6) Real Religion - Why literalists on both side have missed the entire point!

Strafio's picture

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.