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.


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