Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My thoughs, distilled, on religion

Here's a comment I left on a recent blog post at Secular Right. I suppose it sums up my thoughts on religion and the religious in a brief, readable (hopefully) manner. Any comments would be appreciated.

Kelly at #2 above asks:

“‘I must respect religion.’

Come again? Tolerate it, yes, you do have to do that. But respect it? Why?”

I didn’t see anyone try to answer the question, though I’m sure somewhere on this website there has been a lively discussion of this particular topic. Let me try my own hand at it.

For centuries, many, many very smart people have been religious and have engaged in many, many deep thoughts, discussions, writings, etc. about the topic. To discount that entire body of human thought based on the evidence and arguments any single individual can accumulate in a lifetime, even a very smart, diligent individual (which I’m sure everyone writing for this blog and commenting on this blog post presumes himself to be), I think is too hubristic. Smart and diligent individuals might disagree with these past centuries of thinkers, but I think it prudent to give them respect. (This is not to say that all religious people, or all religions, deserve equal respect.)

On the other hand, one thing that annoys me about the overly religious, like the idol-wielding crowd that is the subject of this post, but more so the smart conservatives generally on the side of good and righteousness, is their certainty. Just as centuries of thinkers and writers have argued in favor of religion, so have many centuries of thinkers and writers, especially since the scientific revolution, argued against the existence of religion. Moreover, any reasonably intelligent person should be able to see that the history of generally accepted human knowledge has moved from religious explanations of observable phenomena to scientific explanations based on observations, hypotheses of regular natural processes, predictions, and repeated confirmations of those predictions. There aren’t too many people who honestly think that a necklace of enchanted animal bones will stop bullets. Even scientific breakthroughs of massive utility for centuries, like Newtonian mechanics, have been shown inaccurate.

Yet with all these centuries of demonstrated failure of religion to explain observable phenomena, and the demonstrated success of the scientific method for discovering useful knowledge, many smart people are still darn sure there is a God, He is of the nature and disposition their particular religion dictates He is, and revel in the fact that they need no “proof” of this because it is a matter of “faith.”

I guess that makes me an “agnostic” but any prudent person (in my opinion) is agnostic, to some degree, about everything (and for each thing, a different level of agnosticism depending on the available evidence).


Blogger Tim Kowal said...

I'd hope you're correct that few people anymore believe in religion as something magical. Religious contemporaries, armed with science and other tools of the Enlightenment, have less need for its ability to explain natural phenomena, and instead employ it for its psychological effects. If religion is used at all anymore to explain empirical phenomena, it is limited to a "God of the gaps" application.

Aside from its popular "feel good" psychological application, however, religion is still a necessary component of epistemology. I talked about this at more length here: http://notesfrombabel.wordpress.com/2009/04/30/beneath-what-is-seen-is-that-which-is-unseen/. The gist, however, is that science, no matter how useful it is, by its very nature cannot hope to supplant religion, in the sense that religion is essentially metaphysical. We cannot forge rules to understand the physical world from the physical world itself. Those rules must transcend the physical world. In that sense, science itself is “unscientific,” in that its parameters are defined by metaphysics, not observable demonstration.

Of course, we can never "know" anything for sure, particularly if you've read Descartes, or seen The Matrix. That doesn't mean, however, that we can be skeptical about the physical universe in quite the same way that we can of religion. Still, it would be quite absurd to reject religion entirely as nothing more than a figment of imagination. God is a fundamentally different kind of being than Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or aliens studying Hegel on Mars. When you talk about a claim, such as the existence of God, which, when rejected, undermines the possibility of making intelligible all other claims, that’s fundamentally different than rejecting the existence of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. As Greg Bahnsen once put it, if I reject the idea that there are so many pounds of Cocoa Puffs in the world, that claim doesn’t have an effect on many other things. But when I reject the transcendental basis for causation, induction, and an objective morality, that’s extraordinary.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Tim, I think that's what I said.

I had many an argument with my wife that you can't have an absolute morality without the existence of God until she finally got it one day. The misconception she was hung up on is that one can argue objectively that one set of moral values, if broadly practiced, more often leads to such and such resulting state of humanity, which most humans find preferable to other outcomes. But this practical argument does nothing to address why any particular human being should behave according to these moral guidelines, especially if that human being prefers some other state of humanity than the state preferred by the majority of other human beings.

For example, you cannot use any practical argument to dissuade Fidel Castro from imposing a communist dictatorship on Cuba, essentially enslaving all other Cubans, by arguing that these other Cubans would be so much better off living in freedom. Cubans would be better off, that is objectively true. But why should Fidel Castro care about other Cubans? He's got a good gig going for himself. Obama loves him, as does most of the Democratic Party. He lives in opulent wealth. He can travel the world if he likes. He can have nearly any Cuban woman he wants. Etc.

You could try to argue with Castro that the dictatorship business doesn't have a very good survival rate (i.e., make a practical argument why he shouldn't enslave all other Cubans) but Castro surely was comfortable with that risk and chose to take it, to his own personal great reward.

But you could also sit there and argue with Castro all day long, with mountains of facts and evidence, that all Cubans - even Castro! - would be better off if all Cubans lived in United States-style freedom. Castro would yawn. He has no reason to do what you think will make him "better off." He only has a motivation to do what he thinks will make him better off, and he certainly thinks he's better off as dictator of Cuba.

None of this, however, is any argument for or against the existence of God. If there is a God, hopefully Castro will get his just rewards in the afterlife.

5:03 PM  

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