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Defending and Attacking Religion

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 people in the World Trade Center, over 100 people in the Pentagon, and the lives of the people on the planes hijacked for these attacks and also the plane hijacked for one other, Flight 93, it is not surprising that Islam has come under close scrutiny.

Since every religious faith teaches things about right and wrong, and what any one faith teaches is not precisely what another faith teaches, the idea that there could be tenets of the Islamic faith that contribute to terrorism is not as far-fetched as some would have us believe.

But, while one can point, for example, to certain parts of Shari'a, also known as Islamic Law, that mitigate against the kind of absolute equality of all religious faiths that is a feature of Western democracies today, it is also true that minority groups, ethnic and religious, did not really start to enjoy full legal equality in the Western democracies until about 1970 or thereabouts.

So it can also be argued that it is unfair to stigmatize the Islamic world for discriminating against its minorities, when everyone, everywhere discriminated against minorities, across the whole Earth, through all of history. With the one exception of the richest and most fortunate countries on the Earth, a mere forty-year eye-blink of history ago.

Equality for everyone, of course, was one of the basic founding principles in our democratic system, even if it wasn't until the 1960s that some of the implications of this principle were grasped and began to be pursued aggressively. I suspect that one of the things which triggered this change taking place at that particular time was the Holocaust.

Because equality of religions, at least if they were different denominations of Christianity, has been accepted for a long time, and for many other reasons, very few respectable people would suggest that not only is Islam responsible for terrorism, but we should also do something about it. After all, people hold on to their religious beliefs tenaciously, and so what could we "do about" Islam that isn't genocidal in character?

The obvious alternative, of course, is just to go after the terrorists. After all, we went after Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices as individuals.

Actually, that isn't quite true, since the bombing in Oklahoma did also cause people to look even more askance at the more politically-extreme survivalist groups than they had before.

But the fact that Timothy McVeigh was someone like us in many of the superficial ways does indeed illustrate the nature of the concern. Solving the terrorism problem by forbidding all Muslims from posessing weapons, boarding planes, or leaving the Islamic world, is like solving the elevated instance of criminal behavior among members of poverty-stricken minority groups by putting a special curfew on African-Americans or First Nations people. We have only just recently realized that doing such things is wrong, and it is quite understandable that there are many people who do not wish to see such a difficult and recent achievement become unravelled.

Some people have struggled to find a third alternative in these difficult times.

On the one hand, they agree that it is simply wrong and completely unacceptable to discriminate against people of the Muslim faith.

On the other hand, they feel that we are dealing with a bigger problem than one caused by one single terrorist organization, and so we do need to address the problem in a wider way than just treating it as a standard criminal investigation, if on a larger scale.

One example of what I am thinking of is some comments made by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times shortly after September 11, 2001. To outlaw Islam would be in flagrant violation of the First Amendment, but what if we were to simply outlaw fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim?

My immediate reaction to this suggestion was that if consistency with the First Amendment was the goal of his idea, it was not achieved. For the government to say "it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you don't take it too seriously" is for the government to dictate in matters of faith, and thus would be an abrogation of the rights that the First Amendment was put there to defend.

Also, most fundamentalists have no wish to impose their religious beliefs on others by force.

The term fundamentalist, of course, derives from the term Fundamentalist, which refers to a specific group of Christian denominations that at one time agreed to a statement of common principles of what they took to be the genuine Christian faith. Another group of conservative Christian believers who are biblical literalists are known as Evangelicals.

In popular language, one might say that the difference between a Fundamentalist and an Evangelical is that a Fundamentalist is sure you're going to Hell if you don't believe in Adam and Eve, while an Evangelical believes in Adam and Eve too, but isn't so sure about the other part.

I have no problem in stopping those who would wish to deny religious freedom to others. Even Fundamentalists, let along Evangelicals, are not seeking to do this, and Evangelicals, since they do hold the Bible to be literally true, would probably be included in a general definition of "fundamentalist" that applied to people with analogous beliefs in other faiths.

Somehow, I think there's something that's just wrong about a notion that would lead to former President James Earl Carter being locked up as a political prisoner.

Now, some people would look at Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, as one example, to claim that, yes, Christian fundamentalists actually do want to impose their beliefs by force on everyone else.

I believe this claim is largely based on a misunderstanding of the nature of democracy. For example, let us look at one way in which they are claimed to be doing this:

We have the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which allows the police to use force to compel people to behave according to the view that people with brown skin due to recent African ancestry are human beings, who may not be bought and sold as if they are livestock.

As a result, some people, who seem in many cases to be influenced by their religious faith in this matter, have no problem with a law that imposes the view that human embryos and fetuses are just a particularly young and dependent kind of human baby, and thus treating abortion as just another form of homicide, to be punished severely by the criminal law, is simply something demanded by true concern for equality and human rights.

There are those who define abortion opponents as wannabe theocrats, without realizing that the same logic could equally well have been applied to the abolitionists.

One Muslim country, Turkey, and several Christian countries, Italy, France, and Mexico, have what are referred to as anti-clerical laws. Such laws impose restrictions on churches which are contrary to the First Amendment on the grounds that the predominant religious belief in these countries was pervasive in a way that was inimical to the functioning of a democratic society.

I believe in religious freedom. Because people derive their ideas of what is right and wrong from their religious beliefs, in many instances, attempting to delegitimize participation in the political process on behalf of a viewpoint which one has derived from one's religious beliefs is, in my opinion, tantamount to disqualifying the followers of certain religious denominations as citizens.

If someone advocates a certain political course of action because the holy book of his particular faith, as he understands it, says so, though, obviously that won't be a good enough reason for other people. Instead, he would have to bring forth arguments that stood on their own merits, that appealed to human reason and the human conscience.

That is a fair thing to ask. While different religions do have their own unique teachings and prohibitions, however, they do also, in some cases, illuminate universal moral truths in ways that bring out matters that other faiths which developed in other places did not examine as closely. To reject a moral, philosophical, or political argument out of hand because it had a religious source is to commit a fallacy, and, in fact, it is the same fallacy as that of the blind believer who accepts the tenets of his creed, as they are presented to him, fully and uncritically.

Of course, it is also argued, in the case of the abortion issue, that the claim that a fetus is a baby is some kind of smokescreen for an agenda that is primarily concerned with imposing the standard of sexual morality that is believed to be demanded by Christianity.

Whether or not abortion actually should be regarded as a form of homicide, because human development is continuous from conception onwards, viewing the human embryo as an infant person is sufficiently plausible as to be the natural default interpretation of the biological facts. Ignoring the biological facts by going by surface appearances only might lead one to think of pregnancy as merely a condition of a woman, and birth the appearance of a new life into the world, but wilfully ignoring facts isn't a valid road to the truth. Studying the facts more closely, such as by examining when the brain begins to function, on the other hand, could lead to valid reasons to modify an absolutist position on abortion.

Of course, it could also be countered that I have chosen one of the few parts of the agenda of those who would return their lands to traditional values that could be made plausible on secular grounds.

It's true that some of these groups do want to restore laws which discriminate against one particular minority group. But while we may not sympathize with that goal, even if such laws did have a secular rationale as well (just as with drug laws, we prohibit men rendering themselves unfit for military service, and it had been felt until quite recently that, Thermopylae notwithstanding, members of this minority would disrupt morale), for them to ask that schools, in their attempts to combat discrimination, refrain from attempting to build any "positive attitudes" that involve rejecting any portion of what they believe to be God's Word seems to me to be only asking for their due, given that religious freedom is a right.

Also, we should not be teaching everyone's children in the schools the falsehood that there is any genuine doubt about evolution. But that doesn't mean that we cannot respect the rights of those for whom Creationism is a part of their faith. We can teach evolution in a culturally-sensitive way.

That is, we can teach students about an allegation concerning the origin of life made by a certain group of scientists.

We will not claim that it is likely to be true (which it is) or that it is not likely to be true (which it is not). We will not explain why we are dealing with this particular allegation, and not devoting any class time at all to presenting such theories as "Scientific Creationism" or "Intelligent Design" as well.

Examination questions will clearly be phrased so that they are concerning this particular view of the origin of species, not the actual origin of species, whatever it may be, so that students may score 100% on their examinations without abjuring the least vowel-point of Genesis.

It's true that in the past, because we lived in a society in which the vast majority were Christians in denominations that took the Bible literally, other people did not have full equality. We had laws that stores had to close on Sundays, as just one example. But this isn't an excuse for not being as sensitive to the possibility of discrimination against members of conservative Christian denominations as some people are to the possibility of discrimination against members of minority groups they like. Protecting only selected minorities from discrimination is not genuine adherence to the principle of equality.

The July 2007 issue of Scientific American had on its cover the question "Must Science and Religion be Enemies?". As a result, I was expecting to see an opinion piece dealing with ideas such as the one expressed by the late Stephen Jay Gould, that there is no contradiction between science and religion, as each has its own proper sphere.

I tended to disagree somewhat with Stephen Jay Gould in this matter. All that shows is that there is no necessary contradiction between science and religion, therefore, there may exist some denominations that are not in conflict with science. I would not be the one to say that people cannot view a literal belief in the Genesis story of Creation as part of their religion; this ends up, again, in defining what constitutes legitimate religion and what doesn't in a way that tells many existing religious faiths that they're guilty of practising science without a license.

As it turned out, though, the cover question wasn't the one being discussed in the article that was pointed to. Instead, there was a debate between two people, both of whom agreed that more science education would help to get rid of this loathsome pestilence called religion, but who disagreed about how polite one ought to be to religious believers while engaged in the process of freeing them from their delusions.

So, if there were arguments that science is not the enemy of religion, one would look in vain for seeing them advanced in that debate.

And a number of popular books, such as "Why God Is Not Great", "In Defense of Atheism", and Richard Dawkins' own "The God Delusion" (he being one of the participants in the debate in Scientific American above) have cast a jaundiced look at the role of religion in society today.

This is why I feel that we do need to look closely at the question of whether or not religion is a Bad Thing. If we admit that the Muslim faith somehow contributed to the events of September 11, 2001, and we also believe that favoring one religion over another is antithetical to democracy, one could be driven to wonder if one shouldn't try to abolish religion altogether.

Before we can even ask if religion is good or bad, though, we need to answer another question: what is religion?

Actually, for the most part, it is possible to accept the commonplace definition which allows everyone to know religion when they see it. But there is "one point which needs to be addressed before proceeding further" (which sequence of more than two words having been doubtless used countless times previously, I should quote it to avoid being guilty of plagiarism).

The American patriot Thomas Paine is the author of a criticism of something which he referred to as "revealed religion". It's easy enough to see, from those two words alone, that he is talking about those religions that start from a holy book which records a message revealed from God, or from oral traditions that again stem from a vision or an inspiration of some kind, or from a whole collection of revered literature.

The problem is, what other kind of religion is there?

I'm not sure that the other kind of religion ought to be called by the name of religion; I would think it more appropriate to perhaps include it in the realm of philosophy.

But there are two things that I believe that have been called religious, and, indeed, I could have been influenced to believe them as a result of growing up surrounded by Christians. Here they are:

Just as it is possible to say that an attempted mathematical proof is correct or not, because the rules of logic have a real existence, so, too, is it possible to say that some actions are right, and other actions are wrong. Right and wrong exist in an abstract mental realm, and are as real there as the truths of mathematics; they do not simply derive from human choice and consent. So, while a group of people may decide to profit themselves by persecuting a minority among them, they do not have the power to themselves define right and wrong, thereby making the wrong they propose to do become "right".

I see what I see, I hear what I hear, I feel what I feel. My awareness of my sensory inputs means that I am not a dead and empty thing through which various electrical impulses may pass, but instead I am conscious, and consciousness is real; in fact, that I am a conscious mind is the only thing that I truly know for certain. Neither quantum mechanics nor general relativity adds enough to our mechanical understanding of Nature to include consciousness in what we understand.

If that is religion, make the most of it. Yet, those are, in a way, statements of faith; while, all too often, what passes for faith in the realm of revealed religion seems, at least to me, as if it should better be described as credulity.

Obviously, it's revealed religion that has the potential to cause people to suspend their own moral intuition and their own consciences in favor of what their preachers tell them, which in some cases might be wicked or bigoted.

But is revealed religion all bad?

If we didn't have laws against stealing, it's easy enough to see that some people who felt themselves in need, or who felt alienated from the community around them, might be tempted to bend the rules in their own favor. Revealed religion pretends to speak with the authority of God Himself; when it speaks moral truths with that authority to people, those who listen will be more strongly impressed with the need to obey these moral truths.

I don't think it is an accident that it is easier for the more literal Bible-believing churches to exhibit cases where a petty criminal or an alcoholic was rehabilitated by being converted to their faith than it is for the more progressive and ecumenical denominations to do so.

After all, "God said so, and I can prove it" has the virtue of being simple to understand. Of course, when the proofs are specious, they will only work on people too simple to understand the holes in them.

But until such time as the churches for the more intelligent have something to offer to simple people to lead them to a life of self-respecting and ethical behavior, I find it difficult to view simple-minded religion as something that is wholly bad.

It is true that many wars were fought in the name of religion. Wars are always fought between groups of people, and so before you can have a war, first you need to organize a lot of people into a group. And if religion serves tribal or national cohesion, how does it do so?

It does so by causing the members of the tribe or nation to behave more honestly and humanely towards one another. Thus, the very thing that makes us look askance at religion as a thing that causes violence shows us also how much more violence religion has helped to prevent.

And, since rational self-interest also causes us to favor our own tribe and nation, it may also be noted that the concept of a God Who stands above all humanity has helped to remind people that other people, such as the poor people of far-away lands, are just as real and just as important as we are. In encouraging ethical behavior, religion can be used to shield unjust authorities from rebellion, but it can also intensify awareness of the plight of the downtrodden.

There is an evil that causes wars, but that evil is not religion, even if some of the forms that religion has been molded into are in part symptoms of that evil. Population increase forces people to shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture; these two ways of living are in conflict, and agriculture eventually leads to despotic states where long hours of backbreaking labor is the common lot of the vast majority of humanity.

Much later, writing, invented at the dawn of civilization, is eventually used to help record the scientific discoveries that vastly ease the lot of mankind. But between then and now, the mass of humanity was in such misery that it is little wonder that people were constantly beset by the temptation to steal from others through aggression to gain some relief to their own lot.

Since science, in particular technology, and perhaps even more particularly contraception, is what promises to get us off this treadmill, and religion, as a conservative force, has often been in conflict with this, I can understand why religion might be seen as troublesome. But even more troubles would beset us if the majority of people saw no reason not to lie, cheat, and steal except for the power of the State manifest through the policeman.

If simple people, sorely pressed by poverty, cannot be reached by sublime philosophical argument, but instead can be made into honest citizens only by Hell-fire preachers, then I don't know if it is really so wise to go about interfering.

In another specific area of the conflict between science and religion, which is more important: that the children of the next generation all know about the importance of natural selection in the origin and development of life, or that they know that the lives, persons, and rights of their fellow human beings are to be respected?

Well, even if one admits the latter is more important, where is the conflict?

Ah, perhaps I might be better able to point it out to you when, like most people in North America, you sit down to your supper of roast beef.

Perhaps my point is still mysterious. But one conclusion that is drawn from evolution is that there is no real, absolute, and fundamental difference between human beings and other living creatures. Despite the activities of those in various "animal liberation" movements, it is highly unlikely that we will be in a position to respect the lives of the beasts in the way that we do respect, and must respect, the lives of our fellow human beings.

Thus, if simple people derive their ideas of right and wrong, reasonable for the most part if distressingly imperfect in some areas, from the absolute authority of the holy books of their faith, to both undermine that, and encourage the habit of thinking of their fellow man as nothing more than a mere beast (people will far more easily fall into that habit than the habit of thinking of themselves in that way) would seem to be a recipe for more of all sorts of crime and violence.

So, except when it is directly inciting people to evil, as it generally encourages people to do good and behave peaceably in society, I would say that religion ought not to be interfered with.

While I would abominate it if intelligent, rational unbelievers decided to foist upon the ignorant masses a church they know is false, for the purpose of exploiting and controlling them, I do not believe that leaving alone such religions as in which believers minister to believers is the same sort of thing at all.

Of course, I suppose this returns us to the subject actually debated in that issue of Scientific American. If one does wish to reduce the harmful effects that some forms of religion are known for, then one might conclude the best way is not merely to give people knowledge that might indeed cause them to doubt their existing faith, but leave them with nothing to put in its place, but instead to make people more intelligent, so that while they did put aside the kind of beliefs that make men narrow and bigoted, they would have the ability to move to a more sophisticated understanding which would still lead them to ethical behavior.

But making people more intelligent is not as easy as informing people of new facts.

As I pointed out earlier, from the time of Ancient Egypt right up to the Industrial Revolution, ordinary working people tended to live miserable lives. Another characteristic of that period of history is that, although a few people were noted for great achievements which their intelligence made possible, in general, the economy did not have that much use for clever people. Thus, cleverness was mistrusted; having no legitimate way to use it to escape from backbreaking toil, many clever people ended up as con artists or thieves, rather than using their intelligence for the benefit of humanity. (And, today, what the threat represented by Sputnik has done, it sometimes seems that outsourcing is about to undo, at least in the fortunate, overpaid West. But if more demand, rather than a chance to cut costs, drives it, then the story has a happy ending: there is good fortune enough for everyone, so sharing it more broadly is only natural.)

Thus, it is possible for someone to believe that most of the human race is potentially more intelligent than it seems. Rather than the world being divided in a Nietschean fashion into a few intelligent people, and a mass of sheep, we instead have a world where most people, except an unlucky few who are cruelly stunted, are smart enough to be competent lawyers, or doctors, or engineers, or scientists, or at least computer programmers, and it is simply a market failure that they are not given the opportunity to make this manifest.

That may be true, but we have no real way of testing how true it is. If education can indeed do more than just teach facts, or indoctrinate with ideas, then I heartily favor using it to unlock human intellectual potential where it lies slumbering.

Once their intelligence is raised to its potential, except perhaps for specifically ensuring that we expose them to the concept of critical thinking, I think we can then safely let the religious beliefs of the next generation of adults take care of themselves.

To summarize, and perhaps clarify, I am not trying to equate intellect or education with virtue. I am trying to defend religion as a positive influence, and to note that the problems that are justly ascribed to some manifestations of religion can be dealt with without denying people their religious freedom, because intolerance and fanaticism thrive on ignorance, and die out, despite the survival of religious belief, when faced with education and intelligence.

A news release concerning a scientific research study on religion has caused me to return once more to this topic.

The study focused on people's behavior rather than their beliefs, in order to reach unprecedented heights of objectivity. It discovered that people professing uncritical belief in the supernatural claims advanced by others facilitated "parent-child relationships" in societies, thus leading to closer bonds between members of communities, causing them to function more like families. The version of the story I saw nowhere mentioned Transactional Analysis in its text.

Trust definitely helps societies to function, but the abuse of trust is certainly nothing to celebrate. So this led me to consider two subjects: the truth of religion, and the value of social cohesion.

Since, as noted yet again in the study referenced above, every known human society professes some form of relgious belief, social scientists studying religion have not focused on doing for the study of religion what Newton did for Copernicus, or what Carey did for Wegener: supplying a mechanism to explain the phenomenon. This is perhaps because it is felt that the existence of copious amounts of human gullibility is well-known to all but a few sheltered intellectuals with an exaggerated respect for their fellow man.

Religion, at least as it is generally known in the West, usually has this basic form: the existence of the world and of life is accounted for as the act of a Being who stands in relation to all humanity as parents stand in relation to their children.

Today, some denounce this notion as preposterous, on the basis that it leads to infinite regress; if the world we live in, due to its complexity, requires a Creator, then how much more would the Creator require a Creator as well in His stead?

In the past, the existence of God would have seemed obvious. The insides of a living creature were clearly of as great complexity and organization as those of a radio - or a pocket-watch - thus fairly shouting the nature of life as an artifact. The success of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection has demolished that argument, but there remains the question of "why there is anything rather than nothing".

How could the objection of infinite regress be dealt with? A traditional way, adapted to our modern understanding, would be to note that while it is true that in our world of matter, intelligent minds require machinery of great complexity to support them - human brains, or their silicon equivalents - religion supposes the Earth to be the creation of Heaven, and if the Creator is a native of another Universe, with different laws of physics, there Mind might come before Matter, rather than being the consequence of an immensely complicated organization of matter which must necessarily precede it.

From the philosophical point of view, it may well be that God is a more satisfying Monad than the products, or the natural precursor, of the Big Bang. Applying the (weak!) anthropic principle to an assemblage of Universes, in some of which vacuum fluctuations are possible, might well be seen as just as contrived as any theology, even if it is fortified by a greater helping of mathematics.

But this kind of argument attempts to know what is, in the present stages of our empirical investigations, unknowable. It can be validly viewed as part of a sales pitch, to soften up the prospect. First, get him to admit that a God and miracles might exist. Then note that God might reasonably be expected to care about people, and might have some sage advice to give them. Then present the subject - or should I say "mark" - with a specific candidate for such a Divine Revelation, noting its superior morals compared to those of rival claims, or its convenient proximity ot the fortunate subject, and so on.

While little can be said that is helpful about the existence of a Creator, the question of the relationship between religion and social cohesion would seem to indeed be one rooted in reality.

In a more innocent age, it was claimed that in 1919, a document was captured from a revolutionary in Germany. This is now believed to have been a forgery. It did, however, set forth in a plausible enough manner what someone might do to undermine the traditional sources of authority and legitimacy in a society in order to defeat it in war or foment a revolution within it.

The first of its points began:

"Corrupt the young; get them away from religion. Get them interested in sex."

From the modern viewpoint, one already runs into an implausibility. How is one to induce an "interest in sex"; by putting pheromones in the water supply? This sort of sloppy use of language is something one might expect of a group of social conservatives with an agenda; revolutionaries, on the other hand, however blind and besotted their faith in the cause for which they are promoting revolution, cannot afford the luxury of being anything but pragmatic about tactics.

Hence, instead of writing about getting young people interested in sex, they would presumably write about removing restraints to the interest in sex that is already present, for the same sound reasons as an interest in breathing or an interest in eating.

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