Questionable Motives

December 26, 2010

How urgent is it to rationally scrutinize the claims of religion?

Filed under: belief,Criticism,Religion,Russell Blackford — tildeb @ 12:06 pm

This recent article by Russell Blackford (of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club fame) is causing a bit of a stir and well worth reading.

Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world’s religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.

At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there’s a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.

But just how urgent a task is the rational scrutiny of religion? Is it really needed in a modern, and apparently secular, liberal democracy such as Australia? Isn’t Australian religiosity rather unobtrusive and undemanding? In that case, is there any need to engage in strong, publicly prominent criticism of religious teachings, the organisations that promote them, or the leaders of those organisations? Perhaps rational critiques of religion should be available in peer-reviewed philosophy journals – but no great effort should be made to debunk religion in popular books, magazine or newspaper articles, or media appearances.

I disagree. All too often, religious organisations and their representatives seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including how we die. At various times, the religious have opposed a vast range of activities and innovations: anaesthesia; abortion; contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; the teaching of robust scientific findings, such as those of evolutionary biology; and a wide range of essentially harmless sexual conduct involving consenting adults. Even in Australia, churches and sects frequently lobby for laws that restrict our freedoms.

As in other Western democracies, religious organisations in Australia are not always politically liberal or even moderate. On the contrary, recent years have seen the increasing influence of very large Pentecostal organisations, such as Hillsong and Catch the Fire Ministries, which pursue a political agenda little different from that of the Christian Right in America. Conservative Catholics, such as Cardinal George Pell, actively seek to influence political affairs. We have seen considerable activism from Australia’s religious lobbies, and successive governments have pandered blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

It’s not surprising that so many contributors to The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe Publications; ed. Warren Bonnet) are appalled by the promotion of religion by the Howard and Rudd governments, with Julia Gillard now following suit.

Public scrutiny and criticism of religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various churches and sects agreed unequivocally to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons, judged by their own lights, to oppose such a strict secularism. Some churches and sects do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power.

They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. They may be sceptical about the danger that liberal-minded people see when adherents of competing worldviews jostle to impose them by means of political power. Some religious groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a day when their views will prevail over others.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?

These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they’re asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Dr Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle and a contributor to The Australian Book of Atheism.


  1. What sort of a stir is it causing?

    For what it’s worth, I totally agree with the article. Anyone who wants to impose his or her views on politics should be ready to discuss them publically and let them be scrutinzed closely. That’s the basic game of democracy, innit? To open up plans and intentions to public discussion and let the majority decide which pass and which don’t.

    One thing bothers me a bit about the basic assumptions about this debate, though: Both in this text and in a lot of what you write, there rings the faint accusation of malevolent conspiracy. Now, I’m the last not to suspect those in power, be it religious, or financial, or “executive” (you know, rozzers, soldiers, politicians, etc.) of the willingness to conspire to hog the power and exclude everybody else. But in practically all cases it is us who give them that power.

    The problem with religions is not those old men who abuse their power, but with the need vast majorities of peeps have for them. And I have serious doubts (and see nothing to allay them) that you can argue anyone out of faith without somehow understanding and satisfying that need.

    Now, I do believe that for YOU rationality DOES satisfy that need (though, to be absolutely honest, I am still quite convinced from the way you write and argue, that the actual rationality is the surface, and that underneath it is your faith-based belief in that reason that makes it so satisfying to you). But just as devotion to Jeeesus (*shakes hand in the air*) doesn’t give you any spiritual satisfaction, so does devotion to empirical truths simply not give any to most of the hymn-and-incence brigade.

    I have finally gotten hold of a copy of Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson. I find it rather hard to read (my lack of formal education finally showing me my mental limits, I suppose) and my going is slow, but so far I think it has got a couple of great ideas.

    Myth is not proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regard to such aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end)”. Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to percieve. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective value, their value, their motivational significance. […] We do not understand pre-experimental thinking, so we try to explain it in terms that we do understand – which means that we explain it away, define it as nonsense. After all, we think scientifically – so we believe – and we think we know what that means (since scientific thinking can in principle be defined). We are familiar with scientific thinking and value it highly – so we tend to presume that it is all there is to thinking (presume that all other “forms of thought” are approximations, at best, to the ideal of scientific thought). But this is not accurate. Thinking also and more fundamentally is specification of value, specification of implication for behavior. This means that categorization, with regards to value – determination (or even perception) of what constitutes a single thing, or class of things – is the act of grouping together according to implication for behavior.

    – Jordan B. Peterson: Maps of Meaning, The Architecture of Belief, 1999, p. 9

    Before you tell me the obvious: We can totally agree that most self-styled believers make the same mistake, and think that their myths describe the world in empirical terms, and that makes them total morons. The bible offers of course no more historic facts than Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar or Macbeth. Anyone who wants to claim otherwise – who wants it to be accepted as empirically true – has to subject it to the scientific test.

    But it is not their assumed factual truth that makes peeps cling to them, but their mythic truth. In Peterson’s words, myths tell us how the world ought to be and how to get there from here. While science can tell us how the world is, and help us understand how most efficiently to change it, it is myth that tells us how we want to have it changed.

    (Which is again, why I would say that the Bible – say, e.g. the Book of Ecclesiastes – is totally true. Just as Shakespeare’s King Lear is. Or Saint-Exupéry’s Petit Prince. The fact that is is mythically, and not empirically true – or in Joseph Campbell’s terms, that it is true if read as poetry and not as prose – doesn’t invalidate it. It makes them not conflicting truths, but mutually supporting truths.)

    What I find sorely lacking from your posts, including this text, is any discussion of how to satisfy the universal, human need for mythic/poetic truth. Because as long as you haven’t found an answer to that, you can rail against religion as much as you want, you will not part any believer from his faith, any more than you could convince a drowning man from relinquishing his hold on a log of driftwood.

    Comment by FreeFox — December 27, 2010 @ 11:10 am | Reply

    • It’s causing a bit of a stir because there is a tradition of mandatory religious instruction in public schools (carried out by ‘community’ volunteers) now facing direct competition. Students may choose (a recent test case was carried out I think in New South Wales) an alternative class during that time for ethics. It seems to have been much more popular than the religious class. Russell has written to various politicians, government ministries, and letters to the editor about some of the issues and problems this outdated religious instruction policy has on public school students of various cultures and religious backgrounds imposed by a secular state like Australia. Criticisms of this current religious instruction policy are too often categorized as ‘angry atheist venting’ so it is causing a bit of a stir to see a mainstream publication carry this kind of reasonable article.

      I think you are using a rather narrow sense of ‘science’ in your comparison: sort of a lab coat, beakers, and test tube kind of image about what can be measured and thus known. I use the term ‘science’ to mean a method of thinking based on what can be known of which empirical data is a component. You then suggest (quite correctly I think) both – narrow science meaning empirical rationality – and myth have value even if they come to us as what’s true draped in different forms – hence the poetry versus prose analogy. But you then also seem to think (incorrectly) that I equate what is true – meaning empirically knows – with value and discard everything else. Most assuredly I do no such thing.

      I value many ideas that have no empirical aspect whatsoever… ideas like art and compassion and beauty and justice and epistemology and so on. But I also highly value what can be known as true and understand that this must be a foundation upon which knowledge about the real world is built. It is from knowledge that we then construct wisdom and it is from wisdom that we construct meaning and purpose of value. In other words, the hierarchy of wisdom does not start with assuming meaning and purpose (taking it on ‘faith’ so to speak) and working backwards to dictate what must be true. That is why prosody is the art and prose merely the craft.

      Our ‘need’ for truth seems to me to be no such thing (if I read you correctly): we crave wisdom to inform and grant true value to the meaning and purpose of our lives yet remain coy (if not downright resistant) about how to achieve it. Too often, people assume they can purchase wisdom like shopping for clothes: trying on theologies and spiritualities to see how they feel and assuming that feeling is what matters most. And that’s why so many approaches to gaining wisdom are only as deep as the surface and so unsatisfying. If our character is formed by how we live (fully), then donning the clothes of, say, hospital scrubs does not a surgeon or nurse make of us… any more than banging on a cat-skin drum every Thursday night with a group of spiritually-minded earnest seekers of wisdom makes us wise. We earn our answers through living and we only get out of our inquiries (our quests to use the terminology of myths) what we are willing to put into our efforts. The same actions can yield very different values for people so engaged; the difference is what understanding we bring to the action and determining what meaning and purpose we can extract from the action to enrich our lives. And herein lies the paradox of wisdom so beautifully exposed in myth: we are both active student and teacher in this process, active reader (or listener) and participant, in art as in life, in myth as in life, in narrative as in life. We too easily forget that the spiritus root of our word spirituality means ‘breathing’ as in active and alive. That is where our spirituality can be found: in active living. Can we truly recognize our selves in the world we inhabit, recognize our selves in the clothes we wear, recognize our selves in the suffering of others? Can we grow and expand our awareness, our identity, our uniqueness, our sense of place and community to encompass the richness of our potential lives through active living? Can we go into the vast wilderness of life alone and heroically journey through our adventures and difficulties that is life to return to the familiar and enjoy the riches we have amassed? That’s the quest for wisdom: an action undertaken to seek knowledge – what is true – about our selves but revealed to us by our willing and honest interaction with the world on its terms.

      And here is the central criticism I have with faith-based beliefs: we impose these beliefs to represent the world we inhabit which then skews our very ability to interact with it on its terms. Our faith-based beliefs thwart our ability to know our selves in the honest interactions with the real world and offers us a facsimile of living a rich life steeped in experiential adventures and knowledge honestly gained with a make-believe world of pseudo-knowledge and pseudo-truths and pseudo-values leading inevitably to a very unsatisfying pseudo-wisdom all too often directed towards the ‘next’ world (otherwise known as ‘being dead’). Faith-based beliefs imposed on our world – on an individual as well as social level – stand as towering impediment against our quest to live an honest, authentic, and wise life. To use your final analogy, if the drift wood is a deadhead and is pulling you under, it’s time to let go and see what happens when you are forced to swim. That’s the choice we make every moment of every day where the world demands you sink or swim if wisdom is what you seek and you have to set your own course into the adventure of your own life.

      Comment by tildeb — December 27, 2010 @ 1:08 pm | Reply

  2. PS.: Just to be clear on this – while there ARE poetic truths, not all poems are true. Just because there is a mythic truth alongside empiric truth doesn’t absolve myths or religions from having to defend their truth claims. Nor is there any reason not to examine poetic truth claims using scientific means – for example applying what we know about human psychology, neurology, or cultural history to statements about love. Just that those claims have to be argued and defended not not on the level of prose but on the level of poetry: The nativity story (in either version, Luke’s, Matthew’s, or the defanged public consumption remix) shouldn’t be discussed (by either side) as historic fact, but as story about hope and deliverance. Does it have to offer us enlightenment about how to lead our lives, and is what it tells us about life and the world helpful and true (in a poetic sense)? The answer can still be NO. But only then would it be a reasonable answer to a reasonable question.

    Comment by FreeFox — December 27, 2010 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  3. Art is a tool that can be used for sharing complicated ideas, feelings and knowledge.

    A good poet – will produce work that will push the right buttons, as will a good artist, or musical composer – the same is true of a good clergy man – but the fact that they can push these buttons, does not bring any purpose to them in a spiritual supernatural sense nor does it make them true. We have these buttons because they are useful for our survival; they are little more than evolved mating rituals and tribal dances.

    As such, poetic truth is in the eye of beholder – your Mozart could be my Beatles – and what you think is good art I might regard as meaningless trash and vice versa.

    The trouble arises with religion when some people regard their version of the ‘poetic truth’ (whatever that is) to be the absolute truth as has happened here:

    There is great beauty in mathematics, medicine, engineering, biology, chemistry and physics; in all the sciences there is room for artistic ability that can draw the admiration, appreciation and understanding of ideas.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — December 27, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

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