Saturday, July 07, 2007

Religion and religion

There's religion and then there's religion. If you want to talk about the laws of physics or your humanistic moral intuitions and contextualize these notions by using the word "God", that's one thing.

I remember talking to the pastor of a local liberal church. The guy was a stone cold atheist. He was all about building a community, and when he preached, he preached to and from the human heart: "You already know [sic] that thus-and-such is right, so go out and do it." He'd throw in a verse from the Bible (there's as much good in that book as in any human literature) for rhetorical purposes. He never argued that if it's in the Bible it must be true; he went the other way: If we know it's true, let's read it into the Bible. If he couldn't read it into the Bible, he'd pick up a book of poetry or other literature. He was very explicit about this tactic; he wasn't trying to fool anyone.

And anyone who's read The God Delusion knows about Einstein's "God".

This is not how I personally prefer to contextualize my ethical beliefs and beliefs about the physical world. But many people who call themselves "religious" do nothing more than express their own ethical beliefs in terms of what God wants, and I have no real issue with this essentially literary technique itself. The idea that philosophical substance can be expressed in the language of fiction does not seem to me especially problematic (although A. J. Ayer might disagree).

But I think people with this sort of religion must, I assert, take special pains to avoid "Diderot's Trap".
The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.
In contextualizing their beliefs in the language of God, they must take pains not to also grant "God"—or more specifically those who claim some privileged communication with God—authority.

And that's where I see religious moderates—and even atheist ethical objectivists—fail miserably. It's easy to avoid Diderot's Trap contextualizing science as "knowing the mind of God": Science establishes objective truth on its own nickel, and the attribution of physical law to a metaphorical or fictional God doesn't add any more authority or objectivity. It's much more difficult to avoid the trap contextualizing ethical beliefs, which are inherently subjective, in terms of even a fictional God without thereby granting them the authority of objective truth.

To a certain extent, even atheist ethical objectivists fall into this same trap, but their positive arguments on the specifics—when they even bother to discuss them—are usually so weak and controvertible that they have little persuasive force. Religion, on the other hand, having scriptures chock full o' arbitrary ethical commands and millennia of practice enforcing them, packs a stronger punch.

I understand that if you want to do actual specific good in today's world, especially on a scale larger than the personal, contextualizing ethical beliefs in the language of God is an effective technique. I have nothing but praise for the work of many liberal Christian churches, and I doubt that they would be so effective if they didn't use the language of God. There's much to be said about concrete good right now as opposed to abstract bad sometime in the future. Diderot's "just and enlightened prince", as dangerous as he might be, cannot simply abdicate to a vacuum.

But we must also grow up, and realize the world is what we make of it, the product of our own will. It is our world, not God's. The child must abandon his comforting fantasies about Santa Claus for the cold reality of money and budgets (those toys are expensive). In just the same way, we must abandon our fantasies of a magical sky fairy who will make everything right in the end, and get down to the cold reality of the work and effort it takes to make our own justice and our own compassion a reality here, not in heaven.

1 comment:

  1. The danger of 'supernatural thinking' is that believers use it to justify their own wishes and [often antisocial] actions on the grounds that God, Jehovah or Allah is telling them to behave as they do.

    It's an effective way to be irresponsible.


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