Thursday, July 26, 2007

Religion and religion

It seems obvious to me that there are at least two entirely different conceptions of "religion" that various commentators and intellectuals are addressing. It seems puzzling that this distinction is not more widely recognized.

The first sort of religion is religion as truth: The "otherworldly elements" or supernatural explanations of the universe and especially human and social psychology; elements held as real, literal truths. These truths might be revealed only dimly or imperfectly by scripture, but at some level these otherworldly elements are held as no less truthful than any scientific truths, themselves perhaps only dimly and imperfectly illuminated by experiment.

The second sort of religion represents all the rituals, beliefs, ideas, art, literature and most especially "cultural" practices that accrete around the aforementioned otherworldly elements.

It is tempting to simply dismiss the supposed "truthfulness" of the otherworldly elements and simply concentrate on the cultural aspects. Roger Scruton notes that the Enlightenment thinkers, especially Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, decisively established "the claims of faith to be without rational foundation," and no one since, notably Dawkins and Hitchens, has added anything substantively new.

Scruton is perhaps correct: I personally found in neither The God Delusion nor god is not Great any philosophical arguments that I didn't figure out on my own, and if little ol' me can figure it out, it must have been child's play for the Enlightenment philosophers. But I think the facile dismissal of modern atheist writers that follows from this observation is too hasty for two reasons.

The first reason is, of course, the sheer number of people who actually do consider their scripture to be absolutely literally truthful. Richard Dawkins is a scientist; he wouldn't even be a part of the debate were it not for the considerable political power and influence of Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents. Hundreds of millions of Muslim women live in terrible oppression precisely because Muslims hold the literal truth of the Koran and its prescriptions on the status and role of women. While one can justly note the spiritual dimension of religion, one cannot so blithely claim that religion is viewed by all or even most only in a spiritual sense.

The second reason is that any anthropological study of religion must critically examine the claims of truth of religions' otherworldly elements in relation to the cultural practices of the religious. To simply dismiss as unimportant religions' claims of truth simply because they are patently absurd is to ignore what sets religious cultural practice apart from secular practice. One might just as well try to study the difference between birds and mammals by first dismissing the element of flight as a distinguishing characteristic (indeed it's true that a few birds cannot fly; a few mammals can).

The dismissal of otherworldly truth claims, for instance, renders Wilson's sample study of religion banal and scientifically trivial. Cultural practices are prima facie adaptive, finding that some of those practices happen to fall under the rubric of religion tells us nothing. To learn something about religion we need to carefully study the causal efficacy of the otherworldly elements themselves as well as their belief as truth among the religious. This is precisely the study Wilson doesn't perform; one suspects that Wilson (an atheist) simply hand-waves over this lack precisely because he considers the truth claims unimportant because they are absurd.

Another reason the dismissal is too hasty is that if the absurd truth-claims of literal scripture are simply dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant, the reader is free to establish a "spiritual" authority for a scripture without ever critically examining why any sort of authority would get the facts wrong.

We see this sort of uncritical spiritual authority all over the place: Religion is another way of "knowing". Scruton uncritically declares scripture to be spiritual truth: it is about "what happens always and repeatedly;" "rehearses [the world's] permanent spiritual significance'" quoting Hegel, "the eternal and necessary history of humanity;" and "conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship, about our relation to nature and mortality." [emphasis added]

But does religious scripture really have any sort of truth content? It's certainly data, it's very interesting, it's often profound literature, but does its content really deserve the sort of authority claimed by those such as Somerville and Scruton, as well as religious "moderates" such as Andrew Sullivan? Why should we grant religious scripture and religious belief any authority over universal spiritual "truths" when it makes claims about factual truths which are blatantly absurd?

I'm willing to grant the possibility that some specifically religious cultural practices are valuable, or that some valuable cultural practices have survived because they were specifically religious. But we cannot make much scientific progress in the study of humanity in general until we get a few things straight: It's not only that the factual truth claims of religion are absurd, but it's also important that these claims are absurd. Religious scripture does not have any kind of authority, spiritual or factual; scripture has no more authority than any other work of fiction, be it Macbeth, Atlas Shrugged or My Little Pony. There is no magical truth in religion, neither factual nor spiritual, neither in practice, belief nor scripture. Whatever knowledge is gleaned from scripture will be the same sort of knowledge gleaned from any work of literary fiction, and gleaned by the same scientific methods as all other knowledge.

16 comments:

  1. I think you're forgetting about the psychological needs that are developed and cultivated via religion (but you of course point out the overlap between the cultural elements of religion and its spiritual factoids). For most people, the existential anxiety of a godless (and therefore, to them, valueless and meaningless) existence is a lot for a person to take--especially since they already view the "alternative" as chaotic by default. To them, only this god can give order, meaning, and purpose. It’s all about how people choose to define this deity.
    There is this underlying need for meaning, love, care, justice, and all the other human constructs related to these, and to most people, only a deity can fulfill them. If the perceived "alternative" (i.e., a "godless existence") can't fill these needs, then people will continue to believe in comforting constructs.

    Religious ideology creates a need and fulfills it, and it exploits natural and/or normalized insecurities.

    And there are some people who prefer comfort over truth. There are some people who cannot decipher the various subgenres of fiction (like science fiction or Lifetime fiction), and thus they mistakenly on purpose misinterpret fiction for truth.

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  2. Great post, Bum. I loved the conclusion.

    "Religious scripture does not have any kind of authority, spiritual or factual; scripture has no more authority than any other work of fiction, be it Macbeth, Atlas Shrugged or My Little Pony. There is no magical truth in religion, neither factual nor spiritual, neither in practice, belief nor scripture. Whatever knowledge is gleaned from scripture will be the same sort of knowledge gleaned from any work of literary fiction, and gleaned by the same scientific methods as all other knowledge."

    My only addition is that a work of literary fiction has as much authority as its ability to persuade. In that respect, it is a tool and nothing more.

    Then again, the hydrogen bomb is also a tool, and is also very persuasive!

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  3. Kelly: Good points.

    Jimi: I'm using "authority" in this sense as the quality of being taken a priori as establishing truth.

    Macbeth has value because it is persuasive, because it appeals to natural reason and moral intuition; it is not persuasive because it has a priori authority. Contrast this to the evidence of our senses, which does have authority: We believe what we see because we see it, i.e. by virtue of the a priori authority of perception.

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  4. Oh, and Jimi, since we're on a first-name basis, you're free to call me "Larry". :)

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  5. Amusingly enough, this post is getting a fair number of hits from various "My Little Pony" sites.

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  6. Truth in science is quite a tricky thing though, don't you think? (E.g. Newton's theories were not just false; and nor was Galileo merely modelling reality, when he said that the Earth moves). So why should truth in religion not be at least as tricky a concept? I would go further: we should expect it to be much trickier, and therefore much harder to dismiss than you seem to think)... Your distinction is, I think, important because I think that religious truths (e.g. approximately true or analogically meaningful statements about divine aspects of reality, if any) are often too muddled in with cultural traditions for them to be seen clearly by outsiders; but I think that you have yourself not paid enough attention to your distinction, because although religions have got matters of fact wrong, so have the sciences, so why should that fact undermine all their other claims?

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  7. The trickier something is, the easier it is to dismiss, and the greater the epistemic burden on the proponent. Religion is incapable of carrying any epistemic burden whatsoever. This line of reasoning seems like a smokescreen.

    The supposed truths of religion might be subtle, their interpretation tricky and their expression muddled. If so, they are far too subtle for my little mind. If God exists, He/She/It made me too stupid to believe on my natural reason, but that's God's problem, not mine.

    Religions have got matters of fact wrong, so have the sciences, so why should that fact undermine all their other claims?

    Getting anything wrong destroys epistemic authority, undermines confidence, but does not (necessarily) one's ontological veracity. I don't disbelieve in God just because religious belief and scripture has destroyed its authority and undermined my confidence; I have positive, authoritative reasons to disbelieve.

    Precisely because they have been wrong in the past, I don't grant scientists as people any authority to establish truth a priori. I do have more confidence in scientists than priests because I know what scientists been wrong about in the past, how and why they've been wrong, and how they've corrected it.

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  8. Some people -- apparently a huge majority -- are believers. Others aren't. The believers run the world, by and large, and the non-believers sit and philosophize about how mistaken the other side's thinking is.

    Both miss the point. What's needed is a middle ground and dialog so that both ends can meet in the middle instead of creating greater divisions. That's the only chance of convincing the believers of the things they need to know in order to help us save the planet.

    Let's go out and engage the people who need "enlightenment." All this intellectualizing is a waste of time and effort, and amounts only to mental masturbation and -- at best -- preaching to the choir. We are not going to change these people's minds. The most we can hope for is cooperation on some of the things that desperately need doing over the next few years.

    There are IMPORTANT issues, folks. Let's get everyone working on them. Stop the wheel-spinning and do something useful.

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  9. Z: I don't know that one should accept the search for a "middle ground" as a fundamental or universal standard. Is there a middle ground between murder and peace? theft and respect for property? truth and lies?

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  10. To Z: If I understand your meaning, it sounds like you're referring to an effort like that put forth by E.O. Wilson in his book The Creation.

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  11. Nice response Barefoot, to my muddled comment; but I can't resist digging my hole a bit deeper, regarding your "If God exists, He/She/It made me too stupid to believe on my natural reason, but that's God's problem, not mine."

    That seems to be a common attitude; but why would it be God's problem? Sure it's the Pope's problem that you're not a Catholic, but not much of a problem; and a bigger problem (for the Pope) is the lack of evidence that God (if real) is Catholic.

    Your natural reason has (I'm sure) a way to run yet; and surely you don't believe that all your current beliefs are true, and who's to say which will change eventually? Evidence is that God (if real) wants you to think for yourself (and hardly made you stupid). Maybe S/he wants your afterlife to be a nice surprise for you, as a reward for your integrity; how would I know?

    And then there's my favourite analogy. I really struggle with Einstein's theories (despite being very good at maths), but that's physics' problem, not mine -- unless I choose to engage with physics, if only indirectly (e.g. via metaphysics).

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  12. My problem is to learn the truth. God's problem is for me to believe in Him. (If, that is, one takes seriously the Christian idea about the normative duty to believe in God.)

    Physics isn't in any way sapient and thus cannot have the same sort of problems as either me or God.

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  13. How does it follow that if we have a duty to believe in God then it's God's (and not our) problem if we don't? But anyway, why accept (in a straightforward way) that particular doctrine? Because it is easily countered? But if so then how would such a dialectical methodology help you to learn the truth?

    By "physics' problem" I meant the problem of the social bodies that run physics, of course.

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  14. Enigman:
    How does it follow that if we have a duty to believe in God then it's God's (and not our) problem if we don't?

    Why wouldn't it follow? Perhaps it's sheer perversity, but I'm not going to adopt an ambiguous duty to an occult entity on the say-so of the self-righteously half-witted.

    But anyway, why accept (in a straightforward way) that particular doctrine?

    Which doctrine? That I have a duty to believe in a god? That's what some religion appear to imply. If someone doesn't assert duty to believe in God specifically, they're always free to reference the duty that I do admit to, to believe everything with good rational epistemic justification.

    But if so then how would such a dialectical methodology help you to learn the truth?

    It's seemed to work in the past.

    I meant the problem of the social bodies that run physics.

    I doubt they really care (in a normative sense) one way or the other if you have a deep understanding of Relativity. Even if they did care, and it is their problem, they seem to be doing an adequate job of communicating the truth clearly, at least to rational, sensible people.

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  15. I doubt they really care too, but that doesn't stop it being their problem that I don't just believe their theories (on the grounds that the physicists work well enough with them) but require additional (rational) explanations that they don't (actually) provide. It would be my problem if I needed their approval. Many scientists (and yourself) seem to regard it as their problem when many of the electorate (is it their problem?) choose not to give funding to people who they don't trust.

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  16. I don't just believe their theories (on the grounds that the physicists work well enough with them) but require additional (rational) explanations that they don't (actually) provide.

    Which theories do you disbelieve? Why don't you believe them?

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