching of religion in theological seminaries has often assumed a naive realism. Especially in traditional and orthodox circles, one true religion has been advocated and other traditions have been dismissed as false or relegated to a lower level of spiritual understanding. At the opposite extreme, the study of religion in secular universities has in the past often been based on instrumentalist or functionalist assumptions. This has frequently led to a reductionism in which religion is taken to be entirely the product of psychological or sociological forces. But recent years have seen the growth of religion departments in which the categories of interpretation within religious communities are taken seriously but no tradition is treated as absolute.

Robert Bellah has given an interesting analysis of these three positions:

For the religiously orthodox, religious belief systems were felt to represent ‘objective’ reality as it really is, and thus if one of them is true the others must be false, either absolutely or in some degree. For the secular orthodox, all religion is merely ‘subjective’, based on emotion, wish or faulty inference, and therefore false. For the third group, who take symbolism seriously, religion is seen as a system of symbols which is neither simply objective nor simply subjective, but which links subject and object in a way that transfigures reality or even, in a sense, creates reality. For people with this point of view the idea of finding more than one religion valid, even in a deeply personal sense, is not only possible but normal. This means neither syncretism nor relativism, since it is possible within any social or personal context to develop criteria for the evaluation of religious phenomena and a consequent hierarchy of choice.1

Bellah calls his own view ‘symbolic realism’ and he contrasts it both with the ‘primary naiveté’ and ‘objectivism’ of orthodoxy, and with the ‘functional reductionism’ and ‘subjectivism’ common in the social sciences. Bellah maintains that reality resides not in the object or subject alone but in the relation between them. Symbols not only express the feelings and attitudes of subjects but ‘organize and regulate the flow of interaction between subjects and objects’. Religion is a symbol system which serves to evoke ‘the totality which includes subject and object and provides the context in which life and action finally have meaning’.2

The phenomenology of religion is a method of study which is particularly consonant with critical realism. The phenomenological approach was developed by continental scholars in the history of religions but is increasingly represented in English-speaking universities.3 Four of its characteristic interests may be summarized as follows:

1. The meaning of religion to its adherents. Instead of reducing religion to something else by interpreting it in categories foreign to its participants, one should try to look at religion in its own terms. The scholar should imaginatively enter into the activities and ideas of the religious community and ask about its interest and outlook, the phenomena as they appear to the persons involved.

2. The variety of religious phenomena. Phenomenologists study myths and rituals as well as doctrines and ideas, systems of action as well as systems of belief. They are interested in the diversity of religious experience as much as in religious institutions and leadership roles. They try to see a religious community in the organic wholeness of its life, action and thought before generalizing about similarities between different traditions.

3. Patterns common to diverse cultures. The comparative study of many religious traditions reveals typical forms which recur frequently. For example, sacrifice, sacraments, or prayer each has a characteristic constellation of meanings despite cultural variations. The phenomenologist is interested in basic structures of consciousness, types of religious expression, forms of representation and institutional patterns. He attempts a careful comparison of structurally similar experiences, acts and forms of life, such as feelings of awe and peace, initiatory ceremonies and priesthood roles. He finds these forms in the ‘primitive’ religions of archaic civilizations and preliterate cultures today as well as in the ‘higher’ religions.

4. The suspension of judgement. The phenomenologist tries to be descriptive; he avoids passing judgment on the truth or falsity of the beliefs held by the persons he is studying. Philosophical questions are bracketed; theological claims are acknowledged as important to the believing community without being either accepted or rejected by the investigator. Attention is focused on the explanations given by the participants.

Phenomenology is compatible with a non-reductionist instrumentalism which is sensitive to the variety of functions of religious language. However, the critical realism to which the discussion of models and paradigms points offers several advantages. It gives stronger support to the phenomenologist’s concern for the meaning of religion to its adherents, since it takes seriously their systems of belief. To be sure, the paradigms of the scholar’s own community will influence his viewpoint. He can never completely enter the interpretive framework of a culture vastly different from his own. But he can so immerse himself in its life and thought that he can sympathetically imagine how the world would look from another perspective.

Critical realism would encourage a variety of ways of studying religion in addition to the phenomenological approach.4 The contribution of sociological methods would be welcomed, since religion is indeed a social reality expressed in social institutions. In analyzing paradigms, the importance of the religious community and the assumptions which dominate its life was underscored. Sociologists and anthropologists have investigated the social functions of religion in the unification of a community, the celebration of its shared values, the legitimation or criticism of its authority structures, and so forth. They have inquired about relationships between religious identification and economic class, political behaviour, ethical values, family stability, etc. All of these societal phenomena can be studied empirically by the social sciences, without the assumption that religion is entirely a product of social forces or that only social functions are significant.

Similarly, the importance of the psychology of religion can be acknowledged. Whatever else it may be, religion is a means of personal adjustment and self-fulfillment which has creative or destructive effects on human personality. Religious beliefs and attitudes are integrally related to a person’s self-image and the way he integrates his experiences, values and goals. Guilt, anxiety, emotional development, religious conversion, peak experiences, and responses to death are among the phenomena in human life which can be analyzed by the psychologist. Nor should we neglect the historical approach in which the development in time a tradition is studied. Here the focus is on the concrete particularities of unique situations -- which the phenomenologist tends to neglect in his search for the universal forms and basic essence of religion. The impact of particular men and movements, the temporal changes in institutions and ideas, and the relationships between events in their wider cultural context are typical concerns of the historian.

But critical realism can also find room for studies in which the question of the truth and falsity of religious beliefs is not bracketed. The philosophy of religion can deal with the diverse functions of religious language, cognitive as well as non-cognitive, and with the grounds for belief, as I have proposed in earlier chapters. It can examine the presuppositions and the logic of classical arguments and their modern reformulations. The interests of language analysis, epistemology, metaphysics and ethics can all be brought to bear on the study of religion. Finally, theology need not be excluded, though under the aegis of critical realism it would be undertaken in a distinctive way, as I will indicate below. Theology is the systematic and self-critical reflection of a paradigm community concerning its beliefs. The theologian traces the ways in which the memory of historical exemplars has shaped the life and thought of the community. He explores the relationships among its central models and doctrines and the implications of its views of nature, man and God.

I shall suggest next some implications of this volume for attitudes towards other religions in a pluralistic world. The recognition that models are not pictures of reality can contribute to tolerance between religious communities. In a day when the religions of the world confront each other, the view offered here might engender humility and tentativeness in the claims made on behalf of any one model. In place of the absolutism of exclusive claims to finality, an ecumenical spirit would acknowledge a plurality of significant religious models, without lapsing into a complete relativism which would undercut all concern for truth. We must be sensitive to the experience of men in other cultures and the models they use to interpet their experience; we must avoid the theological imperialism to which preoccupation with doctrines, along with literalism in interpretation, have often led.

I have held that persons of diverse traditions can appeal to aspects of experience which they share and can discuss together their interpretive frameworks. Communication is possible and religious beliefs are not incommensurable. For the person who is open to how other people think and feel, encounter with members of other traditions can be an occasion for extending the range of experience, understanding a variety of ways of being human, and seeing new possibilities for realizing his own humanity to which he may have been blinded by the limitations of his culture. The ability to listen as well as to speak is a pre-requisite of genuine dialogue.

It is clear that I have taken issue ‘with the absolutism of orthodoxy, which asserts that one religion is true and other religions are false. Such dogmatism and exclusivism have led to religious wars and crusades and more subtle forms of religious imperialism which can hardly be countenanced in a global society. But it should also be clear that I do not accept the relativism which has often replaced it. Cultural relativism has asserted that each religion can be considered only as a product of its culture. Personal relativism makes religion entirely a matter of individual preference, or of what is ‘true for me.’ There are no criteria beyond the culture, in the one case, or the individual in the other, by which religions can be evaluated. I have maintained, on the contrary, that religious beliefs are open to discussion, and grounds for preference can be given.

Nor is there an easy answer to religious pluralism in claims of the basic identity of all religions. There have been various attempts to show that all religions are really the same, or that there is a common essence or a central core beneath the multiplicity of external forms.5 Deism sought a universal core of ideas (e.g. the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man). Romanticism sought a universal type of experience, such as mysticism. Still others looked for a universal quality of feeling, such as absolute dependence (Schleiermacher), power (van der Leeuw) or awe (Otto). The problem with this approach is that from the rich diversity within any tradition, or among traditions, one element has been selected for emphasis. Even the attempt to delineate two basic strands, the numinous and the mystical (Chapter 5 above), must not be construed as an exhaustive characterization, and must be coupled with recognition of the great differences between religious traditions.

The approach to other religions which I am advocating is the way of dialogue. It respects the integrity of other traditions and the presence of irreducible differences. Yet it seeks to understand and appreciate other ways of life from within. Humility and openness enable learning to occur where defensiveness only narrows one s outlook. For the Christian, this path involves the recognition that God has been at work in other religious traditions; their faith and thought may be genuine responses to God in the context of their cultural assumptions. We can affirm the presence of God in the life of another person. M. A. C. Warren, for many years the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society of the Church of England, speaks eloquently of the need for:

a deep humility, by which we remember that God has not left himself without a witness in any nation at any time. When we approach the man of another faith than our own it will be in a spirit of expectancy to find how God has been speaking to him and what new understandings of the grace and love of God we may ourselves discover in this encounter. Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy.6

Finally, what are the implications of these chapters for personal religious faith? One of our recurrent themes has been the experiential basis of religion, which is as essential for renewed religious vitality in practice as for a defensible epistemology in theory. Inherited models are for many individuals today almost totally detached from human life. The experiences which traditional models once interpreted are in large measure ignored or suppressed. For example, the experience of reverence and wonder is not nurtured by the technological mentality that looks on the world -- and even on human beings -. as objects to be controlled and manipulated. As man’s ancient dependence on nature has been replaced by various forms of dominion and mastery, the destructive consequences of this arrogance have be-come increasingly evident in the despoilation of the environment. Hopefully a new recognition of interdependence and a new respect for nature may be ecologically beneficial and at the same time foster the sort of humility which is a pre-requisite for religious reverence.7

We need a greater awareness of the experiential correlates of theological concepts. Sin and salvation are theological abstractions for many persons today, but the power of reconciliation overcoming estrangement, to use Tillich’s terminology, is still a reality in human existence. Thoughtful men and women are seeking ways to express this message in the context of the life situations in which they find themselves. There are new theological articulations arising from black awareness, from women’s consciousness and from movements for social justice.8 But the heart of the Christian gospel is still the experience of forgiveness, love and grace in personal life. Only when we are freed from excessive self-concern can we begin to forget about ourselves. The knowledge that we are accepted can release us from anxiety about our own status and enable us to be more open to others. The possibility held before us is a new freedom in human relationships and a greater capacity for genuine concern and sensitivity.

The idea of models in the interpretation of such experiences may answer some of the difficulties in talking about God which are now felt so widely. One need not have followed the falsification debate among philosophers to have had doubts about the intellectual respectability of belief in God. The problems in any literalistic understanding of religious language, which were identified long before the rise of science, have been more generally acknowledged in an age of science. I have proposed that the idea of models provides a new form of analogical thinking which is not dependent on the metaphysical assumptions of the scholastic doctrine of analogy. As model-building becomes increasingly common in many fields, ‘thinking in models’ may be a useful point of entry into theological reflection. The term ‘myth’, by contrast, is so generally assumed to mean simply ‘an untrue story’ that it is probably impossible for most people to take the cognitive functions of myth seriously.

A combination of faith and doubt in personal religious life is another implication of critical realism. The ‘critical’ element includes recognition of the limitations of religious models. Doubt challenges all dogmatisms and calls into question the neat schemes in which we think we have the truth all wrapped up. There is a ‘holy insecurity’, as Buber calls it, in our lack of certainty about the finality of our formulations. There is a risk in acting on the basis of any interpretive framework which is not subject to conclusive proof. Faith, then, does not mean intellectual certainty or the absence of doubt, but rather a trust and commitment even when there are no guaranteed beliefs or infallible dogmas. Faith takes us beyond a detached and speculative outlook into the sphere of personal involvement.

Even in science, I have maintained, commitment to a paradigm tradition and tenacity in sticking to a research program are justifiable. The basic assumptions of the tradition are acquired less from formal principles than from familiarity with its historical exemplars; commitment to a scientific paradigm allows its potentialities to be systematically explored. In religion, commitment to a paradigm implicates a wider range of dimensions of human personality, since religion serves non-cognitive functions which have no equivalent in science. Religious language is inherently self-involving and evaluational. Religious models express and elicit ethical dedication and commitment to policies of action. The language of the religious community arises in worship and meditation it manifests attitudes of contrition, praise and gratitude, as well as aspiration and hope. The experience of reconciliation and re-orientation affects many areas of human thought, emotion, and behaviour.

The conjunction of commitment and inquiry is not easily achieved. Religion is a way of life; its dominant interest is practical rather than theoretical. It demands existential involvement not unlike that required to understand another human being at the deepest level. The detached and analytic view of the observer may preclude the sorts of experience which are crucial to the participant. But I have urged that commitment does not rule out critical reflection, continued enquiry, and dedication to the search for a truth beyond individual preference. There are criteria which are not entirely paradigm-dependent: coherence, comprehensiveness, and consistency with experience. There is also self-criticism in the moral realm. The prophetic voices in every tradition have not hesitated to denounce the attitudes and behaviour of their own religious community.

Theology today must be both confessional and self-critical. We can only say: this is what has happened to us and to others in our tradition, and this is how things look from where we stand in our paradigm community. Self-criticism arises from the admission that all our formulations are partial and limited, coupled with the conviction that there are criteria in terms of which religious beliefs can be assessed. Such an approach acknowledges the historical conditioning of every set of conceptual categories and the finitude of every human viewpoint, while insisting that even one’s most fundamental beliefs can be analyzed and discussed. Perhaps the new views of science described in this volume can offer some encouragement to such a combination of commitment and enquiry in religion.


1. Robert N. Bellah, ‘Religion in the University: Changing Consciousness, Changing Structures’, in Claude Welch (ed.), Religion in the Undergraduate Curriculum, Association of American Colleges, 1972, p.14.

2. Robert N. Bellah, ‘Christianity and Symbolic Realism’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 9, 1970, p.93.

3. G. van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane; Joseph Bettis (ed.), Phenomenology of Religion, Harper & Row 1969.

4. See, for example, Frederick J. Streng, Understanding Religious Man, Dickenson 1969; Walter Capps (ed.), Ways of Understanding Religion, Macmillan 1972.

5. Owen C. Thomas (ed.), Attitudes Toward Other Religions, Harper & Row 1969.

6. M. A. C. Warren, Introduction to John V. Taylor, The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religion, SCM Press 1963, p.7.

7.1 have elaborated on this theme in the concluding essay in Barbour (ed.), Earth Might Be Fair.

8. See, for example, Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (eds.), New Theology No. 8, Macmillan 1971.