Jon Stewart Against Dogma and Extremism But Not “Religion”

Jon Stewart:

Religion makes sense to me. I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled.

You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t.

Like anything else that’s that powerful—that is touching that deep into the epicenter of the human psyche and our fears, it can be misused. I’m probably much more responsive in a bad way to dogma and to extremism than to religion.

When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.” It’s when it gets into the realm of “This is the only way to salvation”—that’s when I think, “Okay, now we’re getting into a problem.”

Daniel Florien’s reply:

I agree — when religion helps someone overcome a problem, I’m glad they found help. But it’s not the only way to fix problems.

And if religion helps someone be a better person, I’m glad they found help. But faith isn’t a requirement to be a good person — at least for some of us!

While I agree that the most serious social problems with religion are the dogmatism, extremism, narrowmindedness, and self-righteousness here described, I take issue with the notion that honesty, scrupulousness in belief is irrelevant to being a “good” person.

All these arguments that religion is fine as long as it is not harming anyone essentially claim that falsehood is only worthy of denunciation if it hurts someone (and in some short term sense).  The idea that human beings might actually be objectively worse off for simply having bad habits of believing, clinging to falsehoods, and deliberately training children in counter-rational approaches to evidence and belief seems completely foreign to most of religion’s appeasers.

This is not to say, of course, that religious people are worse off in all respects or bad people overall.  I also don’t mean to say that a given religious code cannot be a valuable tool for training oneself in a helpful discipline.  For example, maybe for a particular person to adopt kosher laws is a way to personally inculcate a general habit of mastery over appetites.  The refusal to eat pork in that case might not have any particular valuable consequence in that individual’s life but the ability to master the appetites does both consequentially improve a person’s happiness and make that person spiritually stronger (in naturalistic senses such that she becomes more capable of self-control and of constructive direction of internal energies).

In such a way, a religious tradition can provide a ready-packaged set of rituals, sayings, habitual practices, communal networks, meditations, historical connections, etc. which have been tried and tested over centuries and which can be flexibly adapted to an individual’s unique temparement and ethical needs.

And it is possible that in accord with such a tradition, a given individual might attain certain valuable benefits.  Meditating on certain maxims promoted by religious traditions may be emotionally or ethically transformative and submitting to certain rigorous disciplines may have the consequence of developing certain virtues.  And it is even possible that the character that results is on net sum better than any particular person who is more truthful but at the cost of religious training in character and meditation.

But is it ideal?  Are the false beliefs and the illicit patterns of belief justification outright irrelevant as long as other character benefits accrue to someone and as long as the believer is not an extremist or a dogmatist?  I say, no, it is also a crucial matter of character that someone be honest and scrupulous in how they form beliefs.

Just as we would blame Atheist Bob who is truthful but lacks mercy and self-discipline, so we must blame Religious Sally who is merciful and self-disciplined but lacks truthfulness.  Maybe Religious Sally is, on net, a better person than Atheist Bob since she has 2 virtues and he only has one.  But that does not make her vice a matter for our indifference (to the extent that we worry about our fellows’ virtues and vices that is—and discussions like this article are abstract discussions about virtues and vices rather than presumptuous judgments of our particular acquaintances’ virtues and vices).

And, of course, I don’t mean to encourage the presumption that in general atheists have less virtues overall than religious people with my example.  My point is simply that ethical assessment should involve more than pleasant outcomes but consider numbers, qualities, and intensities of virtues.  And on that score, the vices of the intellect trained by literalist, superstitious, “faith-based” religiosity are marks against people’s characters—regardless of whether those same beliefs help them form other virtues or quit drinking.

And finally, while there is nothing a priori that tells us that a false belief cannot help make a particular person happier or more virtuous than a true one might (and we can devise hypothetical scenarios where this is likely the case), nonetheless where all things equal it seems to me that it is better to have the truth than a falsehood.  While within complicated situational contexts, falsehoods may prove of greater utilities than truths, ceteris paribus truth is of more intrinsic interest than falsehood.

Unless it can be proved to me that a religious person’s happiness and virtue would suffer greatly enough to overwhelm the intrinsic harm of not knowing the truth, I do not assume the falsehood of the religious belief is no big deal.

Your Thoughts?

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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.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I struggle with this one as I do see people reaping great benefits from their faith and I did as well for 20 years. Of course at the time I didn’t consider my religious beliefs to be false like I do now. Back then I would have been thrilled to see children learning about Jesus and taught that he was God. Now I would be much more thrilled to see children taught about Jesus and Allah and Vishnu and on and on. I’d like them to be taught that we all believe different things without the conservative Christian slant to it.

    I call myself a heavily atheist leaning agnostic and many times just an atheist to simplify things. The primary thing I reject is religious exclusivity, simply because none of them can prove any of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered some day that there was some sort of energy or connectedness that was behind it all that somehow gives people the feeling of spirituality which is clearly not unique to any one religion. That is why I hesitate to call people’s religious beliefs false, not because I think they might be literally true, but because I think sometimes those beliefs can have value for people. They may find inspiration in Bible stories the same way I am inspired by a good book, film, or piece of music.

    My gut feeling when I hear someone share their religious beliefs with me is to say “That’s silly”, but then I think of all the times since my deconversion that I have been called stupid for my lack of belief and instead I try to see what they value and perhaps find some value in it myself.

    Sorry if I rambled, but I’m now late for a conference call. ;-)

  • Chris

    Well I agree with Stewart’s statement to a degree, you can be a good person without faith, I know several aethists who are not the sterotypical ahole. I guess this comment is more of a bouncing off of ideas.

    Personally I’ve tried to become an aethist, but what has always stopped me is aethists themselves. The more I’ve looked into organizations, read the arguments, spent time on forums and talking with people…but more and more it seems that Aethism is nothing more than another belief group. I should elbaorate as some might be confused since it isn’t technically a relgion. It is from what I have seen that most outspoken Aethists usally don’t seem more like the new age “Bible Thumpers” that often they never listen to any other views tending to think of their way is the best way, and that if everyone followed it people would be alot better off. Furthermore I keep seeing more and more arguments and historical arguments taken out of context that seem just wrong. The most well known one is that “There’d be no wars” or “less suffering” without religion. These statements to be have always seemed like that person doesn’t really know humanity well, most wars fought even ones with religious overtones where done so with secular motives; in all reality man needs only the slightest inhabition to be removed in order to fight one another. Also in alot of contextes I’ve seen them mention “The Truth” in means of that seem to come close to a relgious context

    Something else I’ve noticed was how when making arguments how often it seemed to be one sided; either while quoting scholars or using works they would only use the ones that would suit their point of view. Now I know that’s the point of a persassive arguement, but being as they’ve always say to be more intellectual and often mocking thesists for doing the same thing…well it just seemed like being hypocrital to me. Furthurmore I see them go on and on about the wrong other religions have done, yet never do I see them talk about the wrongs that have been done by aethists or in the name of science; I mean it just seems to me that its never talked about as a means to further make their own views look good.
    Often times I also see debates among thesists and aethist taking place against only right wing memebers of reilgious groups, never once do I see them talk with a member of Deism or even someone moderate. And to build on what I had said earlier, when quoting scholars, they never seem to discuss deep works such as Thomas Paine; only ones they talk about are their own and then say, there’s no rational argument for God.
    There’s also, not a big thing but I found it funny, how aethist groups are all in a competition to pick a symbol for aethism; just made me think of that South Park episode.

    Aethism may not be another reilgious group, maybe I’m the only one who thinks like this; but it does look and quack an aweful lot like a duck.

  • David E

    “Aethism may not be another reilgious group, maybe I’m the only one who thinks like this; but it does look and quack an aweful lot like a duck.”

    Having a strong opinion about religion no more makes one religious than having a strong opinion about communism makes one a communist.

    “And to build on what I had said earlier, when quoting scholars, they never seem to discuss deep works such as Thomas Paine; only ones they talk about are their own and then say, there’s no rational argument for God.”

    I’d be happy to discuss Paine and his book THE AGE OF REASON all you like.

  • Janet Greene

    I don’t relate to people who think that “moderate christians” or “religious people” are harmless. They are not harmless. The belief in imaginary gods changes the way people think and act in significant ways that impact everyone. To use an obvious example, a christian president who believes in end-times will perhaps be excited at the idea of nuclear war to correspond with the apocolyptic acid trip that is the book of Revelations. If a christian believes that this fleshly life has little important in comparison to eternal life, they will place little value on health, happiness, relationships, and fulfillment in this life. I know – I was like that when I was a christian. It was all about self-deprivation – “I will have all that when I get to heaven”. Why would a christian care about the environment? According to them, this evil soddom & gommorah world will be going up in flames anyway. There are many destructive influences from the christian community because of these values & beliefs. Everything we do stems from these values. And liberal religious people give the crazies legitimacy. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

    • Camels With Hammers

      Great to see you here, Janet—8 months after the discussion at Unreasonable Faith in which we both participated which occasioned this post. I hope all has been well since then!

    • Janet Greene

      Wow, what a memory!!!! Thanks.

  • christopher

    My name is Christopher. I come from a Christian family. Way back, after finishing my schooling and when I was doing my Intermediate (junior college), I sensed a kind of emptiness in my heart. (This emptiness, which I later-on understood, was God’s way of drawing me to Himself). In my desperate attempts to solve this problem, I found myself bunking college and attending Christian meetings and visiting Christian bookshop with the hope of finding a solution. During one such visit to a Christian bookshop, I came across a small book-let titled; Tell me plainly, how to be saved. Through this book-let (written according to the Bible), I have understood that every human-being is a sinner and is bound to go to hell after one’s time on this planet-earth is over. But God’s great love for man-kind made Him send His only son, Jesus Christ, into this world. Jesus, who lived a sin-less life, suffered an account of our sins and died on the cross in our place. He rose again from death the third day and is now in the midst of us in the form of the Holy Spirit. Whoever believes in Him will become a child of God and will skip hell to enter heaven, the presence of the Almighty God.

    The book-let went-on to say that the way of believing in Jesus Christ is by repenting of our sins and asking Jesus for forgiveness for our sins as only the blood of Jesus Christ has the power to cleanse us from every kind of sin. Then we should invite Jesus into our hearts. When I did all this, the emptiness in my heart left and the love, joy & peace which I never had till then filled my heart. Since then, the Lord has been wonderfully leading me and has never left me alone, as per His promise in the Bible for all those who come to him in faith. He gave a purpose for my living. Whatever I have been going through in life, I can say with all confidence, that there was never a time that I felt or was left helpless; this is so as one of the precious promises in the Bible says: “Even lions go hungry for lack of food, but those who obey the LORD lack nothing good.”

    This is how the Lord has sought me, forgave my sins, made me His child, gave me a purpose for living, has been meeting all my needs and put His peace & joy in my heart that no person or experience or circumstance or problem can take it away.

    It’s a Biblical fact that every person has a heart with a God-shaped vacuum and nothing can fill that vacuum, except God Himself. This is why we need to invite Jesus to come into our hearts after repenting of our sins.

    The one decision I will never regret is, giving my heart to the Lord Jesus Christ. I hope and wish that you also will make a decision to make Jesus Christ your personal Lord and Savior. If so, please say this prayer meaningfully from your heart:

    Lord Jesus Christ, I believe that you are the Almighty God. Thank you for suffering on the cross for my sake. I now repent of all my sins. Forgive me of my sins. Cleanse me with your precious blood. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus and make me your child. From now on, I will read the Bible regularly and obey what it says. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.

    If you have made a decision to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, please let me know the good news. Thanks. May you know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

    • Brian Lynchehaun

      It’s a Biblical fact that every person has a heart with a God-shaped vacuum and nothing can fill that vacuum, except God Himself.

      So… By “biblical fact” you mean, what? A fact that someone made up 2000 years ago that you choose not to question? A fact that is found in a book?

      The bible is, at best, a collection of stories with no real connection between them. At worst, it’s a collection of contradictions and lies that encourage you to harm other people.

      The “god-shaped vacuum” is a myth. Provide me evidence (not quotes from a book), and I’ll believe.