July 3, 2008

Religion, Knowledge, and Truth: An Online Debate with a Skeptic

The Skeptic:
The question seems to be whether religion is a problem or whether it is a catalyst where problems exist. Whether it is the substrate or the enzyme.

This is what I was getting at before. Even if religion is not on the X axis of a causal relationship, even if it is not perceived as the root of a problem, which I admit to be the case in (many) macro-level societal problems, what it is too often is an enabler. And it is a tool that has been used since its advent by the structures of power to mobilize and/or placate the masses (missionaries, suicide bombers, and slaveowners alike).

A large piece of what Ayaan Hirsi Ali sees as Islam's participation in women's oppression is the part it plays in a woman's individual psychology. The postponing of personal pleasure or independence simply because of the carrot of eternal life with Allah that is being dangled on the end of a string throughout their life. Her experience shows women who put up with arranged marriages and unwanted sex and beatings and whatever else they think they need to put up with in order to satisfy their religion's requirements for getting into heaven and/or dodging hell.

Now, one thing you need to understand about those who are not religious, who were not taught fairy tales during their childhood as though they are absolute truths (and those who don't believe them be damned, literally) is that for us, religion is optional. Or I should say that we understand religion as being optional, optional for everybody. It is this idea that is behind the subtitle to Christopher Hitchens' book- "Religion Poisons Everything." Religion is optional, he says, though it used to not be. We now understand so many of the things that religious ideas used to have a monopoly on explaining- disease, the diversity of life, the movement of celestial bodies, the cause of catastrophic environmental disasters.
Someone like me sits idly by while the entire global population quarrels ad nauseam about their competing fairy tales and cannot comprehend, cannot comprehend why this quarreling is necessary. It is silliness, and all the proof you need for how silly this all is is the legacy of L. Ron Hubbard.
Of course you don't agree and probably find this offensive. But its very important that you understand that wherever religion presents itself as a problem (even if it is not THE problem), wherever it is used by nasty people to mobilize otherwise good people to do nasty things, or enables people to give up their lives in search of posthumous reward, there will always be a chorus of people like Hirsi Ali and me asking why. Why do people need to cling to these books, 95% of the time with little or no knowledge of what is actually in them, outside of a handful of cherry-picked passages?
As long as organized religion is optional in living a good and intellectually, socially, and even spiritually (if you need to use that word) life, then wherever it presents a problem is a place where the problem is optional too, or a place where the problem would be less severe without the catalyst of divine authority.

ME: I think religion (in the sense we think of it as being an organized belief set and practices involving belief in supernatural beings) is and should be optional. Religion defeats its ultimate purpose if it is forced.
I agree with what you say in spirit. Our goal ought to be truth and we ought to seek it out regardless of the consequences for our currently held beliefs.
I think what we are seeing is religion's diminishing influence in the public sphere and for the most part, I see that as a good thing. However, I wonder if you don't have this assumption that somehow because religion has vacated the public sphere that it will be replaced by pure reason.
And I think some of you non-religious folk unfortunately indulge in your own fairytales that somehow the space they inhabit is the high ground of pure reason. And that the rest of humanity ought to stop their silly games and listen to you guys. (even though I love Sam Harris and think some of what he says is GREAT)
When in reality the space (namely academia and the university) that Harris and others (myself included) speak from is constructed by the use and application of imperial power. Their reach, their ability to get published, etc is predicated on the stability and openness of a prosperous society and made prosperous through the oftentimes brutal application of power.
Here I admit my debt to Foucault, in that I see reason itself as socially constructed and not divorced from current moral conflicts. I see science as an empirical method for discovering truth, but I also know truth itself is not bound by science or religion or theory or structure. Here I also part company with Foucault in seeing truth as having an independent objective existence outside of reason, science, religion, art, culture, etc.
Yet, I must then explain how it is we can know Truth if it is outside all human knowledge. In other words, how can we know Truth if we cannot claim it empirically? Well, my initial answer (subject to your withering critique) is that religion provides a pathway to that knowledge through a kind of truth which is neither verbal, nor empirical, but is simply known. YHWH's initial name in the Torah is I-AM. And as believers of any stripe, there are certain things that through believing IT IS, open one to a higher degree of truth.
Of course, I know this kind of reasoning is inimical to the critical rationalist. But do we not engage in this sort of behavior all the time? For example, we assume the existence of an independent thing called the 'self' in modern life. Is this not a highly convenient illusion that is being exploited to the absolute maximum by consumer capitalism? I mean 95% of people in America (possible exaggeration in the interest of making my point) do not understand the inner workings of the global market and havn't read anything about economics, yet believe in free market capitalism. Why? Because it is a dominant,even hegemonic ideology and it works for them, not because its rational. It serves the interests of the powerful to advance certain myths about this system: its origins and infallibility, its ability to solve all problems.
My argument here neither invalidates nor supports religious belief in and of itself, I merely wanted to unmask a current institution in our public life which has just as insidiously insinuated itself into our understanding as you say religion has.
The conversation I am interested in having in regards to your comment about holy books is: is there a universal hermeneutic for understanding and parsing a text? Do we not inherently always bring our own understanding to bear on a text, not simply our objective reason? And does this not mean that a text will speak to different people at different times in different ways? So then the question becomes: how can we possibly maintain that a book is divinely inspired if it is subjectively interpreted?
I solve this problem by first asserting that all knowledge is rooted in power relationships, prejudices, previous understandings and does not exist in pure form in the world.
Yet just as we wouldn't say the world did not exist or was invalid because our eyes basically 'tell' our brains what to see and don't reproduce the actual structure of visible reality, so too, we don't say that universal knowledge (the kind which holy books claim) doesn't exist because the texts are fallibly interpreted. For me, the kind of knowledge that I want from following a particular religious path (Islam) is of a different nature than the kind I can empirically gain from studying, say "string theory' or the equations of electron behavior. It is the religious equivalent of the knowledge we have of say, history and existence before the big bang.
I think there is a tension, esp in Islam, between the historical revealing of the text (few scholars, even secular ones, doubt that is was transmitted accurately) and its subsequent interpretation in future times and places. This is a question that those who see validity and hope in truth through religion are struggling with.

The Skeptic: Well, I've been entertaining the idea of writing a fairy tale or two this summer (I just now realized the irony in the context of this conversation).

And I think Herman Utic would be a fabulous character name. Along with Anna Thema. Thanks for the idea!

sorry, I just got done w/ two hours ultimate frisbee... i will reply seriously someday...
the only withering critique I will make (thats a wonderful compliment to be paid, btw) is regarding Islam and Truth, as follows as such:

You can always tell which religions and belief systems actually do not have the real truths, because they are the ones that demand that you subject yourself to endless quotidian rituals and constantly recite passages from books, as though ostensibly the only way to convince one of a truth is to have them repeat it over and over and over again until one doesn't even think to challenge the habitual thought.
It is a terribly effective marketing trick, and has been throughout history. The Bush administration along with the mass media had a keen mastry of this, both you and I can recite the pledge of allegiance without blinking, even if we haven't in 10 years, and the only book to ever rival those like the Bible or the Quran in worldwide sales is Mao's Little Red Book, parts of which can probably be recited by heart by many still alive. All of these are examples are ideas that people get such repeated exposure to that they take the truths for granted.
A real truth is one so naked and profound you need only read it once to commit to it. You need to be wary of those ideas that need to be repeated five times daily in order to really arouse devotion to its verity.
chew on that, brother ;)

ME:Anna thema LMAO....hey if you can get people to repeat it 5 times a day then more power to you!
The reality is that people will continue to be mobilized and motivated by religious belief. Your sarcasm in calling it fairytales is cute, but doesn't really address my point.
We ought to be wary I agree of claims to truth and parse them out based on looking at them in as objective a light as possible. However, you pointed out again that people have used religion as one form of propaganda, and quite ironically you cite Mao's Red Book. (which was based on an ideology virulently anti-religious)
I don't agree that a real truth is one you have to hear only once, and anyway, I think you are missing the point of praying 5 times a day. The point of prayer is remembrance, in order to bring our minds back to a meditative state in which to contemplate the truth we seek through that pathway. This is not a truth that can be grasped by reading it and simply agreeing.
If you believe sound itself is a dimension of meaning then you will understand why it is important for religions to repeat certain things, certain mantras.
If you believe that meaning resides only in words and relations between words, then you will find it silly and barbaric.

The Skeptic: No, my point was that Mao's propaganda was just one example of people repeating and being subjected to ideas over and over until they are taken for granted as truth, or at least are more convincing as truths than they would be if one simply sat down and thought about them, instead of constant mass rallies and repetition.

This happens in religious contexts, with the same EFFECT, completely independent of what one person or another purports the other effects or purposes of the ritual to be.

And since it has that effect, we can see why religions that employ it are so successful. I think the success of an idea should be on its merits as an idea, not on how successfully swayed people can be by certain marketing techniques that make the same appeals and have the same effects as those you see in the form of commericals and political propaganda (rock bands at youth groups, fear of eretnal damnation, the idea that the meek will inherit the earth, divine justice where none exists on earth, repitition of propositions, group prayer, etc. etc.). These are all very appealing but do not speak to the truth value of a proposition.

I don't know whether you mean to disagree with this or not...


Rehenuma July 5, 2008 at 3:44 PM  

Dear Skeptic,

I just wanted to add some of my own thoughts to this conversation. I think its is very elitist, arrogant and simply mean to call billions of people worldwide robots who have no ability to think for themselves and make "rational" decisions.. That being said.. the liberal humanist tradition has made people "falsely" believe (you seem to imply that everyone who believes in a religious tradition is brainwashed and experiences some sort of false consciousness) that they are somehow supremely rational because they hail from a tradition that attempts to be free of subjectivity although post modernism should have dispelled that notion that this is ever actually possible- yet some people still seem to believe they have some high ground over others- be it moral, scientific or secular... what we all would benefit from is the recognition that we are human beings who experience things in particular contexts and cannot assume that everyone should experience, believe or feel the same way we do.. the complicated nature of the world and science and secularism's inability to explain it is the main reason that most people still believe in a faith tradition....no matter how hard we try there will still be things that we don't understand.. and to be okay with that is not the same as being stupid- its having faith in something beyond yourself- whether that be God or your fellow human beings or science.. that's a choice that every individual makes.. but that is what agency is about... choosing that structure that you feel will help you understand and live in this world.. but to think that somehow you don't hold yourself to a structure is not true.. everyone has rituals.. most of us read books, listen to music, watch television.. but what books we read, what music we listen to, what tv we watch is not in anyway a wholly self derived action.. it is subjecting yourself to a structure.. so you say you can think beyond these things because you are rational, secular.. not controlled by religion's rituals, books or laws.. but look more closely.. you were nurtured in a particular environment with particular laws and particular ways of viewing the world.. what makes you better than the poor unschooled boy or girl? your class? your ivy league education? your reading of humanist intellectuals who will raise you above violence and pain? If only the foggy brained religious people would step aside and let rational secular minded people run the world.. the world would be so much more peaceful, intelligent and beautiful place to live.. well I think that history has shown that violence supported by religion and violence supported by secularism are about the same thing ie..violence.. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Hussein.. conflating religion with politicians who use it to gain power is the same thing as conflating humanisms ideas with politicians who try to civilize the "uncivilized" world through conquest, exploitation, imperialism, colonialism.. so the ideas are used for evil ends.. does that make the idea bad? how do we decide which idea is better than the next? Do we have a science for it thats not culturally, socially and historically subjective or at least not controlled by white men? Is being good to people a bad mantra? should doing charity, helping others, being patient, thoughtful, considerate, respectful, and humble be disregarded because they are encouraged by religious traditions? should the world submit itself to secular-rational human beings so that they can tell us what to do because they obviously have gotten beyond their subjectivities to a higher plain of thought... I dont mean to come off so sarcastic.. you can't help but get annoyed when someone calls you stupid

Sammy July 7, 2008 at 5:09 PM  

I think if we could just use my name instead of the label 'skeptic,' it might help to fend off some of the connotations that come along with it...

I say this because 75% of what you wrote was responding to things I never said. Who called you a stupid robot? Who called you brainwashed? Who called me the beacon of enlightenment from the ivy league? In earnest, the only academic credential I have to my name (so far) is a GED...

If you were to read our conversation more carefully, Nate is the one who believes in objective truths, not me. When I gave an argument for rationalism (which I was very much giving on behalf of people other than myself, you will notice), I gave it from a very postmodernist perspective that recognizes humans as subjective beings. You can go back and read again if you like, I did take care with my words...

I would really appreciate it if anyone else who reads this actually reads it and doesn't just lump me into some category of Sam Harris disciple. Communication always falls short when assumptions are made, and when people just pass off someone else's opinion as unreasonable because they say some objective things.

I will respond to a couple things:

"the complicated nature of the world and science and secularism's inability to explain it is the main reason that most people still believe in a faith tradition..."

I think one of the reasons most people still believe in a faith tradition is that most people go through life without hearing real, earnest, reasonable critiques of their beliefs from genuine, reasonable, earnest unbelievers. These things don't generally get talked about around picnic tables and water coolers. This is why the recent atheist books have made such a splash.

The thought that the majority of the public gets a rigorous post-graduate education in cosmology and molecular biology and thinks to themself "no, this doesn't quite add up, it must be God" is, you have to admit, a pretty absurd claim. So I agree that people use God to explain the complexities of nature and life, but shouldn't they have a true understanding of non-theological accounts of those complexities before they reject them?

"no matter how hard we try there will still be things that we don't understand.. and to be okay with that is not the same as being stupid- its having faith in something beyond yourself- whether that be God or your fellow human beings or science.. that's a choice that every individual makes"

Here I think I have one up on religious people. I am the one who says that I am okay with not having the answers. Religious people are the ones who have to answer unanswerable questions with God. How did the universe begin? I don't know, and I'm okay with that. But what I hear so often from religious people is that this is a weakness to my position, that I don't have 'all the answers.' What happens to consciousness when we die? I don't know... But religious people do, somehow. I would suggest seriously reconsidering the claim that it is secular people who need to have all the answers and that religious people are more comfortable with 'not knowing.' If they were comfortable with not knowing they wouldn't look to another human beings teachings about the supernatural to answer them.

I can continue this conversation to the ends of time if you like, rehenuma, but I'd prefer if we actually had a conversation, responding to what is actually said instead of going into making assumptions about each other, because I feel like you're comment here is to Sam Harris instead of Sam Packard.


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