Peer Review and Religious Truth Seeking

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Published:
May 31, 2018

At first look, the two parts of my title would seem to be totally unrelated. Peer Review is a concept typically found in the process of publishing scientific articles. It operates in a world apart from religious truth seeking. However, crucial components of Peer Review actually transfer over to the world of religion and would be a beneficial aid in the truth seeking process.

First, a definition. Wikipedia states: “Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people of similar competence to the producers of the work (peers). It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, and provide credibility.”  Typically, it is used by technical journals to be sure a prospective article meets an appropriate standard of quality.

Note that there are some central (and not scientific-contextual) characteristics expressed or implied:

1. The reviewer has relevant competency. Contrast this with the sort of commenting that one often sees after online articles.

2. The review process, while collegial, is inherently somewhat adversarial. That is, the reviewer is concerned primarily with furthering “truth” in the field being written about. There are no a priori limitations or overriding relationships that should compromise this. If the article’s author misuses data or employs bad argumentation, the reviewer is obligated to push back on this.

Limitations and Universals

Some crucial differences between science and religion limit the effectiveness of peer review, if the process is attempted in a religious context. There are (at least) three notable differences:

1. Science does not endeavor to answer the “why” questions of life (teleology). It looks only at physical reality.

2. Science focuses exclusively on what might be termed “public knowledge” — as opposed to “private knowledge.” That is, science looks at the nature of a cosmos that is potentially verifiable (and falsifiable) when examined by different people (public). Conversely, much of religion is personal and thus private (e.g. faith in God, the efficacy of prayer). A consequence of this is that much in the religious sphere cannot be falsified.

3. Science makes no appeal to revelation. Religion, in contrast, has a heavy focus on exegeting the revelatory texts of the faith community. Thus, a substantive difference is the primary domain of interest — external reality vs. revelation.

So, some sort of peer review, if applied to the religious sphere, would be limited by and re-targeted toward these differences.

Still, the universal aspects of peer review can be applied with great benefit.

1. There is overlap between science and religion—for example, the mechanisms and time-frame of how the cosmos came into existence and assumed its present state.

2. Most scientific papers go beyond pure data presentation. They also employ arguments to support the author’s hypothesis. Evaluating the quality (or lack) of argumentation applies equally well to both science and religion.

3. Science has its data — the cosmos — which it investigates. Religion also has its data upon which it focuses — the revelatory texts.

Truth Seeking and Denominational Religion

My title uses the phrase “truth seeking.” And, for theists, truth involves both the physical and metaphysical realms. But the seeking is done by fallible humans whether the quest is scientific or religious. Therein lies the need for rigorous process to maximize objectivity.

Religious denominations, such as the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church (the denomination I am most familiar with), arose and declared an identity separate from existing alternatives, ostensibly because the pioneers believed they had discovered more and better truth. Thus, each new organization creates its unique religious identity, formed by doctrine and culture. But it is my observation that denominational identities, once solidified, begin to turn attention away from truth-seeking and concentrate instead on apologetics — proposing arguments for why the denomination’s current belief-set is true. Now, I have no quarrel with apologetics, per se, any more than I would want to deny a defendant, in some legal case, the right of competent counsel. Apologetics advocates. But this is different from truth seeking. It assumes that truth has already been fully uncovered and that the task legitimately and necessarily now should shift into protection mode. But such an assumption is historically unwarranted and dangerous.

And, I would argue, the more a denominational identity is bound up in the self-perception that the group presently has the truth, the more apologetics rises and further truth-seeking (which can result in creative destruction of old “truths”) — wanes.

The Current Adventist Landscape

If one looks around at the current Adventist scene for endeavors that resemble Peer Review intersecting with the SDA denomination, I think the landscape looks bleak. I would not be surprised if SDA theologians engage in some limited form of this when writing for theological journals. I do not know and would be happy if so. But I would be very surprised if there was any such review where the fundamental beliefs received challenge. The recent TOSC effort might loosely qualify as Peer Review to some extent. But this group was not comprised completely of peers and also not critically evaluating some existing Adventist doctrine. And, in any event, the results were not used to inform the 2015 General Conference Session. Perhaps, the Faith and Science conferences in 2002-2004 would qualify. But, at the end of that extensive and expensive effort, the organizing committee created and passed a final report that set aside the science concerns.

One might point to independent organizations like Spectrum and Adventist Today (on the left) or various conservative websites (on the right) as places where traditional positions might be more critically investigated. But here one encounters the issue of credibility — most notably that liberals discount the credentials of conservative commentators, and conservatives question both credentials and loyalty of liberals.

But with the denominational administrative organization proper, I see no substantive efforts to examine fundamental Adventist belief in any way that could reasonably be called Peer Review. Why? I think it is easy, especially among the left-leaning segment of Adventism, (and doubly so under today’s conservative GC administration) to charge leadership with promoting a hostile climate for exercises like Peer Review. But, however true or not such charges might be, I think it is also fair to note that there is very little upside for church administrators to engage in any such “let the chips fall where they may” type of investigations. In my experience, the great majority of members do not want this. They prefer apologetics. Why? Because apologetics produce reasons to support theology that the Adventist majority has a prior commitment to and is already (often deeply) invested in. It is almost Psychology 101 to recognize that people more generally seek belief confirmation. Belief disconfirmation is destabilizing and, for many (especially longtime) Adventists, any such pursuit is often distressing and thus resisted (and messengers sometimes “shot”).

But, understandable as this might be psychologically, it leaves the organization exposed. Unless you are prepared to accept the proposition that the church has presently arrived at 100% truth (and how would you validate this?), there is no institutional effort resembling Peer Review that would expose faulty doctrine or practice (likely derived from doctrine) and venture into repair-and-replace territory.

The Shape of Peer Review – Some Possibilities

  • Given denominational realities and human nature, it does not seem possible for some sort of Peer Review-style theological project to take place under official church control. But then, whatever organization sponsored it would have both a credibility issue and risk of political consequences to its leaders. Thus, it would seem most plausible to have such a venture be lead by respected and retired theologians and scientists or, at least, people not exposed to termination of their church employment.
  • Such independence would also be mandatory because some potential participants would need anonymity to allow them to consider their subjects without also needing to keep one eye out for employment risks.
  • Some of the issues most likely to warrant attention are exactly those which the church has struggled with for years. This would include faith and science, the role of women, homosexuality, eschatology, Ellen White’s authority, hermeneutics, and the limits of literalism.
  • While an initial (pre-publication) review would be private — and likely each reviewer would be anonymized — the published results should be placed on a public website that would grow the topical conversation between vetted authors. It would be expected, just like in a formal argument, that a paper would first constitute the author’s initial position which would then invite other qualified participants’ responses. The entire church would thus be able to track the “progress” of the theological critiques and doctrinal argument evolution. The church public would be able to comment, as with many websites, but the actual topical dialogue would take place only among people with demonstrable qualifications.
  • Since the religious sphere is far less falsifiable than science, it is unlikely that clear consensus would form. But, among the multiple perspectives that would arise, some would gain more strength than others as the underlying arguments resonated more with peers as well as at-large readership due to better argumentation and sound use of data.

Conclusion

I certainly understand that this sort of project is highly unlikely to succeed or even get off the ground. But idealistic or unrealistic as it might be, the alternative is the near-random walk the church has been doing forever.

And, if you dislike or are suspicious of such a Peer Review proposal or if you would be distressed should, somehow, something like this actually happen, I would ask this: what is it you are afraid of? It certainly is distressing to consider the possibility that we might have believed some things in error. But if a belief is solid, an open and critical review should not dislodge it. The deeper, underlying question to consider is this — are we really truth-seekers?

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/rich-hannon

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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