How To Criticize Religion. Part 3: Address The Question of “True Religion” With Nuance

Below is part 3 of my reprint of my “How To Criticize Religion” series, with one new paragraph added. This was originally published in the former Secularite digital magazine. This article is self-sufficient. No knowledge of Part 1: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice or Part 2: Don’t Treat All of Religion as a Monolith is assumed in what follows.

Antitheists often accuse religious liberals of dishonestly avoiding things required by a “true” and literal true interpretation of their texts or traditions, and so not being true to their religion itself. On the flipside, people defending religions that they themselves don’t even belong to try to shield those religions from ever being defined as “truly” requiring their worst possible beliefs or values, or as being properly interpreted by their most dangerous adherents. Both sides insist there is a “true” way to interpret a religion. But is there?

I think it is mistaken to think that a religion has a one true form in a descriptive, purely factual, sense. Neutrally observed, religions are complex, living institutions in which people work out and live out their beliefs and values through a wide array of interrelated and evolving beliefs, symbols, myths, rituals, values, and practices. They are not merely sets of eternal propositions or static communities that never change. They vary throughout history and across cultures. They are responsive to real world pressures. There is no a priori reason that any particular belief or value or practice currently central in one time and place must remain so. Neither must a religion always be defined by its beliefs rather than something else.

If a religion always upheld slavery as valuable but was suddenly faced with an evolved moral consciousness that thrust a choice upon its adherents to either abandon the entire religion or reverse their position on slavery, there is no logical reason they would have to keep slavery. They can simply change this one huge moral problem and keep what they find workable about their religion. Why can’t they?

As living traditions they’re more akin to nations than abstract philosophies. Just as nations may conceive certain beliefs or values as central to their identity and structure and yet not only be able to but actually be morally required to, change them when they are discovered to actually be false or bad, so too religions can and must change in light of new moral, philosophical, and scientific realizations.

There was a time when one might have plausibly argued that slavery was such a deeply rooted institution in America that one could not imagine the country without it. Someone could have plausibly argued it was characteristic of the country’s very essence and definition and speculated that were you to eradicate slavery, America itself would no longer truly exist. We would have to start over with a new name and new structure to everything.

But today in America slavery is usually seen as not only abhorrent and evil but the very antithesis of true American values. Many would call it distinctly un-American, despite the fact it is so much a part of hundreds of years of the country’s history and has an ugly legacy that lasts until today. That’s because Americans define what is an American value in terms of what we aspire to and what we are proud of. We do not define it merely descriptively in terms of whatever we have effectively valued in actual historical practice. And why should we? If we can transform ourselves to be a more just place through changing our values and our definitions of ourselves, including our statements about the “true meaning” of America, then why shouldn’t we?

What we cannot morally do is try to whitewash our past and ignore our terrible history of slavery. We must face and own that honestly. We must scrupulously examine ourselves to see how the same ugly structures of belief, values, and institutions that undergirded slavery still persist in new forms today and perpetuate legacy injustices or create comparable new injustices. Active attention to our own worst tendencies is crucial to changing ourselves from what we were to what we want to be.

Apologists for religions go too far when they try to disclaim all responsibility for the evils and false beliefs that were, or still are, traceable to expressions of their religions. No religious adherent must embrace an evil value or false belief. But they also cannot simply wipe their hands by saying other adherents are not “true” ones if the soil of their religion also grows that flower too. Religions, like nations, must take ownership of their structural flaws and regressive values and vigilantly mitigate them, rather than claim their religions are blameless because all the wickedness stems from “bad interpretation”. They also shouldn’t try to pretend their traditions always truly meant what they’ve only recently discovered or admitted. We can rightly call them out for not admitting they’re making changes when they flatly are.

And to the extent a religion claims divine inspiration for its holy texts or other religious source materials, they need to be confronted with the incoherence of saying that the flawed, often outright evil, and historically damaging elements of their tradition were a gift from a benevolent deity or deities. And it’s especially ludicrous to say that the Bible or the Koran are the special revelations of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God when not only are the ethics contained in them less advanced compared to modern understanding but are outright the exact opposite of moral. The treatment of children, women, and slaves as property, the stonings for trivial crimes (and non-crimes), the commandments attributed to God Himself to commit racist genocides, etc., etc. We can call them on the logical inconsistencies and moral repugnance of trying to claim a good God ever promoted such evil.

But there’s nothing “untrue” to their religions if they honestly admit to us they want to update their beliefs and values while retaining the things they like about their traditional rituals, communities, symbols, etc.” If it is meaningful to talk of “truer” or “better” versions of a religion, the most rational standard to judge such a thing would be its degree of consistency with independently defensible philosophical and scientific truths, and its demonstrable ability to promote better living according to tangible, empirical metrics of overall human flourishing. So someone could talk about a religion’s “truest” meaning in the sense of describing the way of interpreting it so that it actually conforms with reality and thriving lives the most. We often make moral realizations and then simply disregard historical moral beliefs as “not really” morality. A religion may do similarly. Scientific opinions change with new evidence and better theories, and so may religions’ positions account for new information. Religions may reinterpret their symbols, beliefs, values, rituals, myths, etc. to better conform with their adherents’ advances in knowledge.

Religions have always involved at least some degrees of hypocrisy and disconnect between terrible explicit literal beliefs and value statements in the abstract and milder implementations in reality. For two millennia, Christians have demanded obedience to Jesus, yet almost no Christians pluck out their own eyes because of lust. What is “true Christianity,” descriptively? If we go by the majority of Christians, on that point it’s rationally ignoring Jesus in practice while nodding when the Scripture is read. Literal adherence is not the truest form of a religion, descriptively. In practice, cognitive dissonance is a key religious feature, not a bug.

Functionally, religious people often use their mythic, fictitious, fantastical ways of thinking in limited domains where they have some practical functionality in spite of their literal falseness. And functionally, they have often known when to switch out of fantastical thinking and engage in realistic terms. And they are increasingly able to do this the more that secular knowledge and institutions advance and make more practical paradigms available to them. Few stick to faith healing as primary care when modern medicine is actually available. Many prudently avoid their religions’ most impracticable moral injunctions.

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes literal religious beliefs outlive their usefulness or were never really any good. And they can interfere disastrously with philosophical, moral, and political progress. False beliefs and bad values have real world consequences all too often. They must be challenged.

Your Thoughts?

Read more:

Part 1: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice
Part 2: Don’t Treat All of Religion as a Monolith

From December 2013-March 2014, I published four essays and a series of blog posts with Secularite, a short lived website and digital magazine producer that is now closing its doors. The writers from Secularite have graciously been given permission to republish our writing for Secularite elsewhere now that it will be defunct and inaccessible. I have already republished my “Empowerment Ethics” series posts written for them (which I had already arranged rights to reproduce from the start). Everyday for the course of this week, I have reproduced my posts for the Secularite digital magazine. The post above was the final of those. It also contains one newly written paragraph.

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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.