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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

If I could lead the cat herd

If I could lead the cat herd, we'd make a few changes. Why?

For a start, I don't see moderate/liberal religion as a terrible problem. I've really never bought into this element of what I see in, say, the work of Sam Harris. Some forms of liberal religion are so non-literalist that they can't even be considered incorrect - they make no or few truth-claims about the supernatural and see the holy books as historical documents to be studied for whatever wisdom they contain, much as we study The Iliad. These sorts of non-literal religion are potentially all consistent with each other, and also with humanistic philosophies.

Even more literalist religious positions that involve a belief in some kind of supernatural order may be no great problem, and indeed they can inspire people to do good. I'm not going to say that Martin Luther King was a bad guy just because he believed in some (probably heretical) version of Christianity.

These kinds of religion only become a problem when their leaders tell critics of religion to shut up, and try to convince everyone that almost all religion is harmless or even beneficent. Thus, Karen Armstrong is fine when she enunciates her own positive religious understanding. She only becomes a problem when she tries to convince people that all religion is "really" like that and we should stop being so nasty about it. I can't imagine her ever flying a plane into a building or even trying to introduce draconian laws that restrict personal freedom (though perhaps I'm wrong about the last bit). Really, if she'd just offer her positive message and stop trying to deprecate the less savoury aspects of the religious traditions, we could get along.

Note, though, that Armstrong is no worse than an explicitly atheistic accommodationist like Chris Mooney. It's not her mild religiosity that's the problem; it's her urge to dampen a necessary debate about the place of religion in modern society.

Still, the real problem is not religion in itself. Many of the pagan religions of antiquity, after all, were not so bad. They didn't have very much of the elements that I'm about to identify. Indeed, those elements are very largely confined to the Abrahamic tradition. To some extent, they turn up in the Eastern religions, but much less so.

The problems are apocalyptic and totalitarian thinking; the accompanying spirit of intolerance and exclusivity; misogyny, sexism, and shame about the body; and associated homophobia. Greek paganism certainly had more than its fair share of sexism - it's easy to find this running through the myth system. But the other things just listed ... well, not so much. Ancient paganism wasn't totalitarian, or apocalyptic, anywhere near as intolerant as Christianity has proved to be, or anywhere remotely as obsessed with sexual sin and guilt. If Greek paganism made a comeback, it would have to adapt to the idea of women's equality, but otherwise it wouldn't be a huge issue. It wouldn't create Crusades and jihads, suppress art and science, persecute homosexuals, or torture heretics.

By contrast, much in the Abrahamic tradition is totalitarian, apocalyptic, arrogant, officious, intolerant, misogynist, homophobic, puritanical, prurient, and persecutory. The totalitarian, apocalyptic, and persecutory elements, in particular, but also some of the others, were taken over by various ways of thinking they sprung from the Abrahamic tradition, notably the apocalyptic cults of Nazism and Marxist-Leninism. Then there is the specifically anti-Semitic intolerance that looms so large in Christianity, and which led directly to the Nazi holocaust.

But there are modern forms of Abrahamic religion that are politically liberal and not apocalyptic. Some of them have also purged themselves of the other stains on their tradition - the misogyny, etc. I don't see adherents to those forms of religion as my enemies, for much the same reason as I don't see religion itself as the real enemy. In the American culture wars, progressive religious people have defended such things as gay rights, abortion rights, rights for women more generally, racial equality, and freedom of speech. In recent decades, organisations with large numbers of religious adherents such as People for the American Way have been invaluable in the struggle against creeping theocracy.

So if I were leading the cat herd, I'd like to stress that the problem isn't so much religion in itself, or even the Abrahamic tradition in itself. It is, first, the many deplorable elements - the apocalypticism, totalitarianism, sexist, puritanism, intolerance, etc. - that are so prevalent in the Abrahamic holy books and traditions. But it is not every single element of those traditions.

And more proximately, the problem is whatever systems or styles of thought have absorbed the worst elements of Abrahamic tradition. This includes the worst kinds of apocalyptic communism, Nazism, and fascism, all of which arose from Christianity.

I think the above is (1) more accurate than a line that identifies religion itself as the problem, even when the religion concerned is entirely or relatively anodyne; (2) principled in identifying the real problems that have come to us, historically, through the Abrahamic tradition in particular; (3) likely to help us deal with mildly religious people who share our political values and are just as repulsed as we are by the more barbaric elements of their traditions.

36 comments:

Lhowon said...

I'm not sure anyone is making that claim though, that every single element in the Abrahamic tradition is a problem. Christopher Hitchens comes closest but he's using rhetoric and his actually argument is much more refined. I'm not so familiar with Harris's work but Dawkins is very ready to admit that there are positive elements to Christianity. Their argument is that moderate religion is still believing in something false, and is putting faith before rational evidence-based inquiry. I think that's a very valuable position to stress because it expands our argument to include all forms of irrationality, not just religion. Religion as a whole is rejected because it explicitly makes claims that have no basis in fact.

Seeing as the vast majority of Christians believe in at least something supernatural (God, Jesus - and are therefore incorrect) I don't think it's helpful moderating our message for those who have such a diluted belief that it can barely be called a religion (they're along for the cultural ride I feel). You're right that they aren't the problem but they are also a tiny minority - even very very moderate Christians tend to say they believe in God.

I guess my argument is that religion itself is the problem because all religion puts faith before facts. Which is a much subtler and different sort of problem than the religion that promotes the very negative elements you listed, but it's still very much a problem. There's a danger that in saying "the problem" is only the nasty forms of religion you are seen as saying believing in rubbish is cool so long as it's very moderate.

Also I don't feel you've addressed the classic argument against moderate religion, put forward by at least Dawkins and I think Harris - that it provides a cultural climate where faith is seen as an acceptable alternative to reason and therefore provides shelter for more distasteful beliefs.

So I agree with most of what you say I'm just not sure I buy the way you express it.

davmab11 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Russell Blackford said...

Okay,can I kick some of this around? In your second last para, which is the key one, I guess, I've often seen that point made but I've just never found it convincing. It sounds to me like the sort of thing that people say from their armchairs without empirical support, and it just doesn't ring true for me from life experience.

My best guess is that it's the other way around. I.e., the presence of some moderate religion creates an environment in which many people feel free to adopt an attenuated form of religiosity, perhaps on the way to abandoning religion entirely.

Now, that said, of course it might work differently in different places. But if all the genuinely moderate religious folk in, say, the US became atheists overnight would it reduce the number of fundamentalists, even in the longer term? Not necessarily. They might become even more radicalised, try to isolate their children more from the mainstream culture, and lose the halfway house available for those who want a softer option.

That said, it may depend on what we mean by moderate religion. We can ask "Moderate about what?" I don't consider the Catholic Church to be moderate, even though it has given a sort of endorsement to evolutionary theory. I mean genuinely moderate religion of the kind that supports gay rights and abortion rights, etc. There may be more of this around than is obvious. Even in America, a helluva lot of people turn out to be technically deists - they believe in some kind of vague creator, not in a personal, providential God - and a lot of those people probably have no more time for the fundies or the Vatican than you and I have.

None of this is a reason to stop scrutinising moderate religious beliefs, and I don't see how we could do that, anyway, without stopping our scrutiny of religious belief in general. So I suppose that's one bad thing the moderates do, even inadvertently: they make us hesitate to criticise religion in general for fear of offending nice people.

We can't yield to that fear, but we can still emphasise that what really bugs us (if it is) is not so much people having some supernatural beliefs as all the baggage - the totalitarianism, misogyny, puritanism, apocalyptic impulses, etc. - that Abrahamic monotheism drags in its wake. And we can point out that some of this stuff has shown up in systems such as Nazism. I want Nazism to be their problem, not mine ... but I actually think it is. The apocalyptic thinking and anti-Semitism came straight from Christianity. It was Christianity, not the honorable tradition of rationalism, that softened up Germany to accept Hitler.

Lhowon said...

Thanks Russell, I very much agree with all of that.

I think my only stumbling block is with expressions along the lines of "religion isn't the problem, X is" which I feel could mislead people into thinking we don't find their belief in whatever supernatural entity/plane of existence/life after death/etc. to be highly questionable, if not outright laughable in some cases. Which I see now definitely isn't your position, it's just my experience that many moderate religious people are quite eager to find common ground (a good thing!) but in doing so can misinterpret our views as being more comfortable with what they believe than might be the case.

When you say "We can't yield to that fear, but we can still emphasise that what really bugs us (if it is) is not so much people having some supernatural beliefs as all the baggage - the totalitarianism, misogyny, puritanism, apocalyptic impulses, etc. - that Abrahamic monotheism drags in its wake" I totally agree with that, so I see my issue is only with how that's communicated. It is of course true that we have no argument or problem (beyond a high-minded philosophical one) with people who have a personal faith but do not try to make anyone else accept their view.

I just like the distinction between considering a belief relatively harmless and thinking it sensible and worthwhile to be clear, though perhaps that would make me a poor diplomat!

J. said...

Russell - do you really believe that ALL the cultural legacies of the Abrahamic traditions are negative? In ancient Greek culture and its Roman progeny, infanticide was common, and gladiatoral sports were considered the norm. It was only in the wake of the Bible that such things became taboo.

Peter Beattie said...

Isn't this pretty much the same sentiment that all the other Big Cats would offer, namely that if believers would only believe in private and not in any way try to foist their beliefs on others, then there would be no problem with religion?

Rob said...

Do you believe that he following statment, by the Orthodox Jewish Chief Rabbi on the UK, Jonathan Sacks, is indicative of an acceptably liberal religious sentiment?

"I believe, too, that religious beliefs have no privileged status in a democratic society. Religions should have influence, not power. I do not believe that the religious convictions of some should be imposed on all by force of law. In a free society, the religious voice should persuade, not compel."

Russell Blackford said...

Peter, I'm not sure about that. Once again, let's kick it around.

First, I don't even necessarily want them to stay in private - they can write books, conduct concerts, even express views on politics (though if they seek outcomes that violate the harm principle, etc., they shouldn't be listened to by the government). I don't want the government imposing religion or religious morality on me coercively, but I don't want to imprison the religious in their homes/churches/mosques or drive them into the sea.

That's not to say that others do. Some might, but I don't see Richard Dawkins or even Christopher Hitchens saying that. But Sam Harris may be a bit different - his big problem really does seem to be largely with religious faith as such, which he'd like to eliminate.

But anyway, I think we could profit by reorganising our grievances in a way that highlights that it's not religion as such that really, really bothers us - even if we think it's all false and that therefore none of the religious leaders have any particular epistemic or moral authority. While that's so, and it's worth hammering, it's actually the apocalypticism, etc., that's the bigger problem.

That enables us to give a principled account of why we can get along with religious folks who have shed the apocalypticism and the rest, or don't have it in the first place, and have a more liberal/progressive kind of worldview; why it is that some of us are more sympathetic to other religions, rather than Abrahamic monotheism; why we really are not tarring the Anglican/Episcopal Church (well not all of it: see my recent comments on Archbishop Jensen) with the same brush as the Vatican; and why we see apocalyptic "secular" systems of thought such as Nazism and the nuttier or nastier kinds of communism, and the worst kinds of religion as, in an important sense, the same thing.

We can keep pointing out that there's something in religion, or at least in Abrahamic monotheism, that lends itself to totalitarian/apocalyptic/misogynist/persecutorial/puritanical ways of thinking. I think that's so. But I can't deny that many religious people really have got past all or most or much of that.

This way of thinking creates a different boundary, and I think it's a more logical and defensible one than the boundary between "believes in a supernatural world/doesn't believe in a supernatural world". That boundary also exists - no doubt about it - but there are good and bad people and organisations on both sides of it. For me, at least, it doesn't neatly organise what ways of thinking are troubling and what ways ... not so much.

And I don't see anyone else trying to draw the line in this way. Maybe I'm missing something and this is not a good line to try to draw. But maybe I'm onto something and various historical factors have tended to obscure this way of thinking about it.

Russell Blackford said...

The comment by Sacks sounds good, as long as he's talking about persuading individuals, not persuading the government to pass illiberal laws. But on the face of it, he means the former.

But I'm not sure he is always that liberal. I can't think of specific illiberal things he's said in the past, so maybe I'm being unfair, but while I like that quote I do have an alarm bell going off about him.

Maybe someone more familiar with him can help out.

Anyway, the actual quote sounds good. That's what I want people in such positions to say.

Christian Munthe said...

Liked this one very much, Russell. Lots of what you say ties neatly to ideas I've been trying to knead into something publishable for some time now. Will surely link to this item when I'm there! And I don't agree with Lhowon that "the vast majority of Christians believe in at least something supernatural" in the sense that he interprets it. This assumes a particular (pretty secterist philosophy/academia) interpretation of the word "belief" to be applicable to what religious believers do when they believe. In my experience, it often does not. Also, to the extent that it does - what's so terrible about believing in a false proposition? Or about not caring whether or not one's belief is true or false?

rjw said...

Isn't the argument against leaving the "moderates" alone that their delusions are still actively damaging?
Once you give people "respect" for turning off a part of their brain, why, thus rewarded, will they not turn off more? I oppose moderate religion in the same way I oppose crystal skulls, astrology, and homeopathy. Its laughable nonsense and deserves to be laughed at. In reality, moderate religionists are those most likely to wake up at some point, and the most likely to appreciate the lunacy of their positions...

To me there are only a few kinds of "moderate" religionists.
1) Without some vague belief in god, you are a murdering rapist.
2) I know its crap but I like it for the hugs.
3) I don't really think about it ever, but you know, god.

Which of these groups would benefit from not being told they are believing in, and talking, a load of rubbish?

I think you are focused on a different problem - that of people being evil for reasons they think are good. Most of the herd ( imo ) is focused also on the problem of people thinking they know things they can't possibly know, and beng taken seriously.

I'm afraid this is slipping close to "everyone should use my favoured strategy" territory... and we all know how popular that is.

DEEN said...

I don't see liberal religion in and of itself as a big issue either. I'd happily live in a world where all people supported equal rights for everyone, but where some of them just happen to have a nebulous belief in a deity.

Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. In this world, many of both liberal and conservative religions are still based in the same, faulty premises:
- there is a God, and we can know how he wants us to behave.
- revelation is a reliable source of knowledge, etc.

The problem is not, as your article appears to suggest, that certain atheists think these premises automatically lead to bigotry and other bad practices. Clearly they don't, as there are many religions that are relatively benign. No, the problem is that these premises are used in arguments to defend harmful religions.

When we criticize the more harmful religions, a good part of our arsenal is devoted to attacking exactly such premises, and they are among the most powerful arguments we have. But I don't know how you can use these arguments without them applying to large groups of moderate religions as well. At the same time, I don't see how we can let moderate religions use such premises as if they were valid, just because we like the conclusions they drew from it better.

For the sake of consistency, it then follows that either we have to stop using some of our strongest arguments against harmful religions, or we should also apply them to moderate religions. Unfortunately, that may mean that we must also criticize those that we otherwise agree with on issues like human rights.

After this, it becomes a matter of strategy again, or possibly a matter of personal preference.

So in short (TL;DR): yes, the totalitarianism and intolerance are the real issues, but the arguments that are used to shield these issues from criticism are a problem too. And to the extent that moderate religions use the same arguments, they are going to be on the wrong side of that argument as well.

As an aside, I suspect that's why atheists are more dangerous to religious beliefs than people from competing and contradicting religions are. Atheists have a whole arsenal of strong arguments that are simply not available to believers of competing religions (one of which is the existence of multiple, mutually contradicting religions in the first place).

Christian Munthe said...

DEEN: most religious people I know (and, yes, they are very liberal all of them, almost) don't feel threatened at all by atheism, since their belief is apparently not about affirming that which the atheist is denying....

rjw: re. your questions at the end. Most of them would probably benefit, since processing messages about how much rubbish the way they choose to set up their lives is, is probably not at the top on their list of priorities. Why is it so important to tell them that, I wonder? (Unless, of course, they use it to justify some objectionable action).

DEEN said...

@Christian Munthe: I hope I've been careful enough not to imply that my claims universally apply to all liberal believers. It obviously doesn't apply to the Christian-in-name-only religions that are virtually indistinguishable from humanism.

But I definitely have had arguments with self-proclaimed liberal Christians, who will defend their belief in God using some of the exact same arguments that creationists and conservatives use to defend theirs. The main difference is just that their God is just nicer than the God of the conservatives.

And while this is an important difference for the effect they have on society, it doesn't change the validity of the arguments they use.

Christian Munthe said...

Deen: oh, so they are not "real" Christians? Says who? (besides you)? Actually, this rhetorical trick is one of the least attractive features of the new atheism/humanist lingo for anyone who likes rational arguments rather than demagogic dueling. The function of the trick is much like what Popper once pointed out about psychoanalysis-followers using psychological explanations of why an opponent uttered an argument as a way of /allegedly) invalidating that argument. Similarly, if I say very few Christians are x,y,z, the response here is that then they are not "real" Christians. Ergo: the thesis that Christians are x,y,z has become an empty truism, thus containing no information of interest to anyone besides about the peculiar linguistic habits of the one delivering the objection.

Lisa said...

One sizeable issue I have with this is the "in-group-out-group" community aspects of many religions. This isn't anywhere near as pronounced among a lot of Protestant Christian denominations, but consider the situation in Islam, Judaism, or Roman Catholicism, where the reaction to criticism is to circle the wagons and defend the religion and/or community at all costs. Frequently even moderate Muslims are less than forthcoming with criticism of their more unhinged brethren, because 1) one mustn't criticize the religion so as to give succor to unfriendly outsiders, and 2) between lunatic co-religionists and unbelievers, some will choose the former over the latter. Judaism is not dissimilar in this respect, such that even some secular Jews are willing to defend the ultra-Orthodox on the grounds that Jews and Judaism must be protected against potentially anti-semitic outsiders. (Then there's the tribal instinct where you feel you can criticize other members of the group -- but NOT outsiders, and you'll switch to defending them when attacked by outsiders.) The notion of the ummah or "the Jews as a special people" is very strong, even among atheist/agnostic/unobservant Muslims and Jews.

Catholics (and many conservative Christians) have a similar issue, though that seems to be more along the lines of defending Holy Mother Church against all criticism and attacks, and taking on the "martyr" position. Even some lapsed Catholics may find themselves defending the Church, on historical/community grounds.

There may also be a bit of guilt involved -- "well, I don't necessarily like everything the religions command, but these are good, devout believers, something I should be, and even if they're a bit misguided, their hearts are in the right place."

How do you deal with this?

DEEN said...

@Christian Munthe: I did not say the Christians you know are not real Christians. I did not mean to imply they were "Christians-in-name-only" as well, and if I did I apologize. But personally, I don't personally care who the "real" Christians are, I just care what arguments they use.

"Similarly, if I say very few Christians are x,y,z, the response here is that then they are not "real" Christians. "
You said nothing of the sort. You only made a claim about most Christians you know. Why should I assume that your friends are representative of a majority of Christians? I could just as easily accuse you of trying to define what "true" Christians are.

Besides, the Christians I was talking about also exist. I don't think that Christians that believe in a personal God that wants you to be good are some insignificant minority. Surely you aren't saying they aren't real Christians, are you? Care to actually discuss the arguments I put forward, rather than carry on this red herring of who the "real" Christians are?

DEEN said...

Oh, and while I'm at it, let me also answer your other arguments:
"Also, to the extent that it does - what's so terrible about believing in a false proposition? Or about not caring whether or not one's belief is true or false?"

Because you can't expect to make good choices based on bad assumptions. If you agree that it is important to make the right moral choices (for your favorite definition of "moral"), you can then argue that you have the moral obligation to have as few false beliefs as possible. It's not a terribly complex concept.

Morten said...

Russell, I must disagree with you here. Religion is nonsense and should be exposed as such by anybody who values truth. Of course fundamentalist religion is worse than more moderate versions but the difference is a theological one, and I am certainly not going to start engaging in theological debates.

Like Deen I think our strongest arguments against religion are those that attack the foundation of it all, i.e. arguments based on rationality and science, and those arguments cannot distingiush between fundamentalist and moderate religion - both are irrational, non-evidence based and false.

Brian said...

Russell, you seem to slip from talking about religion to talking about religious people to talking about religion again in the post. Is this an equivocation or deliberate?

I think one can say without doubt that there are a lot of cool, liberal, decent religious people out there. They're not my enemies. There do seem to be some pretty anodyne religions out there at the moment (and heaps bad too), but a point I read the other day seems apposite here. Religions when based on some text, which is always interpreted, that has dark elements, can and do regress to the darker interpretations of those elements. So we'd best keep an eye on religion while accepting the fact that there are good or innocuous believers. Make sense?

Just found it. Eric MacDonald said it on Butterflies and Wheels.

As Grayling says, religions always degenerate into their fundamentalist forms. I’m not quite sure what the half life is, but moderate religion always reverts to type. It has to. The texts are always there as a measure of faithfulness, and while they may vary in relation to interpretive freedom, the homing device is always set on zero. That’s why Christianity is always a danger, and why Islam is always a greater one.

This seems to be happening in Anglicanism today. Sydney Diocese I think is an example.

Russell Blackford said...

I like Anthony a lot, but I don't actually think that religion always degenerates into fundamentalism. Or if I do agree with what he meant by that, he can't have meant that actual people, churches, etc., become fundamentalist having been genuinely moderate. It's true that there is a lot of stuff in the tradition that creates a pressure that way. E.g., I don't see those very liberal Episcopal churches in the US that are consecrating homosexual bishops turning fundamentalist soon - or any time. OTOH, the Anglican community as a whole is under pressure to turn more fundamentalist if it's to grow. We can see that happening in Africa.

To do a bit of armchair sociology, there are probably conditions under which religion is pressured to become very attenuated as in Scandinavia, where many "Christians" are actually atheistic in their beliefs and have reduced "Christianity" to a doctrine of being kind.

There are other conditions, perhaps those of evangelism to relatively uneducated populations, where there's a pressure to adopt a more fundamentalist religion.

This would merit some study by real sociologists. I can think of work that's relevant, but nothing that is exactly on the point.

Russell Blackford said...

On Sydney Diocese, yes it's a problem.

But I know something about this particular problem. Even back in the 1970s, before I moved to Melbourne, it was well known that Sydney Diocese was like that. I lived then, and live now, within the boundaries of the Newcastle Diocese, just north of there.

Now, the Newcastle Diocese of the Anglican Church was then a very liberal high church diocese. As far as I know - I don't have a lot of connections anymore - it is still very liberal. Doubtless, the local bishop, etc., would have more conservative views on some things than I do, but I'd be willing to bet that most of the clergy here would be people I could get along with.

Now, maybe they would have to revert to a more fundamentalist form if they actually wanted to evangelise. To that extent, Anthony has a point, though I don't know if it was his point in context. But they don't seem interested in doing that, anyway, and I don't see them reverting to anything fundamentalist-ish in my lifetime.

Brian said...

I don't know the context of Grayling's point to be honest. I still think it useful to distinguish between religious and religion. The Catholic Church is not the same as the Catholics I know. At least Rome isn't the same as aussie Catholics. Perhaps it's a distinction that makes no difference?

Shatterface said...

There is an argument that all religion, being basically wrong, is harmful even if the religious don't attempt to impose their beliefs on others, but to be honest, a liberal society has to accept that people will indulge in behaviour that might be harmful to themselves but which is nobody else's business. Drugs are an obvious example, dangerous sports, fatty food, even sitting around the house and taking no exercise.

How you stop them passing this behaviour onto their children may be a matter of public concern though. The problem is that most of the suggestions I've seen proposed are so illiberal they are far worse than religion itself.

John S. Wilkins said...

The Sydney diocese was known to be extremely conservative in its moral and theological stance back when I was doing theology at Ridley College in Melbourne - even they felt that socially Sydney went too far.

I also think that you have equivocated between religious people and their rights to express their views (and raise their kids as they choose, within bounds) and the beliefs of religion.

But that's not the point, IMO. It is this: not do you, or Hitchens, or someone else think that religion is hokum and false, but whether or not a democratic and open society should. I think an open society must be agnostic about religion, and neither privilege it, nor discriminate against it and constrain it in any special way.

In other words, we should treat religion like any other human activity - it should be within the law and the shared moral values of our society. Otherwise, if your religion specifies that you should have sex with trees, if it harm none, go for it.

So either the Affirmative Atheists are justified in putting their point however forcefully (within the law and shared values - like don't incite violence, etc.), or they are trying to enforce their views on others. If the latter, I oppose them as much as I oppose the Catholics when they try this on.

Incidentally, "Abrahamic religion" and "monotheism" are constructs that have no sociological or historical reality, in my view. And this is important, because it relates to what the reference class is, which is where I part company with the atheist consensus. There is no such thing as "religion"; just this or that form of religious tradition, institution, or belief set. This means, I think, that attacks on one have no more general force than an justified attack on a single footballer invalidates or smears the whole of football.

Brian said...

There is no such thing as "religion"; just this or that form of religious tradition, institution, or belief set. This means, I think, that attacks on one have no more general force than an justified attack on a single footballer invalidates or smears the whole of football.


I think this is true. I think part of the trouble is, religious apologists or others use the term religion to shield their particular religious culture, or part of it, from attack. Strength in numbers and all that.

If I say that transubstantiation is a load of swill. It is not uncommon that a Catholic or other who wants to rebut my comment will say I've attacked all religion or at least all Christianity instead of attacking a certain foundational belief that Catholics are supposed to hold.

- But I really don't recall it being held when I was growing up Catholic. I always thought it metaphorical and just a practice that we did to be part of the church or something. 'Body of Christ, Amen!' I've since found out that would've made me a non-Catholic and lots of others too I suppose. Icky cannibalism. -

But I digress, the point, if there is any, is that the new-affirmative-strident atheists might attack the defensive position, e.g. transubstantiation = religion. Thus we charge 'Religion is swill' or 'Christianity is swill' instead of the more focused 'Transubstantiation is swill'. Which helps those who don't want a particular practice or belief attacked and have thus hidden it behind the nebulous term of religion. Thus we wage war against a term that can cover all and cover nothing. Or not....

Dave Cake said...

In general, I am in agreement. I have no problem with more liberal, non-literal religious thought (indeed, I am a member of a peculiar, but very liberal and non-literal, religion).

But I do think the focus on the Abrahamic religions is an error. Not only is it philosophically a stronger position to condemn bad religious behaviour without regard to tradition, I think Hindu fundamentalism clearly shows almost all of the tendencies you condemn in the Abrahamic religions (intolerance extending to violent zealotry, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, etc) are very real problems for Hinduism (and Sikhism) as well. The problems of fundamentalism in India demonstrate quite strongly that we can't simply regard the Abrahamic religions as the only 'dangerous' ones in the current world climate, and I think focussing on the intolerance of Christianity and Islam is to focus on the problems of the Western world.

I am interested in, though I have not read enough of the work of, the Fundamentalism Project sponsored by the AAAS from 1988 to 1993 or so.
http://www.illuminos.com/mem/selectPapers/fundamentalismProject.html
http://www.uuworld.org/2004/01/feature2.html

The idea that fundamentalism is a pattern of behaviour that exists outside any single religious framework is a valuable one, I think. By seeing fundamentalism as essentially a memetic disease to which religions are prone, we can focus less on opposition to religion per se, and more on the particular ways in which religion becomes dangerous.

Russell Blackford said...

John, I agree that religion may not be a unitary phenomenon. I've been known to point that out myself. But it's unitary enough for a lot of discussions and for such things as the tax code to more-or-less work. We can make reasonable judgments, for various purposes, as to what is "in" and what is "out" of the category.

But of course I agree with you about the proper stance of the law.

The question in my mind is how we should think of the phenomena we are really opposing and the phenomena we are not so opposed to. This may be a spectrum rather than an exercise in drawing a line, but my point is that a certain cluster of things that we ... or I ... oppose don't line up neatly with the "in" or "out" judgments about the religion box. OTOH, it's not as if they have no historical connection with religion at all.

I take Dave's point about Hindu fundamentalism. I'm certainly not saying that all Eastern religion is cute and cuddly. I'm with Prabir Ghosh all the way on that, though of course it's not a great problem so far in my own society.

Dave W. said...

As an evidencialist, I feel that everyone has an obligation to believe things only to the extent that the evidence allows. The "problem," then, isn't religion itself, but faith. We can't build a foundation for a better global society on baseless notions, so faith itself is morally wrong. Without it, we could spend a lot more time and effort addressing the very real problems that we all face.

More specifically, the problem with religions is that they institutionalize or "doctrinize" the belief in things for which there is no evidence as a virtue. And the problem with religious people is when they insist that things like "I know there's no evidence for it, but I believe, anyway" are not only acceptable but even beneficial attitudes. Different religions (and different religious people) do these things to different extents, some more than others ("religious humanism" might be at one end of the scale, while fundamentalist Christianity would be at the other), and I'm of the opinion that the worst offenders should be dealt with first. Of course, that doesn't mean that the liberal believers aren't a problem, only that they shouldn't be given top priority.

The problems of totalitarianism, intolerance, misogyny, sexism (etc.) are separate problems from the problem of faith. Problems that sometimes go hand-in-hand with certain religious doctrines, and sometimes not. A sexist chess club possibly represents as much of an institutional problem as a sexist religion, even if the scale might be much less.

The ultimate goal (the "perfect world") in fighting against these problems is the complete eradication of them. Even with the fight against faith. Realistically, however, we all know that these problems will probably always exist (and the resources we have to fight them are limited), and so we set less lofty goals or otherwise prioritize our work.

In a world that supposed to be utterly free of sexism, for example, we might make a big deal out of a sign on a 4th-grader's tree house that reads "No Girlz Allowed." But while much, much worse examples of sexism exist in the world, we'll let the kids do what kids do. Similarly, those who fight against religion tend to focus on the serious, large and/or noisy proponents of nonsense, while ignoring those who don't treat their religion as more serious and world-changing than their knitting.

Ophelia Benson said...

“I can't think of specific illiberal things he's said in the past, so maybe I'm being unfair, but while I like that quote I do have an alarm bell going off about him.”

I can help with that! He’s the guy who boasted, in an article on euthanasia and the parliamentary debate about it at the time, that he was glad his terminally ill father hadn’t had the option of ending his life when he chose to because that meant he, Jonathan Sacks, had the opportunity to show his father love and care. He never so much as mentioned what his father might have actually wanted.

I think that indicates one way in which even liberal religious thinking can be...unfortunate. I think it tends to put a kind of unctuous gloss on things so that even thoughtful people say staggeringly thoughtless things. I think Sacks thought he was being “good” in a pious way there, and he was simply blind to his own selfish complacency.

Mind you, that’s very interpretive. A non-believer could get it just as complacently wrong.

But anyway - that's who Sacks is.

G Felis said...

Russell, you've probably read my stance on this issue often enough at B&W that I won't repeat the arguments at any length here - especially since Deen & Dave W. have already said roughly what I would say. The problem is faith, not religion as such, which does not always rely on or even involve faith beliefs: Faith is not "another way of knowing," it's an epistemologically and morally disastrous way for anyone to go about living in the world. Faith is a vice (albeit an intellectual vice instead of a moral vice, at least from a strictly Aristotelian perspective). And it's a particularly pernicious vice for two main reasons. Firstly, faith is the epistemological, historical, sociological foundation for many other vices, e.g. all the specific bad qualities you cited ("apocalyptic and totalitarian thinking; the accompanying spirit of intolerance and exclusivity; misogyny, sexism, and shame about the body; and associated homophobia"). Secondly, faith is largely self-insulating from outside influences: Faith is a (wholly inadequate and failed) substitute for actual justification employing reason and evidence, so it is nearly impossible to influence faith beliefs with reason and evidence.

I find it odd that you don't directly address faith as central to the problems you cite, given that you mention secular faith-based ideologies: That is, you bring up the apocalyptic cults of Nazism and Marxist-Leninism and talk of how many of the most deplorable elements of those ideologies were drawn from Abrahamic religious traditions, but the equally heinous communism of Pol Pot or Chairman Mao can't be plausibly traced to the same or even similar roots. Rather, the shared feature of all totalizing ideologies is fanatic doctrinaire dogmatism - faith writ large.

None of which, incidentally, impinges on the appropriate limits of power in a secular state. By calling faith a vice, I am deliberately saying that it is a bad character trait - and a liberal democracy cannot and should not legislate character, and for that matter should limit legislation of behavior as much as possible. But the state has good reasons and the right (and perhaps even the obligation) to encourage good character in its citizenry, as with secular moral education - or, in the case of intellectual virtues and vices like faith, critical thinking education.

Christian Munthe said...

Deen: Just one short follow up re. false beliefs and bad choices. As I said originally, criticising people's choices and actions is not what I'm talking about. That you may do, when there is good reason for it. However, unless a religious believer applies his religious beliefs in his daily life decision activities (which many, many don't do) this argument is weak. It also applies only when the belief is in the form of assenting a proposition with (alleged) truth-value, precise enough to be plausibly connected to some decision process or piece of rational reasoning of the believer. I suggest that for many, many believers this is not what believing is about. And even to the extent that it is, criticism would seem to be of value to the recipient only to the extent that the choices/decisions affect something of sufficient importance. This it does, for sure, in cases of fundamentalist policy making, or repressive social practices, or cases of people delimiting their lives by applying hosts of silly rules. However, again, this goes for just a portion of religious people....

Johan Mårtensson said...

That was one of the more confused posts on this issue I have read. Russell is rightly opposed to everything that is "totalitarian, apocalyptic, arrogant, officious, intolerant, misogynist, homophobic, puritanical, prurient, and persecutory". He observers that this is present within and outside of what he calls the "Abrahamic tradition" and also that it is not at all always present within this tradition. Nevertheless the Abrahamic tradition is somehow responsible for it all anyway. Never mind that totalitarianism is mostly associated with political movements opposed to the "Abrahamic tradition" like Jacobinism, Bolchevism, Maoism, the Juche ideology and Nazism to name the most salient. His logic certainly defies me.

All these totalitarian ideologies certainly were utopian in that they promised a future paradise on earth given adherence to a certain political recipe, which would require great human sacrifices.

I think this kind of utopianism is a deadly threat to society, especially in times of economic hardship where people desperately want to find something to put their hope in.

Traditional Christianity is actually an antidote to this in that it locates the object of utopian hopes and dreams in an existence that transcends the material world. At the same time it has a pessimistic non utopian view of human society: Human nature and society will necessarily stay the same in a moral sense, hence it makes no sense to try to reshape humanity the way totalitarian regimes have attempted.

Marx rightly observed that there is a radical opposition between Christianity and the kind of utopian political philosophy he was proposing when he said that religion is the "Opium of the people." By believing in a transcendent paradise the Christians would not rise to the kind of political action required for building the earthly utopia.

Since the totalitarian ideologies arose in Europe it could quite reasonably be argued that they inherit much from Christianity. There are interesting connections in the history of ides between classical Christianity through Calvinism to Jacobinism and then Bolchevism. The decisive step in this evolution is when the utopian goal was secularized into a goal that was supposed to be achievable in material history. So the problem is not the Abrahamic tradition it is rather immanent utopianism.

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