Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 3)

Shane’s reply to this post addressing him (and you can find part 1 which initiated the conversation here):

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.)

There are several interesting issues here.  First, I think you are right that our virtues can be somewhat influenced by context.  I think, for example, that you could have someone who had a genuine virtue of generosity when it came to her friends and yet when it came to even the normal demands of generosity to strangers, she was completely oblivious or ill-habituated.  Or there could be a scrupulous scientist who would be outraged at any hints of number-fudging and who might even risk his career than engage in any and yet he may lie to his wife routinely.  In part this is likely because of differences in our attachment to narrower ideals than the virtue broadly construed may encompass.  So, I may be more committed to the ideal of friendship and more emotionally responsive to my friends since they are so pleasing to me than I am committed to the ideal of altruistic universal benevolence and emotionally impelled to care about strangers.  In fact, this is all psychologically to be expected in general as Joshua Greene’s work makes exceedingly clear.  So, big, general virtues like generosity often occur in combination with specific virtues like friendship and altruism and these can influence its shape and habituation for us.

Can intellectual virtues split similarly?  Let’s make another distinction.  Intellectual virtues can split with respect to spheres of life and with respect to spheres of inquiry.  So, the scrupulously honest empiricist in the laboratory may be an inscrupulous liar in the marriage.  This is not necessary, of course, but possible.  Can the scrupulously honest empiricist be rigorous in the laboratory but then credulous in the church?  This is possible.  This is what I think the best reilgious intellectuals are like.  In the realm of questions which are either indifferent or non-threatening to faith commitments, they cultivate all the normal intellectual virtues.  I don’t expect you, Shane to be any more credulous when dealing with a used car salesman than I am.  In fact, I would wager on a daily basis, outside the sphere of theoretical ideas, knowing you and me, I’m probably the more gullible one!

And within the intellectual sphere, I have every confidence that on some fine point of conceptual distinction neutral to religious commitment, you will be as likely or more to make a scrupulously careful observation or inference.  And even with the matters that hit upon your religious commitments, you are talented enough a thinker to be able to cash out the meanings of your tradition’s ideas in the ways that are the most intellectually satisfying they can be.  You will find a way, if there is one, to show a harmony between the best science, the best ethics, etc. and your faith.  Similarly, in my dissertation, I am trying to find the most appealing, rationally defensible, contemporarily relevant, historically accurate, and logically coherent way to reconstruct Nietzsche’s philosophy in my dissertation.

The problem though is that even though your intellectual talents are being used to cultivate a rational and humane understanding of your particular tradition, there are still several pitfalls.

(1) the tradition has intractable elements of superstition, supernaturalism, and traditionalism, and actively cultivates the various intellectual vices I brought up: authoritarian assumptions about authority (both ethical and epistemological), habitual training in accepting causally impossible explanations, acceptance of absolute authorities claimed to be unimpeachable even in theory, reliance on intuitions about “God’s will” which are open to dubious tools for corroboration, etc.

(2) This tradition’s characteristic vices infect even your thought as a sophisticated and otherwise careful intellectual.  For all your skill with careful distinctions, in previous conversations you have proudly waved away the causal necessities of the world and declared belief in the virgin birth, the resurrection, “the whole nine yards” (or some similarly sweeping phrase you used to emphasize the point).  Those beliefs themselves, quite independent of your admirable scrupulousness in conceptual, causal, and logical distinctions on purely philosophical matters, simply bear fundamental contradiction to what we know about how the world works.

(3) The religious intellectual has essentially two routes for dealing with these contradictions, ingenious reinterpretation of what all the offenses to the rest of knowledge mean such that the words “virgin birth” and “resurrection” no longer mean anything nearly as literal and incredible as the average parishioner intends by those words.  In that case, the religious intellectual has actually in substance rejected the tradition and is really doing some sort of contemporary philosophizing about life but spoken primary in myth.

These kinds of religious intellectuals are essentially poets, their remarks about theology are literature, and their more strictly philosophical moments drip with metaphoric language.  My complaint to this person is that they are still perpetuating the mistaken way of thinking of those susceptible to literalism rather than using their realization of the limits of the literal tradition to shake those people out of it.  Most people, religious or non, are bad reasoners because (a) reasoning is a skill and (b) our brains bias us in favor of numerous sorts of errors.  The religious intellectual who speaks in poetry to say what he literally means by something else is not doing his fellow human being any favors.

There is nothing wrong if you want to wrap up a philosophical truth in an explicit work of art.  I genuinely think many artists can only communicate what they mean through metaphor or guitar strum or paint stroke.  Asked to articulate in conceptual distinctions and they are incapable.  They literally express themselves in a different medium in forms which are strictly irreducible.  The art speaks for itself, it itself is what the artist sees and thinks.  He doesn’t think and see like a philosopher.  But we also don’t take anything the artist does to be literal insofar as it is artifice.  The problem is that when the religious intellectual mixes conceptual distinction with myth liberally and all under the pretense of literality, the average person is tricked in a way that they are not tricked by movies or poems.

(4) To an extent, even the traditional Christians theologians and philosophers (and not just the liberals who deny all the supernatural and try to chuck husks and stick to the kernels) walk this line in that what a sophisticated Thomist theologian means by “God” is an ontological priniciple so divorced from what the man in the pew thinks (at least on the practical, visceral level that has him in the pew) that it’s a real semantic question whether the two are referring to the same concept at all. This case is not the total bait and switch of the Bultmannian I described above wherein the average parishioner seeks literal truth but gets only disambiguated myth which he mistakes for truth instead.  In this case, rather, the preacher and the congregant both believe in the literal virgin birth but, in these rare sophisticated theologians these sophistries are the outer limits of their intellectual vice in the name of tradition.  The rare, sophisticated theologian ingeniously convinces herself that she can be a 21st Century woman of science who knows the exact process by which human beings are generated, recognize that the idea that God could impregnate a woman is entirely alien to how that process works (does God have 46 chromosomes from which 23 can be selected for sperm?  this is pure nonsense) and just allow this cognitive dissonance without letting it infect the rest of his discourse on evolution and genetics, etc.

But to expect the average person, so prone to error to begin with to make these distinctions is rather charitable.  And we’ve seen the statistics before.  You know how high a proportion of the American populace does not believe in evolution or extends their biblical authoritarianism into the creation of “creationism” and other scientifically bankrupt ventures.

A few further points are also necessary:  (1) even in the sophisticated intellectual, the incorporation of faith, traditionalism, etc. represents the limits of her intellectual virtue and the dimension of vice in her thought.  It’s just in her case more likely that the infection is contained to religious matters (though it might not be).  But even in this case, to be genuinely religious, these mistaken habits of thought will have to move from theology to action.  There may be no non-theological extra sources of authoritarianism and credulity (this person may suspect the unitary executive, the scoundrel wrapped in the flag, the street hustler, etc.) but it will still have to have impacts on all those actions which stem from her theology.  Unless theology really doesn’t motivate and the religious language is just a way of speaking about judgments made entirely on theologically indifferent grounds.

(2) Given the susceptibility of people by our very natural brain limitations to bad habits of inference, training the average person explicitly to see certain of these habits as both good and necessary is downright counterproductive to the rigorous process of accepting that logic must always be respected, that reasons (of the appropriate kinds of course, as Aristotle says) must always be adduced for one’s beliefs and actions, etc.  It’s damn hard to habituate some one even to understand simple statistical realities that are counter-intuitive.  I don’t think it is indifferent to the cultivation of the average (lazy) mind when as venerable authorities as those who speak for God work very hard to keep people thinking fallaciously.  Is it possible that people can keep all their fallacies in the church and then step outside and be rigorously habituated the other way?  Of course, it is possible, but it’s not ordinary.  Yes, most people will not leave the church and then try to cash in on a plane crash in Nigeria that they learn about on the internet.  But the church will not have helped them with that cognitive ability.  And quite a good number are subject to political manipulations.  Or does it not seem intuitively correct to you when Orwell predicts that “When fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross?”

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.

The problem is that there are not two kinds of knowledge: scientific, empirically and conceptually clear and distinct on the one hand and then the wild, wild west of gut feelings and traditionalism on the other side.  Mathematicians have proofs which give them absolute credibility.  Physicists are held to certain extraordinarily high standards you and I wil never know that give them, in return, extraordinarily high credibility you and I will never have!  Biologists have their own rigorous but slightly less exact standards.  Then on down through psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers.  We each give kinds of evidence of varying strength and should be believed in proportion to our credibility, the strength of our arguments.

But then to say that theology is anything like those is false.  First of all, the bar for theological evidence (it was thought by sheep herders in the 1st century?) is below the floor of anything deserving the name of a discipline and (ironically) it demands absolute faith.  To accept that as philosophically plausible is to commit yourself to fallacious ways of thought as legit or live in cognitive dissonance between all your standards of evidence and reason and your faith commitments.  And worse to encourage those without any good standards of evidence and reason (a sizeable portion of the public) to boost up the fallacious side of the mind.

My dismissal of theology is not a dismissal of all philosophy of religion or metaphysical speculation about “God.”  But anything which starts taking the visions and baldface assertions of ancient superstitious, tribalistic nomads as authoritative evidence about the truth of such matters must be thrown out of the court of reason.

Evangelos and Chris were also kind enough to thoughtfully reply to part 2 and so there will be further installments of this series as well.

Thanks so much again for everyone reading and participating.  I appreciate your time and your provocating immensely.  Please feel free to post away in the comments section below and hopefully time will permit me to continue to address new lines of inquiry as they arise (and hopefully this will be a helpful forum for discussion among readers too of course).

And remember to read and remark on the rest of the series if you haven’t already!

Objections to Reilgious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

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)

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    More excellence on your part. Perhaps this has surpassed the level of my intellectual energy, or perhaps a splitting headache prevents me from thinking critically, but I nearly incapable of commenting at the moment.
    I can only inquire for clarification, (even though it seems fairly obvious): would you contend that theology departments should not exist at the academic level, even if they were challenging traditional beliefs (I’m thinking of this fellow who appeared on Colbert a few months ago who had written a book contending that the Divinity of Christ was a later invention)? I’m looking forward to the next post in this series!

    Thanks also for the post on the name of the blog; I should have suspected that’s where the camel’s come from, and I may remember you talking about the hammer at least once in class.

    Keep up the great work!

  • shane

    Lots of interesting thoughts there. Far too many to try to reply to more than just a bare sampling of, unfortunately.

    Here’s a tentative suggestion. I think your model of how religious beliefs are formed is wrong. You seem to think that people come to have religious beliefs just because they are told such and such by some illegitimate authority figure. And this maybe explains why you were wanting to call religious belief fallacious in the earlier installments of the series. (Which puzzled me at that time.)

    I suspect most people (the man in the pew, so to speak) come to their religious opinions in a much more complicated way. It may be true of young children that they just believe things because their parents tell them to do so. But I think at some level the religious, moral and aesthetic experiences people have as they age does have a strong influence on their religious opinions. So, the fact that prayer helped someone through a difficult time in their life is relevant to explaining why they hold the beliefs they do. Knowing a priest who possesses a sort of spiritual tranquility and joyfulness that one wishes to possess oneself gives one a reason to try to live the kind of life he lives and to endorse the kind of beliefs he endorses.

    Now, I’ll freely admit that these kinds of experiences bring no guarantee that the content of Christian belief is literally true. But, what I think these kinds of considerations do show, is that there are good reasons somebody might have to be a Christian, even though those reasons don’t give one certainty or a guarantee of the claims of christianity being true.

    There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such religious belief-formation. There is an element of appeal to authority, but I don’t think it is as easy to dismiss as illegitimate authority as you were wanting to say. If I see a priest whom I want to be like and he tells me that the way to get the kind of peace and tranquillity I want is by believing and doing certain things, then I am not necessarily being unreasonable in believing and doing what he says. I think this is just the same point Aristotle would make about how we get any of the virtues. If you want to be virtuous, then find a virtuous person and do what he does. That is still sound advice, even if you do not yet understand /why/ you must do the things the virtuous person is telling you to do. But that’s ok. It’s still a reasonable thing to recognize one’s own lack of knowledge and try to acquire such knowledge from those older and wiser.

    As to the weakness in scientific knowledge in America, you know I share your dismay. I’m inclined to think that the prevalence of religion in America has much less to do with the state of science education than you do. I suspect that the more relevant factors are the lack of education for american science teachers and the general anti-intellectualism of american society. As evidence of my claim, witness the fact that the stupidity of the american people is not limited to those claims of science that are supposed to conflict with Christianity. How many people do you know take herbal vitamins to cleanse the “toxins” from their bodies? How many people think chiropractors can cure cancer and restore sight to the blind? How many people think Canada is one of the states?

    I don’t think you can blame religion for the general stupidity of the human race.


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