Religion

I am anti-faith.

I define faith specifically and narrowly as the willful explicit or implicit willingness to believe propositions that the believer perceives to be either unsupported by scientific, historical and/or philosophical evidence and argumentation or has good reason to suspect are undermined by such evidence and argumentation. I think this is a form of intellectual vice. When one’s faith-based beliefs and faith-based practices are chosen out of deference to an authority who offers no independently verifiable reasons or evidence, this is a deeply irresponsible authoritarianism of thought and practice. Religions, insofar as they cultivate and depend upon such irrationalistic and anti-rationalistic vices are authoritarian institutions which threaten to stagnate or outright regress moral and intellectual progress.

Faith poisons religion but I hold out hope for non-faith-based religiosity.

“Religion” is a word for many interrelated but distinguishable and separable practices. Rituals, myths, symbols, communal identities, narratives about meaning, discussion of ethics, traditions, disciplines for personal cultivation, meditations, festivals, songs, worship, prayer, gods, metaphysical speculation, and faith are just some of the many things it encompasses. Many of these things could be put to good use and in service of truths about ethics, truths about reality, truths about objective attainment of meaning and fulfillment, truths about how to reach rich mental states people call “spiritual”.

But religions are often dragged down by faith—the commitment to believing what is not likely to be true at all. Purified of faith and purified of the deference to authoritarianism which it inculcates and reinforces in people, I hope that rationalists will be able to develop open-ended pluralities of religions through which people can gain the benefits of traditions and rituals and communities built around ethics, meaning, and (rationally understood) “spiritual” practices. I think there are empirical and philosophically robust, truth-based narratives about all these things that can be advanced and there can be rituals through which the young learn not the ossifying and surpassed values of primitive peoples but the values of autonomy, flourishing, the interconnectedness of all people, etc.

I am a gnostic atheist, not an agnostic one.  

I recognize you can be an atheist even if you only lack a belief in gods but are not willing to metaphysically commit yourself to saying that you know or, even, believe there are no gods. Those people I call agnostic atheists. They are agnostics on the knowledge question (i.e., they think knowledge or justified beliefs of any kind are impossible in questions of gods, or of metaphysics more generally) but they default to atheism because it is improper to them to believe anything that cannot be known or justified.

though am a gnostic atheist. I think that I can know there are no personal gods. I do not mean I am incontrovertibly certain. I am open to hearing new arguments and considering new evidence. But Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah (the gods most people I know believe in) are as obviously fictional to me as Zeus or Aquaman. Just as I do not merely lack belief in Zeus or Aquaman I do not merely lack belief in Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah.

There is no positive reason to believe in them and there is overwhelmingly good reason to think they are the fictitious products of human minds. Even were a personal god possible, I think the arguments from the existence of evil decisively prove that there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or omniscient god. Again, I am open to new evidence and arguments if necessary, but without it, I feel fully justified in making a certain enough belief claim such that I can say Iknow just as I know many many other things that could be false but there is no reason to think are false.

I am also not against all metaphysical beliefs in principle as some skeptics are. I am not an atheist because of skepticism alone. Biographically, I did become an atheist through skepticism and an anti-metaphysical reorientation of attitude. But even after becoming more open to the value of metaphysics, I remain an atheist on slightly altered grounds.

I am an agnostic adeist.

Metaphysically I rule out personal gods not because I rule out the possibility of some “ground of all being” distinct from the universe in some discernible and important way. Obviously something about reality is eternal and not caused by the kinds of causal interactions that specific beings we experience in reality are. Something just is. Or some things just are. I cannot say I am justified enough in my rejection of deism to say I know there is no metaphysical “god principle”, some one aspect of reality upon which all else reality rests.  I lack a committed belief either way on this. This makes me an agnostic adeist. I lack belief in deism.

But, again, since I know there are no personal gods (and theism refers to personal gods), I am still, compatible with this agnostic adeism, a gnostic atheist. Even were deism to be vindicated by science or an airtight metaphysical argument, I would have as little reason to think that the distinct part of reality which existed eternally and accounted directly for all other reality and was worth calling a metaphysical “god principle” would in the greatest likelihood not be any more personal in nature than it would be citric tasting or red and plump like a tomato. It would not likely be composed of the kinds of parts or matter out of which personal beings we know about are. It would be an impersonal metaphysical principle and no more capable of thought or intentions than the law of gravity or the number 3 or the concept of a universal, etc.

So, I am open to deistic speculation about what the eternality of reality is like. But I am wholly convinced that whatever that metaphysical principle is, or principles are, I am nearly certain there is no personality there.

Moderate or liberal theology can and should still be critically scrutinized.

Even when religious thinkers interpret their religions mythically, the myths are not automatically true or good. Saying the Bible is mythical should not spare it philosophical scrutiny.

Saying “Adam and Eve” are just mythic figures does not prove that the myth of the Garden of Eden is one which actually conveys truths about the human condition. Of course religious myths may sometimes be vindicated philosophically just as other works of art can be partially translated into some truthful propositions by art critics, theologians, psychologists, and philosophers. But I resent the deference to religious myths and traditions without argument, even when it comes from liberal and morally/politically progressive religious people. It is too uncritical when they assume that religious myths are somehow especially estimable or truthful and not merely influential myths among others, each to be assessed on its merits alone. I cannot stand the uncritical assumption that Jesus must have been a moral exemplar if nothing else.

Moderate and liberal religious people should take responsibility for their role in propping up the myths of their fundamentalist cohorts.

I agree somewhat with Sam Harris’s argument that moderate and liberal forms of religiosity help give a form of legitimation to the fundamentalists in their religion. When even the relatively skeptical people and freer thinkers that a religious fundamentalist knows still give lip service to their faith, it reinforces it. And often the more liberally (or simply philosophically) minded communicate to ordinary people in myths they do not literally believe. This has the effect that the philosopher, theologian, or the simple liberal believes some bare abstraction which would never keep the fundamentalist or the literalist or the superstitious in the pews, and yet the people in the pews do not realize this. They often do not realize what their priests or theologians or philosophically knowledgeable leaders and friends really mean when they use the words and stories they do.

Instead they take the faithfulness of the learned for evidence that their superstitions and falsehoods are vindicated and go on believing things that the educated would reject as idiocy or idolatry (or both). More liberal or more educated believers have a responsibility to disabuse their less progressive or less educated cohorts of their errors and to publicly disassociate themselves from such errors. When the New Atheists lay waste to fundamentalist sophistries and literalisms, the religious liberals who also do not believe in them should not say, “Hey pick on someone your own size! Stop taking cheap shots at the obviously dunderheaded!”, but instead they should applaud the vigorous attempt to disabuse people of falsehoods and closed-mindedness. They should thank the New Atheists for actively standing up publicly against the fundamentalists before they stake out whatever position against atheism that they want.

It is not a “low-blow” or beneath leading intellectual atheists to dissect and debunk the claims of literalists and other fundamentalists. As long as people are being actively miseducated week after week in Sunday School since the time they are children, there must be somebody with a megaphone or a book that can correct all the misconceptions, debunk the myths, disentangle all the false narratives, correct the science, denounce the intellectual vices they are being taught, educate about critical thinking, argue for a better metaethics and ethics, and show the flaws in religious ethics. Somebody has to aggressively make the case for secular values and for the value of political secularism (even for the religious). Somebody has to take seriously the sheer numbers and international socio-political influence of people duped by fundamentalist backwardness and authoritarianism in thought and value.

These are not merely academic issues. The fact that there already exists some scholarly treatise which has settled a philosophical or scientific issue is not enough. Popular books and outreach to actively counter what is an active process of misinformation are necessary. As long as deliberate inculcation of intellectual vices and of evasive ways of protecting prejudices at all costs is happening, there must be public teachers and advocates for more rigorous, cautious, and open-minded thought. Addressing the most intricate philosophical or theological defense of god is important for philosophers but so is going over the basics of facts and methods in public for the sake of an educated, autonomous, freethinking, ethical citizenry.

As long as people are in error about reality, they risk making bad choices about ethics, bad choices about politics, bad choices about who to trust in matters of knowledge and governance, and bad choices about how to live their lives best.

We have to care about the fundamentalists and all those who could be persuaded by them or who grow up indoctrinated by them and not consider addressing them beneath us.

We should not define religions by their fundamentalist strands, but aid progressives in their reformations of their religions while not allowing them to whitewash either the histories or the present stagnant/regressive states of their religions.

Religions are more than just sets of propositions. They are living, historical traditions of myths, rituals, communities, texts, symbols, etc. When debunking fundamentalists and literalists, it is valuable to take seriously their literal propositional beliefs and force them to confront all the ways they are internally contradictory, at odds with their own values, and discomfited with reality.

But the propositional, literalist believer is not the “true” instance of any religion.  There is no way to mediate and determine what “true” Christianity or “true” Islam or “true” Hinduism are in propositional terms. These are cultural institutions, they have changed wildly over time and in different places and still can change in drastic unforeseeable ways.  There is no reason to say a biblical or koranic literalist is truer to his or her religious tradition than someone who reads those texts allegorically or selectively or who rejects them entirely but still for some reason identifies with the religion.

If someone wants to argue that Islam is against political violence, let them! Who cares what is in the Koran or if it is a good literal interpretation of the text? If it will help the moderates and liberals in the religion to moderate the potential or actual fundamentalists (who would never even listen to non-Islamic appeals), then that is a good thing. When the liberals and moderates of a religion do not sit on their hands and let their fundamentalist brethren continue in errors but instead push for more rationalistic and more morally progressive interpretations, that is a good thing. And insofar as there is no right or necessary meaning to any of these religions, we should side with the interpretations of them that lead them to be more compatible with truth and good ethics and politics rather than less.

If people can use their existing religious forms to advance in actual truths and moral/poltiical progress, then, to that extent, at least their religions could even be said to be getting truer and more ethical—even if they still need to shed faith and authoritarianism about belief and practice in order to become the kind of religion I could even think of actively supporting.

Now, the dicey distinction is the following. There are debates about what a religion is like and what it should be like. When a liberal or a moderate really is trying to encourage people that they should see their faith in more rationalistic and more progressive terms, to see how it is compatible with such values, and actively encouraging for the future a more rational and humane approach to their religiosity, then this should be encouraged politically and intellectually. We should support the idea that religions can change and that they should be interpreted in the best ways possible.

But if appeals to the rationalism or moral goodness of a religion are attempts to describe what it is already and if these are ways of saying, “there is no need to reform or challenge this religion because it is already rationalistic and morally progressive” when in practice it really is not (or is not sufficiently so), then this must be opposed. There must be honest accounting of religions’ blameworthiness for their nasty habits, nasty hypocrisies, and nasty consequences. The religions cannot use slogans of peace and reason and goodness as mere ad campaigns and PR for what are actually stagnant swamps of faith-based authoritarianism and regressive values.

So, we should encourage anyone who says, “this religion can be recentered on more rational and progressive terms if it goes with a demonstrably better existing strand than another or if it rejects an actually unnecessary doctrine or accretion, etc.” But we should vigorously challenge anyone who says, “this religion is basically right and basically a source of goodness and worthy of the deference people give it without any drastic reform”, when in fact it is a faith-based mess of stagnation and regressiveness.

And this encouragement is consistent with frankness that we ultimately support an end to faith-based belief and practice. We can support the liberals and moderates against the fundamentalists and then turn around and challenge them on their own irrationalistic and faith-based errors when the topic of conversation changes.

This is not a world of good guys and bad guys. Just people on multiple spectrums who can tug-of-war both with each other one day and against each other the next day depending on whether there is someone further to one side of both of them in a way they both want to oppose and can do so together, on the one hand, or it is just the two of them there to tug of war with each other instead.

I think science and philosophy can undermine religious beliefs.

There is no “non-overlapping magisteria”. Religion has no proper “magisterium” over any beliefs. Insofar as religions make propositional claims, science and philosophy can scrutinize and debunk them or vindicate them. Whenever religious thinkers make pretenses to fact claims, they should be given no special waiver from challenge by independent scientific and philosophical reasoning just for being religious. The questions of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, meaning in life, etc. which religion attempts to answer are properly the domain of philosophy, not religion.

There are implications of the theory of natural selection that rule out a divine guidance to evolution, that make the idea of an intelligent designer less likely, more superfluous, and inconsistent with the apparent processes of unguided change and selection by natural pressures. Being scientific does not just mean admitting evolution happens, it means accepting the theory of natural selection, and accepting the theory of natural selection means rejecting divine guidance to the process. One might still believe in evolution and a deistic god, but if you believe in evolution by divine guidance you are rejecting natural selection and, so, rejecting science for a discredited, unsupported faith-belief. That is not a scientific attitude and it is bad philosophy, regardless of your other scientific credentials.

I think scientists need to take philosophy, and scientific truths’ influence on the philosophy of God, seriously.

The existence of religious scientists does not vindicate religious beliefs as rational.  Being a good scientist by following good scientific procedures in the lab does not give you the right to use your scientific credibility to promote bad, faith-based epistemology and metaphysics. And scientists should not bend over backwards to make sure people accept science even if it means allowing them to believe whatever false things they want about philosophical matters like ethics or metaphysics or epistemology.

Scientific organizations should admit religious scientists of course and should reach out to religious groups to educate them and encourage them to embrace science. But they should not actively promote the idea that religion has rights over ethics and metaphysics and they should not actively promote the idea that necessarily theology can be harmonized with science and that necessarily science could never undermine metaphysical beliefs, like the belief in gods or the belief in the resurrection of Jesus. This is anti-rational cowardice, terrible philosophy, and politically irresponsible. It evidences an ignorant, shortsighted, and narrow minded unwillingness to treat philosophy as intellectually serious or relevant at all.  It treats some of the most important subjects there are–including our values themselves–as matters of complete indifference best left to superstitious hucksters, simply because they are not scientifically solvable.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X