Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 4)

Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals (part 4) June 26, 2009

In this latest post in my ongoing series addressed to religious moderates and intellectuals, I argue that people are mistaken to infer from a person’s virtue or happiness that that person’s religious beliefs are true. I concede that religion can have these positive effects but argue that we must learn the psychological mechanisms whereby it has these effects when it does and learn how to initiate those positive developments in people who are otherwise cultivating more rational habits of thought and eschewing the negatives of religion. Please read and contribute your insights, it’s greatly appreciated! See parts 1, 2, and 3 to catch up with our discussion if you are new to it or have missed any installments so far.  And read the follow up to this post, which is called “On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices”

Recent comments from Chris and Evangelos on part 2 open cans of worms that I will treat soon and separately.  In the meantime, I can more quickly address Shane’s latest reply:

Lots of interesting thoughts there. Far too many to try to reply to more than just a bare sampling of, unfortunately.

Here’s a tentative suggestion. I think your model of how religious beliefs are formed is wrong. You seem to think that people come to have religious beliefs just because they are told such and such by some illegitimate authority figure. And this maybe explains why you were wanting to call religious belief fallacious in the earlier installments of the series. (Which puzzled me at that time.)

I suspect most people (the man in the pew, so to speak) come to their religious opinions in a much more complicated way. It may be true of young children that they just believe things because their parents tell them to do so. But I think at some level the religious, moral and aesthetic experiences people have as they age does have a strong influence on their religious opinions. So, the fact that prayer helped someone through a difficult time in their life is relevant to explaining why they hold the beliefs they do. Knowing a priest who possesses a sort of spiritual tranquility and joyfulness that one wishes to possess oneself gives one a reason to try to live the kind of life he lives and to endorse the kind of beliefs he endorses.

Now, I’ll freely admit that these kinds of experiences bring no guarantee that the content of Christian belief is literally true. But, what I think these kinds of considerations do show, is that there are good reasons somebody might have to be a Christian, even though those reasons don’t give one certainty or a guarantee of the claims of christianity being true.

There’s nothing obviously fallacious about such religious belief-formation. There is an element of appeal to authority, but I don’t think it is as easy to dismiss as illegitimate authority as you were wanting to say. If I see a priest whom I want to be like and he tells me that the way to get the kind of peace and tranquillity I want is by believing and doing certain things, then I am not necessarily being unreasonable in believing and doing what he says. I think this is just the same point Aristotle would make about how we get any of the virtues. If you want to be virtuous, then find a virtuous person and do what he does. That is still sound advice, even if you do not yet understand /why/ you must do the things the virtuous person is telling you to do. But that’s ok. It’s still a reasonable thing to recognize one’s own lack of knowledge and try to acquire such knowledge from those older and wiser.

As to the weakness in scientific knowledge in America, you know I share your dismay. I’m inclined to think that the prevalence of religion in America has much less to do with the state of science education than you do. I suspect that the more relevant factors are the lack of education for american science teachers and the general anti-intellectualism of american society. As evidence of my claim, witness the fact that the stupidity of the american people is not limited to those claims of science that are supposed to conflict with Christianity. How many people do you know take herbal vitamins to cleanse the “toxins” from their bodies? How many people think chiropractors can cure cancer and restore sight to the blind? How many people think Canada is one of the states?

I don’t think you can blame religion for the general stupidity of the human race.

First, I have conceded a couple times that we cannot blame religion for the general “stupidity” of the human race.  We are cognitively wired in some truth-inefficient ways.  What I am arguing is that religious training in thinking about belief formation and justification in many ways actively cultivates our proneness towards error.  This does not mean that without religion, people would be free of cognitive error, just a source of encouragement to it.  I don’t think that when I rejected religion my IQ jumped or that I left behind all fallacious thinking.  I did, however, explicitly reject certain forms of fallacious judgment and enhance my habituation in better habits of evidence consideration.  Of course just being trained as a philosopher was already beginning that habituation, but explicitly raising my standards of justification and inference further enhanced that process.  And now, I like to read cognitive science and learn as much as I can about statistical theory, etc. so that I can make better judgments.

So, granting that many people’s adoption of religious beliefs may indeed happen in the process of role model emulation you describe, here’s why that is another form of fallacious inference (and, btw, related closely to some of Nietzsche’s most epistemologically based attacks on faith).  A belief’s utility for attaining happiness has no direct correlation, independent of other confirmable sources, for taking it to be true.  Because the priest is happy and virtuous does not mean he has any special powers to turn a piece of bread into the body of Jesus Christ or to inform me about what will happen to me after I die.

I’m not sure if the fallacy of inferring from the ability to live a happy/virtuous life to the ability to perform such miracles and to intuit supernatural metaphysical truths has a name, but surely it must be obvious to you.  You would not accept one scientist’s claim over another’s on the illogical basis that the one is faithful to his wife and cheerful and the other is a sour adulterer.  The same epistemological standard applies for metaphysical truth.

Now, if you want to claim that the priest’s happiness and virtue are anectodal evidence that  his religion is recommendable for its abilities to make people cheerful and good, then that’s evidence that his way of life and (even) way of thinking is ethically enhancing, then that’s a different claim than one at all related to truth.  Assuming we accept the inference from priestly joy (or from the famous studies which reflect positively on the effects of religion for happiness and charitability) to the conclusion that religion (or a specific religion) has beneficial psychological and ethical effects.  And let’s assume (as I do) that there are no other rigorously defensible reasons for belief in the content of their religion.  We have three choices:

(1) we try to marshall the resources of traditional practices and organization religion provides as much as possible while purifying it of its supernaturalism, superstition, traditionalism, authoritarianism, and other epistemological mistakes, while preserving as much as possible its ethical potential.


(2) we reason that removing the supernaturalism, et al. would irreparably damage or undermine the mechanisms by which people are led into virtue and good cheer by religion, and so decide to promote religion as a “noble lie” to encourage people to happiness and benevolence.  And we just work our harest to steer people towards the morally ennobling aspects of their traditions’ received myths and away from their darker logical connections and their vices.


(3) we judge option 1 to be too much of an accommodation to falsehood and unacceptable for a rationally advancing people and option 2 too patronizing to the ordinary person and too pessmistic about human potential for rational progress among average people.  And our remaining option is to study cognitively what factors are at play in religious participation—community building, personal and communal ritual, moral teaching, literary delight, artistic expression, sensual appeal, deep meditation, metaphysical imagination, historical connection, etc.—and we start systematically reforming the broader culture to meet more of these needs (so the government does not step in and try to exploit them and so that people unmoored from these things do not lose all direction in life or feeling of communal attachment).

In other words, we can figure out how religion uses these various good things to make many happy and virtuous, while figuring out outlets for people to have these benefits without the cost of cultivating their worst intellectual tendencies towards pre-Enligtenment habits of thought and without promoting the nasty streaks of ethical authoritarianism that come with characteristically religious forms of irrationality.

It should be clear I prefer option 3 but I recognize it is a much larger project than many atheists assume.  And it has pitfalls in that any time you try to create a sense of community among people, you run the risk of inviting in all sorts of out-group villainization as a part of creating in-group solidarity.  In other words, secularism runs the same risks of politicization and concomitant corruption that religion infamously succumbs to in the ways we secularists love to catologue for you guys.  The difference, however, will be that there will be no training in bad habits of accepting unjustified appeals to authority or tradition, but rather the attempt to inculcate free thought, respect for scientific method and rigorous philosophical accounts that ideally would work against our natural human inclinations towards hatred of the Other for the sake of group unity.

(Jonathan Haidt points out this problem, though not necessarily my solution, and I intend to address him in a series of in-depth posts on this and other matters in coming weeks as I merge the blog with my academic research more and more.)

Your Thoughts?

To see the follow ups to this post see: On Teleology and Intellectual Virtues and Vices

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