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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eric MacDonald on the "privacy" of religious belief

There's a long comment by Eric MacDonald in this thread over at Butterflies and Wheels, where he discusses the supposedly private nature of religious belief. Read Ophelia Benson's opening post, which is useful in itself and provides the context. But then scroll down to this comment, which I'm going to re-post here with a minimum of elision:

Religion is not a very private matter. It is a very public matter, and it is increasingly more and more public. How people make sense of the world, religiously, almost always seeks to impose itself on others.

Religion does not respect boundaries. For a long time it was thought that religion had retreated to the private sphere, but it had not. Religious priorities were still reflected in law and social custom, but as soon as these came to be questioned, and in many cases overturned, religions began, once again, to strive to re-establish the religious "foundations" of the culture. The introduction of an unreconstructed Islam into jurisdictions traditionally dominated by Christianity has led to renewed attempts to reassert Christian dominance.

The same thing is happening with respect to science. It is astonishing and disturbing to see someone with the apparent stature (in the scientific community) of Francis Collins making childish arguments for the consistency of science and (what turns out to be a gasp-makingly conservative form of) Christianity. This should be seen as a very deep cultural crisis. By all means tell religious yarns if you are afraid of the dark, but don't bring them into scientific contexts, as though they had anything of value to offer. They don't. In fact, what they offer, as Jerry Coyne points out, is only a blurring of boundaries.

Religion does not respect boundaries. Like any other form of monolithism religion is quite prepared to mix private and public, empiricism with superstition, law with personal choice. [...] It is a danger to anything that requires critical thinking. There is no place for humility or even etiquette here, whether or not science can or cannot prove a negative. What science can and should say is that it has no need of this hypothesis. In fact, I would hazard the guess that if there is a problem about scientific literacy, this is related to the fact that, for many, religion provides the illusion of knowing already. Making it clear that religion is something private - as private as poetry and considerably less helpful - and that the only reliable ways of knowing involve critical rationality and empirical evidence, might help to separate things that, in public discourse, are too often conflated.

Gould was wrong about NOMA, but he had the right idea. Religion needs to be put in its place. It has no relation to science whatsoever, and, despite its claims to the contrary, no special moral authority. Once this is clearly understood, the religious are free to tell each other stories, if it helps them get through the night. They may even imagine, in private, that they are talking about real things, but there is no reason for others to believe this, and lots of reasons why others should insist, and insist again, that religions must know their limits, and that they should not be taken seriously when they try to speak with a public voice.


Discuss.

Personally, I think that MacDonald has pretty much nailed it. This is just why we can't give religious beliefs a free ride.

20 comments:

robert_h said...

I, too, am becoming increasingly tired of the sheltering and financial favouring of religions and their associated minions and acolytes. Yes, Russell, Eric has certainly nailed it with his comments!

It's lunchtime here (Toronto) so I'll eat and add more later.

Kallan.G said...

I'll agree he's nailed it, but my own suspicion is his point is just a touch too narrow. What people believe, and perhaps more importantly how people come to believe what they do, is a matter of public interest whether or not people actually make that public. It's a point that's even more pressing if we're at all committed to Democracy.

Just to head off the obvious rejoinder here, I don't deny that that's often an impractical position to hold, certainly a stupid one if you just want to get along with your work colleagues or form a relationship, but even there I'm inclined to say that's more of a cultural issue than a principle; some cultures such as science thrive on discussion, argument and dissent for example.

Brian said...

Spot on. Religion (read some people who act in the name of religion) suffers from entitle-itis. It's entitled to anything it wants, is its the default position. You have to keep whacking and/or scolding it everytime it attempts to fondle or maul something else that it wrongly feels entitled to.

Brian said...

Russell, off-topic, but what do you think of Peter Costello's arguments in this article? As a lawyer and philosopher, I think you'd have a good take on it.
To me, he seems to be saying in part that churches are good and moral (he would) and that they should be allowed to discriminate because it doesn't really matter and churches are moral. I sort of see the point that a fundi school shouldn't be forced to hire a lesbian pagan as teacher. Only because we have allowed fundi schools, and can't unscramble the egg.

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/pursuing-the-churches-over-human-rights-is-contradictory-20090728-e02j.html

John Pieret said...

I'm not quite sure what, if anything, is being proposed here. What sort of "insisting" that religions must know their limits are we talking about? How do we make the religious' exclusion from law and social custom "clearly understood"? What steps do we take to keep religion out of law or social custom, particularly in a country like mine where theists are the majority? In what manner do we keep the religious from becoming involved in public matters and bringing their ideas and beliefs with them into the voting booth? How do we keep Collins or anyone else from bringing their religious beliefs into scientific contexts (if, in fact, that is what it was)?

There is a lot of talk about a perceived problem but damn little about any solution.

Greywizard said...

I'd just like to remind John Pieret what this whole discussion has been about. M&K (Mooney and Kirshenbaum) have been claiming that non-believing scientists must be polite. They must not be brash and aggressive, like PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne, about the incompatibilties of religion and science. This will just widen the gulf between the (believing) public and scientists - or so it is said.

But this is simply wrong. Believers won't get the point if unbelieving scientists and others (like Ophelia Benson and Russell Blackford) become polite and well behaved. Religion itself does not respect boundaries, so it can't expect non-believers to patrol the borders between science and religion. However, it's not a question of finding solutions, as though we can simply silence believers. We can't, and maintain a shred of credibility. But we can keep on insisting, and then insisting again, and go on insisting until the point is made: religion and science don't mix. Believers will get the point.

Religious people are getting the point in other areas. For example, many Christians, nowadays, in opposing things like abortion and euthanasia, do not use religious reasons. They give plausible sounding secular reasons: harm to the woman, say, or putting vulnerable people at risk.

They'll eventually get the point about science and religion too. But they won't get it if people like PZ and Jerry Coyne and Russell and Ophelia turn over and play dead.

Peter said...

John Pieret,

One of the ways we try to keep religion within it's limits is vigorous argument and actively defending a secular position in the public sphere. Of course, as Greywizard points out, that draws the ire of some people, including some atheists and agnostics who think we shouldn't critize the religious publicly.

As atheists, we should probably present our position in public, and defend the position that we can and should decide what's "good" and "bad" without reference to what god wants. We should encourage people to be skeptical of whatever people are claiming in the name of "god". Even sometimes to the point of ridiculing people's sacred cows, when those cows are shitting on other people's rights.

We can also try to enshrine secularism in law, and rely on the Congress to respect that law and when push comes to shove, use the courts. Like, say, if the US Constitution could be amended to guarantee religious freedom would be a good start. We could prohibit the Congress from, say, making laws respecting establishments of religion. Of course, it wouldn't be enough, we'd also need courts to actively uphold that freedom.

And if all that isn't enough, no, no atheists you can think of are advocating thought policing or the use government sanctioned violence to outlaw god-thought. That's silly. Every outspoken atheist I can think of advocates atheism because they think that advocacy will help lead to a more tolerant, peaceful society. I think it's the tolerance, peace, and respect for truth and critical dissent that are the NAs' important values. They advocate "atheism" because they think religion is to some extent a force against those values (in particular, of those three, religion can make critical dissent hard, but it can be implicated in all three).

John Pieret said...

Greywizard & Peter:

I still don't understand. Haven't people been doing this since at least the Enlightenment (and that includes the religious dressing up their dogma in supposedly "worldly" reasons as well)? Indeed, isn't that the objection against the term "New Atheists"? ... that there is nothing new in the present atheist approach. Have believers gotten the point yet?

We can also try to enshrine secularism in law, and rely on the Congress to respect that law and when push comes to shove, use the courts.

Yes, we've been doing that very vigorously in my country for over 60 years but it has made little dent in the continuing efforts by the religious (and considerable success) to affect our law and social customs. Our most liberal president in decades regularly invokes faith and God, though he has thrown some rhetorical bones to unbelievers.

Eric MacDonald's comment seemed to indicate there was a solution to the problem. Even assuming that atheists have gotten some greater "voice" (as PZ calls it), what prospect is there of somehow puting religion in its "place"? What will separate atheism from any number of other minorities that get a "hearing" right before they are ignored?

Every outspoken atheist I can think of advocates atheism because they think that advocacy will help lead to a more tolerant, peaceful society.

Hmmm ... I wonder if "faitheists" feel that way?

Peter said...

@John Pieret

It's true that Eric MacDonald isn't proposing new ways to carry out the criticism of religion. I don't think he meant to. As Greywizard sort of pointed out in his comment that you were replying to, MacDonald was responding to Chris Mooney et al who claim that religion is a private matter, and therefore we shouldn't spend time criticizing it, since that only offends people.

Eric is merely defending the critics of religion, responding to that argument. Religion is not only a private matter. He's particularly making the point that a lot of religious "liberals" are happy to claim that their religion is a private matter only so long as their religion remains privileged in society.

So, right, he's not offering a new argument to use against the religious. Rather, he's offering an eloquent defense of the necessity of continued criticism of religion, for those atheists and agnostics and liberals who think that religious ideas should be exempt from criticism because they are "private".

C. said...

Isn't that whole discussion also related a bit to how outspoken atheists are immediately labeled as "militant atheists"?

Gosh, you need to know that the only good stance an atheist can have, is to shut up and leave his "atheistic belief" (atheism is not a belief, hence the quotes) as a private matter, and not try to push it onto others! Because you know, matters of faith are sensitive issues and can hurt people's feelings and identities! (Yes, irony.)

Just because an atheist speaks out and tries to "proselytize", it's a sign of militancy, yet priests and missionaries doing the same thing are saints/good-doers.

robert_h said...

We know that several goals need to be set to change current attitudes to religion.

1) All children must be taught the facts about biology and any other part of their syllabuses infected by religious myths.
2) Atheists, agnostics, humanists et alia must be encouraged to state their attitudes and views if circumstances warrant it.
3) Voters need to be assured that candidates for political offices who have acted on 2) above are not thereby seen as threats to social order.

Please note that I am not advocating any form of proselytising. Such goals are not easily achieved and will require much effort and time.

I assume those of us who post blogs and enjoy the ensuing discussions have admirable intentions and would support any reasonable actions to achieve these three goals. Of course, a major problem is the limited audience reached by the expression of our views.

To flog an almost dead aphorism “We are preaching to the choir.” I believe it would be useful to think deeply on how we can distill some of the many cogent, well-argued positions put forth in our blogs into a form for dissemination to a wider (non-chorister) audience.

I can hear you shouting “You’re statin’ the bleedin’ obvious!”. Yes, I am but sometimes stating such mundane and “obvious” matters is needed to focus and move towards some productive actions. I do not pretend that I have many solutions to this difficult problem. Let’s see if we can apply our collective skills and abilities to developing some practical ideas.

It occurs to me that the current “accommodationist”, or if you prefer “faitheist”, discussions could be addressed in the following way. We could ride on the coattails of Stephen J. Gould’s reputation and his NOMA arguments to show, with respect, how he was wrong. We could show that, inter alia, he used a very narrow definition of religion to make his arguments.

Also, I do not understand why Victor Stenger’s magnum opus “God: the failed hypothesis” is not being more widely referred to as the most succinct and well-argued exposition of the bases for our views. I have not yet found any serious rebuttal of his views.

I do not have any contacts or mechanisms which would allow us to reach the audiences we are seeking. Do you?

goodgrieflinus said...

Excellent comment from Eric Macdonald. In short, NAs do respect *anyone's* private beliefs but must be allowed to voice opposition when these beliefs are brought into the public square, to the potential *detriment* of society.

John Pieret

You make a good point, asking how we stop the religious bringing their beliefs into the voting booth, for example - clearly part of the public square. Of course we *cannot*. But that's the very reason we must be allowed to voice our criticisms, to at least give the religious cause to *think on*. Further, we must be allowed to campaign for secularism, to reduce the *negative* effects of religious beliefs. In the UK, there are many things that can be done to improve secularism - eliminate faith schools, disestablishment, removal of the Bishops from the Lords. No need to thought-police private individuals in any of these proposals.

"Indeed, isn't that the objection against the term "New Atheists"? ... that there is nothing new in the present atheist approach. Have believers gotten the point yet? "

It's been observed before that the only thing 'New' about the New Atheists is their *volume*, in more than one sense of the word. But for that volume, they've been criticised. It's not a healthy sign for our society when people are criticised for making their views known too loudly or too successfully, or perhaps, even, too stridently :-).

So the ideas aren't new, but perhaps believers hadn't got the point because they weren't exposed to these ideas *enough*? You have to agree, that is a possibility. Time will tell if a more vocal declaration of atheist ideas has any more success than the more 'umble, deferential approach.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I can see two problems here. First, religion isn't a "monolithism." It isn't a monolith, period. You write as if religion is some faceless, homogeneous evil entity, and this just doesn't fit the facts.

Second, a big problem with insisting that religion and science don't mix is that you aren't insisting on an intelligible proposition. Sure, it looks meaningful to say that religion and science don't mix ... until you start noticing that not everyone is using the terms "religion" and "science" in quite the same way, and even what you mean by mixing is unclear. Indeed, I'd say that part of the argument between the incompatibilists and accommodationists is that they aren't even using the same definition of "science." The incompatibilists often act as if science is a philosophical mindset, while the accommodationists see science as a discipline in which people of all sorts of beliefs can take part. The accommodationists, I daresay, have common usage on their side.

Nickname said...

John Pieret,

Who says believers need to get the point. True, hardcore believers, will never get the point. But most people, I think, are just casual believers who don't go to church except for Christmans (maybe) and weddings. They believe because their parents did, without giving it much thought. It's simply never occurred to them to not believe.

I think this a propaganda war. Or a war for the hearts and minds of the masses who spend most of their time NOT thinking about these things. The point, I think, is to marginalize the true believers in the eyes of these people. And the method is simply to give no quarter. Anywhere. Period. It seems to me that that is what the so called New Atheists are doing. The books, the blogs, the bus ads are all part of getting the meme out there. I'm not sure what else you need.

goodgrieflinus said...

JJ Ramsey

"You write as if religion is some faceless, homogeneous evil entity, and this just doesn't fit the facts."

You are obviously right; religion is not 'monolithic'. The target, IMO, is religious *thinking*. Sometimes, accidentally but explicably, it's right. But if it's wrong, what corrects it?

"The incompatibilists often act as if science is a philosophical mindset, while the accommodationists see science as a discipline in which people of all sorts of beliefs can take part. The accommodationists, I daresay, have common usage on their side."

By now you should *really* know this is a wrong. Clearly any mindset can allow accommodation. I'm not aware of any anti-accommodationist that thinks that a person *cannot* accommodate; unless you know otherwise?

Nichole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nichole said...

Er, comment fail.

Anyway...

I think the secular push is doing well, it's just kind of slow and hard going.

I'm a big fan of the "refuse to take them seriously" approach. It's nice to even have that option, now that they can't burn us at the stake anymore.

Public mockery > public stoning.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Nickname: "I think this a propaganda war."

You write that as if it is a good thing. Propaganda has this nasty tendency to distort and oversimplify.

goodgrieflinus: "You are obviously right; religion is not 'monolithic'. The target, IMO, is religious *thinking*."

But that supposes that there is such a thing as "religious thinking" that is somehow distinct from ordinary thought, which is probably untrue.

goodgrieflinus: "Clearly any mindset can allow accommodation."

That isn't clearly true at all.

goodgrieflinus: "I'm not aware of any anti-accommodationist that thinks that a person *cannot* accommodate; unless you know otherwise?"

I'm not even sure what the heck this is even saying.

goodgrieflinus said...

JJ Ramsey

"But that supposes that there is such a thing as "religious thinking" that is somehow distinct from ordinary thought, which is probably untrue"

Kind of ironic, then, that the link you give is to a page discussing religious thinking; for example:

"Religious thoughts are typically activated when people deal with concrete situations (this crop, that disease, this new birth, this dead body, etc.)" and
"There is no reason to think that the various kinds of thoughts we call "religious" all appeared in human cultures at the same time"

As Pascal Boyer does above, to identify some thoughts as religious is not to say that they are not ordinary, or that the processes are *discrete* to religion, necessarily.

""Clearly any mindset can allow accommodation."

That isn't clearly true at all."

Despite linking to a page discussing how natural it is for us to think religiously, you think there are people who literally *cannot* maintain religious ideas and scientific ideas at the same time? Well, you could be right, I suppose! I didn't think it was a controversial point.

"I'm not even sure what the heck this is even saying."

Excellent! Baffled you just as you usually baffle me. My job here is done.

J. J. Ramsey said...

goodgrieflinus: "Kind of ironic, then, that the link you give is to a page discussing religious thinking"

There is a huge difference between people having thoughts pertaining to their religious beliefs (the "religious thoughts" that Pascal Boyer mentioned) and the idea that there is a certain mindset or process that can be dubbed "religious thinking."

goodgrieflinus: "you think there are people who literally *cannot* maintain religious ideas and scientific ideas at the same time?"

What does that rhetorical question have to do with the claim "Clearly any mindset can allow accommodation"?