He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fair Questions: Does Religion Hinder Truth-Seeking?

Over Winter Break I stumbled across the following exposition from one of my friends.  I thought it was a very well-written and compelling summation of certain typical viewpoints among my contemporaries, and I decided to address it (with permission from the author).

"Human knowledge progresses through a series of failures and triumphs. Observations are gathered, through experience they are tested, and "truth" is established via the usefulness of that truth. When a truth no longer adheres to the observations and experiences of the people in question it is augmented, built upon, or in some cases discarded completely. This is a common experience for many people in their everyday lives. Truth can also take many forms. Some are personal, to be arrived at via a person's own self-understanding. Other truths are social in nature, pertaining to how we interact in our societies and cultures. Another form of truth is physical. Astronomy, biology, physics, etc. are all concerned with this type of truth. These various types of truth are not necessarily always separated. Many will disagree with what I am going to say next but it is something I have consistently found. Religion is a stumbling block to truth. This is not because prayer to a god results in a decreased intelligence. It is not because religious people are stupid. Far from it. It has, in fact, very little to do with religious people at all. Instead, the problem is the nature of religion itself. Whereas truth, for human understanding, is constantly evolving, religion interferes with the process of understanding by taking certain truths and placing them on a shelf beyond reproach. By doing this, religion halts or at least hinders the practice of understanding because it claims to "know" what is true and discourages further investigation. God is all knowing. God is love. Jesus died for our sins. We should pray five times a day. Don't eat pork. Don't have premarital sex. There is a heaven. There is a god. These are all truths that were/are real to people. There is nothing, intrinsic in their nature, that is wrong. At one time they were perfectly acceptable explanations. Many of them, still, are beyond the ability to prove and disprove. The problem, therefore, is not belief but the institutionalization of a belief. If people are permitted to question beliefs, honestly and sincerely, then there is no issue. But if people begin their understanding with a prearranged set of ideas and those ideas are enforced and propagated by institutions with a vested interest in preventing the augmentation and disregarding of certain truths then understanding is limited."

First, let's cover points of agreement.

  • I'm an empiricist, so I certainly agree that human knowledge is built up through a process of trial and error.  
  • I also agree to a limited extent that we often build upon or discard beliefs when they are no longer useful to us (or of imperfect use to us), though I would add that we make a lot of cognitive errors and, as a result, this belief formation process is messy and deeply problematic for all of us (theists and atheists alike).
  • I would agree that we can make meaningful distinctions between personal truths, social truths, and physical truths while acknowledging their interrelatedness.  I would even suggest that our standards of evidence would rightly be different in each of those cases.  For example, I would take two people's word for it that they are a couple (social truth), but I would not take their word for it that raw sodium reacts violently with water (physical truth).  Both are true, but we would employ a different standard of evidence for each proposition.
  • I would agree that the problems associated with religion are not caused by religious people being stupid.  And even if it were demonstrably the case that all religious people were less intelligent in every way than irreligious people, stupidity is no guarantee of incorrectness and intelligence no guarantee of correctness.  More intelligent people often assume that they've got the right answer because they're intelligent, but getting the right answer actually requires the consistent application of the right method, something which someone less intellectually gifted is also capable of doing, though it takes more effort.  And sometimes less intelligent people just stumble into the right answer.

Next, let's cover points of concern or disagreement.

Do religions evolve?

It is claimed that truth (in the sense of human understanding) is constantly evolving.  I have no objections to the idea that human understanding is constantly evolving.  In fact, I quite agree that it is.  But I would like to examine some of the implications of this claim as applied to religion.

To use a well-known example of religion in the institutionalized way that it's being presented here, the Catholic Church relies on tradition (the handing down of truth to successive generations) to convey its doctrines.  If we look at the history of the Catholic Church over the past 2,000 years, we see a distinct evolution of belief in the sense that certain beliefs are tested philosophically in light of early Christian traditional beliefs (axioms) to make sure that their implications are not in contradiction with those axioms.  The beliefs which are determined to be in contradiction with those axioms are considered heretical and discarded.  For example, monothelitism and Arianism were seriously considered and accepted by many Christians before being discarded as incompatible with the axioms of Christian belief.  These are only two among many heresies which were seriously considered by many Christian thinkers before being discarded by the Catholic Church.  Other thinkers like St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas held beliefs which were deemed to be compatible with the axioms of Christian belief and were added to the body of Catholic teaching.

Some people are tempted to say that the Catholic Church has stopped evolving, that despite the earlier changes centuries ago, it is now stagnant.  The evidence suggests that this is in fact not the case in modern times, which we can see in the case of Modernism and the Theology of the Body.  Modernism was a position seriously considered and adopted by many Christian thinkers, ultimately discarded by the Catholic Church.  The Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II was largely accepted by the Church as compatible with the axioms of Christianity and continues to be widely taught by Catholic institutions.

The beliefs which are determined to be compatible with those axioms are accepted to varying degrees of certainty as either commonly accepted beliefs (no requirement to believe it, e.g. evolution and creationism), defined doctrines (requiring an assent of faith, but doubts are certainly allowed), and dogmas which are necessary to salvation.  Even among dogmas, the denial of ecclesiastical dogmas is not necessarily heresy, though it does mean that a Christian is outside the Catholic Church.

The process of evolution is one of constant adaptation while retaining functions which are still necessary or harmless.  For example, the human brain stem is still part of us even after our brains evolved the structures of the frontal lobe.  Evolution does not discard what is still axiomatic because it is not like revolution, a process which seeks to completely overturn what already exists.

Many people who claim to have a problem with religions because they do not engage in evolution are actually disappointed at the lack of revolution.  They would prefer religions to abandon the axioms of the religion and accept the axioms accepted by them instead.  The objection to a lack of evolution is trivial; the real objection is that, "I have a priori disagreements with your axioms."

Are all truth claims subject to change?

Speaking of axioms, it's certainly true that religions have certain beliefs that are central to the religion and cannot be given up without destroying it.  The same is true of empirical non-theistic methodologies such as science.

If the scientific community were to abandon the idea that the world is intelligible to humans, it would no longer be practicing science.  If the scientific community were to abandon the idea that the world operates by means of general principles, it would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that repeated observation by humans is what allows us to make discoveries of those principles, they would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that we can construct instruments to aid us in perceiving real things about the world which we cannot perceive unaided, they would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that we can use logical inference to arrive at correct conclusions about the past based on present circumstances, they would no longer be practicing science.

These beliefs are axiomatic for the scientific community.  Abandoning those beliefs would not be an example of the evolution of science, but rather its extinction.  The same would be true of religions; abandoning their foundational axioms would be self-destructive rather than adaptive.

Let's consider some additional points from my friend since I promised that I would address them as well.

"There are many criticisms that have been aimed at the New Atheist movement and its thinkers. But not all criticism is created equally. The most problematic criticism I frequently run across is that the New Atheists are "radical empiricists," that they are, somehow, "scientific utopians" who are unreasonably holding the world to an unfair and uninformed standard of proof. Usually when I hear this I can't help but wonder if what is really being criticized is the fact that others are being held to a standard that reveals much of our "philosophy" is based on superficial bull shit. Granted, a strict materialist argument is problematic. But I think this is a severe misreading of empiricism and scientific thinking. Granted, also, is the fact that less than stellar thinkers in the New Atheist movement have perpetuated this thinking, acting as though something outside of the physical world, if it cannot be measured and quantified, then is either false or produced from a pseudoscience. But empiricism and scientific thinking is much more than this, and therefore poor defenses of New Atheism and even poorer criticisms are ultimately misinformed. The communication theorist Neil Postman argued that in different ages, in different societies and cultures, and with different technologies, the act of communication changes. How people communicate informs much of their society and can shape basic ways in which people think. A smoke signal is incapable of attaining the same level of communication as, say, a society that has an advanced system of writing. Likewise, an oral culture will be different in its communication as compared to a society that uses mass televised images. In an oral culture practices such as allusion and parable are frequently used to make a point. For such a society that method of communication would be effective. It imparts the lesson, or point, the speaker wishes to make and attempts to understand the world in which they are living. Postman went on to argue that, in his opinion, human civilization reached a pinnacle in communication following the invention of the printing press and the widespread availability of text. Writing, Postman maintained, allowed people to communicate long and complex ideas using a more universal system of rationality. You no longer needed to know what river or character a parable or allusion referenced since writing had sufficiently abstracted a piece of knowledge to help communicate it to a wider audience. Obviously there are trade offs to this approach, and I imagine there would be people who would argue against the claim of "universality" this approach imparts. But it cannot really be argued that the Western World, and the U.S. specifically, did not undergo this process. Which leads me back to the New Atheist and the charge that they are too "radically empirical." Under what other system are we to argue our points? Should we use allegory (like religion does) or allusion (again, religion) to make our cases? Empiricism, appropriately understood is not merely a snobbish, strictly materialist, logical positivist approach (Hollywood would have you think different: Enter Mr. Spock and Dr. Temperance Brennan) but instead an approach that 1.) seeks to understand the world and 2.) convince other observers of its conclusions. It, in essence, is a method of communication. And regardless of what post-modernist, post structuralist, and whatever other school of thought wants to argue, it is the primary way we understand the world we currently inhabit. For my Masters paper I would be thrown out of class if I, instead of using an empirical and rational method to argue my thesis, instead resorted to 40 plus pages of allegory. Likewise, reading a book or article that used the same tactic would leave a profound sense of disappointment for the reader since the case the author is making would be insufficient. Speaking (and as a result television) can still manage to get away with this, because the method of communication is different. Listen to a politician's speech. Then go read their book. Which one is more convincing? Which one will someone be more critical towards? It is precisely this ability to "hoodwink" that Postman (along with other charges) damned the medium of television. But in terms of the New Atheists this call to be more rational in our understanding of the world, to dispense with mythology and superstition, should not be criticized. There are things that the New Atheists get wrong, but this is not one of them."

The points of agreement:

Now let's cover points of concern or disagreement.

Should we dispense with mythology and superstition?

I would also suggest that it is beneficial to be more rational in the way that we understand the world, and that we can easily dispense with superstition.  Most religions would not view their core practices as superstition and would be inclined to dispense with it as well, though superstitious practices always accrete around religions because of typical human cognitive errors.  For example, the core teachings of Buddhism are not superstitious, but there are some Buddhist practices which look like superstition from the outside.  I would suggest that many of them are actually not superstitious when properly understood, but I suspect that many irreligious folks conflate religion and superstition to such a degree that the distinction would be lost on them.

Mythology I'm less inclined to dispense with, primarily because I think the narratives are actually very instructive.  I really enjoy Greek mythology in particular, though Norse mythology and other ancient mythologies are fascinating as well.  They can help us to step outside of our own skin and inhabit the worldview of others, fostering the ability to empathize with others.

Where there are multiple distinct ways of communicating ideas, I am reluctant to remove them from my toolbox of communication methods because some tools are better suited to some jobs and ill-suited for other jobs.

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