Arguing that theism isn't necessarily irrational - Part 6: Real Religion - Why literalists on both side have missed the point!

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Arguing that theism isn't necessarily irrational - Part 6: Real Religion - Why literalists on both side have missed the point!

The previous 5 essays were all about logic and reason.
There were two points to be made from this:
1) Even if the theist was wrong about their belief, and even if they couldn't put forward a rational argument to defend it, that didn't mean that they were being irrational in holding it.
2) Whether a belief itself is rational or irrational (i.e. whether an absolute analysis of all the evidence, possible arguments, justifications would vindicate it or refute it) depends a lot on the discourse/purpose/language game that the belief is grounded in.

The modern liberal/moderate religious person tends to agree with contemporary science, yet still hold that 'God is important to them' and might appear to hold beliefs that are contradictory to science. This essay is to paint a picture of religion that would make it a practice that could be considered rational (as in point 2).
This picture of religion might seem a bit controversial at first, might seem like a modernist attempt to revise religion to make it more socially acceptable to the modern age and bears no relevence to religion as has been really practiced over the ages.
However, on closer inspection I think that you will find that it successfully explains the most striking characteristics of religion, and the literalism could be seen as the 'perversion' or 'moderation', an attempt to make religion appealing to those who find 'real world facts' to be what matters most. An appeal to those who didn't find emotional consequences as significant as physical consequences.

For those who are sceptical that this describes genuine religious beliefs, at the end I will recommend two theology books that give an example of non-literalist Catholic theology. I recommend them as they are cheap to buy, easy reading (you should breeze through them within a weekend!), very interesting and give a Christian theology that appears to answer many problems that are thrown at it, e.g. how to integrate the Old Testament with Jesus' message of love.
It appears to reflect the kind of faith that many moderates tend to hold.
Well, that's enough introduction. On with the essay!

Real Religion - Why literalists on both side have missed the entire point!
There's a lot of people who see no need for religion.
If it is just a collection of claims that competes with scientific fact for our attention then surely at best it diverts us from the real truth and at worst could seriously misinform us about the world.
Likewise with faith. Faith is often seen as just taking a belief for granted, refusing to question it, no attempt to separate truth from falsity. There are good reasons why we question our beliefs - after all, if we've gotten something wrong then we would like to know about it. If faith is just refusing to admit the possibility of error then it can't be a good thing at all.
If that's what faith and religion really is then it's difficult to disagree.
The thing is, is that what faith and religion really is?

Sometimes it comes across that way.
Fundamentalists are often trying to discredit scientific fact in favour of their religious mythology, and when you try and corner them in an argument they will appear to pull out 'faith' as some kind of 'get out of jail free' card, use it as an excuse to dodge the criticisms at hand.
But there's more to religion than fundamentalism and there's more to faith than dodging questions. Faith is traditionally a virtue, a sign of strong character and religion has often been seen as an antidote to people who are struggling to make sense of the world.
Perhaps these stereotypes are leftovers from a previous age, merely proof how difficult it is for a culture to outgrow the negative influences of religion, but then maybe not...

The best way to avoid strawmanning your opponent is to give them the benefit of the doubt, interpret their position in the most favourable way possible. Treating religion and faith as merely an alternative way to science and reason to choosing which 'literal facts' to believe in it's quite obviously a cynical way to view things and I've yet to meet a person of faith who would agree with such a definition.
Maybe religion isn't about 'literal facts'. Maybe it's about something different.
What follows is an alternative view of religion and faith, one that certainly seems to fit my experience of religion much better than the 'literalistic' view of it.

Real Religion
This is a claim that religion isn't about literal truth.
There might be claims about literal truth involved, even from moderates, but these claims are for a different purpose compared to what we usually use propositions of truth for.
Propositions of literal truth are used for practical purposes.
We use facts about physics to construct technology and make predictions, facts about the traffic to plan our route, facts about nutrition to work out a good diet. Where religion makes literal claims, they tend to have a mythological significance, an inspirational significance, rather than a practical application.
That is, they are used for the psychological effects of belief rather than their direct application to real life practicality. This means that the reasons why we demand accuracy for practical based propositions of truth don't apply in the same way to religious statements because their purpose is the effect that they have on the believer.

Does this sound radical to you?
Maybe it does when you first hear it, but if you think about it it fits the evidence.
Why are moderates that apply reason to scientific beliefs so happy to put these beliefs aside when they go to church on sundays?
When we discuss the existence of things like tables, it's purely a question of whether they exist or not. When believers affirm their faith or bring up the question of Jesus, they will often treat it as a question of morality rather than correctness. They like talk of 'acceptance' or 'rejection' in a way that we just wouldn't apply to normal facts. To them, acceptance of religious belief is a question of morality rather than fact.
Another piece of evidence is how they justify their faith.
It always involves a story of how it turned their life around for the better.
Sure, sometimes they try and bring historical or scientific evidence into the argument, but these are merely attempts to persuade the 'rational minded' rather than their real ground for faith. I mean, we all know how convincing apologetics is on purely rational terms!!

The common line drawn between fundamentalists and moderates is that the fundamentalists 'truly believe' while moderates water religion down to a socially acceptable level. This appears to be the only line that can be drawn with the literalist intpretation of religion, where the religion is based on claims of truth and you either believe it or you don't.
With the alternatve view I've brought forward, a new line can be drawn, one that fits much better IMO.
Where religion is of value is where it changes a person's experience of life for the better.
Moderates and liberals recognise this to a subconscious degree and so make their religious beliefs flexible in order to achieve this. Rather than get bogged down in literalistic dogmas, they follow religion to the 'spirit' rather than the details.
They tend to judge a person's religion by the person they are, which explains why they often have a lot of respect for the spiritual people of other religions.
Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have a reputation for making big deals out of pedantic details. They will put their interpretation of a moral command before any common sense. They treat a subject best served by a flexible intuition with the rigidy that we treat hard scientific facts with, just without the accuracy.
Intuitive feelings and scientific fact both have advantages and weaknesses.
Literalistic religions provide us with the very worst of both worlds.

Faith as a virtue
The literalistic interpretation of faith doesn't make it appear very virtuous at all.
Whether it is blind obedience to the first tradition to steal your open mind, or just an excuse not to take criticism to your beliefs, it's just not a constructive approach to knowledge. Not in the theoretical arena anyway.
The thing is, theoretical knowledge isn't the be all and end all.
When we make decisions in the real world, the difficulties we face tend to be psychological rather than rational. We might know all the facts about what we need as humans, what's good for us an what's bad for us, but when it comes down to it we find it a lot easier to just follow our habits and impulses.
It's all very easy to rationalize that giving up will lead to nowhere, that you have to stick things through and give them a good go, but it takes another thing altogether to meet this ideal, to stick to it through psychological adversity.
This is where faith shines as a virtue.
It is when we can take a principle and stick to it through all our psychological uncertainty.
In this sense, it can be seen as an ally to reason, a way of upholding our rational ideals into our real life practice.

So faith is a psychological tool. It is an attitude of trust towards something.
Trust is when you can go along with something without having to worry about.
We generally trust our footing to walk along without having to look down and place every single step. Having faith in our abilities in when we go ahead and do what we do without doubt clouding our mind.
It doesn't have to be contrary to reason either.
We can rationally recognise our falibility, but also recognise that we perform better when our doubts aren't clouding our mind, so make the rational decision to let go of them and just go with it.
Faith is most often applied to ideas that we aren't rationally sure about, ideas that are so complex that we might be suspicious of rational arguments against it, especially if we aren't experts in reason. This is why religious folk are happy to say "I see you have points and I can't answer everything, but at the end of the day this is a matter of faith so it doesn't matter if I don't have all the answers."
Being riddled with doubts can stop us from acting decisively.
Sometimes we just need to work in faith in order for things to happen.
Sometimes we have to trust an idea that we haven't fully worked out, trust that our intuition hasn't mislead us in what feels right. Even when it does mislead us, such failures are often worth risking for when there's so much to gain, and they can also be the best way to learn better.

Does this make a person with strong faith immune to change?
No. Trust can be broken.
When we trust someone and they let us down, it becomes a lot harder to trust them again.
Cheating in a relationship is seen as a big deal because it breaks a trust that was essential to the relationship and such a break in the trust often spell the end of the relationship altogether. Trust in a religion can be broken to the point where the person loses faith. A large amount of apologetics is designed to get people to 'keep faith' even when things seem bleak.
Here is where we come across the darker side of religion.
It's when a religion uses extra methods to try and keep control over a person who has lost their natural faith in it. Moral accusations, manipulation, claims that the person should ignore their feelings in favour of truth, threats in both this life and the one after.
It is yet another strong contrast between fundamentalism and moderatism.
The moderate will encourage the believer to follow their heart and if a person loses faith then they will not try and coerce them back into belief. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, has a number of mechanisms to try and psychologically trap the believers from straying outside the fence.
This is why I am happy to consider moderate religion a form of free thought but not fundamentalism.

The value of Religion and Faith
Remember, I'm not claiming that 'faith' and 'religion' are always virtues, just that they can be, and when they are, how we can recognise where the virtue lies. This allows us to make the clear distinction between moderatism and fundamentalism that the literalists find impossible. There is one last point I should talk on though. So far I've shown religion and faith to be ways of manipulating our psychology, and that comes across as tricking oneself. Why not just work out what to do rationally and work like that?
The previous essay about reason having a time and place recognised that rational thought wasn't always the best way to approach a problem. Here I will expand upon that with regard to religious beliefs. There have many that have claimed that religion is psychologically necessary. While I think that might be going too far, I still think that religion can be of value to a person.

If morality is secular, what difference can religion do other than cloud the issue?
If "what is morally right?" can be answered on purely secular terms, how can religion contribute at all. It's one thing to technically know what is right on an intellectual level, it's another to be psychologically motivated to do it. This is what religion and faith is famous for, building a psychology that motivates the person to act morally, something that can be difficult for the natural mindset. I'm not claiming that the natural mindset is completely selfish or morally depraved, but it does tend to lean towards comfort. Religion isn't the only psychological tool against this, but it makes a powerful one. Religious 'brainwashing' can re-write our values for the better, change our outlook to make our quality of life that much better. It can help a person overcome addictions and personal difficulties.
There can also be downsides to religious thinking but that's something I hardly need to go into detail here.

Are the downsides of religion worth the benefits?
Can a person take the best of both worlds?
I'd like to think that a balance of faith and reason can keep a person driven by the feelings yet have that rational buffer to stop them going off the rails. How do we keep the balance? Use our natural grasp of the situation to judge the best
If someone was lacking meaning and drive in life, I might use metaphorical ideas to spark of some kind of passion in them, maybe pointing out how people get theirs in a karmic way to give them a sense of world justice.
But then if they were taking the karmic metaphor too far, getting hung up about some karmic debt and being fatalistic about the bad things that happen to them, maybe I'd use more concrete reason to show that karma is at best a metaphor in order to help release them from it.
Religious ideas can encourage or entrap us depending on our attitude to them.
The question is whether we need encouraging or releasing at that moment in time.

Recommend Reading
Here are two books, one for the Old Testament and one for the New Testament, that gives a non-literalistic understanding of the two books. It's not 'anti-literalistic', saying that the Bible is definately not historical, but just says that the historical accuracy of miracles isn't really relevent to the important message at hand. It's likely that you won't agree with what these books say, we are after all non-Christians, but I think you'll atleast appreciate that it doesn't suffer from the same problems that literalistic interpretations of Christianity suffer.


I also recommend Robert Price's The Da Vinci Fraud and Joesph Campell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces as historians/mythologists/psychologists who take a similar stance on religion and where it is rooted.


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Some of these arguments

Some of these arguments provided for a very long debate between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath. I would encourage anyone interested to watch the interview which was never included in the Documetnary "root of all evil?"

 

Link edited. Go to google video and search for Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath

its a little over an hour long. 


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RationalDeist wrote:

RationalDeist wrote:

Some of these arguments provided for a very long debate between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath. I would encourage anyone interested to watch the interview which was never included in the Documetnary "root of all evil?"

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626&q=

richard+dawkins+%22root+of+all+evil%22&total=71&start=0&num=100&so=0&type=search&plindex=20

I've watched it before. Note how early McGrath loses steam with his “reason” argument, favoring an appeal to popularity. First he says the myths have explanatory potential, and without going into what that is, he says it's meaningful to him that the myths had explanatory potential for the ancient sand-dwellers as well. The way he hems and haws, it would surprise me if all of his answers weren't made up on the spot.


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RD, can you shorten your

RD, can you shorten your google video link?  It's making my screen so wide that I can't read Strafio's essay.

 Thanks.

"After Jesus was born, the Old Testament basically became a way for Bible publishers to keep their word count up." -Stephen Colbert


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magilum wrote: I've

magilum wrote:

I've watched it before. Note how early McGrath loses steam with his “reason” argument, favoring an appeal to popularity. First he says the myths have explanatory potential, and without going into what that is, he says it's meaningful to him that the myths had explanatory potential for the ancient sand-dwellers as well. The way he hems and haws, it would surprise me if all of his answers weren't made up on the spot.


Not that I've seen it, but I don't think he would have been trying to win the argument by vote. Rather it was an attempt to draw parallels with people's own treatment of mythology - i.e. relate his points to people's own experience rather than try to describe it from the abstract.
Again, I've not seen it, just suggesting an interpretation that makes more sense.

The best way to avoid strawmanning is to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt, that is try and work out the most positive way to interpret their argument.


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I would say it is not

I would say it is not appropriate to call religious faith a 'virtue' at all.

It would be more accurate to say that at times, it can be a source of comfort to the believer, and may even occasionally lead them to actions which are broadly positive, just like any given random action may fortuitously have a positive rather than neutral or negative effect.

So faith is even more about 'comfort' than is a commitment to 'naturalism', which, if approached honestly, requires confronting many harsh aspects of reality.

And of course the idea of heaven holds out the promise of an eternity of extreme 'comfort' as the ultimate goal.

Surely a belief or faith which can be demonstrated to correspond to reality is likely to be even more useful in helping to attain 'good' outcomes, unless the individual has malevolent intent.

Otherwise we are just in the realm of psychology, which is at least nominally a rational field of study, can evaluate whether allowing or even encouraging particular beliefs is likely to be appropriate for a particlular person.

Beliefs which don't explicitly contradict observable reality, may be harmless, unless of course they include injunctions to act against other people who don't share those beliefs or are otherwise seen as 'evil' for morally irrelevant factors such as 'race' or ethnic/cultural background.

Presenting absolute obedience to arbitrary injunctions of authority figures as a supreme virtue, thereby providing a psychological justification for every dictator, as per the Adam and Eve story seems not a positive message.

Neither does the endorsement of punishing the descendants for the 'sins of the fathers' as justified seem to be something that should be treated as anything but evil.

So there is more than enough bad stuff in those books that to regard them as worthy sources of moral advice is totally misguided.

People can, of course, extract what would generally be regarded as positive precepts from them, but that is precisely because they are filtering their interpretation thru their background understanding of that moral consensus, which does not originate in those writings.

Those writings incorporateg the moral consensus of particular groups of people, particular tribes, at the time, so they are in no way a source of reliable moral guidance.

Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology


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BobSpence1 wrote:

BobSpence1 wrote:

I would say it is not appropriate to call religious faith a 'virtue' at all.

It would be more accurate to say that at times, it can be a source of comfort to the believer, and may even occasionally lead them to actions which are broadly positive, just like any given random action may fortuitously have a positive rather than neutral or negative effect.


This appears to be the common position on the forum and it is the one that the arguments in the OP were formulated to attack.
It starts by pointing out that "belief" can mean different things depending on the context, just like 'bank' can except not so obvious.

When someone is telling a story, we can tell without having to ask whether it really happened. How? It's our use of 'story-telling' language. We are used to how it is applied and how our listener ought to react. If they were taking it literally then we might feel the need to remind them that it's only a story.

In a similar way, religious belief has subtle differences to real belief. People use them in a different way and react to them in a different way. So they're not simply 'false representations', their function isn't to accurately represent in the first place. Most people recognise this, except for literalists who have conflated the two different types of belief in an equivocation.
I've even decided to coin a fancy name for it like "The Literalistic Fallacy" or something like that.

Faith isn't merely about 'comfort' either.
It plays multiple roles depending on your psychological need at that moment in time. Sometimes a person needs comfort and faith can give that comfort. Sometimes a person needs to be shaken to the bone and a faith can do that too. "Finding God" is almost synonymous to "recognising certain problems with my character/lifestyle and making a dramatic change".
Well, you don't have to 'find God' to make this dramatic change - there are many alternatives, but if someone says that they 'found God' then they're likely to elaborate with some major changes in their life as a result.
Faith is about character building in general.
Obviously, not all faiths successfully acheive this in real life, and clearly none will be perfect. But that's the grounds by which we can judge a faith to be a virtue - by how it transforms someones life.

Quote:

Surely a belief or faith which can be demonstrated to correspond to reality is likely to be even more useful in helping to attain 'good' outcomes, unless the individual has malevolent intent.


Not really. The way people treat religious 'beliefs', the reality doesn't appear to help their usefullness at all. The usefullness is rather in the poetic value of the 'belief', and I reckon that however poetic reality might be, a human mind would always be able to add poetic elaborations to it.

Quote:

Otherwise we are just in the realm of psychology, which is at least nominally a rational field of study, can evaluate whether allowing or even encouraging particular beliefs is likely to be appropriate for a particlular person.


Not 'just' in the realm of psychology.
As the purpose/'truth-maker' of this 'language game' or 'practice' is based in psychology, it will also be the ground for it's rational evaluation.

Quote:

Presenting absolute obedience to arbitrary injunctions of authority figures as a supreme virtue, thereby providing a psychological justification for every dictator, as per the Adam and Eve story seems not a positive message.

Neither does the endorsement of punishing the descendants for the 'sins of the fathers' as justified seem to be something that should be treated as anything but evil.


Indeed. Whether faith is a virtue will often depend upon the theology that it is based upon.

Quote:

So there is more than enough bad stuff in those books that to regard them as worthy sources of moral advice is totally misguided.


Not really. Concepts like absolute obedience and original sin are come from particular intepretations of the texts rather than the texts themselves. The two books I recommended show a different interpretation of faith. Not one that picks on one or two good points, but one that takes the gospel with it's history and Jewish traditions and makes a holistic sense of it all.
There's also the other two books I recommended that treat the stories of the gospels like other mythology.

Quote:

People can, of course, extract what would generally be regarded as positive precepts from them, but that is precisely because they are filtering their interpretation thru their background understanding of that moral consensus, which does not originate in those writings.


I'm not sure that you can justify that claim on how Christian writings originated. It doesn't seem seem to fit my limited historical knowledge of how it came together. Although the Bible was compiled to suit a "founding fathers" interpretation, they were still interpreting the texts in a particular way, filtering it through their own moral concensus. It is more likely, according to my sources, that Christian writings originated with different themes that were gradually re-interpreted under certain philosophies/theologies of the time.

Besides, even if Christian theology sucks as much as you say it does, I'm defending faith in general rather than particular theologies.


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Strafio wrote: magilum

Strafio wrote:
magilum wrote:

I've watched it before. Note how early McGrath loses steam with his “reason” argument, favoring an appeal to popularity. First he says the myths have explanatory potential, and without going into what that is, he says it's meaningful to him that the myths had explanatory potential for the ancient sand-dwellers as well. The way he hems and haws, it would surprise me if all of his answers weren't made up on the spot.

Not that I've seen it, but I don't think he would have been trying to win the argument by vote. Rather it was an attempt to draw parallels with people's own treatment of mythology - i.e. relate his points to people's own experience rather than try to describe it from the abstract. Again, I've not seen it, just suggesting an interpretation that makes more sense. The best way to avoid strawmanning is to give your opponent the benefit of the doubt, that is try and work out the most positive way to interpret their argument.

I think you give the apologist undue credit, though I may be wrong. The question posed related to his reasons for belief. His answer referred to reasons in the abstract of explanatory potential, proceeded to dismiss reason as limited, and went on to laude the same explanatory potential it held for people in the past. He makes the argument, dismisses the premise, and makes it again by proxy. I can understand if you interpret it differently, but why speculate? 


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Like I said, I've not seen

Like I said, I've not seen the debate so it was possibly done terribly.
There's two reasons why I think it's a fair interpretation rather than speculation.

1) It's common for a person to kind of have a personal understanding of where they are coming from, but have difficulty in finding the words to express the 'arguments' that they have subconsciously worked through.
If there is a valid defense for Christianity from a mythological perspective, which I think that there is, then it is quite plausible that this was the argument the fellow was grasping for but couldn't find the right words to express.

2) A person's position is often difficult to understand, especially in philosophy when such small details like slightly different experiences of the world and slightly different uses of certain words can have such major consequences to the argument. When clarifying what an opponents position, I think it's a good rule of thumb to start with the most generous position you can give them.
That way it will be their strongest position that you are attacking, and surely the strongest one is the most worthy one to try and topple?

Having said that, until I actually watch this debate, I think your charge of speculation is quite a valid one! Smiling