Monday, March 28, 2011

The trouble with religion

The trouble with religion is that it is many things, that it can be understood in many different ways, so it is very difficult to say anything unequivocal about it. This applies to religion in general, and to specific religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Recently I quoted some unequivocal remarks of a negative nature which Ernest Renan made about Islam (see 'Europe and Islam'). This 19th-century historian of religion and Semitic languages had an unfortunate penchant for rhetorical excess and did not restrict his negative remarks to Islam. He referred to the Pentateuch (the early books of the Old Testament) as "the first code of religious terrorism in history." Though he did praise certain later books of the Hebrew Bible, in which he saw the beginnings of a new, purified religion, I doubt that he had many Jewish friends. (Or any Muslim ones!)

One reason why it is difficult to talk in a sensible way about religion relates to semantics. Any common noun is defined by use - it does not necessarily have a meaning which it is possible to define precisely. I won't go into the intricacies of this idea, which Wittgenstein elaborated in his later writings, because I think it is relatively uncontroversial and really quite simple. We tend to think sometimes that, if there is a word, there should be a precise concept 'behind' that word. But this is not so. Think of the word 'game', and the numerous activities that may be described as games, from football to solitaire. What essential features do they have in common?

Likewise with religion: the traditions we call religions or denominations can be very different from one another and don't necessarily share an essential element. For example, there is a world of difference between someone who identifies as a liberal Protestant and who doesn't commit to any specific doctrines, and an evangelical Christian who believes in the literal truth of the book of Genesis, etc.

Another problem is that religion is intensely personal and bound up with self-image and identity. So an attack on a particular religion or set of beliefs can be (felt as) an attack on a person or people, though it is not meant as such.

The situation here is not dissimilar to that involving strongly held political views, and indeed some ideologies operate in a similar way to religions.

I have a broadly scientific view of the world in that I think the only justified beliefs are those for which there is empirical evidence of some kind. I recognize, however, that we have a propensity - maybe even a need - to believe things which go beyond reason and evidence.

Renan, for instance, valued science and renounced the idea of a personal God and all religious dogmas, but he retained a strong belief in something very like what Christians call providence. In a striking image, he compares us to operators at the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, weaving the reverse side of a tapestry we do not see. This belief in the benevolent 'Machiavellianism' of nature leads to a sense of acceptance, a Stoic commitment to conform to nature's purpose. Like Hegel and other idealists, he believed that humanity is moving forward towards perfection through a succession of imperfect forms. Renan was astute enough, however, to see that human progress is no simple, straightforward matter, and spoke of 'oscillations', each advance being followed by a temporary setback.

In my view, Renan was right to reject dogmatic and institutional religion and to value science. But his metaphysical beliefs about nature's purpose, etc., while not incompatible with science and reason, strike me as wishful thinking, a comforting fantasy.


  1. Yes, I agree about the wishful thinking. Indeed, I think most religious belief amounts to wishful thinking about death (and sometimes also morality). That a sophisticate like Renan--whose work I do not know, but your analysis of whom I trust--would fall into wishful thinking just like the standard parishioner suggests there is something in many people that demands a metaphysical accounting. The God gene, perhaps?

  2. Mark, tell me how your argument differs from this seemingly parallel case:

    There are many different varieties of wine, and it is hard to say what essential features they all have in common. (Not all wine is made from grapes: around here, you can get strawberry wine, and I once tasted wine made from oak bark.) Therefore, wine is general is to be treated with suspicion, and no one kind of wine can be any good.

  3. CONSVLTVS, there is certainly something in our nature that predisposes us to various forms of consoling myth. Some would say that our situation and our awareness of it is enough to explain that predisposition, but I'm sure genes and brain structure have something to do with it also. Pascal Boyer has a persuasive theory about how our brains create supernatural agents.

  4. Alan, I was speaking loosely in the first sentence of the post. Strictly, all I meant to say was that the (vague) nature of the concept makes it very difficult to talk about. I did go on to suggest, however, that I felt that there were no good grounds to accept religious beliefs. That is a separate point from the conceptual one. However, I think that the tendency to see some kind of essence in concepts and specifically in religion may contribute to religion's mystique.

  5. Going beyond empirical sense-data only necessitates going beyond reason if you buy into the post-Kantian claim that synthetic a priori knowledge is impossible.

    Not to be a pill or anything; its just that the false (or at least not self-evident) equivalence between knowledge based on sense-data and knowledge based on reason is one of my pet peeves.

    What Aquinas doing when he claimed Divine Providence was real -- agree with his conclusions or no -- is basically intellectual work. What Renan was doing with Providence was -- you are correct -- a sort of magical thinking which was surprisingly common among Enlighteners and their Progressive inheritors.

    *returns to lurk mode*

  6. Since you published, I've felt the need to comment, but I don't think I have much of substance to add. I was convinced by Pascal Boyer, and my general problem with religion is belief in the supernatural.

  7. Gal.Emp.Palpatine - I concede that mathematical knowledge seems to be based on reason and not in any clear way on sense-data, and that mathematics is in some sense very real (it can surprise us). Aquinas may have been doing intellectual work, but his assumptions were highly implausible.

  8. HR, I'm not sure if you are suggesting that your rejection of the supernatural entails a rejection of other aspects of the religious 'package', or whether you think something can be salvaged. The value system which is embedded, say, in Christianity may be seen to have independent value, but for me its authority (for want of a better word) is undermined by the loss of a spiritual or metaphysical basis.

  9. Mark, you seem to want a nice knockdown argument, one that will knock religion clean out of the ring. But why should this be possible? Isn't the search for truth a whole lot more messy and difficult than this?

    You say: "I think the only justified beliefs are those for which there is empirical evidence of some kind." Then you withdraw this claim for the special case of maths. And I think you would have to withdraw it for conceptual understanding also. And soon your position will suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Antony Flew accused modernising religionists of suffering this fate, but maybe anti-religionists can suffer it too?

    People who happen to have had "religious experiences" will be able to answer your empiricism pretty easily, won't they?

  10. "I'm not sure if you are suggesting that your rejection of the supernatural entails a rejection of other aspects of the religious 'package', or whether you think something can be salvaged."

    Mark, I was actually thinking about that as I entered my first comment. I have no problem with human values and rituals. In my view, none of them are god-given, therefore all of them are man-created.

    So I will readily admit that I have a Judeo-Christian value system, but I follow none of the religious rituals. And I certainly don't believe in any of the theology.

    I know there are arguments that religion is an evil force in the world, but I don't buy into that. Anything we do has the potential for evil, and religious belief is so core to a person that it can be more evil than, say bowling. But religion has also done much for society that is good.

    So, I don't believe in the supernatural; I believe religious theology is based in man's desire to acquire power over others; I'm okay applying man-made religious values (but there's an element of relativism in this choice); religions aren't bad in and of themselves; adherents to religion can do very evil things. I think that about sums it up for me.

  11. HR, I agree with your main points about religion.

    Regarding the Judeo-Christian value system, I think most people who have been raised in a Christian or (religious) Jewish context - anyone raised in a society formed in part by those traditions, in fact - will have internalized much of it, and I am no exception. I recognize its value and its importance even if I am consciously exploring alternative ways of seeing morality. (I suspect that there will always be some overlap between systems, i.e. universal elements.)

  12. Yes, Alan, of course, things are always going to be messy, especially in these sorts of areas. That was one of the points I was trying to make in the post. I rather regret that sentence in which I expressed a requirement for "empirical evidence of some kind". I am endorsing a broadly scientific view of the world which incorporates empirical evidence and reason, and I think our concepts can be accommodated within that framework.

    I haven't worked out my views on mathematics yet. Computing has brought a new dimension to it, so that, in some respects, it is beginning to look more like an experimental science.

    Religious experiences are not much help to me. If someone has a profound experience of the certainty of the existence of a benevolent God or whatever, well, what can I say? (Maybe He only appears to those who have special moral qualities!)