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Warsaw Theological Studies, XXII/1/2009,

Fr. Bolesław Szewc

The Cognition in biblical Religions by I. G. Barbour

Content : 1. Data of religion; 2. Language of religion; 3. Assessment of beliefs in religion; 4. Criticism; Conclusion.

Keywords: Barbour Ian Graeme, religion, cognition, interpretation, experience, language, analogy, metaphor, symbol, parable, myth, model, paradigm, revelation


Ian Graeme Barbour (1923) is an American scholar on the relationship between science and religion. A physicist and a theologian by education, Barbour taught for many years at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He has held emeritus honors there since 1986 in the fields of science, technology and society. In his most famous book Issues in Science and Religion (1966) he presented the epistemological, linguistic and methodological fundamentals of linking science and religion. In his views he joins other scholars like F. Ferré[1], who claim that the language of religion also serves the cognitive functions. In the following paper I focus on what his achievements contribute to the understanding of the cognitive aspect of religion.


1. Data of religion

According to I. G. Barbour, the data or what gets to be known in religion are, generally speaking, experiences and events interpreted with the help of previously set categories of interpretation. In this chapter we discuss in short the nature of religious experience: its connection with interpretation, experience and community, while in the last subchapter we present the list of religious experience types as proposed by I. G. Barbour.

I. G. Barbour, invoking A. N. Whitehead, W. James and J. Baille[2] claims that religion has some experimental component. There exists something that can be called a religious experience. This experience opens to us the truths which religion tries to capture in dogmas with the help of precise terms. In this distinctively religious sphere of experience many people have the subject of their faith not in the form representations, which their intellect accepts as the truth, but in the form of quasi-sensory realities, understood directly. The specificity of the experience consists, among other things, in that that there is no reality which comforts us more than the reality of God and there is nothing closer than he is. The realities of the mind are more obvious, but God’s reality is more intimate, touching us much deeper, to the very heart of our being.

Religions based on the Bible, both their cult as assuming certain interpretation of experiences or events are a kind of experiment because they influence the further life of persons or the community, their future choices. Prophets’ addresses often contain an interpretation of current situation in the light of what had formerly been understood as God’s purpose in specific historical events, in specific communities.


a. Experience versus interpretation

We present here some essential intuitions about the above-titled issue, which are elaborated on in chapter 3. where the notion of paradigm is discussed. Now we shall substantiate the essential thesis that there is no experience without interpretation.

Primary experience – the one that is the base of our every cognition – is defined by I. G. Barbour as the pre-reflective awareness of the flow of living activity in the interaction of an organism and environment.[3] It is never so that we simply “see as”, “experience as”, “interpret as”.[4] I. G. Barbour gives here a vivid example by John Hick: Someone might say, ‘In the twilight I experienced the tuft of grass as a rabbit.’ Therefore, this person captures their experience in the frames of a certain notion (rabbit) and it is not pure observation any more. According to I. G. Barbour it is better to say “I interpret as” instead of “I experience as”. In this experience it would read as follows: “At dusk I interpreted a tuft of grass as a rabbit”, therefore I interpreted erroneously. It would be inadequate to say: “I experienced erroneously.” In the act of perception, therefore, the non-reducible data are not the isolated colourful patches or the unconnected sensory insights, but global structures with embedded interpretation. The form of a new experience depends on our interests as well as the adopted system of notions and aims which this experience is to serve. Therefore there is no experience without interpretation. On the one hand we have something that this awareness comes across (an object), on the other hand - a creature, able to give it a meaning and interpret it accordingly (a subject). Experiencing something, this creature actively participates in the world exerting influence on it. Hence it is never possible to carry out a definite distinction between a subject and an object. Our experience, however, is not entirely subjective as it does not entirely depend on our will; it is, at least partially, something given that we cannot alter. The experience is not entirely objective, either, as it is determined by recollections, feelings and the store of notions of the cognitive subject.



That being so, the religious faith consists in interpreting life as an encounter with God. Thanks to such interpretation the whole life becomes the dialogue with God’s “you” and in all circumstances of life one feels the presence of God. It is not about trying to envelope the facts stored in mind with a theory (it would be a useful fiction according to the manner the instrumentalists understand religion), but about the fact that exactly this, and not any other, is the way of experiencing the world as it is, about the attitude consciously adopted and experienced. A certain ambiguity can be seen in what is given to man. There are many possible interpretation systems; the content of cognition depends to a high degree on our decision: whom to be and how to act, what interpretation to choose. God secures our freedom in this way, for the act of interpretation and the answer to God’s call are voluntary.


b. Role of community

Each knowledge is of social character.[5] A child learns assimilating notions which influence the way of organizing experience. When a child grows up in an isolation from others, it is hard to say that his self-consciousness and consciousness of the world are human. The self and what the self knows is to considerable extent established by the community. And the community, both religious and scientific, have their own symbolic language with the help of which they write down their common experience. The language is fully understandable only for someone who participates in the life of the community. It refers especially to a religious community. The religious cognition is more connected with a specific community than the scientific one and that is why the dialogue among religious communities is more difficult than among scientific ones. In any case, it is to be stressed that every knowledge is joined in the process of interaction of an individual with the group.


A striking feature of religions based on the Bible is the participation in the common history. The religious communities establish themselves exactly through sharing life in the context of historical events. They speak about God not with the help of the metaphysical attributes, but through historical connections. He is “God of Abraham”, he is “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The Credo is rather the enumeration of historical events than general rules. The Bible is a drama of God’s doings with people and it cannot be separated from the history of the community. The point of departure for theology are exactly the specific single events. Theology, however, does not stop at the details, like history does, but draws general conclusions as it sees God’s revelation in certain particular events. By the way, such a concern for general conclusions drawn from single facts reminds of the purpose of the natural sciences.[6] Therefore the religious cognition is closely connected with the specific community and its history.


c. Revelation

In the history of a religious community there is room for God’s initiative; we call it a revelation. Understood in such a way, the revelation is exclusive to religion and has no equivalent in the scientific cognition.[7] It is also difficult to equate the revelation with the objective facts as, for instance, the only accounts on Christ (apart from short mentions with Jewish and Roman historians) were written down one generation later by his devoted disciples and reflect their views. It is then clear that the importance of a historical event does not consist directly in it as such, but depends on its connection with other events, which can be shown only by way of interpretation. For instance, from the fact that Jesus was rejected by many his contemporaries comes the conclusion that revelation does not consist in historical details alone. The interpretation of the history, in which both the subject and the object of revelation are involved, underlie the revelation itself.[8]

The revelation is of fundamental meaning to the religious cognition, for the life of the community and its members. It is a key factor to understanding human existence. The revelation provides all interpretive categories enlightening all situations in life. Religious beliefs have the largest possible range since they provide the coherent explanation of all phases of reality.[9] A specific individual interprets the revelation in the context of their whole life, a person associates their own experiences with biblical events and characters. This set of association constitutes then a key for interpretation of further experiences.[10] The universality of revelation is evident here as, despite the fact that it deals with particular events, it also enlightens the life of every man.


d. Types of religious experience/experiment[11]

Although, according to what have been said before, we are not able to isolate an non-interpreted experience, we can consider its characteristic types that we meet in the Bible. Let us try to describe them without a direct reference to the interpretation connected with any specific religion or philosophy.

1. The feeling of fear and worship[12] or the numinous experience. To the typical features of a religious experience of this kind belong the feeling of fear and worship, mystery and miraculousness, holiness and sanctification, fascination and anxiety.[13] I. G. Barbour gives the following examples of a numinous experience: the vision of Isaiah, the call of Paul and Muhammad and the theophany of Krishna, when Arjuna becomes speechless with amazement. Such an experience is often accompanied by a moral appeal and a humble answer. The institutionalized forms of that experience are cult and rites, expressing the value attributed to the subject of the cult and emphasizing the superiority of the person receiving the worship (often by prostration). In this kind of experience, the presence of someone else, the encounter with him is perceived, as well as being faced with someone or the feeling of getting captured and kept by someone. Man realizes then his own dependence, finiteness and accidentality of his existence. The numinous experience is usually interpreted in the categories of personal models of God and that is why the beginning of the idea of a personal God in religion can be seen in the inter-subjectively communicated expression of chasm between the worshipping man and the Absolute.

2. The mystical union.[14] According to I. G. Barbour the experience of that kind or similar to it can be found in different cultures, which have practically never come into contact with one another. But such characteristic features as the consciousness of the union and the overwhelming joy repeat in them. Sometimes that “unity” finds itself in a multitude of objects, in the world even. It occurs in the mysticism of nature. In some other religions one needs to abandon the world heading for one’s own interior through the inner discipline and contemplation to find the unity in the depth of one’s own soul. Despite these differences, the descriptions of a mystical experience are convergent to a great extent. The way to achieving the above mentioned unity leads through meditation, contemplation, inner discipline and asceticism.

All oppositions (human – divine, subject – object, time – eternity, good – evil) disappear in the ageless identification in the One. A mystic genuinely emphasises the inexpressibility of their experience, referring rather to via negativa. For instance, according to Hindu, Brahman is neti neti (neither this, nor that). A mystic refers to pictures and models of personal character (the Absolute Existence as a consciousness from the essence identical with an individual consciousness or as the Soul of the world, with which their own soul merges) or non-personal one (the “Ego” disperses in the pantheistic all-thing, in the non-personal Absolute, in the divine Pre-reason).

Although the numinous aspect prevails in the religious traditions of the West and the mystical one in the East, all great world religions contain both kinds of experience.

3. The moral obligation. It occurs when decisions in moral questions require responsibility and subordination of one’s own inclinations to higher values. Conscience, being essential in such cases, is socially determined, but it may lean towards the opposition against society, even under threat of death. Many see it as a manifestation of transcendence, the depth or God. People who do not satisfy moral obligations get racked by feelings of guilt.

4. Conversion and reconciliation. When the sense of guilt is connected with contrition, people often experience, in an inexplicable way, the feeling of forgiveness - they begin to accept themselves. It is conversion opening new possibilities in life and opening towards other person. It is the healing power of love, which acts in us when the experience of reconciliation begins to dominate the experience of strangeness.

5. Relations between persons. Notions like directness, closeness, reciprocity, genuine dialogue, accessibility, sensitivity, openness, responsibility reflect some relations between persons. These relations are marked by non-constrained character and commitment. Many of the religions can be found in the line: God – man. For example, the need for a neighbour can be interpreted as God’s call. The encounter of human “you” is simultaneously one of the forms of meeting the “you” of God. One can also say that God speaks to man through the agency of events of everyday life and man answers by way of his deeds. Hence, the events of life and man’s deeds can be interpreted as dialogue.

6. Crucial historical events. A constituent of a community reveals itself in a religious experience. It is a collective experience of whole communities arising as a reaction to historical events. For instance, the message of the biblical prophets constituted the interpretation of distinctive events in the history of Israel. Whereas the Christian community developed as an answer to Christ’s life, which still constitutes its identity. Each community carries on the remembrance of the historical events which had a fundamental meaning for its identity. The role of community and its history in religious experience is dealt with in subchapter 1.b.

7. Order and creative character of the world. Many people remain under the impression of order and beauty of the world as well as a mutual dependence of forms of nature. In moments of reflection many wonder about the ultimate reason of order and active development in the universe. Hence the theological argument on the existence of God, which from Aristotle till this very day remains the topic of philosophical disputes.

Each of the mentioned types of experience can be subject to very different interpretations, which are culturally determined. Whereas the experience itself depends greatly on the interpretation. For instance, the theistic interpretation of religious and moral experience carries with it certain attitudes and behaviour of people as well as influences the way of viewing the world because it pays attention to certain elements of life of the individuals and the community, which would escape our notice in case of some different interpretations. The theistic interpretation is not the only valid, nevertheless it is not unimportant which interpretation we adopt. Since the religious openness of an atheist is lesser than the one of a theist, he will probably ascribe lesser importance to religious experience than the latter.[15] Now we shall proceed to the analysis of the religious language and its function.


2. Language of religion

I. G. Barbour repeats the view of Austin Farrer that God revealed himself to a greater degree by way of inspired pictures than through doctrines and rules of faith. In the biblical tradition the events are interpreted through the agency of dominating pictures. These pictures, according to I. G. Barbour, do not come directly from God, but they are products of human imagination based on the analogy.[16] In Barbour’s perspective, the analogy is the most essential and characteristic means of religious language. All its elements, i.e. metaphors, symbols, parables, etc. as well as more sophisticated forms of that language – myths and symbols, base on analogy. Thanks to analogy (its definition I shall present in subchapter a.) the language of religion can avoid literality on the one hand, while on the other hand – the lack of informative content.[17] Understanding literally the religious terms taken from people’s lives (e.g. God’s love) we fall into anthropomorphism, but we come into agnosticism when we cannot unambiguously attribute to God any of known epithets. The concept of analogy would be an indirect way out taking into account both similarities and differences between God and man. However, the both classical presentations of analogy do not act their role.[18]

The analogy of proportionality, which denies the existence of any similarity between, for instance, the good of God and the good of man, leads to agnosticism. It claims only that the good of God remains in such a proportion to the nature of God as the good of man to the nature of man. If we do not know beforehand how the nature of God is to the nature of man, then such an analogy does not tell us anything. The attributive analogy does not contribute much to the issues, either. It claims that each feature is “formally” reserved to God, and “secondarily” to the things created since the reasons are similar to their effects and God is the reason of the world. Therefore of the good of God we can conclude only what there was in the premises. The Creator is good in a way that provides the existence of the good in the things created. I. G. Barbour renounces that proposition of analogies. He suggests that analogy refers to the religious experience, as dealt with in chapter 1. of this paper.

In the present chapter you will find the characteristic forms of the language of religion. The most important of them are myths and models (myths are not understood here popularly as fictitious stories). Further, the functions of the language of religion will be described, to which belong: social functions (integrating of the community), psychological functions (decreasing of fear), ritual functions (common rites), interpreting of experience and forming of attitudes. In conclusion it will be shown after I. G. Barbour that all mentioned functions of the language of religion are always cognitive or at least refer to certain cognitive judgements. Useful fictions are not the only subject of the language of religion, its statements aspire to the truthfulness, similarly to statements of science.


a. Analogies,metaphors, symbols and parables

Philosophers and anthropologists unanimously maintain that a certain aspect of experience is interpreted symbolically by human creative imagination. It expresses itself especially in religious symbolism which displays many forms. A rite, for instance, consists of certain symbolic actions, which can express and celebrate beliefs of a religious community. I. G. Barbour writes that it often takes place through a symbolic participation in the events of the community and gives the Lord’s Supper as an example. One should remark that we have here the Protestant understanding of the Eucharist. Catholics believe that this participation is not symbolic, but real since the Eucharist is the Last Supper – the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ being made present (although not in the historical plane), what does not interfere with the fact that the rite of the Holy Mass includes many various symbols.

The symbolism in religious language expresses itself through different kinds of symbols. Generally, the analogy is transferring or enhancing the patterns of mutual connections taken from one area of experience to organize a different type of experience.[19] This concept of analogy is very general and based on experience, not speculation. It applies to many forms of the language of religion. Now we shall elaborate on some of them.

Religious language is frequently of metaphorical character.[20] A metaphor offers an analogy between a regular context of a word and a new one, in which it is used. A part of connotation of a word (but only a part) undergoes a transfer. For example, when we say: “Love is like a flame.”, no-one thinks that we can cook something with the help of it. Through the metaphoric use of a term, it comes to a highly selective transfer of the known associations. These associations function then as a lens through which we look at the known object: some of its features succumb to reduction or enlargement, whereas others get emphasized and enlightened. For instance, the expression: “Man is a wolf” inclines us to take into consideration the human traits which can remind of the known features of a wolf and which have escaped our notice so far. Metaphor is not true in a literal sense – interpreted literally it becomes absurdity. We do not, for example, reach for a kitchen towel, when someone foams at the mouth. A metaphor, however, does not make a useful fiction, it is not just pretending, an intellectual game with no reference to reality. Metaphor asserts that there are essential analogies between observed objects.


Metaphor is not just a brief comparison and cannot be reduced to a set of equivalent literal phrases, because it has an open character. It is a crucial feature of all forms of the religious language which base on analogy and are absent in science. The openness means that we are not able to determine how far the comparison is to reach since in the use of metaphors reside the indefinite number of possible analogies and it is up to a recipient to specify them. A metaphor is an evocative encouragement to finding further similarities, it appeals to rich resources of a recipient’s experience. That is why metaphors make language into a process in which a recipient is an active participant. Due to that quality as well as the content of emotional and evaluative elements, metaphors express the sender’s feelings and trigger them off in the recipient. This is how they influence the recipient’s attitudes and their way of discerning and interpreting the world.

Many religious symbols are metaphors based on analogies taking place within human experience.[21] The following are the symbols connected with the notion of height.

Moving upwards requires more effort than in the opposite direction – therefore the height becomes the symbol of perfection and achieving the goal. Height associates with acknowledging someone’s power – it is before the king’s throne placed on a pedestal one kneels and bows down. The feeling of the religious worship reminds of the fear at the foot of a high mountain or while looking up at the sky.

The symbolism of light – the light enables seeing things better and that is why it becomes the symbol of knowledge and cognition. The Bible says of God as the light and many other religions use that symbol as well. There can be an analogy between the experience of a strong, blinding light and a religious ecstasy as it is the case in the Judaic concept of God’s glory and in St. Paul’s teaching on “the light that cannot be approached”.

The symbolism of water – the water is a symbol of chaos and death (e.g. the primordial waters from which the world emerged), but also the rebirth and purification (baptism) since man experience it not only as a destroying element, but also as a factor indispensable for life and a means of removing dirt. Just like water, also fire can occur as a destructive, purifying or life-giving factor.

One and the same religious experience can be expressed with the help of many different metaphors. For example, the Christian experience of liberating. The liberating from fault and anxiety is described as analogous to acquittal of a defendant in a court of law, liberating a slave, releasing a prisoner or reconciliation of enemies, forgiving someone or recovery after a long illness.

Religious symbols become part of a religious community’s language, expressing feelings and experiences of people, breaking their indifference and awaking involvement. They are created not as a result of objective, impartial observation, but they origin from the personal participation, from the experiencing oneself as an active subject.

Religious symbols cannot be treated literally since they connect confirmation with negation, pointing at the reality which is transcendent in relation to them. The religious symbol is of an idolatrous character if it does not present its own inadequacy. The more complex form of analogy in religion are parables[22], or short stories whose realities are borrowed from everyday life. But here it is about one comparison as a whole, not as in the case of allegory, where each thing or person separately represent something from the reality. The parables usually have one central point of resemblance (the formal object) between the depicted event and a certain aspect of relation between man and God. Instead of defining God formally, he is compared to a father who forgives the prodigal son or to a shepherd who seeks a lost sheep. Below we shall present three characteristics of a parable.

(1). Parables are of vivid and pictorial character. Images play bigger role in transferring religious tradition than abstract notions. Can anyone forget what “the prodigal son” or “the merciful Samaritan” mean if they heard the parables in which they appear. Images have greater impact on attitudes and behaviour than general principles. Usually they occur in reflecting feelings connected to divine majesty (e.g. the image of the temple in Isaiah’s vision[23]).

(2). Parables have an open character. They rivet attention with their vitality or curiosity and at the same time leave the mind literally in doubt just to stimulate it to active reasoning. What already has been written on the openness of symbols and metaphors, refers also to parables and all forms of the language of religion elaborated here.

(3). Parables require decision. Presenting attitudes and ways of conduct, they force to their evaluation and further to accepting or rejecting them. A listener happens to be introduced into the parable as a participant and an actor, finding himself involved in the plot. King David, for example, finds that the poor man in Nathan’s parable was treated unfairly and later he discerns himself as a perpetrator of an analogous unjust.[24] The analogies occurring in the parables show the roles which man is to take and the principles that he should live by, for example the role of a son or the principle of loving one’s neighbour. This is how the parables help to form ideals of life and constitute incentives to act in accordance with them. There are parables telling something of the reality. For instance, the parable of the prodigal son shows God having some traits of a father, its second task is, though, to urge us to adopt the attitude of a son.

There are, however, the parables like the one of “the merciful Samaritan” being a kind of “practical fictions” having as purpose the recommendation of a certain behaviour and patterns of conduct, “roles and principles”.

In elaborating on the forms of the language of religion based on analogy we proceed further from the simplest ones (symbol, metaphor) to the whole complex structures which constitute myths and models.


b. Myths[25]

Myths are more complex narrative forms in comparison to the ones dealt with in the previous paragraph. It is generally assumed that a myth is a story in which some aspect of cosmic order is expressed. The given definition of myth is wide enough to include also the contemporary forms of lay philosophical doctrines and not only tales contained in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As an example of lay doctrines dealing with certain aspects of cosmic order, I. G. Barbour gives Marxism and naturalism based on the notion of evolution. One can also speak of modern ‘covert myths’ of inevitable progress, human rationality and utopia through technology.[26]

Let us elaborate now on five ways of organizing experience and conduct in everyday life given by I. G. Barbour. The action of myths is usually set at the moment of creating the universe or in the time of crucial historical events, i.e. when the existing reality was coming into being, was undergoing changes or manifesting its hidden meaning. The present time is interpreted exactly in the light of those most essential moments retained in the myths. This is how myths show the ways of organizing the experience and provide the outlook on the world – the vision of the basic structures of reality.

The identity of a community, likewise the individual’s, constitutes by the most crucial events from their past whose remembrance is preserved. The more a myth inspires a personal involvement, the more it will serve the integration of a community. For instance, the myths of creation usually contain, in a dramatized form, the basic beliefs on the nature and purpose of man. Therefore they provide man with knowledge of themselves and help to find their identity.

The cosmic order presented in myths usually has a triple structure. It shows the original, ideal condition of things – the source, the base and the purpose of life, the present condition, in which as a result of a fault, an inadvertence or a blemish (sin, ignorance, devotion to earthly life) man has wandered off from the ideal state of things and the saving power which is in the position to restore the perfect condition of everything (e.g. a figure personifying this power – the persons, the rules, a rite or some restrictions which are to be yielded to). Myths present and summon this saving power without providing with any theoretical explanations.

I. G. Barbour repeats after Mircea Eliade that “the foremost function of myth is to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all significant human activities – diet or marriage, work or education, art or wisdom.”[27] Describing actions of divne beings, myths provide the patterns of conduct in the field of ceremonies, morality or daily life. They appeal to imagination and feelings, provoke emotional reactions and stimulate to specific actions, and by transferring evaluative judgements and idealistic aims, they encourage to defined manner of those actions. In this way myths create and sanction moral standards binding in a given community.

Myths shape the rites appearing in life of a certain community. Rites consist in telling and enacting the content of the myth. Apart from transferring the content, it gives the possibility of participation in the myth by playing symbolic roles. Judaist, Christian or Islamic tales of God (about the creation of the world, about the judgement, about the salvation, about the incarnation) provide - through the ritual enactment - the ways of organizing the experience and the patterns of conduct in daily life. Myths, therefore, serve these functions since they are replayed in the form of rites.

We have discussed different ways by which myths serve their functions. In subchapter d. we shall discuss what the functions are and consider their cognitive value.


c. Models

In myths people have always expressed their concepts of sense of life and their understanding of the world and God. The reflection on myths passed from generation to generation results in models.[28] “A model represents the enduring structural components which myths dramatize in narrative form.” [29]

One model can focus in itself the structural elements coming from several myths. Models have more static character, but also a lesser power of expression and fewer elements appealing to imagination. Through their simplicity, however, they more easily serve as perspectives organizing human experience. Many interpretive models (e.g. the model of a personal God or a non-personal cosmic process) are the organizing perspectives, in which our perception obtains a new structure. [30]

If one or more models refer to one subject, they are used interchangeably by one community and if they cannot be merged into one, then we can speak of complementary models.[31] I. G. Barbour gives here the examples of personal and non-personal models in religion as the complementary ones.[32] According to him, complementary are also the models used for the interpretation of the person of Christ, namely concerning Christ’s Godhead and his humanity.[33] The complementary models of redemption played a great role in understanding Christ’s death. I. G. Barbour names here the following models: the penal substitute, the sacrificial victim, the liberator and the moral example.[34]

Five more models depicted by I. G. Barbour are worth mentioning here. These are namely four models of Christian tradition: 1) monarchial 2) deistic 3) dialogic 4) agent, in which the relation of God to the world is presented respectively as the relation between 1) a king and his kingdom 2) a clockmaker and a clock 3) one person and another person, and 4) an agent and his actions (or, in one version, a self and his body). [35] The fifth is the social model of philosophy of process, in which the

relation of God to the world is considered analogous to the relation between an individual and a community.[36]

Models in religion should be treated seriously, but not literally since they are not literal images of reality as direct realists claim. The biblical tradition refer repeatedly to the models of God, but at the same time it emphasizes his transcendence by which it acknowledges the limitation for applying models.[37]

On the other hand, not all models of religion are only useful fictions as instrumentalists claim. They think that with the help of models, or other kind of religious discourse, we declare our intent to act in a certain manner or certain way of conduct is recommended. In this perspective the model of God would be a psychologically useful fiction for observing morality.

I. G. Barbour is in favour of the stand of critical realism, according to which models constitute perspectives organizing our experience, impose new structure upon our sensory data, change our way of seeing the world, allow to discern the relation between facts which otherwise would be overlooked. Critical realism takes into account two types of function of models: interpretive and expressive, which consist in that they express and trigger off definite attitudes.[38]

Models are based on analogy; they can be applied to new situations and they constitute the notional entirety. They are an incomplete, inaccurate way of imagining what is unobservable, being the symbolic manifestation of those aspects of reality which are not directly accessible to us. They are applied to organizing the experience of community and individuals, helping in detection and interpretation of regularities occurring in life of an individual, in life of the community and in the world. Here we enter the subject matter of the next subchapter: the issue of cognitive status of different forms of the language of religion.


d. Functions of myths and models versus cognition

In the introduction to this chapter we have mentioned five functions of the language of religion. The first three of them are characteristic of myths as entireties, but do not concern models included in them. Let us start with psychological functions. Myths constitute a mechanism of ego defense against a variety of threats to human welfare, and a way of restoring the individual’s rapport with nature and society.[39] Myths serve to justify the prevailing social order, the structure of social classes and authority as well as to presenting the raison d’être of social and political institutions: from family to monarchy. The myth appeases the existence of contradictory elements within the society, serving as the third mediating element between the apparently irreconcilable aspects of a social system. They enable solving conflicts by way of presenting them in a symbolic form. Myths play significant social role being the factor of holding the community together and contributing to increase in solidarity within society, the sense of identity and avoiding conflicts.[40]

I have already written on the connections of myths and rites in subchapter a. Numerous myths have an impact on rites and in other cases rites exert influence on myths. In rites the present life of man is interpreted in reference to the cosmic order, presented in the tales from the past, in other words: in myths. I. G. Barbour says that liturgy, rites and sacraments of Christianity concentrate on remembrance of Christ’s life. It is the Protestant point of view. The Catholics may add to it that the sacraments make them participants of Christ’s life, the mystery of his passion and resurrection. We have therefore discussed the ritual function of myths.

The question about the epistemological status of myths remains. I. G. Barbour presents in this respect many different views. Instrumentalists claim that myth is neither true nor false – it only constitutes a useful fiction. Others claim that myths are based on concrete beliefs concerning the order of the world. In the 19th century mythology was usually treated as primitive attempt of explanation of the natural phenomena. R. Bultmann suggested the programme of demythologization – explaining the biblical myths with the help of categories of man’s inner life.

I. G. Barbour proposes quite a new perspective. Namely that models – which means the stable structures isolated from myths and developed in a systematic manner through generations – decide of the cognitive value of myths.[41] The development is made by way of choices amongst alternative solutions.

In relation to models we can speak of another function – namely of the interpretation of experience. In subchapter 1.d. we have written about the different types of religious experience. Every such experience is connected with the act of interpretation[42] I. Ramsey speaks of “self-authenticating models in which the world discloses itself to us”. I. G. Barbour claims that what we have to do here is rather the interpretation of experience and not obtaining any self-authenticating knowledge and we should not pay too much attention to the fact of immediacy of that capture.[45] - “interpreting as”. The “interpreting as” is an application of a model to the description of experience. For example, understanding through religious faith that “life is interpreted as an encounter with God”, we apply the model of encounter to describe the religious life. Therefore, religious modes serve the function of “drawing attention to certain patterns” through highlighting certain regularities that we discern in facts.[43] This role of models has been dealt with in subchapter 2.c., where the stand of critical realism was presented. Models “cause disclosures”. It is about moments of capturing with mind of what a researcher or a theologian try to catch in their due manner.[44]

The interpretive function of models includes also constructing of metaphysical systems. [46] Metaphysics, understood traditionally, is the search for a coherent set of general categories to interpret the complete range of human experience - scientific, religious, esthetic, moral, etc. Metaphysics create the “organizing analogy” on the base of relations it considers especially important and further it work out a mechanism able to organize different types of experience. In the context of interpretations of different kinds, the cognitive statements appear in the language of religion which go beyond the practical purpose of serving the development of attitudes. I. G. Barbour considers the metaphysical function of models for a speculative enhancement of these statements and therefore belonging to the interpretive function of models.

I. G. Barbour shares with instrumentalists the view that models express and trigger off definite attitudes[47]. Religion through its language encourages to an involvement in a certain way of life, it constitutes the recognition of definite ethical rules and confirms the intention of following them in one’s conduct. At the same time in those extra-cognitive functions it assumes some cognitive judgements[48]. Religious faith requires the assumption that some judgements are true. There is no point in adopting or recommending a way of life without having a conviction that the universe is of a certain character or that a certain manner of conduct makes sense. Besides, the language of religion expresses in equal measure both the cultic and moral attitudes and therefore it assumes the object of cult. The attitudes recommended by models could hardly be considered justified without taking into account the specific belief as for the object to which they refer. The religious models therefore not only encourage to accept definite attitudes, but also aim at bequeathing to us certain truths about God, man and the world. That means that the function of expressing attitude includes some cognitive aspect. For instance, in the parable of the prodigal son the analogy between God and a merciful father serves this function telling us something about God. To sum up, we may say that these two functions, the interpretive and the expressive, also have a cognitive character. Others can be considered as extra-cognitive ones.


3. Assessment of beliefs in religion

a. Cognition versus paradigm of religious community

I. G. Barbour, following T. Kuhn, expresses the view that the way of thinking and behaving of each scientific community is governed by paradigms.[49] These are patterns of research work, including the set of notional, methodological and metaphysical assumptions. I. G. Barbour expands the notion of paradigm, involving in it also religious communities and pointing at the triple analogy to the situation of scientific communities. In science the influence of theory on the observation takes place, likewise the influence of interpretation on the experience in religion. Scientific theories of high degree of generality are not susceptible to falsifiability.[50] The religious paradigms, just like the scientific ones, are not disproved by data incompatible with them, but replaced by other, more promising alternatives.[51] In religion there are no rules of choice between paradigms, but there are criteria of judging them. Similarly in science where the replacement of the paradigm is not based on rational premises, but resembles more of believing and conversion than a thoroughly calculated decision. To sum up, according to I. G. Barbour, the way of thinking and behaving of a religious community are governed by recognized paradigms being in essence the sum of the most important religious beliefs. Each cognitive act is connected with the interpretation of experience in accordance with the rules belonging to the paradigm. Therefore, cognition in religion is also governed by the paradigm shared by the given religious community.


b. Criteria of assessment of paradigm in religion[52]

I. G. Barbour is of the opinion that the religious and scientific paradigms alike are subject to assessment and can be replaced by new ones which better meet the criteria. In that case a choice is made among various models allowing to interpret the experience; for instance among theism, polytheism and naturalism.

As an extra-cognitive criterion of a paradigm he mentions an ability of a given religious tradition to satisfy the social and psychological needs which play the most vital role in life of a religious community. To achieve the cognitive results, however, one needs cognition as such as well as convictions of cognitive character.

Each system of thinking needs simplicity expressing itself in the minimum number of independent assumptions and notional categories. A very important feature of such a system is also coherence consisting in lack of contradictions of a given system of knowledge as well as connection of its propositions into entirety through relations of implication. According to I. G. Barbour, however, the most important is the ability of religious beliefs to accurate reflection of the most vital areas of experience: the religious and ethical experience, historical events as well as those of a daily life. As an additional criterion of value is also the theoretical productivity – the possibility of enhancement of applications to more and more areas of experience. Further, the criterion of generality or the ability of coherent organization of various types of experience in the frames of one metaphysical system.

I. G. Barbour admits that the influence of empirical data on paradigms in religion is considerably restricted because of a lack of religious laws of a lower order susceptible to empirical falsification which are not questioned and practically do not undergo any changes along with the replacement of the paradigm.

According to I. G. Barbour, the objective features - a specific set of data such as common experience, empirical evidence and commonly recognized criteria appear in religion in a limited degree. In his opinion there exist, however, certain cumulative influence of empirical data on accepting or rejecting a specific paradigm. Besides, we find in religion some criteria of assessment of paradigms which are dependent on them. That is why the language of different paradigmatic communities is partially common.

I. G. Barbour claims that it is possible to combine the critical reflection on paradigm with the attitude of entrustment, although he does not explain in what way.


4. Criticism

I. G. Barbour finds the cognitive functions of religion analogous to those of natural sciences. He justifies the role of interpretive categories acknowledged in a given community which influence the cognition in religion. He provides a very interesting analysis, which, however, contain essential deficiencies, at least in reference to Catholicism.


a. Diminishing the role of the Revelation. In Christianity the revelation in itself is the main subject of cognition, which I. G. Barbour passes over, moving to the foreground the experiences and events interpreted in accordance with the pre-established interpretive criteria. He reduces the Revelation to the role played by myths or, in other words, providing the interpretive categories as well as expressing and triggering off certain attitudes. Meanwhile, Christian life can be comprehended as the cognition of the Revelation and man’s answer to it. Through that answer a Christian learns the Revelation deeper and becomes certain about it, in a way having it tested. A specific form of cognition takes place here: participation in what is the actual subject of cognition. I. G. Barbour mentions it only in the aspect of participating in life of the community.

I. G. Barbour omits completely the cognition called in Christianity “infused contemplation”, which consists in that God directly gives reliable cognition to man with omission of all cognitive powers.


b. Empirical vision of cognition in religion. Pope Benedict XVI, during his pilgrimage to Poland in 2006, gave in Cracow Błonia Park a very interesting definition of faith from the perspective of its subject which is man. Namely faith is acknowledging the truth about God, about oneself and the surrounding God and simultaneously the act of trusting the person of God. In other words then, the act of faith is the act of cognitive mind, it is the recognition of the truth in its three aspects as well as the act of will, the choice of confidence in God. The faith as the recognition of the truth included in the Revelation is the act of reason. Cognition of a Christian refers above all to the Revelation and this is the rational cognition and not the empirical. The empirical knowledge plays a secondary role, having the ablity to increase the certainty of cognition and being a kind of examination of what the subject of faith is. The practical consequences of faith can justify it. In that sense, I. G. Barbour says, religion is a kind of experiment. The main role in religious cognition, however, he attributes to empirical knowledge, which means the senses. This view is inaccurate in case of Christianity, because cognition through faith is first of all the act of reason finding the Revelation in reference to a specific man’s life.


c. Freedom of interpretive categories. I. G. Barbour seems not to take into account the fact that in religion the range of interpretive categories and models serving the description of experience is a priori (due to extra-empirical reasons) limited. Such restrictions are imposed by the Christian Revelation which, for instance, excludes the non-personal models of Absolute. In religious experience often the sense of experience is more important than the experience itself. This sense comes, for instance, from certain interpretation of the Revelation. The Revelation and the dogma of faith remain something unchanging, but the way of their interpretation may and should evolve and in this respect the religious experience can have a significant meaning. But in contrast to natural sciences, the reception of a given interpretation in Christianity is dependant not only on the ability to satisfactory description, but also its compliance with the Revelation.



I. G. Barbour’s works allow to discover the unity of human cognition presenting its elements irrespective of the discipline and to discern the cognitive aspect of religion. Religion is not only the cult, the religious community and the doctrine, but also valuable cognition, which cannot be substituted by other forms of it. The deficiencies we have pointed out do not question the value of those analyses, but only show their incompleteness. I. G. Barbour confirms us in our belief that human cognition certainly includes a much wider scope of reality than only cognition of the scientific kind.






The cognition in biblical religions by I. G. Barbour


Ian Graeme Barbour (born 1923) American emeritus professor in science, technology and society build bridges between religion and science. The work focuses on cognitive function of religion described in his works.

1. Individual experiences and events interpreted by acknowledged interpretive categories are the data of religion. The global structures containing the interpretation are the irreducible data in the act of perception. There is no experience without interpretation. The participation in common history is essential for biblical religions. The Revelation is contained in the interpreted history of religious community; it delivers the interpretive categories. There are various kinds of experiences in religion: sense of fear and worship, mystical union, moral duty, conversion and reconciliation, interpersonal relationship, key historical events, order and creativity in the world.

2. Analogies, metaphors, symbols and parables belong to the language of religion. Analogy is a transferring or extending the patterns of reciprocal relationship from one domain of experience to another. Metaphor proposes the analogy between normal context of the word and the new one. Some metaphors are symbols: symbol of height, symbol of light, symbol of water etc. Parables are developed forms of analogies. They are vivid and pictorial, open to new interpretations and they prompt for making decision. Myth is a story expressing some aspect of cosmic order. Myths deliver means to describe and understand the experience. They express the identity of the community. They express and summon the saving power. They show patterns of conduct. They are repeated in ceremonies. Models are durable structural components of myths. Myths and models have psychological function as they allow to resolve conflicts with the nature and within the community, by expressing them in symbolic language. Delivering interpretive categories as well as expressing and evoking some attitudes are the cognitive functions of myths and models.

3. The paradigms acknowledged by community (being the set of religious convictions) rule the thinking and behavior of its members. They rule also the cognitive activity. Paradigm is subject to evaluation according to the criteria: capacity to satisfy sociological and psychological needs; simplicity; cohesion; capacity to describe well the most important experiences; theoretical fruitfulness; generality.

4. I. G. Barbour genuinely reveals cognitive aspect of religion but his analysis is not complete. He diminishes the role of Revelation for Christianity. He emphasizes empiric aspect of cognition in religion whilst it is more rational, basing on faith which means the act of reason and will. He does not notice that some models are determined and some are excluded by the Revelation and cannot be chosen solely with the above mentioned criteria.


[1] Cf. F. Ferré, Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion, New York 1967, 371-407.
[2] Cf. I.G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, Upper Saddle River 1966, 208.
[3] Ian G. Barbour , Myths, Models and Paradigms, S.C.M. Press, London 1974, p.120ff.
[4] Ibid., p. 52-53.
[5] Cf. Ian G. Barbour, Issues…, op. cit., p.213-214.
[6] Cf. ibid., p.233.
[7] Cf. ibid., p.235-236.
[8] Cf. ibid., p.233.
[9] Cf. ibid., p.237.
[10] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 53-56.
[11] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 78.
[12] Cf. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harley, Oxford University Press, London – Oxford – New York 1958; According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysteriumtremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans,the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.
[13] Cf. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, translated by John W. Harley, Oxford University Press, London – Oxford – New York 1958; According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysteriumtremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans,the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.
[14] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 78-79.
[15] Cf. ibid., p. 127.
[16] Cf. ibid., p. 18.
[17] Cf. ibid., p. 19.
[18] Cf. ibid., p. 19.
[19] Cf. Ian G. Barbour, Issues…, op. cit., p. 216.
[20] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 12-15.
[21] Cf. ibid., p. 15-17.
[22] Cf. ibid., p. 17-19.
[23] Cf. Is 6, 1f.
[24] Cf. 2 Sam 12, 1-14.
[25] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 19-30.
[26] Cf. ibid., p. 23.
[27] Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, Harper & Row, New York 1975, p. 8. In the quotation the paradigm denotes the way of conduct.
[28] “Models, like metaphors, symbols and parables, are analogical and open-ended. Metaphors, however, are used only momentarily, and symbols and parables have only a limited scope, whereas models are systematically developed and pervade a religious tradition.” Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 27.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 52.
[31] Cf. ibid., Chapter 5: Complementary Models.
[32] Cf. ibid., p. 87-94.
[33] Cf. ibid., p. 159.
[34] Cf. ibid., p. 161.
[35] Cf. ibid., p. 162.
[36] Cf. ibid., p. 162ff.
[37] Cf. ibid., p. 64ff.
[38] Cf. ibid., p. 70-71.
[39] Cf. ibid., p. 23.
[40] Cf. ibid.
[41] Cf. ibid., p. 24.
[42] Cf. chapter 1.a.
[43] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 55.
[44] Cf. ibid., p. 63-66.
[45] Cf. ibid., p. 67.
[46] Cf. ibid., p. 66-69.
[47] Cf. ibid., p. 74-78.
[48] Cf. Ian G. Barbour, Issues…, op. cit., p. 247-248.
[49] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 11.
[50] Cf. chapter 1. a. above.
[51] Cf. Ian G. Barbour , Myths…, op. cit., p. 11.

[52] Cf. ibid., p. 146ff.


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