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Why Should Religion Get a Pass?
Heather McDonald has this provocative posting in the Corner. (Hat tip: Washington Syndrome):
To claim that the GOP and conservatism rest on the "remnant of religious feeling in America" strikes me as a shaky foundation upon which to base a political theory. At the very least, such a purported lifeline can not explain the many non-"envious" skeptics who enthusiastically endorse conservative values. Support for limited government and a respect for human tradition are simply not dependent on a belief in God or "transcendent reality."

I bow before — and therefore "respect" — the aesthetic legacy of Christianity. My life would be immeasurably poorer without Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, B Minor Mass, and cantatas, or Mozart's great choral works; it would not be life as I know it but a sad hollow thing. I also recognize that countless men of intellect light years superior to mine have been drawn to the great philosophical enterprise of Christian theology. But I will treat the truth claims of Christianity just as I would any other proposition about the world. The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day. I do not understand why religion should get a pass from the empirical and logical demands that we make towards other factual proposition. Nor do I think that serious believers exempt other religions from such demands. Do Catholics, for example, believe that the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith a pair of magic spectacles in 1827 with which to read the mysterious golden tablets from God? And if not, why not? Doesn't it matter whether it is true or not, or is it OK to live in error as long as one is happy? I will not raise the similar question of, say, Islam's veracity.


(Discuss civilly among yourselves. I have work to do.)
AaronC:
The GOP believes in limited government? Could have fooled me.
8.22.2006 11:15am
Preferred Customer:
She makes a good point, but it is not particularly novel. The problem is that her entire predicate (that religion should be subject to the same rigorous examination as other human endeavors) is contradicted by the very nature of what religion is. Religion is exceptional. It is, by definition, a matter of faith, not reason. Religious people find this exceptionalism for religion no more troubling than saying that left shoes are different from right shoes. They just aren't the same thing.

That's not to say that I agree with religious exceptionalism; I think reason should be the touchstone, and that belief structures that cannot be supported by reason should be rejected. But you can't argue with those who are religious about the need for religion using reason. It's not applicable. You are simply using the wrong vocabulary.
8.22.2006 11:27am
Randy R. (mail):
Her point really IS novel -- at least novel for the majority of Americans today. I agree that she isn't really saying anything of particular import or newness, but in a day when so many Americans believe in creationism, not evolution, think that 'God's laws' ought to prevail over individual rights, and that our nation is 'Christian nation', I'd say I welcome more of this type of argument!
8.22.2006 11:48am
Commenterlein (mail):
What she is saying is certainly correct, but it is also completely at odds with what our current President and the vast majority of his followers believe. Which is pretty scary.
8.22.2006 11:57am
Medis:
I agree as far as she goes, but I think one needs to be clear about a few things. First, religious people often do serious philosophical work, which might be integrated with their religious views, but are not necessarily dependent on their religious views. Second, it is easy to emphasize doctrinal differences, and I agree that we learn something important from the fact that there are so many doctrinal differences between religions, but one should also look to what different religions have in common when assessing religion as a whole. Finally, we should be aware of context: I think we can view the truth claims of a religion a bit differently in public policy debates (where we are aiming for broad acceptance of our justifications and decisions) versus debates about religion itself (where we have made the specific truth claims of religion the central issue).
8.22.2006 12:03pm
magoo (mail):
I disagree with McDonald. Religion does not get a pass, at least not from thoughtful believers. She acknowledges that “countless men of intellect light years superior to [McDonald’s] have been drawn to the great philosophical enterprise of Christian theology,” but she fails to recognize that these very men (and women) have spent countless lifetimes subjecting their religious beliefs to “the empirical and logical demands” we make for other propositions. In particular, they have struggled mightily with the very obstacle to her own belief in God, the existence of suffering. She can disagree with their analysis, but it is nonsense to say that religious belief get a “free pass.”
8.22.2006 12:17pm
Virginia:
Doesn’t it matter whether it is true or not, or is it OK to live in error as long as one is happy?

Absent a belief system that assigns some divinely-ordained, objective value to Truth, the answers to those questions would seem to be no and yes, respectively. (Assuming, of course, that one can make any normative statements absent such a belief system . . . )
8.22.2006 12:49pm
James Jirtle (mail):
The problem of evil is nothing new — the great Christian philosophical lights McDonald mentions all dealt with it in ways they felt to be rational and sufficient — and its flippant use as a philosophical trump card against religion is disingenuous at best.

Furthermore, the idea that religious believers must believe in spite of rationality is nonsense. The eminently rational Augustine, who wasn't born a Christian, chose to convert because he understood Christianity to be true. Many even today believe because their beliefs are a rational explanation of the world that is consistent with their experiences and with their understanding of history. To suggest otherwise is simply arrogant.
8.22.2006 12:57pm
Manturtle (mail):
I think magoo is certainly right - to say that religion is getting a 'free pass' is a bit silly. Those who give religion a free pass tend to give lots of other claims, empirical or otherwise, free passes as well. But of course, lots of people have struggled and continue to struggle to reason through religious questions.

Also, it seems worth pointing out, I don't think she's even raising particularly compelling questions outside of the reference to the existence of suffering. For instance: "Does it matter whether it is true or not, or is it OK to live in error as long as one is happy?" Of course it matters whether it is true or not. How many people does anyone know who don't really care if they live in error as long as they are happy? Yeah, I don't know anyone like that either.
8.22.2006 1:06pm
bob montgomery:
The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day.

Well, no kidding, probably because the bible doesn't teach that. The bible doesn't teach that God loves every human being. See Romans 9.

And besides, her whole problem of a good God and evil stems from her secular presuppositions; specifically, how she defines "good" and "evil."
8.22.2006 1:06pm
Deoxy:
James Jirtle nails it. Arrogance.

Now certainly, not every believer puts in that effort (and that applies to the Church of Global Warming even more so, for just one example), but many have.

Extreme arrogance. But so common as to be unremarkable.

The better question, IMO, is this: Does only religion NOT get a pass? There are plenty of people who believe what the TV or their school teachrs tell them about th8ings without question, as well... does that make those things automatically false?
8.22.2006 1:08pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
I bow before — and therefore “respect” — the aesthetic legacy of Christianity. My life would be immeasurably poorer without Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, B Minor Mass, and cantatas, or Mozart’s great choral works; it would not be life as I know it but a sad hollow thing.


I wonder if Ms. McDonald appreciates just how patronizing this sounds.
8.22.2006 1:13pm
Medis:
By the way, people should be aware that Mac Donald's post was part of an ongoing back-and-forth at The Corner, so they should look at her post in that context. My impression, for example, was that when she was talking about a "free pass", she wasn't suggesting that all religious people have asked for such a "free pass", but rather was specifically responding to other arguments made at The Corner.
8.22.2006 1:13pm
Agnostic:
Human suffering is a hard thing to understand, but it is nothing next to the rewards of the afterlife. God's mercy is in allowing us into heaven, not bringing heaven to earth. Perhaps the cruelty on earth still seems unfair - but this is not something we are fully expected to understand while still on earth.
8.22.2006 1:16pm
Aultimer:
Since Barnett posted, it seems apt to point the guy who uses the term "Believers in Exile" - John Shelby Spong - to say not even religous Christian people give religion such a pass. The charicature of belief that GWB exhibits isn't the only way to believe.
8.22.2006 1:20pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
I do not understand why religion should get a pass from the empirical and logical demands that we make towards other factual proposition. Nor do I think that serious believers exempt other religions from such demands.

Indeed, the special pleading of theists that we should treat their assertions, claims and beliefs somehow differently, and with more respect than any other less ethereal assertion, claim or belief - is tosh. But theists do this all the time. Muslims are especially guilty.

I respect people’s right to choose their religion, this does NOT mean that I have to respect the religion itself. A distinction lost on many theists. Nor does it mean that said religion should be exempt from enquiry, analysis, criticism or indeed ridicule.
8.22.2006 1:21pm
Commenterlein (mail):
"Many even today believe because their beliefs are a rational explanation of the world that is consistent with their experiences and with their understanding of history. To suggest otherwise is simply arrogant."

I have to respectfully disagree. It seems frankly impossible to deduce from experience and history that, for example, the bible is the literal word of an omnipotent creator. Or that Jesus was born to a virgin and ascended to heaven. And on and on.

The same can be said for tenets of any other religion I am familiar with, so this is not meant to pick on Christianity. But I really cannot see how one could claim that any of the major religious faiths is based on rationality and experience. The simple fact that there are so many contradictory ones in existence seems to already rule this out.
8.22.2006 1:23pm
Westie (mail):
Notwithstanding Mr. Jirtle's claims (and perhaps Saint Augustine's), its not possible to justify faith in the Christian God from observable phenomena and logic (what logical necessity or observable phenomena links a "first mover" or a "designer" with the God described by the Bible?). Anyway, I believe Kant demonstrated two hundred years ago that the human mind is logically incapable of perceiving God, much less deducing his existence---though my recall of college philosophy is admittedly stale. Additionally, I would note that faith derived from logical deduction and reason glorifies man, his cleverness and understanding, and limits God. Its a rather blasphemous approach in my humble opinion.
8.22.2006 1:34pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):

It seems frankly impossible to deduce from experience and history that, for example, the bible is the literal word of an omnipotent creator. Or that Jesus was born to a virgin and ascended to heaven.

Courts use testimonial evidence all the time to prove facts. There were a fair number of witnesses (120 families in the case of the ressurection) to most of the events. It's not a case of one guy or one guy.

I must say that a claim that religion is not disputed is a crock. More disputes than Communism I would say.
8.22.2006 1:36pm
Dan Hamilton:
Nick Good
"A distinction lost on many theists. Nor does it mean that said religion should be exempt from enquiry, analysis, criticism or indeed ridicule."

But Nick if the RELIGION is in POWER as in Iran then the religion IS exempt from enquiry, analysis, criticism or indeed ridicule.

This is EXTREAMLY different from the West and from the US. Yes we have religious belief in the US but the RELIGION is not in Power. And it is unlikely that any religion will ever become the State in the West.

Islam is the ONLY Religion that I know of that wants to be the State.

Any talk of Christianity trying to become the state is just foolish. Some Christians MIGHT want to have a State Religion. But the State Leaders and the Religious leaders WOULD NOT BE THE SAME PEOPLE.

Only Islam wants the Religious Leaders to be the State Leaders.
8.22.2006 1:50pm
Medis:
Dan,

Pat Robertson did try to run for President in 1988, and he got a decent number of votes in the Republican primaries before losing to a standing Vice-President. And although he doesn't hold a defined office, I think it is safe to say that James Dobson possesses quite a bit of political power.
8.22.2006 1:56pm
CJColucci:
Most human beings have certain yearnings that, for lack of a better word, we can call "spiritual." Most of us connect those yearnings to some entity out there that has some kind of relationship to and concern with these yearnings. The various religions are local manifestations of that yearning, which should be apparent from the substantial overlap between them. Many of the rest of us don't connect these yearnings, real as they are, with some entity out there, and don't find the rival truth claims of the local variants interesting or the evidence for them compelling. If people want to adhere to their local traditions as some kind of handy, communal instrument for dealing with those spiritual yearnings, fine. If others have different ways of doing it, also fine. Why can't we all just get along?
8.22.2006 2:11pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Dan Hamilton wrote: Islam is the ONLY Religion that I know of that wants to be the State.

I accept that Islamic Jurisprudence dictates that Muslim theocrats seek to achieve political power and to govern according to religious, or Sharia dictat and that this is the driving force behind many of the problems we see in the World today.

What I don't accept is that Islam is the only religion inclined to seek political power. Rather we - those in the West - have prised power from theocrats based on bitter experience of ecclesiastical political power. The US founding fathers were largely anti-Christian and drew from the French moves to separate church and states in couching the US constitution, which stipulates that there shall be no religious test for political office. Fortunately Christianity has been through so many schisms that power is dissipated. Many Christians also see the benefits of the separation of religion and state - of a secular state. Alas however, many however do not, and seek all the time to intrude their religious practices into affairs of state.

Springing to mind as examples - 'In God We Trust' on US currency, the US pledge of allegiance introduced in the 50s, UK funding of religious faith based schools - due to be expanded to include 150 state funded Islamic schools...Bishops in the House of Lords....etcetera. The separation of church and State is not a done deal.
8.22.2006 2:17pm
markm (mail):
"Courts use testimonial evidence all the time to prove facts. There were a fair number of witnesses (120 families in the case of the ressurection) to most of the events. It's not a case of one guy or one guy." I was unaware that these 120 witnesses were available to testify.
8.22.2006 2:29pm
ctb:
The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day.

This argument doesn't make sense to me. What does God treating people with justice have to do with humans slaughtering innocent humans? God hasn't treated them with any injustice unless the bad humans have acted as proxies for God, which I haven't heard christians claim (ignoring dumb statements like 911 is God's punishmnet for homosexuality etc.).
8.22.2006 2:34pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Pat Robertson did try to run for President in 1988, and he got a decent number of votes in the Republican primaries before losing to a standing Vice-President.


Pat Robertson also surrendered his ministererial credentials before running in the 1988 primary because he thought it was improper for someone to hold both a religious and political office. Apparently even those who think that it is perfectly proper for elected officials to draw on their religious faith when making moral decisions or for voters to look at those values when casting their votes recognize that’s a pretty far cry from wanting to create any sort of theocracy.
8.22.2006 2:34pm
markm (mail):
In case you missed my point, you don't have the testimony of these alleged witnesses. You have at best hearsay evidence in the form of copies of copies of pamphlets written long ago by a few men who claim to have talked to them - only it seems more likely that the pamphlets were really written 40 years or more after Jesus died, by men who merely had heard from men who claimed to have talked to the original witnesses. That's not evidence.

And the accuracy of the authors of the Gospels is questionable, both because they disagree on many details and because how honest is someone who backdates a document and writes it in someone else's name?
8.22.2006 2:36pm
Medis:
Thorley,

What Dan claimed is that: "But the State Leaders and the Religious leaders WOULD NOT BE THE SAME PEOPLE."

I think looking just at official titles and credentials doesn't really get to the substance of this claim.

Incidentally, though, I'm not particularly alarmed by all this--indeed, it seems inevitable to me that religious and political leadership will be intertwined to at least some degree, because both provide power and influence over people. I just think it is odd to claim that only Islam has this effect.
8.22.2006 2:57pm
Donald Kahn (mail):
Tertullian said - I believe BECAUSE it is absurd.

It's all right for me not to believe, for the same reason, I'm sure.

The Christian story, the Muslim story, and all the like stories are ridiculous superstitions. Their apologetics are a classic case of peititio principii: because they are represented as manifestations of a higher power, they are not subject to human argument.

Christianity and Judaism today are benign forces in our society because of the fellowship they encompass. Former days were different: such ideas if I have expressed here, were I rash enough to reveal them, would have led to my being burnt.

I anticipate responses, that a mere pipsqueak should dispute the arguments of the great thinkers down through the ages. Don't bother.
8.22.2006 3:09pm
K Bennight (mail):
Religion exists as a matter of faith, not proof or logic. If you are religious, you must accept that. If you are not religious, you need not and probably don't.

Both sides should quietly respect the other's views.
8.22.2006 3:13pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
120 families in the case of the ressurection

I think that qualifies as hearsay, think about it. One get's this from the Bible, not the 120 witnesses directly - it's at least 3rd hand. Some geezer who wrote part of a book nearly 2,000 yrs ago, but over half a century after the alleged event alleging that there were witnesses to this 'resurrection'. Would that stand up in court? There are folks better qualified than me to comment on that in these here parts! Would it cut it in a peer reviewed scientific paper....somehow I doubt it.

Never mind that extrodinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and in my book a dead guy waking up and flying away, definitely cuts it as an 'extraordinary claim'.
8.22.2006 3:17pm
Scott W. Somerville (mail) (www):
I've heard "faith" described as "believing what you know ain't so," but that does an injustice to theology. Real theologians seek to construct a coherent theory out of the available religious evidence.

If there really is a God, and if He (or She or It) has revealed anything more than we already know through what we can observe in Nature, should we expect those who grapple with "special revelation" to find it easier than those who grapple with "general revelation"? Today's astronomy news was that scientists have finally gotten some evidence of "dark matter," which, along with "dark energy" may finally help us understand why the universe acts the way it does. Assuming there is a God (for the sake of the argument), should there be any reason why human suffering would be easier to explain that galactic gravitation?

Atheists can say, "Yes, but we can all see the material universe," so we agree that there are scientific problems to be answered. Fine--you aren't interested in sorting out whatever theological problems there may be. But does that give you a basis for saying there aren't any theological problems? Or for saying that theologians are stupid for wrestling with them?
8.22.2006 3:20pm
Medis:
By the way, the extended discussion at The Corner included this Buckley quote:

"Can you be a conservative and believe in God? Obviously. Can you be a conservative and not believe in God? This is an empirical essay, and so the answer is as obviously, yes. Can you be a conservative and despise God, and feel contempt for those who believe in Him? I would say no."
8.22.2006 3:22pm
Eugenio L:
What's facile about MacDonald's post is the lack of a rigorous, analytic epistemology.
(1) The demand that all claims of religion the tests of our "empirical and logicale demands" is unclear, for surely the majority of religious claims are not of the sort that even can be verified in the first place. How do you even begin to falsify the existence of a soul, or the immortality of said soul? Most of the statements of religion are interpretative judgments about the world, and these interpretations either a. are not of the kind that can be verified or falsiofied or b. the kind of data that would be needed to veridy them is beyond out grasp. We make such statements all the time without religious content, and we never seem to find them at all controversial or remarkable. Not every proposition uttered by a human is an "empirical" proposition.
(2) MacDonald is also singling out religion when there are a whole host of disciplines that are similarly non-falsifiable by empirical means. Pure mathematics? Logic itself? Metaphysics? Philosophy of Language? These are all non-empirical fields, yet their practitioners include tremendously rational professors with Ph.D.s from Princeton, MIT, etc. (This is related to (1).)
(3) Finally, there's the skeptical problem: does MacDonald really thinks she knows ANYTHING if her standard for knowledge is absolute indubitability? There are no propositions about the world for which we can rule out alternative hypotheses as logically impossible? For example, do you KNOW you are not a brain in a vat? Can you prove it beyond any kind of doubt whatsoever? You can't, because it is logically and empirically impossible to show that you are not, contrary to all of your sense data, actually just a brain in some scientist's vat. She's setting her epistemic standard for knowledge and reasonability far, far too high.
8.22.2006 3:28pm
DustyR (mail) (www):
I've got to concur with Magoo. That Mac Donald doesn't appreciate or isn't aware of the extent to which religions have, and still are, subjected to "'the empirical and logical demands' we make for other propositions", goes a long way towards showing how such "remnants of religious feeling" are not recognized as such by "non-"envious" skeptics who enthusiastically endorse conservative values". Missing this point was apparently expected by the letter writer to which Mac Donald replied as he noted that "debate is inherently couched in an ignorance of the sources."

Mac Donald could start some testing of her own by revisiting her concept of "respect for human tradition" and what that means to her, because it has only a stable meaning to me within the confining parameters of my Christian beliefs. Shed of those confines, the human tradition that she implies she respects could mean I might a) drag her off by the hair to my cave for her to cook and give birth to my empire; b) throw her into the fiery pit to satisfy Gog; c) lock her into bedroom #16 for visiting later, or d) teach her the benefits of thinking like a secular humanist.

When she's done with that revisiting, she can set about proving her life would be a sad hollow thing if she had never heard of the music she lists.
8.22.2006 3:35pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Both sides should quietly respect the other's views

Nope! – Again ….I certainly don't 'respect' any superstition, I respect the right of folks to be superstitious, be it believing in the sky god or gods of their choice or in fairies at the bottom of the garden, but I don't feel it incumbent upon me to respect the superstition itself.

I'm with Albert Einstein...
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own -- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms......A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.
8.22.2006 3:37pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
This is an empirical essay, and so the answer is as obviously, yes. Can you be a conservative and despise God,

Um...if you 'despise God' you aint an atheist!
8.22.2006 3:43pm
kelvin mccabe (mail):
Anybody else confused by agnostic's remarks? he seems to be stating in the affirmative his belief in the after-life, called Heaven.

I have a degree in philosophy, my undegraduate major, and we called these people weak agnostics. That is, they professed to suspend judgment on the matter until more evidence came in, but to be safe, stated a belief in God and heaven, but not necessarily all the miracles in the bible, etc... just in case. In other words, they pulled a Lieberman (I'm a democrat but will run independent if my party doesnt vote for me in the primary). I dont know if true x-tians would buy this insurance policy approach, but thats what it is.

Hard agnostics, however, recognize the logical perspective that the burden of proof with such metaphysical (positive) claims (i.e, Heaven is a real place and God is a real supernatural being or I have a soul) is on the person making the claim. You are stating a fact about objective reality, go prove it.

Of course, in most areas of metaphysics, logic goes out the door because by definition, 'supernatural' phenomena, such as the existence of god or the easter bunny are beyond nature, beyond observation, beyond proof even. Its a pointless exercise.

So the safest and best position, all around, is not to be atheist or a believer, or agnostic even. Its to reject metaphysics en toto. This keeps us firmly rooted in the universe. If by chance you meet St peter, the buddha, muhammed, thor, zeus, apollo, or some druid fairy at the heavenly gates, feel free at that time to embrace the religion in its full glory, but please, until that time never repent, and dont fall into the metaphysical quagmire of using "logic, science or nature" to explain away supernatural phenomena. And never say nature, science and logic prove supernatural phenomoena. Its a category mistake. But thats a lesson for another day. Cheers-
8.22.2006 3:51pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Mac Donald says:
To claim that the GOP and conservatism rest on the “remnant of religious feeling in America” strikes me as a shaky foundation upon which to base a political theory. . . Support for limited government and a respect for human tradition are simply not dependent on a belief in God or “transcendent reality.”
Isn't her paraphrase of the opposing argument largely congruent to what she's saying? She's trying to uphold a neutral "respect for human tradition," without regard to what that tradition actually consists of. But in the US, what that tradition consists of is in many respects religious, and is certainly shaped in all its particulars by religious sentiment. That tradition embodies the "remnant of religious feeling in America," no? And her support for it is, I am sure, closely tied together with its substance, if only because it happens to be the substance with which she is most familiar, having been raised (I assume) in the West, and not in, say, Uttar Pradesh.

Now, that is not a "political theory," perhaps, although political theories that are well-grounded, in a rational, intellectual sense, have a disturbing habit of ending in mass starvation and genocide. But conservatism is not really a "political theory," in the sense that it can be described as some comprehensive and coherent philosophical theory of human nature and human society.

Naturally, this does not speak to the truth value of Christianity's claims of miracles and resurrections and words made flesh and so on. But for the tradition, in the US, to remain alive in the fashion it has done up to the present, it depends on a genuine belief in those things, doesn't it? It's possible to imagine a conservatism preserving all the forms and the heritage of a religious past, with none of the belief -- in the extreme, the kind of ritual society created by Confucianism, in which the performance of the proper rites seems more important than belief in whatever cosmology (or reason) might underlie those rites. And I might actually like that kind of society, might feel more at home there. But a society broadly indifferent to the "truth" underlying its rituals would come to look very different from ours, I imagine. And I do not think that, given our particular cultural makeup (so different from that of the Chinese or the Koreans), it would retain its respect for tradition long.
8.22.2006 3:56pm
Eugenio L:
Kevin McCabe in his post above, despite his undergraduate philosophy degree, does a disservice by characterizing 'metaphysics' as the study of miracles and supernatural events. I assure that the professors of metaphysics at the top philosophy departments are not studying "miracles" and other supernatural phenomenon. Instead, they are asking question about the nature of time and of matter, about the underpnnings of logic and mathematics, and about the nature of objects (that is, since all objects, like chairs, are just composed of atoms, are there really 'chairs', or are there just atoms arranged 'chair-wise'). Metaphysics may very well have little to recommend it, but it most certainly is not the study of the 'supernatural'.
8.22.2006 4:19pm
jgshapiro (mail):
I disagree with McDonald. Religion does not get a pass, at least not from thoughtful believers.

I think magoo is taking MacDonald's language too literally. I don't think she was talking about a "free pass," in the sense that no one examines religion, but that typically, in today's world, we expect to see something explained rationally and consistently before we decide to believe it. With religion, we believe first and try to explain later or not at all. When something can't be explained, we say its just a matter of faith, and logic has no application. (Except when it's the other guy's religion -- then we say it's nuts.) Anything inconsistent is explained by some statement to the effect that "we cannot know God's mind," or "God works in mysterious ways," which is really just a cop-out. With that safety valve, I can probably explain any phenomenon, however badly, and then pull the escape cord when I get cornered.

Do we do this with any enterprise other than religion?
8.22.2006 4:49pm
Medis:
"But for the tradition, in the US, to remain alive in the fashion it has done up to the present, it depends on a genuine belief in those things, doesn't it? . . . But a society broadly indifferent to the 'truth' underlying its rituals would come to look very different from ours, I imagine."

Actually, I imagine it would look pretty much like the suburb in which I grew up.
8.22.2006 4:56pm
Perseus (mail):
McDonald's view of religion is really quite superficial when one considers how much effort both philosophers and theologians have devoted to trying to answer the sorts of questions and problems that she's raised. And I suspect that McDonald is no less guilty of having merely dogmatic faith in reason by not seriously grappling with the limitations and philosophical critiques of reason.
8.22.2006 5:03pm
magoo (mail):
"With religion, we believe first and try to explain later or not at all."

Not so. A large number of theists came to religion kicking and screaming. These former atheists and former agnostics often turn out to be among religion's most effective defenders. And I agree with the other commenters that it is highly patronizing to assume, as McDonald seems to, that theists as a class do not subject their worldviews to analytical rigor. Sure, there are many unthoughtful theists, but these people don't think much about anything. I suspect the theists on who visit this webiste have pondered their religious beliefs as much as the skeptics have pondered their agnosticism.

PS -- Metaphysics is the study of being qua being.
8.22.2006 5:19pm
magoo (mail):
"Do we do this with any enterprise other than religion?"

The scientists who are skeptical of the existence of dark matter (and they still exist, even after today's reported "proof") would argue that scientific believers in dark matter re doing precisely this.
8.22.2006 5:23pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
I have a degree in philosophy, my undegraduate major, and we called these people weak agnostics.


When I was an undergraduate we used to call philosophy majors “waiter” and “aspiring fry cook.”

;)

(Sorry couldn’t resist)
8.22.2006 5:24pm
Virginia:
Nick Good - South Africa wrote:

The US founding fathers were largely anti-Christian and drew from the French moves to separate church and states in couching the US constitution, which stipulates that there shall be no religious test for political office.

Evidently they don't teach too much U.S. history in South Africa.

I suppose I shouldn't be snide, though; they don't teach too much here anymore either. Our jurisprudence shows it.
8.22.2006 5:33pm
Medis:
I'm just going to note again that Mac Donald's post was not a stand-alone piece, but was actually embedded in an ongoing discussion.
8.22.2006 5:36pm
Commenterlein (mail):
"And I agree with the other commenters that it is highly patronizing to assume, as McDonald seems to, that theists as a class do not subject their worldviews to analytical rigor."

I have real trouble understanding this, so please help me out: For a very significant fraction of the U.S. population, the certain belief that the bible is the literal word of an omnipotent creator is at the core of their faith and life. Is this a world view that has been subjected to analytical rigor? In what sense? And if so, doesn't it mean that the religious beliefs of billions of Muslims and Hindus should not hold up to analytical rigor, given that their beliefs are at odds with the Christian faith?
8.22.2006 5:41pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Actually, I imagine it would look pretty much like the suburb in which I grew up.
At first glance, I might say the same about the suburb in which I grew up. But I think that underestimates the degree to which the culture of the suburbs (or other places) is informed by and affected by other cultural areas, many of them deeply religious. Just to take my own example, while I expect most of my neighbours were not particularly religious, and most of the children I went to school with were not particularly religious, or were even (like myself) openly atheist, their (our) parents' generation was not. It was religious, and in some cases, extremely so. And even in our generation, there were, on the edges of our social circle, other, more religious circles. There were a fair number of committed Mormon families in the surrounding communities, for example, following the cultural lead from Salt Lake City. Not many stereotypical Christians (White Baptists, Evangelicals, etc.), I think, but certainly some hyper-religious (Christian) Korean families, taking their cues from their particular sects. And we weren't cut off from them -- there were norms at play in our public culture (to the extent we had one, in our suburb -- I should really be saying the public culture of our local public high school and various related associations), and they were, by and large, relaxed/liberalised/watered-down versions of the norms at work in these religious communities around us.

Now, wherever you (Medis) lived may have been different -- I grew in California, after all, and we're all a bit peculiar there. But while we've had fairly secularised generations before (some of my white great-grandparents, back in New England in the 20's seem not to have been religious at all), I don't think we've had them for generations on end.

To continue -- a society in which these communities ceased to exist would have a very different character, because we wouldn't have those rigid value-systems dominating from the edges. Not so much difference in my/our generation, I think (after all, our parents would still be our parents, and so also with our grandparents, usw.) But in the generations that came after, I think there would be a difference.

Already, because tradition is rarely explicable in purely rational terms, and because such explanations tend to have a flavour of post-hoc "just so stories" reasoning (making them less persuasive), there are all kinds of pressure groups opposing tradition wherever they find it. Sometimes for a reason, and sometimes just because (e.g. because they think tradition itself encodes racism/patriarchy/whatever). And the strongest support for tradition today is among deeply religious people. This is not because atheists or agnostics who revere human tradition as the wisdom of the ages and so on necessarily have less passion. It is because, while there are actually a fair number of people who are irreligious, but devoted to our traditions and our rituals (I think much polling may understate our numbers, given that a lot of people who go to church occasionally for the major holy days go largely out of habit, not out of belief), most of us are actually pretty lukewarm in our support. And our influence on the public culture is thus roughly the same as our influence on the government, which is to say: roughly nil.

---

That said, I realise, reading over what I wrote before, that the fact that my archetypal "Christian" is actually a Catholic, or a High Church Anglican, is probably leading me a bit astray here. Most Christians in the US are actually from Protestant sects, after all, and the most vocal element of the Christian population (at least in conservative circles) is actually the Evangelicals, who are less preservers and sustainers of Western traditional norms than a counter-cultural religious force. So in that sense, they're not really a force for conservatism except incidentally, where the particular character of their theology happens to line up with tradition. Or rather, they're a force for a different sort of conservatism, I should say -- the "eternal values" sort, which can take a somewhat ahistorical Evangelical movement, and read it as trascending historicity. Or somesuch (since I do not subscribe to this rationalised model of conservatism 100%, my paraphase here is probably unfair -- I am maybe a 50%-er here).
8.22.2006 5:49pm
Just John:
Nick Good - South Africa wrote: "Um...if you 'despise God' you aint an atheist!"

The full quotation suggests that an atheist might hate the idea of God, rather than simply not believe in that idea, and that his hate might also be aimed at those who do believe in that idea. So there's no contradiction.
8.22.2006 5:51pm
Jon B.:
I believe the quoted comment in the original post erroneously assumes that "other factual propositions" includes secular political views. Surely, theological propositions are less empirically founded than those of physics; but are secular politics not subject to the same (lack of) analysis as are religiously-based politics? Political views are inherently shaky, religious or not.

I am making a poor attempt at paraphrasing Peter van Inwagen's article, "It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence", from 'Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today', Jordan &Howard eds (London: Rowman &Littlefield, 1996), pp 137-53, reprinted in 'Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions', Stump &Murray eds (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), pp 273-84, which I haven't read for years but would do well to revisit.
8.22.2006 6:03pm
Manturtle (mail):
Commenterlein said:


For a very significant fraction of the U.S. population, the certain belief that the bible is the literal word of an omnipotent creator is at the core of their faith and life. Is this a world view that has been subjected to analytical rigor?


I would say no, but that doesn't undermine magoo's point that theists, as a class, do generally subject their views to analytical rigor.

The fact is, in my experience at least, this "very significant fraction" is almost completely non-existent. Sure people constantly say they believe this, but I've never met a person who actually does. This is not surprising because it is an inherently incoherent idea, and most people are not actually incoherent. What I'm (clumsily I'm sure) trying to say is: people make claims like this more as a statement of identify than belief. It isn't terribly useful to treat these kinds of things as actual arguments because they're not, they're statements of belonging and political or social affiliation.

If someone actually believes that every single word of the bible is literally true and should be followed in its plain, straightforward sense, and they had any integrity to act in line with those views, they would not be able to function in the U.S. today. Right? I can think of a handful of things off the top of my had that they would have to do which would land them in jail pretty quickly.
8.22.2006 6:03pm
Medis:
Taeyoung,

It may be the case that someone nearby (in time, space, cultural connection, etc.) has to deeply believe in some particular religious truth claims in order to keep a more generic and less truth-oriented religious sentiment alive in a community. I'm not sure, though, particularly if it is true that religious sentiment serves some sort of basic psychological function.
8.22.2006 6:28pm
George Talbot (mail):
In reply to this:

The US founding fathers were largely anti-Christian and drew from the French moves to separate church and states in couching the US constitution, which stipulates that there shall be no religious test for political office.

I wouldn't say that they were, Anti-Christian, per se. They were Deists:

American Deists include John Quincy Adams, Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. There is debate as to whether George Washington was a deist or not. Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason, a treatise that helped to popularize deism throughout America and Europe.

Deists played a major role in creating the principle of separation of church and state, and the religious freedom clauses of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

Also from the same article in Wikipedia, and maybe somewhat pertinent to this thread:

In modern times, Deism was an outgrowth of the advances in astronomy, physics, and chemistry that had been made by Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, etc. Newtonian physics, the intellectual basis and the aesthetic model for Enlightenment scientism, spread the idea that matter behaves in a mathematically predictable manner that can be understood by postulating laws of nature. Objectivity, natural equality, and the prescription to treat like cases similarly are central principles of the Enlightenment mentality, ideas borrowed from Newton's observational/experimental method and put to use in all domains the Enlightenment mind scrutinized; these principles informed the development of the philosophy of deism. Exasperation with the costs of centuries of European religious warfare was a powerful recommendation for the new, objective frame for spiritual matters, a perspective the most notable minds of the time found appealing.

The whole article is much better than these quotes in isolation. The interesting thing I get reading about Deism, is that for these Enlightement folks, there really wasn't a huge fight between "religion" and "everything else". They seemed to have a balance, apparently lost today, in integrating many views, with a critical eye.

If we really want to talk about "traditional values", let's talk about the Deists, and the Enlightenment, and the influence this had on the founding of the US.
8.22.2006 6:32pm
Tom952 (mail):
When a religious organization is collecting serious money, they should be held to a stricter standard of veracity. A guy on a corner preaching salvation is one thing, a polished pitchman with an organization pitching salvation to large gatherings or utilizing mass media AND collecting millions is something else. Above a certain threshold (say $1m/yr) I think we should hold them to the same standard as advertisers.

Also, we are going to have to so something about mullahs/sheiks/Ayatollahs...who incite murder in the name of god. The world can no longer afford to give a pass to such behavior.
8.22.2006 6:37pm
Medis:
I don't think the Deist sentiment is entirely lost. Indeed, I think the Unitarian Universalists come pretty close (and I believe some are actually Deists, in fact).
8.22.2006 6:50pm
non_Lawyer:
Duncan Frissell said:

Courts use testimonial evidence all the time to prove facts. There were a fair number of witnesses (120 families in the case of the ressurection) to most of the events. It's not a case of one guy or one guy.

The second "one guy" link was to the wikipedia article on Joseph Smith. Duncan, I find that ironic, since not only is Smith's account contemporary (compared to Mohammed or Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but it was corroborated by multiple, sworn witnesses (see here and here). Nice try, though. Maybe try doing some research next time before resorting to the tired old cliched attacks on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
8.22.2006 7:38pm
kelvin mccabe (mail):
Of course i know metaphysics isnt confined only to the supernatural (i.e, religious discussion.) I should have been more clear, but since this topic was religion only, and religion is a type of metaphysics, i generalized for sake of brevity. But there is a very distinct movement within philosophy to abandon metaphysics and metaphysical discussion/argument. Part of it relates to most of the discussions and arguments being about completely theoretical concepts. If you are arguing for theoretical concept A and I am arguing theoreotical concept B...and everything is theoretical, what the hell exactly are we talking about? A bunch of NOTHING.

There is some sanity in this.

And i wasnt a waiter in college, I was the cook. Luckily it was a sportsbar, and the waitresses were hot. :)
8.22.2006 7:44pm
Taeyoung (mail):
Re: Medis:
It may be the case that someone nearby (in time, space, cultural connection, etc.) has to deeply believe in some particular religious truth claims in order to keep a more generic and less truth-oriented religious sentiment alive in a community. I'm not sure, though, particularly if it is true that religious sentiment serves some sort of basic psychological function.
My claim wasn't even as sweeping as that -- it was restricted to America.

After all, as I pointed out, Confucianism did just fine for over a thousand years in China and Korea without any particular religious belief underpinning it. Confucianism emphasised rites and proper relations. Those rites did, at some distant point, map back onto meaningful religious belief (I would imagine), but by Confucius' time, I think that belief had already become attenuated, and when Neo-Confucianism emerged, around the 12th century or so, philosophers developed a new quasi-religious cosmology to underpin the Confucian worldview, although as far as I can tell, the rites remained pretty much divorced from any sort of religious belief, except possibly some of the ancestor rites (sometimes problematic, I think, for Christian Koreans who want to continue their family rites, but don't want to commit sacrilege or blasphemy).

Anyhow, Confucianism is a kind of religious sentiment, or is called one all the time, but it is not one terribly concerned with "truth," at least as far as I know it. And I don't think there's much of a religious community of die-hard believers sustaining it, since there's not much in the way of claims to any higher material/cosmological or spiritual truth. It coexists comfortably enough with animism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even Christianity, even though none of those coexist particularly well with each other.

So my point is simply that for the American tradition, it happens to be sustained by religious sentiment undergoing constant renewal from cores of committed believers. Waves of "Great Awakenings" and whatnot.
8.22.2006 7:55pm
Medis:
Taeyoung,

OK, so what happens if we imagine the "Great Awakenings" in America stop? That would be a change for the people involved, but I'm not yet convinced it would change much for the rest of America.
8.22.2006 8:15pm
Taeyoung (mail):
OK, so what happens if we imagine the "Great Awakenings" in America stop? That would be a change for the people involved, but I'm not yet convinced it would change much for the rest of America.
I think the fact of these continual "Great Awakenings" has a lot to do with the character of American culture, and they're notable precisely because they start with small clusters of fanatic believers, and before you know it, they're abolishing slavery, or trying to abolish abortion, etc. That is, because they have a huge and lasting effect on the broader culture, and (in my view) renew/update certain aspects of the American culture (e.g. the particular nature of our self-regard, our moralism, etc.).

Without these heavy and continuing religious influences, I imagine we'd be more like modern Europe or Canada, or (in the extreme) more like East Asia. Possibly the traditionalist segments of each of those societies, but still rather different from the way we are now. Our overwhelming religiousity is, after all, one of the signal differences between us and the other advanced economies.
8.22.2006 8:30pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):

McDonald's view of religion is really quite superficial when one considers how much effort both philosophers and theologians have devoted to trying to answer the sorts of questions and problems that she's raised.


And have they effectively answered these questions? Has the philosophic community, whose profession believes in a "search for the Truth," come to embrace the Truth of religion?

Leo Strauss and his East Coast followers used to say behind closed doors that no true philosopher can believe in God.

Personally, I think the philosophic and scientific community are probably too far onboard the atheistic-materialistic side to be fair, but the questions MacDonald raises are not superficial but the tough questions that honest philosophers and theologians grapple with.
8.22.2006 10:25pm
ReaderY:
The difficulty with the argument is that the existence of me or you is every bit as logically improbable, as inexplicable, as the Divine existence. There's certainly no logical basis for believing it, the distribution of matter and energy in the universe being approximately random. The only possible basis for supporting it is certain appeals to experience. And who could believe that?

Subject anything to a reasonbable amount of skepticism and there's no basis for believing in anything at all. If you disagree, I suspect if we probe we'll see you're choosing to be selective in your skepticism -- you choose to trust certain elements of your experience, and not others, on faith.
8.22.2006 10:34pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
As someone who specializes in the study of Religion &the Founders, I don't think it's fair to say that they were anti-Christian, but rather they wanted Christianity to liberalize doctrinally. Now, such liberalization involved throwing out some key tenets of the Christian faith, like the Trinity, that one could arguably call this "anti-Christian," but the Founders were very much pro-religion, in the sense that they thought some religion was better than no religion, and belief in God was better than no belief in God.

Re: Deism, Paine &Allen were "strict Deists." Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and Franklin all believed in a warm-intervening Providence. And thus, might not properly be termed, "Deists." But they also rejected enough of the tenets of orthodox Christianity like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, Eternal Damnation, that arguably they can't be called "Christian" either.
8.22.2006 10:34pm
juris_imprudent (mail):
Mr Jirtle completely misses the mark in posing St. Augustine as the apostle of rational belief. That would be St. Thomas Aquinas. "Thomists" and "Augustinians" tend to be diametrically opposed schools of theology within Catholicism. There is a wonderful exploration of this in Thomas Merton's The Seven Story Mountain.
8.22.2006 10:55pm
Maximilian Parsons (mail):
'The difference between the truth and a lie is as inconsequential as the difference between fiction and non-fiction. So long as it's a good read, who cares how it is classified by pedants?'

- Quentin Crisp
8.22.2006 11:28pm
Perseus (mail):
I didn't say that the questions McDonald posed to religious belief were superficial, but rather that her quick dismissal or ignorance of the various answers advanced by philosophers and theologians was, especially when she doesn't bother to pose the same kind of difficult questions to those who would ground morality in "rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument."
8.22.2006 11:52pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Virginia Wrote

Nick Good - South Africa wrote:

The US founding fathers were largely anti-Christian and drew from the French moves to separate church and states in couching the US constitution, which stipulates that there shall be no religious test for political office.

Evidently they don't teach too much U.S. history in South Africa.


Whatever the quality of the history teaching, I received, on the matter of the non-Christianity, even anti-Christianity of many of the US founding fathers, there is little doubt, even if this fact is not generally known by most Americans.
8.23.2006 4:21am
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Not so. A large number of theists came to religion kicking and screaming. These former atheists and former agnostics often turn out to be among religion's most effective defenders.

That's not what I see in fact I'd call that as 180° off. I see a very clear asymmetry of conversion in favour of atheism; and that atheism is distinctly more 'sticky' than theism. Very few atheists, who can point to a track record of writing as an atheists convert to theism. Whilst the list of former theists is rather long.

There is strong anecdotal evidence of a conversion asymmetry between atheism and the world's largest religion, Christianity. Many Christians (including ministers and priests, and theologians) convert to atheism even though while still Christians they had been well-versed in Christian apologetics. By contrast, it is very hard to find atheists who converted to Christianity even though while still atheists they had been well-versed in the arguments against Christianity. If the best atheistic arguments against Christianity are better than the best Christian arguments against atheism, then such an asymmetry is precisely what one would expect. The best arguments of atheism would then tend to inoculate their atheist hearers against Christianity, whereas the best arguments of Christianity would be generally unable to inoculate their Christian hearers against atheism.

source
8.23.2006 4:27am
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
Above link was wrong, here is the correct one, mea culpa.
8.23.2006 5:34am
Taeyoung (mail):
By contrast, it is very hard to find atheists who converted to Christianity even though while still atheists they had been well-versed in the arguments against Christianity.

All the famous conversions I can think of have been from atheism to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene (although I've heard reports that Greene later self-described as a "Catholic Atheist," or somesuch, which is peculiar) all converted from atheism or something like it. Johann von Neumann, Malcolm Muggeridge (from agnosticism), and Enoch Powell may be other examples. It's not at all hard to find ex-atheists. Numerically, you may be correct (I have no idea), but it's not like it's hard to find committed atheists, sometimes "dogmatic" atheists (the hard core), who switched to Christianity.
8.23.2006 8:51am
Westie (mail):
There is a problem in McDonald's discussion and this thread in the reoccurring conflation of arationality and irrationality. Religious beliefs are arational---they exist notwithstanding logic or evidence---and cannot be deduced from observable reality (See Kant). But to say that religious beliefs are not grounded in reality or logic is not to say that a believer is crazy, gullible, or irrational. It is an entirely different mode of thinking, perceiving, etc. And it is a waste of time (as McDonald proposes) to rationally analyze the claims of various religions---for example, no one can really say they believe in Jesus' divinity based on the historical record. At the same time, it is absolutely silly for believers to pretend that their faith in the truth claims of whatever sect they believe is rational. It is not and the limitations of human perception preclude such a possibility.
8.23.2006 2:05pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
All the famous conversions I can think of have been from atheism to Christianity. C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene

Feel absolutely free to point out their atheist advocacy writings?

No, the truth of the matter is, that there are lots of Christians who profess to be former atheists, but the vast majority were just indifferent, before their Christian 'epifphany'.

Wheras it's easy to point out former ministers who are now atheists. Some examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, I could go on with the de-conversion stories of ex thiests .

As for CS Lewis - one of the most popular 'ex atheist' Christian apologists...

Lewis must have been one really chicken-shit atheist. He certainly didn't bear himself with the confidence I have observed in every atheist I have ever met. In Surprised by Joy (now there's a Christian title for you), Lewis characterizes his and others' atheism as follows: "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry at God for not existing. I was equally angry at Him for creating a world." This is kind of like having a dog, but hating it for not barking at prowlers—a dilemma no atheist would recognize. Any atheist will tell you that she or he could more easily become angry at Bugs Bunny than at God. Lewis's description defies logic and, of course, logic is what atheism is all about. It seems that Lewis is trying to describe his struggle with the realization that, on a rational level, there was no way one could accept the existence of God. If you insist on believing in a God despite this, then I certainly can understand your anger at that God for forcing you to intellectually kiss his ass. But that doesn't make you an atheist - not even a chicken-shit one


source - The Atheist that Never was
8.23.2006 2:55pm
JohnEMack (mail):
It seems to me that Barnett's last question is the important one -- does one's belief in a series of religious propositions have anything to do with one's ability to otherwise function? I am tempted to define religion as a series of beliefs which, if accepted, do not undermine one's intelligence or other's perceptions of one's intelligence. If one claims that people rise from the grave and live forever in glory based solely upon their belief in certain propositions in a 2,000 year old book, one is not thought to be a kook or an imbecile. If one believes that blowing oneself up in a crowed will earn an instant pass into paradise and a right to 72 virgins, one is a believer, not a nut. On the other hand, if one believes that the Holocaust never happened or that the world is flat, one is considered to be either stupid or daft. But all these beliefs have a similar degree of plausibility -- virtually zero. Similarly, one can be a perfectly good mathematician or theoretical physicist and believe in reincarnation or the second coming, but it is difficult to be a good biologist and believe in intelligent design (allegedly a secular theory). The truth or falisity of some propositions interfere with real-world functioning, and the perception of one's ability to function in the real world. Some do not. Those which do not are religious.
8.25.2006 10:40am