Can You Criticize a Religion Without Studying It?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series, answers the question: Can You criticize a religion without studying it?:

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Jasper

    Well, most apologists/theists certainly enjoy criticizing science, despite failing 6th grade science class.

    • Ian

      Even the highly intelligent can be delusional. Such is the power of wishful thinking, indoctrination, and/or emotional rationalization.

  • http://twitter.com/bnt0 brian thomson

    Do you need to be a drug addict or a chemist before you can criticise drugs? I’ve never taken Methamphetamines or studied the chemistry it takes to make it – a few episodes of “Breaking Bad” don’t count – but I’ve seen enough of the results to conclude that I don’t want to take any.

    The way I see it: there’s no point arguing about the sophisticated theology unless the basic theology is solid – and it isn’t. There’s nothing there, just a hole that’s covered over with fancy words. A good architect knows that no matter how fancy a building’s façade is, it won’t stand up without a solid structure, all the way down to the foundations. Theologians, by comparison, are building castles in the sky.

    • Pofarmer

      I wish I could give this more than one up vote.

    • Castilliano

      Akin to your castle, I like the imagery that Christianity (and all religion) is a crystalline lattice, floating in the sky. Intricate and self-supporting, yet completely ungrounded, brittle, and subject to destruction when confronted with reality.

      I liken the reality movement (atheism) to gravity, and the Secular Humanism movement to picking up the worthwhile pieces while sweeping the rest away.
      Cheers.

      • Pseudonym

        I like the imagery that Christianity (and all religion) is a crystalline lattice, floating in the sky.

        I see it more like a man made out of straw, but each to their own I guess.

    • Al Dente

      I used to dread talking to door-to-door proselytizers because they seemed to have an answer for every argument. It turns out they really don’t. They have some specious pat answers they use to get past your arguments and back to their hard sell but if you keep pressing them and get them off of their script they quickly fall apart.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      I disagree — I’ve heard many “criticisms” of cannabis that were quite simply outright lies manufactured by the “Drug Warriors”. My experiences with the plant are directly contradictory to the official lies put out by the government.

    • Pseudonym

      Do you need to be a drug addict or a chemist before you can criticise drugs?

      No. Having said that, if you’re not a chemist, or a pharmacist, or a sociologist, or have any relevant qualifications whatsoever, then you should be very careful what you say. Uninformed criticism runs the risk of being inaccurate, or even unhelpful and counter-productive. That’s where “just say no”-type campaigns come from.

      We criticise those in charge of the Catholic Church when they criticise contraception, and one of the problems that we identify is that they are largely old middle class celibate white men. To be fair, there is an increasing number of old middle class celibate non-white men in the mix, so yay for diversity.

  • bruceewilson

    I’d make a simple distinction, between criticism of Christian theology – about which there are real doctrinal issues to learn – and the role of Christianity in the public sphere and within pluralist democracy.

  • jjramsey

    I’d say that the degree to which one needs to study religious ideas to criticize them depends on what ideas one is criticizing. If one is criticizing various arguments for the existence of various deities, it helps to know what those arguments actually are. If one is criticizing stories about miracles, it helps to know the classic arguments against them by, say, Hume. If one is criticizing particular aspects of a particular religion, one at least needs to know what they are, and one should preferably know what the previous arguments about them were, so that one does not reinvent the wheel.

  • primenumbers

    Do you need to know the specific and nuanced results of a faith based approach to knowledge before criticizing a faith based approach to knowledge? No. Does a broad knowledge of the temporal and spatial distribution and contradictory nature of the results of a faith based approach to knowledge make the argument that a faith based approach to knowledge produces unreliable results and should be discarded? Yes.

  • kielc

    Knowledge of a subject bolsters one’s ability to argue against (or for) it. Religion as a whole is the sort of thing that one can question on general principles of rationality. But if one is arguing against specific tenets of a given religion’s theology, then yes, one should be pretty familiar with that theology.

  • JLP3

    My training is as an historian and I have studied the history of religion extensively. I think it is helpful to know the development of religions, so you can illustrate to people how their religion has evolved over time and how it has borrowed from other religions. For example, most Christians have never heard of Zoroastrianism, yet it was very influential on Christian doctrine.

    Still, your point is well taken–most of us have had a religious upbringing and direct experience of whatever religion that was. Only a few religious people have made a really serious study of comparative theology. They readily dismiss religions other than their own. People who are fundamentalists often dismiss science without understanding it, so they really have no right to dismiss atheists whom they feel don’t understand their religion.

  • Buckley

    I’ve only ever studied the Greek Gods/Goddesses and Egyptian Cosmology in high school and college, and am in no way capable of truly understanding their “mythology” other than the fact that I know that it is a myth. Christianity, Islam, etc are no different – myths. I’m fairly confident that I can judge a myth from reality using reason. They judge their belief on faith. Faith and reason are contradictory for the most part.

    • baal

      Is Egyptian Cosmetology where you use actual soot to color around the eyes?

      • Buckley

        Touche!

  • TGAP Dad

    I’m pretty sure you would be better criticizing it with a base of knowledge on it, which is not to suggest that you would need to absorb and practice the religion with the presumption of its truth. Daniel Dennett actually covered this question (and others) several years ago in his book “Breaking the Spell,” which I highly recommend.

  • cary_w

    I think you need to make a distinction between criticizing someone’s specific action and criticizing a religion’s whole belief system. I can certainly criticize the absurd things people do because of their religions, such as cutting off parts of their penises, draping themselves in black robes in a frickin desert and convincing their kids they are evil sinners. It doesn’t mater what their religon tells them, those kinds of things are crazy on their own.

    But trying to discredit a whole belief system or arguing against the validity of the Bible without having a good understanding of those things is just sinking to the level of the creationist claiming evolution is false when they don’t have a clue how evolution works. If you are going to debate anything, you really need to understand the opposing viewpoint to be successful!

    • baal

      1. Your religion is bad/harmful since it’s anti-condom
      2. Your religion is wrong since it gets the names of angels wrong.
      3. Your religion is wrong since it believes in hell.

      I’m sure I could make a much longer list of complaints but these three are enough for a point I’d like to make. Anyone should be able to make the first criticism regardless of their knowledge of a religion. The second is a down right academic point that I don’t see anyone saying anything remotely useful on but if you made it, you’d have a burden to show some very technical religious stuff and would really need to know something about that religions dogma. The third complaint is more interesting. You could go after it on theology grounds (and would then need theological knowledge) or you could go after it on the moral grounds that hell belief is nothing more than teaching children fear and psychological abuse. If you’re asserting the later, all you need to know about is child psychology.

      What I keep seeing is religious folks asserting that complaint type 1 is a complaint type two or always taking complaint type 3 from the theology side when the complainent is making the psychology argument.

      I’d further argue that you can dismiss most religions for their reliance on supernatural agency. All you need to show/know is that the religion in question relies on supernatural power at its core or foundation and you can dismiss it entirely even without knowing the minutia of the names of the angels.

      TL;DR – the type of claim matters.

    • Ewan

      “But trying to discredit a whole belief system or arguing against the
      validity of the Bible without having a good understanding of those
      things is just sinking to the level of the creationist claiming
      evolution is false when they don’t have a clue how evolution works.”

      This is completely wrong, and indeed, quite dangerous. The important difference between those two views is not what they say, it’s how they were generated. It is not valid to compare a faith based position with an evidence based position as if they were on an equal footing; they are not.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    Another deep irony in this Courtier’s Reply of religious believers is that they freely criticize evolution while knowing far less about it and science in general than most atheists know about religion.

    A thought experiment: we know the Aztec’s cut out the hearts of live human sacrifices in order to appease a sun god.

    Who would say that because we did not live as an Aztec, because we don’t speak their language, because we have not attended a ritual human sacrifice, that we cannot criticize their beliefs?

    We know they were acting based on epistemelogical error. We know the sun rises and sets daily according to immutable laws of physics, and that the beliefs of the Aztecs were factually wrong and caused unnecessary misery and suffering. We need know little or nothing about the details of their faith and their culture to reject their belief in human sacrifice.

    We also need to know little about the thousands of religions and Gods to reject the idea of powerful deities intervening in our lives, creating our lives, and controlling fate. We have the basic roadmap for how the Universe works: the standard model of quantum mechanics, and general relativity. While these models are not perfect or complete, they have taught us enough to eliminate the possibility of invisible undiscovered forces acting at the scale and energy of chemistry and biology on earth. Physics has proven that if there are unseen forces we have not discovered, they only act on tiny sub-particle scales, or massive galactic scales or larger, and they only work at energies that are far tinier than sub-atomic levels, or energies far beyond what is involved in daily human life on earth.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    The idea that only people with theology degrees have a right to discuss their religions has a lot of implications, some of which believers might find counter-productive. For instance, it means that only M Divs are allowed to proselytize.

    I honestly don’t think most believers would buy into that idea at all. Nevertheless, it IS a conclusion that logically follows from the principle that only degree-holders in a religion are allowed to discuss it.

    Furthermore, the idea that only degree holders in a field should carry any weight in it, has wider implications that are even more absurd. For instance, only people with political-science degrees should be allowed to run for office, or even vote.

    The cold fact is that religion is an everyday entity, participated in by people at all levels of involvement and indoctrination. A great deal of information about religions is available to anyone who cares to reach for it, followers or otherwise. For instance, anyone on the planet can read the Catechism and find out what it is that Roman Catholicism teaches. One doesn’t need a theology degree from a Catholic college in order to access it or to have read it.

    That said, it certainly pays to be informed about a religion before discussing it, and I suppose there are people who dislike religions (either particular ones, or religion in general) without knowing much about them. But let’s be honest: Most people who are truly ignorant of a religion, aren’t going to comment on it. The only people motivated to criticize a religion (aside from followers of rival religions), are very likely to know something about it. Often, they know much more than just a little about it.

    I’ll set aside people like American Neocrusaders, who’re militant Christians agitating to have Islam banned within the US. They attack Islam because they perceive it as the chief rival of their own faith, not because they know much about Islam.

    Surveys and polls showing that non-believers, as a whole, tend to be better-informed about religion than believers do, bear this out. Again, this doesn’t mean any particular critic of a religion is an expert in it … but it does mean that one can’t safely assume any critic to be ignorant of it.

    This objections just harkens back to the old (and tired) believers’ axiom that anyone who rejects their faith MUST, by definition, be totally ignorant of it. They can’t or won’t fathom that anyone who knows anything about their religion, would choose not to belong to it … or worse, criticize it. It’s a very primitive and childish mindset, but religionists aren’t known for being very mature, so it’s expected.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      The idea that only people with theology degrees have a right to discuss
      their religions has a lot of implications, some of which believers might
      find counter-productive.

      They get suspiciously quiet when you suggest in turn that, based on their own argument, they are unqualified to dislike any movie, novel, song, television show, political position, political candidate, or even any person that isn’t themselves or that they haven’t spent six years meticulously researching.

  • skeptical_inquirer

    The ironic thing is that often atheists know the Bible better than a lot of theists. I’m sure a lot of people who talk loudly & proudly about the Bible ignore/don’t know a lot of the bad bits because their priest/pastor/minister avoids talking about it like the section where kids are eaten by bears because they made fun of a bald guy. Or that the Bible seems really cool with slavery in general.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Sadly, in the specific example of the bears, we saw here this month the lengths to which people will go to excuse horrific passages. Everything from jabbering about “context” and how the people back then were somehow less able to comprehend morality and had to be brutalized, to rationalizing it as being okay because they were teenagers (which was obviously untrue) and even – and I’m not kidding here – saying that God used bears even though they’d be a very painful means of execution because there were probably bears in the area, so it was “convenient”. That was an actual excuse given.

      • David Kopp

        “So people back then were dumber? And you trust the book they wrote as the absolute, inerrant truth?”

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Gonna quote you the next time one of them tries that “they couldn’t handle ALL the truth back then” gibberish.

      • FTP_LTR

        I love the convenient bears justification.

        That’s gotta make a great t-shirt.

        “Mock me, will ya? Why you little… If I had a convenient bear, then you’d be sorry…”

        “I’d've gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those convenient bears”

        “Meddle not in the ways of bears, for they are convenient and quick to anger”

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          I’m going to mull this idea over and look for opportunities to insert convenient bears into things, because it’s still making me smile two days later.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    If you are going to take on a topic you don’t know much about, you are setting yourself up for that criticism. But since it’s common for religious leaders of all types to criticize or discuss other religions that they obviously don’t understand (I say this from having heard it dozens of times.), I don’t know why atheists don’t have as much right to do it as anyone else. In fact, (again in my experience) the more people hear detailed critiques of everyone else’s beliefs from the pulpit, the more likely they are to react angrily when anyone else criticizes their own.

  • Mick

    One of the favourite tricks of Christians (evangelistic preachers and the mugs in the pews as well) is to tell their friends and relations: “Just accept Jesus as your saviour right now, this minute, and your life will be turned around for ever.” No study required.

    Five year old children are encourage to testify their commitment to the faith at the local fundamentalist church. No study required.

    Mafia criminals who haven’t been to a church service in their life will accept Jesus on their deathbed and gain certain entry into heaven. No study required.

    But if you leave the church then you have to study religion !!!

    • Al Dente

      Another family we are friends with are very religious and we still get along and “agree to disagree” and ignore our religious differences. The problem came up with their kids were encouraged in church to witness to all their friends and try to win souls for Jesus. One day after a play date my daughter proudly announced, “Today I accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior.” At this point I wasn’t terribly worried; my daughter still believed in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy. I did have a talk with her and told her that different people believed in different things and while a lot of people believe in Christianity that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists all believe different things and that some people like myself don’t believe any of them. We also suggested to the other parents that we fully respect their religious views and don’t try to convince their kids there is no God so they should respect our worldview and not try to convert us.

      • Ian

        One thing that you should consider is this…

        If they are to truly believe in Jesus as their savior, by not doing everything in their power to convert you and your family, they are saying they really don’t care about you.

        So, either they aren’t convinced either, or they don’t like you enough to do what they believe will save you from eternal suffering.

        Have fun with that one! Still has me confounded about my religious parents.

        • Ron

          That depends. There are Christian sects that actively shun apostates. And there are also Calvinists, à la Westboro Baptist Church, who believe that salvation is predestined and don’t give a hoot.

        • Drakk

          This is why I afford a level of respect, grudging as it may be, towards fundamentalists, whereas I feel essentially just contempt for moderates.

          At least the fundamentalists have the intellectual honestly to act in accordance with what they claim to believe.

  • Bdole

    You don’t have to “study” a religion for more than 2 seconds before running smack dab into baseless, and often absurd, assertions about reality e.g. there’s a god and he wants you to snip some bits off the tip of your dick.

    Conversely, you could spend your entire life researching ways to “prove” those stupid assertions and you’d still be nowhere.
    No thanks. I have better things to do with my time.

    edit: “snip” flows better.

    • Ian

      Any answer that creates more questions than it answers should be dismissed. Good application of Occam’s razor!

    • Ron

      A strange request in light of the psalmist’s assertions that we are “wonderfully made.”

    • b s

      “…there’s a god and he wants you to snip some bits off the tip of your dick.”

      At least from those who have them.

      Anyway, reading this just brought up an interesting question in my mind. Did Adam have a foreskin? If man was created perfectly in the image of god, but later on god wants us to cut it off, that implies that he doesn’t like the foreskin*. Just like meat eaters and death, the foreskin was caused by The Fall

      *Or he really does and wants them all to himself, but that is a little too disturbing.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

        *Or he really does and wants them all to himself, but that is a little too disturbing.

        *squick*

  • Kodie

    How long do you have to watch a tv show before you decide to turn the channel? I think it’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

    • Ian

      It’s more like dismissing the existence of a TV show, or even an entire channel, because the laws of the FCC would never allow them on the air. It’s still possible they’re there, but extremely unlikely.

      Oh, and just in case, we looked at the TV guide, flipped through every channel, called our cable providers, and even did a Google search – the only response from the person suggesting we watch the show being, “You have to feel the channel. You can’t turn your dial to it on your TV, or find any evidence that it ever existed. You have to trust in the channel and it will fill your TV screen. Praise the channel!”.

      Do I really need to read an episode guide about a TV channel that can’t possibly exist?

      In other words, religions are most likely false because their core tenets include claims that aren’t compatible with what we know is true about the world, like the laws of physics.

      • Kodie

        I just mean it is fiction, and I don’t have to pay attention to it, and I don’t have to give a lot of very good reasons why I don’t want to. To me, theology is the deep analytical study of a work of fiction, interpreting passages and characters as if they lived, including the character of god. No matter what depths or lengths they go to to make their religion seem like an academic study of something real, it is superstition and pertains not at all to my real life.

        I appreciate people who can take down theological arguments, too. If that field of study interests them, I can’t argue. Some people are the same way with Harry Potter or Star Trek, but it’s more to me like someone saying, “if you don’t like Seinfeld, you’ve obviously never watched it,” or “if you don’t think you like The Rolling Stones, you’re just judging them from popular radio play and not given their full catalog a chance.” I’m sure some people have been converted into happy fans by these methods, but what does it matter? We’ve all had some experience getting hip to something we like, and wonder why it took so long to find out how good it was. But, so what? What was missing before?

        And in these debates about religion, I’ve encountered people who think you have to hold out judgment until after you read another book. And if that book doesn’t convince you, they have another one. If you still don’t believe in god, suspend your disbelief in how ridiculous implausible and fantastical it is, and just read one more book. It’s still not real. It could be interesting to some people, and any time people discuss those fine points, it goes nowhere very interesting to me, just like I don’t expect everyone to discuss what’s going on this week on Revenge with me. Don’t you hate it when someone asks you if you watch Amish Mafia and then you say ‘no’ and then they go on to tell you what happened on it, like you would not believe something they did on a tv show, or start to find a tv show you already decided is terrible more intriguing? Even if it’s up your alley, well, mine, I would say I just don’t have time for one more tv show to get hooked on and worked up about.

        I don’t find that much interesting about religion to find out all the nooks and crannies of it. It’s a heaping pile of misdirection, a little too clunky and causes eye-rolling, like Grey’s Anatomy. It could be a good soap opera but I find it too hard to believe any of them got through med school with so many emotional problems.

    • Pseudonym

      How long do you have to watch a tv show before you decide to turn the channel?

      The usual figure is ten minutes, however you have to be careful with what conclusion you’re drawing. To run with your analogy, “it’s not to my taste” is a very different claim from “there is nothing in this show that could possibly justify the radio spectrum that it’s wasting”.

      It took me about half the first season to decide that I didn’t like Lost, but even having invested that amount of time, it would be stupid for me to draw the conclusion that there’s nothing of value in it for anyone at all and it would be better off cancelled. OTOH, I do feel justified in drawing precisely that conclusion from certain reality shows with less than a minute of viewing.

      So the answer to the question “can you criticise a religion without studying it?” is that it depends on the religion and it depends on the criticism. Anti-evolutionism can be safely criticised without understanding it. However, coming up with an accurate counter to the fact that church-attenders give more time and money on a per capita basis than non-church-attenders does require actually understanding why that’s the case, doesn’t it?

  • David

    The sweeping generalizations in this video are problematic. Careful study leads to more nuanced critique.

    • David Kopp

      Sure. But there’s no requirement for nuanced critique. Again, as Hemant quoted PZ Myers… I don’t care what color you think the Emperor’s clothes are, he doesn’t HAVE clothes.

      • Jeffrey G. Johnson

        “The sweeping generalizations in this video are problematic. Careful study leads to more nuanced critique.”

        This statement is almost vacuous. It’s true of virtually any utterance any human could ever make.

        I agree with Mr. Kopp: who needs nuance to disbelieve in an intentional being resembling the angry jealous vengeful loving God who gave his son up in the flesh in a tiny insignificant primitive corner of this vast globe, who listens and replies to all who speak to him, and who also decided to will everything into existence for unknown reasons one day after always existing for an infinite amount of time before becoming the prime mover 6,000 years ago, or maybe a mere 13.7 billion years ago, a tiny blink in the infinite prologue of his uncreated existence, and who has prepared a privileged eternal playground in an undisclosed location for these new kids on the block? So implausible only one willing to be slavishly subject to the authority of old books with no critical thought at all could possibly believe it.

        How many believers in religion have nuanced belief? Maybe .00000001% at best.

        And that nuance is doing what exactly? 5,000 shades of imaginary stuff is just more imaginary stuff.

        • David

          “This statement is almost vacuous.” Glad you are not plagued by vacuous drivel. That would suck.

          • Jeffrey G. Johnson

            Touche on your humorous irony.

            But my point is sound. Your statement is itself a sweeping generalization that is practically empty of meaning because it can be said about anything that careful study reveals nuance.

            Careful study of Moby Dick reveals more nuanced critique. Volumes can be filled. This says nothing about the relationship between Moby Dick’s narrative and factual reality. We can make statements about Moby Dick’s relationship to factual reality without careful study.

            It’s fiction. No nuance needed.

            • David

              I suppose for me I find value in understanding the contours of the fiction.

              • Jeffrey G. Johnson

                Of course there is value in that. But you are looking past the main point.

                Appreciating the value in understanding what the fiction tells us about human subjectivity doesn’t mean you should be accorded reverence, awe, and respect if you go around claiming the story really happened. And without spending lots of time studying the book people can easily understand that your claim of veracity for the story should not be taken seriously.

      • David

        As a case in point, he only critiques popular Christian beliefs/idiosyncrasies (and there are a lot of things to critique!). This popular Christian emperor may be naked, but this does not therefore mean that all emperors are naked. To conclude from popular Christian practice that there is therefore no God seems misguided to me. I don’t find such approaches helpful.

        • David Kopp

          See… you’re making the same silly argument. I don’t have to know the details about your imagined superstitions to say that it’s wrong. I don’t care if it’s Vishnu, Buddha, Allah or Thor. There’s no evidence for it, and the emperor is naked no matter which emperor it is.

          If popular Christian beliefs/idiosyncrasies are overrepresented in the critiques here, it’s because Christians are a very predominant majority here in the US. That makes it the most common target, as they’re the most likely to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us.

          • David

            Glad you have it all figured out. Carry on.

            • David Kopp

              I’m not entirely sure how to take that. It seems like a dismissive comment, implying that because I don’t know everything, there’s no way I could be right. Which is folly in and of itself. It’s wonderful to keep your mind open, but not so open that your brain falls out and you accept anything anyone tells you.

              I’m not saying that I know for a fact there are no gods, fairies, or Santa Claus, because you can’t “know” that, just like you don’t know that Russell’s Teapot doesn’t exist. But it IS silly to give supernatural thoughts any kind of credence in the complete absence of any evidence for them. Sure, read the stories, have fun with examining them and learning about them. But believing they could exist by default is an unwarranted position.

              • Fred

                You nailed it. It’s a dismissive comment.

        • Kodie

          To conclude from popular Christian practice that there is therefore no God seems misguided to me.

          You don’t seem qualified to challenge atheism.

          • David

            I am not challenging atheism. I thought I was suggesting ways to make the case more compelling.

            • Kodie

              Nobody is concluding from popular Christian practice that there is no god, for starters.

      • Pseudonym

        Why is PZ Myers so prudish about a little nudity?

    • Ian

      I think the point was that untrained observations can be just as valid.

      • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

        More so sometimes. Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in one thing you can’t step back and see it from a fresh perspective and realize where you went wrong.

        • Pseudonym

          One of the reasons why we have science is that our perceptions can deceive us.

          For this reason (among many reasons), a trained eye will almost always make a more accurate observation than an untrained one. There are exceptions, but they are notable because they are rare.

  • Ian

    Claiming that criticizing a religion requires study of its holy texts is akin to saying that criticizing the belief in aliens from the film ‘Aliens’ requires viewing the movie.

    It isn’t feasible to be an expert in everything you accept as true, so why would you need to be an expert in everything you choose to reject? We have to accept expert testimony, in judiciary courts and in daily life, in order to make sense of things. We verify these conclusions in many ways, mainly by checking it against everything else we accept and by rejecting all other conflicting theories when they aren’t sound.

    Therefore, all that is required to have a valid argument against a religious belief is a contradiction between it and a sound theory that has been verified.

  • busterggi

    How much study does it require to criticize someone who knows almost nothing about their own religion or its history and whose biggest arguement in its favor is telling anyone who disagress that they are going to Hell?

  • Jim

    Brian – you need to severly strengthen your arguments. Otherwise you’ll be defeated at every turn. Your first assertion is invalid. Yes, you can criticize the impact of drugs on your world without being an addict. But you cannot constructively, or effectively criticize drug addiction without studying it. If you do its just emotion and not a contribution of any solution. Maybe well placed, but not sound in attempting a valid conversation. Also, your last assertion “Theologians, by comparison….” Of course theologians understand the need for a solid foundation to their beliefs and knowledge. As do architects. But you end your argument with a “bumper sticker”….”are building castles in the sky.” You have to study the Bible to ask the really hard questions. And, as a Christian, I would welcome that. We ask those questions every day. If you knew anything about the Bible, you’d know that even the Apostiles were skeptics. Hell, Paul (author of most of the Bible) was dedicated to arresting and killing Christians. So, if you want to effectively criticize us, you should intensely study the Bible. But that would require you to confront many fears. Follow us for a while. You don’t have to stay. That’s up to you. Good luck.. And God bless you all.

    • Kodie

      What kind of meaningful questions are there that are meaningfully answered with a presupposed invisible sky dude’s mysterious motivations?

    • Jeffrey G. Johnson

      We have very good evidence that drug addiction is a real phenomenon. We don’t have to be experts in treatment and the mechanisms of addiction to know this with a high degree of confidence. The evidence is everywhere. But we tend to take many of the claims drug addicts make with a grain of salt.

      We also have good evidence that religious belief is a real phenomenon. But we have no evidence that the claims of religious believers are true, other than hearsay or personal testimony, better known as scripture, witness, and revelation.

      But we do know of many psychological reasons why such accounts have personal motives other than a commitment to epistemological and empirical rigor. So all of this so-called “evidence” is easily called into question before one even knows the details. For any religion, there are far more people alive now and in the past claiming that it is false than there are people claiming it is true. This is because the competing religions don’t acknowledge one another’s truth claims.

      I simply need to consider the thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods that litter human history to conclude with a high degree of confidence, knowing little else about any of them, that it is very unlikely that one of these happens to be the one and only true one, and that all others are completely false. Far less likely is the possibility that the one true religion just happens to be the one predominant in the country I happened to be born in. Far more likely is the possibility that every single one of them is a product of some aspect of human psychological motives, and merely contingent artifacts of the cultures humans create, such as language or diet or custom, rather than being some deep fundamental truth about the universe.

      Given that I could not possibly deeply study every single religion or God that ever existed and exhaustively compare them, it seems justifiable to remain unconvinced until one of them actually produces some evidence that makes it stand dramatically apart from the claims of all the other religions on earth. So far no religion has been able to accomplish that.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      But that would require you to confront many fears

      The arrogance, condescension, and presumption both of superior wisdom and of psychic powers expressed right there is the shot fired into your own foot.

  • Jim

    I’d be ok with this standard for criticizing their religion when they have the same standard for accepting their religion.

    Can you imagine a pastor or priest saying something like “I’m sorry, but I don’t think your conversion is genuine. You haven’t spent enough time studying to gain a full understanding of theology, church history, and apologetic arguments to really be able to accept Christ.”

    • Ron

      Case in point: Lee Strobel’s five-year-old daughter made the decision to accept Christ as her personal Saviour after conducting an intense and exhaustive investigation into all the world’s religious doctrines… not!

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Orthodox Jews do that, and from what I understand, so do Catholics.

      Converting to either is actually a very arduous, time-consuming, and annoying process that requires a whole lot of studying.

      This isn’t to say you don’t have a good point for a whole lot of religions, but at least a few of the Abrahamic ones do actually have the same standard for accepting or rejecting the religion (and in the case of Orthodox Jews, it might actually be harder to get in than to get out).

      • Ewan

        “Converting to either is actually a very arduous, time-consuming, and annoying process”

        They don’t seem to set that bar for children who’s parents are already believers.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          No, children are presumed to be properly indoctrinated by their parents. They do have to go to Sunday school or other religious school and undergo a public commitment ceremony when they’re old enough to presumably know what they’re getting into, though (13 for Jews, 16 or so for Catholics).

          I’m not condoning the practice of childhood indoctrination, but both of those religions do at least try to make sure that converts and children know what they’re getting into before officially signing them on. I was responding to Jim’s point by showing that there are, in fact, at least a few religions that do say something like “I’m sorry, but I don’t think your conversion is genuine. You haven’t spent enough time studying to gain a full understanding of theology, church history, and apologetic arguments to really be able to accept Christ.”

        • Kodie

          What is a confirmation or a bar mitzvah?

          • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

            I think they’re a combination of “coming-of-age” and “welcome to the faith” rituals.

            • Kodie

              I mean, I know that. Catholicism and Judaism were specifically mentioned as being somewhat of a chore to get into, but they are the two religions I know of with a high bar for children to gain entrance in also. If by ‘high bar’ you mean, being forced to go to classes to learn your faith. It’s my general understanding, although this may not be the case in practice, but they force this teaching on children and by the time they reach their ceremonies, they may reject it then, but not before. As in, they are considered to be of age and to have learned a bulk of information (which is what we’re discussing) to reject it at that time. I think most still obey their parents anyway, no matter what they actually believe.

              I don’t think of Protestants as having as high a bar, but I’m not sure. I think all you have to do is take Jesus into your heart, and maybe they will baptize you, but I don’t think they are too exclusive about who gets to be baptized.

          • LuckyPenny36

            Bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for a girl) is the Jewish rite of passage to adulthood and traditionally includes publicly chanting from the Torah scroll in Hebrew. The term means son (daughter) of the commandments. At that point the child is considered to be a full adult member of the community. Confirmation is essentially a Christian version of the same concept with different rituals. The name confirmation has been re-borrowed by modern Judaism as a way of extending Jewish education beyond age 13. I hope that answers your question.

    • Hilary

      Along with what Feminerd said about Orthodox Jews, even among Reform Jews you still have to spend a *least* a year, minimum, learning, studying, and participating in the community before being elegiable for conversion. It usually takes closer to two years. I don’t know of any cases where someone was refused conversion to Reform for not being knowledgeable enough, but it could happen, or more likely the rabbi would wait until he or she felt sure the person was ready and really knew what they were getting into.

      Which is my point: critisizing every religion out there as though it was Christianity is a mistake. If you are going to critisize a religion, critisize it for what it is on it’s own terms, not Religion as a synonym for Christianity.

      Fair disclosure: I’m a Reform Jew, and very familiar about our process of conversion.

  • Don Gwinn

    I’m the wrong guy to ask. I *like* studying things.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Not me. I HATE learning! Grrrr!

    • Ron

      Too much study makes baby Jesus cry:

      “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Ecclesiastes 1:18

      “Be warned, my children, against anything more than these. People never stop writing books. Too much studying will wear out your body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12

      • Pseudonym

        “I would rather have my ignorance than another man’s knowledge, because I have got so much more of it.” Mark Twain

      • Ursula L

        Kids these days. Ruined by computers… television… radio… novels… literacy… the wheel… fire…

        Get off my lawn.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    Don’t forget science! Most Christians know less about science than Jr high school students yet they feel perfectly fine proclaiming that evolution or the big bang are completely ridiculous ideas that don’t make any sense and are totally wrong.

  • Hilary

    I think it depends on what you want to critisize. If you want to say that all relgions are stupid for believing an a unprovable sky fairy, then no you don’t need to have much background. But if you are going to critisize actual points of belief or practice, it does help to have some idea what that religion actually believes and actually does. Most of the comments in this thread imply that religion and Christianity are interchangeable, and the criticizim of one is the criticism of the other. But if someone were to try and criticise Judasim to me after only reading the KJV Old Testament with no clue about what Jews actually do, the thousands of years of commentary and interpretation, or any knowledge of a Hebrew/English Tanakh, I’d just roll my eyes and shrug. Whatever – come back when you’ve read “Judaism for Dummies” and have a clue. If you are going to try and make a pont by point breakdown of Islam with no care for the differences between Sunni and Shi’a – come back after you’ve Googled a bit.

    After all, atheists rightly get frustrated when they are criticized by religious people who don’t take five minutes to learn what atheism is really about, from valid atheist sources. Likewise, if you are going to be critical of a religion that is not mainstream and you don’t have personal experience with – please read “X for dummies” first.

    • Kodie

      It’s like this: why don’t you believe? Like, you have to justify to someone why you don’t believe what they believe. Then they start to tell you what they believe, and you’re like, ??? ,seriously, you’re a grown-up with an invisible friend. Why aren’t you more embarrassed? You’re not allowed to get away from it without explaining why the story, the basic story, is nonsense from the get-go: A god made the earth, blah blah blah, his son committed suicide by cop, and rose from the dead. EVERYONE SAWR IT, UH-HUH!!

      If I say to someone, I don’t believe in horoscopes, usually, that is a satisfactory answer. I don’t have to do the James Randi demonstration of why horoscopes are bullshit, except if you meet someone who regularly gets their charts done by a professional zodiac reader. People mostly have a casual belief in horoscopes that are not totally broken if you don’t believe them as well.

      There are deeper theological discussions, but their side is trying to use this information to prove something imaginary is real, while the atheist is just picking it apart to show how ridiculous it is, deeply. I just got into a discussion yesterday with a Mormon, and he was insistent that I argue with what Mormons believe and not generalize. I don’t really? I don’t have to read Mormon stuff to get the gist of “you believe there are souls and I don’t”. I don’t need a Mormon-specific explanation that he imagines will change my mind and think upon the existence of souls any differently. I mean – Mormons apparently believe souls exist eternally, and are sent to bodies to park on earth for a while, and then go to some home planet when they die to get back near god. That is different than what other Christians believe, which is precious to him, but makes no difference to me. Waste of my time learning that. I don’t know why these details are important to people for their opponent to consider before they are dismissed.

      I wasn’t raised with a religion, and I never read the bible, so I don’t generally get involved with biblical discussions that go beyond my scope, but I can read, and if someone posts a passage from the bible, I think it’s ok to criticize without having to back that up with credit in a divinity course. Most of it can be dismissed with “it’s a story and it means nothing to me.”

  • CATMAN

    I would say it this way: you don’t have to be an equestrian to recognize horseshit when you see it

  • idahogie

    You don’t have to study astrology in order to dismiss it as utter foolishness right off the bat.

  • KelpieLass

    That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence .

    (Often said by Hitchens, I forget who he was quoting)

  • KelpieLass

    When visiting Ireland, I met an elderly gentleman who clearly believed in the “little people”, who could only be discussed only in whispers. Does this mean I have to study leprechauns before I decide whether a belief in leprechauns is reasonable?

  • Nox

    Not effectively.

    You don’t need to know every detail of a belief system to be basically justified in personally rejecting it (and who could have time to know every detail of every belief system). But if you are going to criticize anything you absolutely should start by knowing what the thing is. Otherwise your criticism risks being uninformed and inaccurate.

    That does not mean we should give any quarter to this vacuous argument or allow it to distract from the questions it is intended to distract from.

    Talking about the parts of a belief system the believer doesn’t want to talk about is not automatically a misrepresentation. Talking about logical implications of their beliefs that they haven’t thought of is not automatically a misrepresentation. Talking about things they would rather not admit their church has done is not automatically a misrepresentation.

    Accusations that critics have misrepresented the faith are mostly an attempt to not admit that their faith really contains the flaws critics have pointed out (in the catholic version of the courtier’s reply they are usually careful not to say what the actual belief is, just that you have somehow misunderstood it). If the argument they were responding to were correct, that might mean their preferred beliefs are wrong. Of course they would object to this, and of course they would not admit this is their objection.

    The people who created this trope intended it to restrict any discussion of their religion to those who would discuss it in sufficiently reverential tones. For those who employ it on the ground motives may vary, but I suspect the big one is the feeling that the atheist’s description of their belief does not match what they themselves believe. They may even be justified in feeling this way.

    Hearing a description of a belief system you identify with which does not match your own opinion of what that belief entails sounds like hearing a strawman. And with how many disparate flavors of christianity there are every possible statement can be seen as a strawman by someone. For any statement (not just criticism, any statement) that you can ever make about any christian doctrine, there will be some christians who can honestly say ‘that isn’t what I believe’.


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