Knowledge Problems

Friday, February 24, 2006

What To Do About Religion?

The next few posts just contain some random and non-denominational ruminations on religion. Personally, I can't embrace the faith as I did in my youth, but neither have I been willing or able to walk away from it. The resulting divergence between my belief and behavior has been a source of considerable distress to me in recent years. But as I don't foresee myself either renewing a faded romance with religion or marshalling the masochistic fervor to perform a radical amputation, I guess I'll just have to try to make myself comfortable where I am... straddling the fence. Ouch.

As fair warning, the tenor of these posts is currently fairly negative toward religion, although I don't intend it to remain that way indefinitely. (I see positive aspects to religion as well as negative.) On the one hand, I'm sure that organized religion doesn't need any more critics, especially not from the likes of myself. Over the past centuries, secularists like Hume, Russell, Sagan, and those French guys have been largely effective in exposing the problems of religious belief, at least for an intellectual audience. Many religious people who posses some level of intellectual curiosity will eventually come into contact with those challenging and abrasive points of view (as did I). Whether or not they can succeed in insulating their beliefs during this encounter, they will probably come away from it with a good deal less certainty about the rationality of those beliefs. And uncertainty is what this all comes down to...

On the other hand, none of what anyone says seems to make the slightest difference. People seem to need religion, and what people need they will have.

My biggest problem with religion is the unusual degree of certainty that becomes attached to its constituent beliefs, such as those regarding the nature of God or the occurrence of certain distant historical events (e.g., the Resurrection, the Exodus, etc.). In my opinion, this degree of certainty is, on average, so radically undersupported by the quality and quantity of evidence that it just cries of pathology. Key religious beliefs are largely excused from the critical scrutiny and evaluation given to other issues. The problem is not just that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," which is true, but also that any claim should only accrue a degree of belief that reflects the weight of evidence in its favor. So even if certain propositions about God or distant historical events have some evidence in their favor, these propositions could only accrue a degree of belief proportional to the strength of that evidence. And while one can argue over the actual quality and quantity of this evidence, it seems plain to me that the known facts are never remotely adequate to justify the metaphysical levels of belief that key religious propositions seem to engender. Thus, the belief attached to these propositions is essentially irrational. Some would say that this irrationality is the essence of faith, which would probably get a nod of agreement from the "schoolboy who said Faith is believing what you know ain't so" (Mark Twain), but as something of a rationalist I can't generally see much intellectual merit in "leaps of faith."

And so, to begin...

Perhaps the day will come when the most solemn concepts which have caused the most fights and suffering, the concepts "God" and "sin," will seem no more important to us than a child's toy and a child's pain seem to an old man — and perhaps "the old man" will then be in need of another toy and another pain — still child enough, an eternal child!

— Nietzsche, W. Kaufmann translation

Man is not far above beast, for all is vanity.

— Kohelet

Religion is a big problem for me. I was raised in a religious environment (Jewish), and have a lot of affection for the religious traditions that I grew up with. But the theology... aye, there's the rub.

Although I'm generally sympathetic to theological arguments that seek to cast doubt on the scope of human cognition (e.g., What gall to imagine that our puny human minds can comprehend the universe!), I don't see how these arguments lead anywhere other than profound skepticism and metaphysical doubt, which are certainly not the desired ends of most theological projects.

Sooner or later we are told that when such attributes as omnipotence, mercy, justice, and love are ascribed to God they do not mean what they mean applied to men. [...] One might as well claim that God is purple with yellow dots, or circular, or every inch a woman — provided only that these terms are not used in their customary senses. (Kaufmann, in Joshi 2000)

Skeptical possibilities are those according to which the world is completely different from how it appears to us, and there is no way to detect this. (Nagle 1986)

But if theologians fail to see where this road leads, that's their problem. For myself, I'm certainly prepared to believe that there's something big going on "out there" all around us, a something to which we are not privy. And I won't argue with those cosmic universalists who choose to call that unknown something "God," but I don't see how simply branding the unknown with those three magic letters really adds anything to our understanding of the universe. Just call the unknown "the unknown" if that's what you mean. Now, I realize that some folks who like to identify "the unknown" with God may do so just to make a cold an indifferent universe seem a bit more friendly, but I think others have probably missed the point entirely.

Why, when no honest man will deny in private that every ultimate problem is wrapped in the profoundest mystery, do honest men proclaim in pulpits that unhesitating certainty is the duty of the most foolish and ignorant? Is it not a spectacle to make the angles laugh? [...] [W]hen one of us ventures to declare that we don't know the map of the universe as well as the map of our infinitesimal parish, he is hooted, reviled, and perhaps told that he will be damned to all eternity for his faithlessness... [He is told] Stick to the words which profess to explain everything; call your doubts mysteries, and they won't disturb you any longer; and believe in those necessary truths of which no two philosophers have ever succeeded in giving the same version. (Stephen, in Joshi 2000)

As to inquiries into the particulars of what or who God is and what he likes to do on weekends, I think this is probably a waste of time and energy but not an essentially dishonest pursuit. It seems that every system of thought has its axioms, and if one chooses to make God's existence Axiom #1 and God's inclination to do good stuff Axiom #2, then it would be desirable to explore the consequences of those choices. The common problem is that these axioms (and others underlying theological exploration) are almost certainly not selected in virtue of their overwhelming "productivity" — their ability to generate new theorems or hypotheses. Nor are they generally selected for their "self-evidence," although perhaps they might have been at a time when commerce in metaphysical ideas was much more limited than it is now.

Rather, it is my informal observation that when a theologian sets out to construct a religious system from axioms such as these, that person is really trying to retrofit an established set of religious doctrines to which he or she is already committed. And while there is no essential shame in this endeavor, from a practical standpoint this is a different process than constructing a theory from the ground up, and should not be advertised as such. The true constructive process places primary importance on the method by which new insights are produced. It specifies this method in detail, and insists on rigor and formality in the application of the method at each step. By contrast, the process of religious justification (apologetics) implicitly places primary importance on the generation of particular conclusions, such as that "Man should worship God" or that "The Bible is true." When metaphysical importance is attached to a particular conclusion, in effect requiring the inevitability of that conclusion, then the method by which the result is produced becomes a mere annoyance to be dispensed with at the earliest opportunity. And experience shows that when the critical eye is removed from the application of method, what soon remains is no method at all. I have found this absence of method to be palpable in the few works of religious apologetics that I have encountered. As Eliot writes (see Joshi 2000),

So long as a belief in propositions is regarded as indispensable to salvation, the pursuit of truth as such is not possible, any more than it is possible for a man who is swimming for his life to make meteorological observations on the storm which threatens to overwhelm him.

This is not to say that I can produce an example of the perfect constructive process. Geometry and other axiomatized systems may provide a model, although even in processes which exhibit immaculate attention to method, the desire to produce particular conclusions can bias the selection of axioms in ways which are not ultimately justified or fruitful. Rather, attention to method exists along a continuous spectrum. However, in mathematics and in most branches of science, it seems that every possible step is taken to reduce ambiguity in method, whereas in many areas of theology, every step is taken to preserve ambiguity in method. One might consider the overuse in theological presentations of metaphor, analogy, and their accompanying obfuscatory idioms (e.g., "as it were", "in a manner of speaking", "in a certain sense", etc.) as the symptoms of this desire to preserve ambiguity in method.

In any case, I think that the speculation induced by theological inquiry can be extremely engaging and rewarding in its own right, and indeed often provides the motivation (that few other things do) for people to think about themselves, their individual fate, and their place in the universe. But I feel very differently about pronouncements on matters related to God's psychological state — who or what he likes and dislikes, what his hopes and dreams are, etc. Such pronouncements cannot come from any honest investigation of the subject, because such an investigation could only produce the most tentative strings of hypotheticals: "If there is a God, and if he has a personality, and if that personality includes hopes and dreams in the same sense that human beings have hopes and dreams, and if those hopes and dreams include among them the desire that everyone will worship him in the same sense that a human being might experience the desire to be worshiped, then...". What degree of certainty could ever attach to the conclusions of such reasoning?

In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. (Huxley, in Joshi 2000)

No, theological pronouncements on the nature of God have a different source than the intellectual curiosity that drives theological inquiry, and I don't like what I think it is. [Hint: I think it is social control.]


  • On this topic, see R. Yehuda Henkin's teshuvah in his latest issue of Bnei Bnaim

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mar 16, 2006, 10:39:00 AM  

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