Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 3)

Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 3) June 25, 2009

Shane’s reply to this post addressing him (and you can find part 1 which initiated the conversation here):

An excellent response! Much more in-depth than my teasing comment probably warranted. Sorry, but my response is a bit rambling. That comes with the blog commenting genre, I think.

My earlier point wasn’t about intellectual virtues or vices per se, but I’d be happy to try to cash it out in those terms if you like.

I want to say that a person is intellectual virtuous if she habitually cultivates characteristics like curiosity, honesty, careful, clear and reflective thought. Your claim, I take it, is that being religious necessarily makes a person fail in one or more of these intellectual virtues (or perhaps more modestly, makes that person fail in respect of her use of that virtue toward the subject-matter of religion).

As I understand it, your claim is that religion is harmful because it necessarily undermines the practice of these intellectual virtues. So the form of your argument is this: (1) Doing x (which maybe seems innocuous) leads to doing y (which is definitely harmful); (2) you don’t want to do y; therefore (3) you shouldn’t do x. What I’m wanting to see is the empirical evidence for thinking (1) is true. I want to see some real empirical evidence that failing in one’s epistemic duties about religion leads to failing in one’s epistemic duties about the other matters.

Here’s one reason I have to be suspicious about a claim like “being religious tends to make people more credulous in general”. I think what is going to count as being intellectual virtuous about some subject-matter is going to depend an awful lot on what that subject-matter is. If you want to be intellectually virtuous about physics you are going to hold people to high epistemic standards because the subject matter admits of precise, rigorous, repeatable empirical verification. I think the epistemic standards in history are different. For one thing, historical events are unique, not repeatable, so it would make no sense to demand the same level of proof of the history that we do of the physicist. (Aristotle: It is the mark of an educated man to pursue only as much exactness as the subject admits.)

There are several interesting issues here.  First, I think you are right that our virtues can be somewhat influenced by context.  I think, for example, that you could have someone who had a genuine virtue of generosity when it came to her friends and yet when it came to even the normal demands of generosity to strangers, she was completely oblivious or ill-habituated.  Or there could be a scrupulous scientist who would be outraged at any hints of number-fudging and who might even risk his career than engage in any and yet he may lie to his wife routinely.  In part this is likely because of differences in our attachment to narrower ideals than the virtue broadly construed may encompass.  So, I may be more committed to the ideal of friendship and more emotionally responsive to my friends since they are so pleasing to me than I am committed to the ideal of altruistic universal benevolence and emotionally impelled to care about strangers.  In fact, this is all psychologically to be expected in general as Joshua Greene’s work makes exceedingly clear.  So, big, general virtues like generosity often occur in combination with specific virtues like friendship and altruism and these can influence its shape and habituation for us.

Can intellectual virtues split similarly?  Let’s make another distinction.  Intellectual virtues can split with respect to spheres of life and with respect to spheres of inquiry.  So, the scrupulously honest empiricist in the laboratory may be an inscrupulous liar in the marriage.  This is not necessary, of course, but possible.  Can the scrupulously honest empiricist be rigorous in the laboratory but then credulous in the church?  This is possible.  This is what I think the best reilgious intellectuals are like.  In the realm of questions which are either indifferent or non-threatening to faith commitments, they cultivate all the normal intellectual virtues.  I don’t expect you, Shane to be any more credulous when dealing with a used car salesman than I am.  In fact, I would wager on a daily basis, outside the sphere of theoretical ideas, knowing you and me, I’m probably the more gullible one!

And within the intellectual sphere, I have every confidence that on some fine point of conceptual distinction neutral to religious commitment, you will be as likely or more to make a scrupulously careful observation or inference.  And even with the matters that hit upon your religious commitments, you are talented enough a thinker to be able to cash out the meanings of your tradition’s ideas in the ways that are the most intellectually satisfying they can be.  You will find a way, if there is one, to show a harmony between the best science, the best ethics, etc. and your faith.  Similarly, in my dissertation, I am trying to find the most appealing, rationally defensible, contemporarily relevant, historically accurate, and logically coherent way to reconstruct Nietzsche’s philosophy in my dissertation.

The problem though is that even though your intellectual talents are being used to cultivate a rational and humane understanding of your particular tradition, there are still several pitfalls.

(1) the tradition has intractable elements of superstition, supernaturalism, and traditionalism, and actively cultivates the various intellectual vices I brought up: authoritarian assumptions about authority (both ethical and epistemological), habitual training in accepting causally impossible explanations, acceptance of absolute authorities claimed to be unimpeachable even in theory, reliance on intuitions about “God’s will” which are open to dubious tools for corroboration, etc.

(2) This tradition’s characteristic vices infect even your thought as a sophisticated and otherwise careful intellectual.  For all your skill with careful distinctions, in previous conversations you have proudly waved away the causal necessities of the world and declared belief in the virgin birth, the resurrection, “the whole nine yards” (or some similarly sweeping phrase you used to emphasize the point).  Those beliefs themselves, quite independent of your admirable scrupulousness in conceptual, causal, and logical distinctions on purely philosophical matters, simply bear fundamental contradiction to what we know about how the world works.

(3) The religious intellectual has essentially two routes for dealing with these contradictions, ingenious reinterpretation of what all the offenses to the rest of knowledge mean such that the words “virgin birth” and “resurrection” no longer mean anything nearly as literal and incredible as the average parishioner intends by those words.  In that case, the religious intellectual has actually in substance rejected the tradition and is really doing some sort of contemporary philosophizing about life but spoken primary in myth.

These kinds of religious intellectuals are essentially poets, their remarks about theology are literature, and their more strictly philosophical moments drip with metaphoric language.  My complaint to this person is that they are still perpetuating the mistaken way of thinking of those susceptible to literalism rather than using their realization of the limits of the literal tradition to shake those people out of it.  Most people, religious or non, are bad reasoners because (a) reasoning is a skill and (b) our brains bias us in favor of numerous sorts of errors.  The religious intellectual who speaks in poetry to say what he literally means by something else is not doing his fellow human being any favors.

There is nothing wrong if you want to wrap up a philosophical truth in an explicit work of art.  I genuinely think many artists can only communicate what they mean through metaphor or guitar strum or paint stroke.  Asked to articulate in conceptual distinctions and they are incapable.  They literally express themselves in a different medium in forms which are strictly irreducible.  The art speaks for itself, it itself is what the artist sees and thinks.  He doesn’t think and see like a philosopher.  But we also don’t take anything the artist does to be literal insofar as it is artifice.  The problem is that when the religious intellectual mixes conceptual distinction with myth liberally and all under the pretense of literality, the average person is tricked in a way that they are not tricked by movies or poems.

(4) To an extent, even the traditional Christians theologians and philosophers (and not just the liberals who deny all the supernatural and try to chuck husks and stick to the kernels) walk this line in that what a sophisticated Thomist theologian means by “God” is an ontological priniciple so divorced from what the man in the pew thinks (at least on the practical, visceral level that has him in the pew) that it’s a real semantic question whether the two are referring to the same concept at all. This case is not the total bait and switch of the Bultmannian I described above wherein the average parishioner seeks literal truth but gets only disambiguated myth which he mistakes for truth instead.  In this case, rather, the preacher and the congregant both believe in the literal virgin birth but, in these rare sophisticated theologians these sophistries are the outer limits of their intellectual vice in the name of tradition.  The rare, sophisticated theologian ingeniously convinces herself that she can be a 21st Century woman of science who knows the exact process by which human beings are generated, recognize that the idea that God could impregnate a woman is entirely alien to how that process works (does God have 46 chromosomes from which 23 can be selected for sperm?  this is pure nonsense) and just allow this cognitive dissonance without letting it infect the rest of his discourse on evolution and genetics, etc.

But to expect the average person, so prone to error to begin with to make these distinctions is rather charitable.  And we’ve seen the statistics before.  You know how high a proportion of the American populace does not believe in evolution or extends their biblical authoritarianism into the creation of “creationism” and other scientifically bankrupt ventures.

A few further points are also necessary:  (1) even in the sophisticated intellectual, the incorporation of faith, traditionalism, etc. represents the limits of her intellectual virtue and the dimension of vice in her thought.  It’s just in her case more likely that the infection is contained to religious matters (though it might not be).  But even in this case, to be genuinely religious, these mistaken habits of thought will have to move from theology to action.  There may be no non-theological extra sources of authoritarianism and credulity (this person may suspect the unitary executive, the scoundrel wrapped in the flag, the street hustler, etc.) but it will still have to have impacts on all those actions which stem from her theology.  Unless theology really doesn’t motivate and the religious language is just a way of speaking about judgments made entirely on theologically indifferent grounds.

(2) Given the susceptibility of people by our very natural brain limitations to bad habits of inference, training the average person explicitly to see certain of these habits as both good and necessary is downright counterproductive to the rigorous process of accepting that logic must always be respected, that reasons (of the appropriate kinds of course, as Aristotle says) must always be adduced for one’s beliefs and actions, etc.  It’s damn hard to habituate some one even to understand simple statistical realities that are counter-intuitive.  I don’t think it is indifferent to the cultivation of the average (lazy) mind when as venerable authorities as those who speak for God work very hard to keep people thinking fallaciously.  Is it possible that people can keep all their fallacies in the church and then step outside and be rigorously habituated the other way?  Of course, it is possible, but it’s not ordinary.  Yes, most people will not leave the church and then try to cash in on a plane crash in Nigeria that they learn about on the internet.  But the church will not have helped them with that cognitive ability.  And quite a good number are subject to political manipulations.  Or does it not seem intuitively correct to you when Orwell predicts that “When fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross?”

Let’s apply this point to religion. I think you can be religious and intellectually virtuous, simply because the subject matter at hand doesn’t admit of the kind of clear and distinct proof that we might like.

It’s no part of my view to deny that there are intellectual vicious ways to be religious too, of course. And this perhaps gets at your question about how I think about recommending religion to other people. I would say to my students that they should not check their brains at the church door or their souls at the university gates either. Here’s a good way for a Christian to think: All truth is God’s truth, so there’s no intellectual territory where we should fear to tread and no intellectual argument we should fear to engage.

I acknowledge that not all of Christians I have ever known think this way, but I think it’s a more common position than some non-religious folks might suspect.

The problem is that there are not two kinds of knowledge: scientific, empirically and conceptually clear and distinct on the one hand and then the wild, wild west of gut feelings and traditionalism on the other side.  Mathematicians have proofs which give them absolute credibility.  Physicists are held to certain extraordinarily high standards you and I wil never know that give them, in return, extraordinarily high credibility you and I will never have!  Biologists have their own rigorous but slightly less exact standards.  Then on down through psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers.  We each give kinds of evidence of varying strength and should be believed in proportion to our credibility, the strength of our arguments.

But then to say that theology is anything like those is false.  First of all, the bar for theological evidence (it was thought by sheep herders in the 1st century?) is below the floor of anything deserving the name of a discipline and (ironically) it demands absolute faith.  To accept that as philosophically plausible is to commit yourself to fallacious ways of thought as legit or live in cognitive dissonance between all your standards of evidence and reason and your faith commitments.  And worse to encourage those without any good standards of evidence and reason (a sizeable portion of the public) to boost up the fallacious side of the mind.

My dismissal of theology is not a dismissal of all philosophy of religion or metaphysical speculation about “God.”  But anything which starts taking the visions and baldface assertions of ancient superstitious, tribalistic nomads as authoritative evidence about the truth of such matters must be thrown out of the court of reason.

Evangelos and Chris were also kind enough to thoughtfully reply to part 2 and so there will be further installments of this series as well.

Thanks so much again for everyone reading and participating.  I appreciate your time and your provocating immensely.  Please feel free to post away in the comments section below and hopefully time will permit me to continue to address new lines of inquiry as they arise (and hopefully this will be a helpful forum for discussion among readers too of course).

And remember to read and remark on the rest of the series if you haven’t already!

Objections to Reilgious Moderates and Intellecuals 1

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 4

On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices (5)

How Faith Is Not Like Other (Revisable) Reflexive Assumptions (6)

Against Faith and In Defense of Naturalism and Induction (7)

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