Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals

Objections To Religious Moderates and Intellectuals June 24, 2009

Marcus Brigstocke has a rant (which I used to have in this post in video form before it was taken down from YouTube. The end of the rant goes like this:

Now I know that most religious folks are moderates and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issuing a death sentence.  But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters.  Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies.   Safely, locked away, and medicated.  Somewhere nice, with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to God between sessions making tapestries, drinks coasters, watching teletubbies and talking about their days in the Hilter Youth.

The ordinarily faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are.  See I get very angry that shows like Big Brother and Celebrity [insert title of wretched show here] still fill our lives with vapid, pointless, emptiness and I wish the producers and development executives would crawl back under the rocks they emerged from. But the truth is they sell stuff that people consume.  Without the audience to prop it up, Heat magazine and fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away.

Imagine what humanity might be capable of if we had that much spare time–we could explore space properly! have a decent look into the sea! find a cure for James Blunt! anything!

For a lengthier defense of this argument that moderate religious people need to take responsibility for propping up religion with its attendant negative drawbacks, check out Sam Harris’s book.

Both Brigstocke and Harris are focusing on the ways that normal, moderate religious people perpetuate the institutions which in certain quarters become extremely intolerant and even violent.  I would add though that the sophisticated intellectual who self-awaredly translates religious stories and categories into sophisticated, demythologized philosophical categories and yet continues to use the language of religious myth and theology and to contribute to religious traditions is therein responsible for a parallel problematic institutional support.

For all the sophistication and intellectualization of one’s personal embrace of the texts, languages, ritualistic practices, etc., of a religion, when one supports the wider institutions of religion one gives intellectual cover to an anti-intellectual movement.  Regardless of the talent and vigor of mind of particular religious thinkers, religion itself as an institution characteristically damages children’s abilities to (1) mature in their abilities to think causally, (2) assess evidence, (3) distinguish myths from facts, (4) demand vettable credentials from all those who claim to speak with authority, (5) assess their bodies and their morality from rational and realistic angles, (6) subject their emotional reactions to critical scrutiny, and (7) feel themselves as a member of a universal human community.  And of course it is not only children who have their abilities to do these things harmed by religion.

The reasons I say religion does these things are as numerous as they should be obvious.   Religions teach children to accept miracle stories without any demands for legitimate evidence.  Worse, they plant the illicit assumption that miracles are possible at all, which is a denial of the very necessity of causality itself.  And they nurture the human weakness to make up causal explanations which have little to no statistical probability to support them.

Religions explicitly train in habits of treating tradition qua tradition as authoritative.  While it is true that children, like all of us, in many areas of life necessarily depend on tradition simply because it is easier and more productive than having to reinvent the wheel for ourselves in every one of our actions.  Everything from our clothing to our language to our artistic expressions and out philosophies themselves is deeply influenced by tradition.  And all of us must rely on expert authority.

But religion does not teach us only to use tradition as a guide but treats religious tradition as itself authoritative just for being that religious tradition’s tradition.  It is tradition for tradition’s sake in the robes of religion for religion’s sake.  This is what ossifies a tradition against rejuvenation.  Demands for tradition to always put on the table the reasons for its justification must always be in place unless tradition is to become tyrannical and self-destructive.  Religion trains the ordinary person in traditionalism, no matter how liberated to question and develop one’s own justifications the elite religious thinker feels.

Further, religion, in its very practice, corrupts people’s abilities to assess proper authorities.  All our authorities must be rigorously vetted both in gaining general credentials and in providing specific arguments.  Where we do not have the competence to assess the arguments of authorities with specialized expertise that far exceeds our own in a given area, it is imperative that there be a community of qualified, credentialed authorities who vet each other for us.  And it is important that we understand that we cannot just presume to dismiss communities of experts out of our own uninformed “common sense intuitions.”

But religion doesn’t train in this skill of demanding high bars for recognition of authorities.  Depending on the religious tradition, self-proclaimed prophets, apostles, religious leaders, even in some traditions laypeople,  can make up whatever they want about whatever mythical beings, extra-terrestrial realms, means for propitiating gods, the rules for the expiation of sins, etc., and it is taken to be plausible on faith.  One is free to attribute authority to one’s feelings about God’s will with no reliable means whatsoever for confirming them as long as they don’t cross some (equally arbitrarily) designated bounds of blasphemy or heresy.

Worst of all, religious believers are trained to accept “Because I said so” as a a justification for beliefs and for actions.   As though children, religious people are encouraged to offer and accept as reasons, the “Because I said so” of “you just have to have faith.”  Religions train people to respond to airtight demonstrations of the falsehood or supreme improbability of their dogmatic claims with the simple lack of reasons: “That’s why you have to have faith.”

Why do we have to have faith?  Because there are no good reasons.  But why do we have to hold onto beliefs for which there are no good reasons?  There is no good reason one can give for holding onto beliefs for which there are no good reasons.  If there were, that would be a good reason!  Just as patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, faith is the last refuge of a belief which has no reasons to support it.

Many sects of religions fetishize their books as sacred and in doing so plant the seeds of literalism.  Even if you don’t believe in literalism and even if you wouldn’t teach it yourself, religions by their very nature drift towards it out because

(a) by singling out a text as sacred and special you make all criticisms of it look suspicious

(b) by claiming divine authorship for books, you make the logical conclusion that mistakes would prove them not-divinely written and thereby discredit them, which ratchets up logical people who have otherwise committed themselves dogmatically to follow their logic out and claim absolute correctness to their texts or abandon their commitments

Further by teaching people to trust notions that “God is telling them” things or in other ways mystically guiding their lives and holding up role models of un-self-critical interpreters of their arbitrary emotional intuitions as authorities when they write “scriptures,” etc., people are not taught how to critically assess their own emotionally influenced intuitions to see if they hold up to rational justifications.

Of course this list can go on, but I’ll stop now with the connection between all of this and the “hard stuff” of religious intolerance, violence, and tyranny.  When you teach people that their religion comes before all else, you teach them that their in-group loyalty supercedes their connection to their fellow human beings.  When you teach them that God speaks through books and then they read those books are littered with genocides against members of out-groups (infidels, the impure neighboring populations, etc.), they are not without logic when they make deductions that such enforcements of God’s will are morally acceptable.

When you teach people that God is the only source of morality and that morality is only binding because of God’s power (as creator), you teach an authoritarian view of morality and power.  When you teach people that a book or prophet can be an authoritative source which does not have to offer up reasons, you reinforce in people an authoritarian view of reason and justification.  You are telling people, in short, that it is not only okay to believe what you are simply told to believe but that you must believe on such arbitrary claims to authority.  You must surrender your reason and have faith in what you have no reasons for or you will not be saved but will be a member of the dreaded out-group headed for hell.

When you combine epistemological and moral authoritarianism, traditionalism-reinforced tribal divisions along ethnic-religious lines, and the belief that human intuitions can, at least in some special people, express divine commands, you have all the components for religious violence.  Religious violence is not incidental to religion, it is an outgrowth of these irrationalistic, tribalistic, and traditionalistic features of religion which are each part of the fabric of religious experience by its very nature.  And we haven’t even addressed the way that the human love of ritual can be exploited for brainwashing!

Now am I saying that religion is necessarily inherently violent?  No, thankfully, due to other moral, political, and economic factors, mainstream religious interpretation is far more restrained than that today (even if prior to the evolution of these distinguishable factors it was far less so).   And is religion the only route possible to authoritarianism, traditionalism, or tribalism?  Surely not.  Those instincts are possible among the irreligious.  The difference though is that irreligiousness does not structurally contain and reinforce these habits of mind and practice.  Eradicating religion will not end violence but it will remove an active obstacle to superior training in rational thought.

Put simply, religion carries authoritarianism and traditionalism as a recessive gene.  Even as the sophisticated, relatively liberated religious thinker reimagines the meaning of her religious texts and traditions further and further from literalism, supernaturalism, superstition, tribalism, reactive anti-scientism, etc.  she nonetheless continues to spread the “genes” (or, more accurately, the memes) which have these recessive properties.  By supporting religious institutions, she supports the building of severe obstacles to the average child’s eventual ability to think as freely, creatively, and rationally as she does.  By supporting the treatment of religious texts as sacred she perpetuates books with latent potential to inspire fundamentalist regressivism.

And for what?  What is there to gain from holding on to the epistemic right to believe without reasons except the right to continued ignorance, superstition, and fear?

Your thoughts?

See my replies to comments in the further installments of this series:

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 2

Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellectuals 3

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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