Questionable Motives

April 29, 2010

Separate but equal: are all religions merely different paths up the mountain?

Filed under: Religion,Truth — tildeb @ 8:49 am

In this article, Stephen Prothero explains why this sentiment is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: Something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word “Koyaanisqatsi” tells us that life is out of balance. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” tells us that there is something rotten not only in the state of Denmark but also in the state of human existence. Hindus say we are living in the “kali yuga,” the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.

We pretend that religious differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world’s religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous, and more deadly. The world is what it is. And both tolerance and respect are empty virtues until we actually know whatever it is we are supposed to be tolerating or respecting.

So religious folk agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge even more sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Moreover, each offers its own distinctive diagnosis of the human problem and its own prescription for a cure. Each offers its own techniques for reaching its religious goal, and its own exemplars for emulation.

If diagnosing problems and prescribing rectifying actions are based on what is probably not true, probably not accurate, probably not correct, then by our uncritical tolerance for religious belief we are, in effect, tolerating and respecting unjustified beliefs – faulty truth claims – which translates directly into tolerating and respecting unjustified actions done in the name of those beliefs. Why should we respect and tolerate ignorant actions based on faulty truth claims just because they come wrapped in piety? We don’t respect and tolerate faulty truth claims in any other field of human endeavor but hold those who spread them liable for the damage they cost… except, of course, when it comes to safeguarding the faulty truth claims of the various competing religions. Then far too many of us have a tendency to put aside our reasonable concerns about what is and is not true and replace our justified concern with a special dispensation that exempts religiously inspired truth claims from the same critical examination. By doing so, we keep legitimate and justified concerns (like human rights, for example) away from the center of our attention and actions. We push them slightly to the side and tend to marginalize them somewhat to make room for meaningful concern about respecting and tolerating the unjustified religious beliefs that so often empower the disrespect and intolerance that cause the concerns to arise in the first place (like sectarian violence, sectarian gender inequality, sectarian genital mutilation, so on)!
If we want to bring about an end to these sectarian concerns and wish to promote a unifying notion about common humanity with a common respect for what is true, for what is justified, then we do not further our common cause by offering respect and tolerance to beliefs that are inherently disrespectful and intolerant of what is true empowered only by belief in what is probably not.


  1. You say we don’t respect and tolerate faulty truth claims in any other field of human endeavour just because they come wrapped in piety. Perhaps you have not been following the religion of man-made climate change, best represented by the high priests involved in Climategate, and the follow-on whitewash report (all of 5 pages) judging those scientists who were cleared of their cheating and lying. Of course there were inquires called into their ‘misbehaviour’. One was headed by a so-called independent person, Lord Oxburgh, a man of impeccable credentials. He just happens to be the chair of Falck Renewables, a European leader with major wind farms in the UK, France, Spain and Italy, and he’s chair of the Carbon Capture and Stage Association, a lobby group which argues that carbon capture could become a $trillion industry by 2050. The report attempts to present the Climate Research Unit (CRU) Head Phil Jones and his band as unworldly boffins when 3000 documents were released, unauthorized. After reviewing 11 CRU studies that went into the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the report notes that the caveats that CRU researchers had placed on their work describing uncertainties and reservations were removed by Phil Jones and his colleague Keith Briffa GIVING THE IMPRESSION THAT THE SCIENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING WAS SETTLED WHEN IN FACT IT IS NOT. Other researchers have tried to duplicate or understand studies but the CRU has ‘lost’ raw data, and ‘cooked’ other data. This was, according to the report, dubbed, carelessness with “non-essential record keeping”??? The report on the CRU is also gently fingered on its lack of statistical sophistication. As the report states, “It is regrettable that so few professional statisticians have been involved in this work because it is fundamentally statistical.” WHAT??? This is the lead research organization in the world, under the UN Panel on Climate Change. Draconian global policies have been made on the basis of dodgy data handled by those who are less than expert??? This is surely a little more than “regrettable”. If climate change is suppose to be the most important issue confronting us why haven’t the world’s greatest statistical minds been working on, or be available for interpreting data on the climate change issue, UNLESS OF COURSE, the data and pseudo-science are there to support the political position rather than guiding it. So the bottom line is that your claim about tolerating truth claims in other fields of human endeavor is false and we the masses are not holding the liars accountable. There is too much money at stake, and too much power involved. We are on the wrong side of the Inconvenient Truth, just look at Big Al Gore.

    Comment by Climate1 — April 29, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  2. I think there is a huge difference between assuming the truth of a faulty claim arrived at by assumption and assertion (asserting without any corroborating evidence that Jesus was born of a virgin indicating the truth claim of supernatural intervention to be valid) and the truth of a controversial claim backed by much evidence subject to ongoing critical review. Additionally, the scientific consensus is far and away weighted in favour that AGW (anthropological global warming) is true. Does that mean the science is settled? I think so but many do not and they have their reasons, too, backed by carefully selected evidence (not assumption) presented in a very particular and negative way.

    For example, let’s look at the truth claim that AGW is some kind of conspiracy. Particular reasons can be made that appear to support this, such as financial gain. How does this notion square with scientific agencies and very close to entire scientific communities supporting the conclusion that AGW is true?

    Well, I think it’s very hard to level that charge against NASA, The Royal Society, The National Academy of Science, AAAS, IPCC, American Meteorological Society, National Research Council, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Federal Climate Change Science Program, 2006 – commissioned by the Bush administration in 2002, American Association of State Climatologists, National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the list goes on and on. Either the scientists in ALL these and many other societies are doing really bad science, which never seems to be the charge leveled against these tens of thousands of scientists, or they are all part of some vast conspiracy. Neither seems at all likely to me. As for Mann, his methodology has been exonerated even if his behaviour and language remains questionable.

    So does my conclusion that AGW is true based on the preponderance of scientific consensus equate with conclusions reached by religious believers in the veracity of a supernatural interventionist creator agency? I don’t think so. I think when one understands the rigor of reaching scientific consensus on anything, one can appreciate that ‘faith’ – in the sense of believing something in spite of an absence of evidence – is misapplied here, so the charge of supporting AGW to be equivalent to a “religion of man-made climate change” is neither fair nor accurate.

    Comment by tildeb — April 29, 2010 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  3. I really think the validity or lack thereof of this metaphor depends on the individual. As long as a religious person does not believe their view is the only correct view, then the metaphor of the mountain may work.

    We all strive to be better people. Some use Christianity, others Buddhism, some secularism, some a general sense of spirituality or even athiesm. In the end, when we get to the top of that mountain, if we have worked to make other people’s lives better and work to better our own, then we are all on seperate paths to the top of the mountain. But it requires an open-mind and a possibility of being on the wrong path to get there, if that makes sense.

    Have you read Life of Pi? Great work of fiction I think you’d really enjoy. I highly recommend it for you.

    Comment by joechianakas — April 29, 2010 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

    • The metaphor of the mountain is about coming to know god to heal the human condition that is broken using different paths to arrive there. Prothero points out why this assumption is not only wrong but dangerously so. You seem to think the mountain represents becoming better people rather than fixed-through-religious-belief, but that’s not what the article is about.

      The article is all about the fact that different religions similarly diagnose the human condition as somehow broken and thus offer conflicting prescriptions how to solve it.

      As a basis for forming a philosophy of how to live an authentic life, I think both the diagnosis and the prescription are badly flawed with predictable and negative consequences.

      Comment by tildeb — April 30, 2010 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  4. Joechianakas – what you are saying does make sense, as an atheist, I believe that most people are good people and have good intentions. I remain optimistic about humans and their ability to solve problems and their ambition to better the life of humans and indeed life for all living things under the care of humans – that is the ambition. Most people do not want poverty, or disease or suffering.

    However, your last statement ” then we are all on separate paths to the top of the mountain. But it requires an open-mind and a possibility of being on the wrong path to get there, if that makes sense. ” I have a problem with – because religion tends not to show an open mind, it tends to block research and improvements in health care for the sake of its beliefs.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 30, 2010 @ 4:49 am | Reply

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