Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 2)

Shane writes in reply to this post,

Hi Dan, long time reader first time commenter.

Do you have any /empirical/ evidence that religious people are more credulous, more stupid on average than non-religious people of comparable education and similar sociology? If you do, I’d love to see it.

But if you don’t have such empirical evidence, then all you are left with is a sort of a priori ideological claim about the empirical facts of human psychology. Now personally, I make it a policy never to believe anything that admits of empirical proof on the basis of insufficient evidence, so I can’t get on board.

Hi Shane!

First of all thanks for your loyal readership and your first of hopefully many contributions to my blog!  I’ve long enjoyed your contributions face to face and facebook to facebook and I’m really grateful you’re taking the time to help me out by participating on the blog.

Your empirical question is worth investigating for the valuable illumination it would provide.  I will keep an eye out for information on the subject and point out that, consistent with my position, I see no threat from such studies.  If somehow it could be shown that the trick to improving people’s cognitive reasoning skills was to habituate them in fallacious ways of thought, then counter-intuitively, as an indirect consequentialist (as I am) we might have to do that!  Similarly, if it were shown that educating people away from those fallacies and from religions that reinforced our natural tendencies to commit them actually helped rid them of those fallacies, I would hope you would take that to heart.  And if the difference was split as you suggest is possible (and that people would be hopelessly flawed reasoners in the same proportions along relatively stable demographic differences) then I’d say that there’s no harm in at least not promulgating fallacious thinking, even if biology is dead set against our efforts.

But, what I do know even without such empirical investigation and can say right now is as follows:

(1) I never said religious people were more stupid, what I said was that religions explicitly train people in the intellectual vices which I distinguished at length.  You are free to explain to me why they’re not vices and show me how the uses of ritual, appeals to dogmatic authorities, citing of simple “faith” as sufficient reason, citing of God’s authority as enough to morally justify biblical genocides, etc. do not entail training in counter-rational and authoritarian habits of thought.  How does one train someone to assess evidence carefully while telling simultaneously training them to pull the “but it’s just a matter of faith” card whenever cherished beliefs are challenged?  How does it not undermine someone’s sense of objective moral principles to train them to think that if God orders a genocide then that’s okay because He’s all powerful?  People’s native intelligences are not the issue.

(2) Irreligious people may prove on average as strong or weak in their reasoning skills given their comparable sociological factors, etc.  But that does not mean that religion is a force correcting, rather than perpetuating our natural tendencies for fallacy since it thrives on the sorts of fallacies mentioned above.  And I’m fairly confident that world history’s inverse relationship between religious fervor and scientific advancement is valuable evidence on this point.

(3) Religious people ARE credulous if they are willing to believe in a virgin birth and a resurrection and a rapture, et al.  If that’s not credulous, what is?  There may be some equally credulous, self-dubbed “irreligious-but-spiritual” people who share equally credulous attitudes towards magic crystals.  Obviously, getting away from the particular credulities and fallacies perpetuated by major religions is not enough to make someone think straight.  But it couldn’t hurt.

(4) I never said every argument to be plausible or believable had to pass the strictest empirical tests even where those are not possible. Just that they be made in terms of reasons and evidence open to anyone.  I am answering you with reasons for your consideration, based on our commonly accessible evidence, canons of logic, and common types of experience.  That’s all I demand out of reasons.  And it’s categorically different than if I were to say to you, I’m right because I’m inspired by the Holy Spirit—TA DA!!!

But my question to Shane is, aside from teasing me about my affection for something like a W.K. Clifford-style approach to evidence, how do you feel, as a highly educated, philosophically rigorous, politically and theologically moderate and progressive person about the fact that when you encourage faith in others you are often sending them to institutions which fall way below your own educational and philosophical standards?  As someone I genuinely respect as an intellectual, I am really curious whether the substance of my critique in my previous post had any salience to you at all.

See the rest of this series of posts:

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 3

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 4

On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices (5)

How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions (6)

Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction (7)

Your Thoughts?

  • Evangelos

    Ah, your prose never ceases to impress me!
    I want to see a part three of this where you address those who claim to have had “religious experiences”.

    Reading your post got me thinking (as I assume was the intended point!); clearly religion developed prehistorically as an asset somehow or another, otherwise it would have been identified (excuse the metaphor) through the process of natural selection as something harmful and dropped from the genetic code (I’m looking at you, “God gene”) as those individuals who had it would have fallen victim to their superstition. Or maybe that is happening now? What I’m asking is, would you contend that humanity is simply evolving beyond religion now that we’ve come so far in terms of rationality?

    Also, please excuse the sloppiness of my too-long comment yesterday; copy and paste didn’t quite didn’t quite translate what I thought I wrote very well.

  • shane

    An excellent response! Much more in-depth than my teasing comment probably warranted. Sorry, but my response is a bit rambling. That comes with the blog commenting genre, I think.

    My earlier point wasn’t about intellectual virtues or vices per se, but I’d be happy to try to cash it out in those terms if you like.

    I want to say that a person is intellectual virtuous if she habitually cultivates characteristics like curiosity, honesty, careful, clear and reflective thought. Your claim, I take it, is that being religious necessarily makes a person fail in one or more of these intellectual virtues (or perhaps more modestly, makes that person fail in respect of her use of that virtue toward the subject-matter of religion).

    As I understand it, your claim is that religion is harmful because it necessarily undermines the practice of these intellectual virtues. So the form of your argument is this: (1) Doing x (which maybe seems innocuous) leads to doing y (which is definitely harmful); (2) you don’t want to do y; therefore (3) you shouldn’t do x. What I’m wanting to see is the empirical evidence for thinking (1) is true. I want to see some real empirical evidence that failing in one’s epistemic duties about religion leads to failing in one’s epistemic duties about the other matters.

    Here’s one reason I have to be suspicious about a claim like “being religious tends to make people more credulous in general”. I think what is going to count as being intellectual virtuous about some subject-matter is going to depend an awful lot on what that subject-matter is. If you want to be intellectually virtuous about physics you are going to hold people to high epistemic standards because the subject matter admits of precise, rigorous, repeatable empirical verification. I think the epistemic standards in history are different. For one thing, historical events are unique, not repeatable, so it would make no sense to demand the same level of proof of the history that we do of the physicist. (Aristotle: It is the mark of an educated man to pursue only as much exactness as the subject admits.)

    Let’s apply this point to religion. I think you can be religious and intellectually virtuous, simply because the subject matter at hand doesn’t admit of the kind of clear and distinct proof that we might like.

    It’s no part of my view to deny that there are intellectual vicious ways to be religious too, of course. And this perhaps gets at your question about how I think about recommending religion to other people. I would say to my students that they should not check their brains at the church door or their souls at the university gates either. Here’s a good way for a Christian to think: All truth is God’s truth, so there’s no intellectual territory where we should fear to tread and no intellectual argument we should fear to engage.

    I acknowledge that not all of Christians I have ever known think this way, but I think it’s a more common position than some non-religious folks might suspect.

  • Chris

    Hi Dan. I just learned about this blog from Facebook, and I hope to comment from time to time.

    For the purposes of this post, I will identify two claims which many Christians accept (and which I understand you do not): (1) that the central claims of Christianity are true, and (2) that faith, properly understood, is a justified form of knowledge.

    Even granting these two premises, I agree that religious activity has certain bad effects which are morally significant. That is, religious activity, as I see it, is an instance of double effect with both good and bad effects. On the above premises, the good effects include the promotion of truth about God and human life and the encouragement of moral living while the bad effects include the possibility of distortions leading to false beliefs and immoral actions.

    I do believe that religious persons should be aware of these bad effects and work to mitigate them. When, for example, Christians quote the Bible, they should be aware that some verses are liable to misinterpretation and take appropriate measures to prevent this. Similarly, when Christians advance arguments about sexual morality, they should be aware that some in our society will use them as cover for hatred against certain persons or groups, and Christians must work hard (harder than they currently are) to counteract this kind of hatred.

    I suppose that, in the end, almost all human enterprises are cases of double-effect, with both good and bad effects. Certainly, major world-historical institutions, such as the modern capitalism, almost always have both very good and very bad effects. For this reasons, I believe that Christians who do accept the above premises are morally justified in practicing religion, despite its at times very bad effects. At the same time, I appreciate the force of your original argument for those who do not accept the above Christian premises.

    (As my argument suggests, I would agree that some of the particular things you list in your original post are bad effects and contend that others are good effects, again, supposing the above premises.)