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Prior Knowledge

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Religion: a barrier to clear thinking

For this final article in the Clear Thinking series I asked myself ‘what is the biggest obstacle to thinking clearly about social and political issues?’ Several answers suggested themselves but time and again I came back to the same thing: religion. In deciding what kind of society to have and what kinds of policies government should pursue, many people take the dictates of religion to be an authoritative guide. Arguing against abortion and euthanasia by appealing to the sanctity of life given by God is but one example, but the same influence occurs in just about every imaginable topic. What we ought to do, so many people believe, depends upon what religion tells us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What religion says is irrelevant to deciding what we ought to do.

The fallacy of grounding morality upon religion was pointed out by Plato over two thousand years ago. If we discovered that the true religion (if we knew what that was) required us to drown kittens for fun, indiscriminately shoot people, and generally be a nuisance we would not (hopefully anyway) take that as a reason to do those activities. This shows that there are independent standards for what we should do, independent that is of the dictates of religion. What makes it right or wrong for society to allow some activity does not depend on whether religion says it is okay. On the contrary, if religion says it is okay that is because it is okay for reasons independent of what religion says. In short, reason rather than religion should be our guide.

Plato’s pretty convincing demonstration has been ignored by the vast majority of people in the intervening millennia. Why are appeals to religion so common? We might think that religion is not so influential today as in say the middle ages, but events of recent years seem to indicate that more and more people across the globe are letting religion be their guide about decisions for what kind of society to have as well as in personal matters.

There are, I suggest, two reasons for this.

The first is that appeals to religion are so much easier than thinking carefully about issues. Pointing to a list of ten commandments carved in stone or written in a book saves us the trouble of having to figure out for ourselves what to do or what kind of society to have.

It is no doubt true that appealing to religion is easier, but this of course does not make such appeals appropriate. To avoid difficult questions by taking the easy way out is irresponsible.

The second reason is that for many, religion provides some kind of objectivity about ethics that cannot be got any other way. Reason and argument, on this view, are merely personal opinions and such opinions are neither right or wrong, good or bad, correct or incorrect. They are just that: opinions. There are as many opinions as there are people in the world and relying on reason and argument will result in interminable disagreement. Religion on the other hand at least provides (relatively) clear guidance, and guidance from (it is hoped) someone or something who is entitled to decide.

This picture of ethics is an inaccurate one according to philosopher Derek Parfit. He suggests that due to the dominance of religion, non-religious thinking about ethics is something that has been done by only a handful of people (Plato was one) throughout history. It is one of the youngest of subjects. Hence it is no wonder that it has not yet produced clear guidelines. Expecting it to do so is like expecting primitive people of 10,000 years ago to provide clear principles of thermodynamics. To give up on reason and turn to religion is to give up far too prematurely. With more thought, reason will provide the answers that people seek in religion.

So we can be hopeful that by setting aside religion and thinking clearly about social and political issues, the prospects of arriving at reasoned consensus on those issues are good.

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12 Comments:

  • Two issues - for starters...

    1) We have a limited amount of information - a religion that required you to drown kittens for fun might indeed have a greater purpose (or possibly a worse threat). Some might claim that that is true by definition.
    2) religion provides somthing to drag people away from the concept that "there is no morality" and therefore no "ought" (which I would argue is quite possibly the strongest argument). It also avoids the requirement of each person to reinvent morality.

    I would suggest that philosophy is not nearly as complicated as we seem to be suggesting here. It doesnt take billions of people thousands of years to put together a philosophical solution - it takes a couple of people a couple of years (or even less) the problem is they keep getting lead by rationality to a conclusion not all that different from the "there is no such thing as ought" and therefore dont bother to write -> or people are guided by intuitions and their own chosen sctomas and choose somthing that looks more attractive. Philosophy in a sense is really a beauty competition rather than a race or a team building exercise.

    What the "plato" argument seems to do is test intuitions against religion ---- we might not kill the kittens because it is counter intuitive - or against our morals" but since these are created by evolution there is no guarantee they are ideal. Ie in a sense it is wrong to use our intuitions as a moral standard (ou can use them against themselves by saying "if our intuitions lead us to kill kittens would those intuitions be wrong?".

    I think a lot of morality is not about whether one is lazy in ones thoughts but exactly where one is lazy. Each side in the debate (the great debate if you like) decides to be lazy when considering a certain type of situation or a certain part of the problem and as a result the stronger parts of their argument define a way of living. For example if you talk to a liberterian they will have strong arguments in most regards but certain types of question will shoot right past them as would certain arguments pointed at a muslim.

    > To avoid difficult questions by taking the easy way out is irresponsible.

    Some might argue that the hard route is not always the right route, in fact usualy it isn't.

    10/25/2005 08:50:00 PM  

  • Another barrier to clear thinking on social/political issues:

    It may well be that the influence of religion is to blame for abhorrent stances on abortion, birth control and euthanasia.

    But what about even larger injustices like war or exploitation or intervention by powerful nations in the democratic politics of other soveriegn nations or myths about benefits to the common person from pro-corporate and pro-business policy (think trickle-down economics and stories about economic growth being necessary for improving the living standards of first world people)?

    Most generally, this is a point about the importance of full information to social and political thought. More particularly, I contend that a key enabling condition of such injustices is the complicity of the mass media in leading first world democracies (such as the US and UK) in perpetuating views of the world that are to the benefit of a rich and politically powerful minority and to the disadvantage of the majority. I would expect that if the mass media lived up to its task of holding powerful interests to intense scrutiny rather than merely echoing their words, the scale and number of such injustices would decrease.

    Further, the particular problem of the mass media is surely a problem that is much easier to tackle than the problem of religious influence over people's social and political thought. The problem is studied in detail by various political scientists and theorists of mass media and ideas on how to reform the media are proposed in the same circles.

    (For more on such critiques of media, a place to start would be Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's book 'Manufacturing Consent' and websites like www.chomsky.info and www.medialens.org )

    10/26/2005 12:11:00 PM  

  • sagars, that's hardly a comment on the posting. Comments are supposed to engage with the arguments of the original piece not rant about one's own idiosyncratic theories.

    10/26/2005 03:30:00 PM  

  • Anonymous, the post began with the question ‘what is the biggest obstacle to thinking clearly about social and political issues?’ Sagar's comment is clearly relevant to this question, whether you agree with him or not.

    10/26/2005 03:52:00 PM  

  • I think perhaps a better target would have been dogma. Firstly because while it is true that religion often gets in the way of clear thinking, it is not entirely clear that this is necessarily the case. Not all relgions require the blind acceptance of a core set of moral rules. The second reason for targeting dogma ties in with Sagars comment. Dogma is not limited to religion. Media is a good example of something that is just as bad. Just my 2c. Though "Dogma: a barrier to clear thinking" is a lot more mundane I must admit.

    10/26/2005 05:33:00 PM  

  • I think self serving bias dominates religion as a constraint to clear thinking.
    Dogma and habits learnt from repitition(eg childhood) at times substitutes for this sort of bias, and every now and then rationality attempts to build upon that platform - thus we have the diversity of the world.

    10/26/2005 06:51:00 PM  

  • We can distinguish two senses in which religion impedes clear, rational, thought about social and political issues.

    One sense is tied to the fact that the major religions are built around institutions (churches, holy books, saints and priests) that lay down edicts as to what the relevant god requires. In this case, the impediment to clear thought is an appeal to authority or the "blind acceptance of a core set of moral rules" that Reuben characterises as dogma.

    A second sense in which religion is irrelevant to clear thinking on social issues is that the proper grounds for moral reasoning are rational ones while the grounds for religious claims are often grounds of revelation or religious experience.
    Claims grounded in revelation or religious experience could be non-dogmatic in the sense that they are not the proclamations of some authority. For example, we can imagine someone who worships a deeply personal god, with no attachment to any organised religion, and who conducts her moral deliberation by following the edicts laid down by her god (in personal communication/revelation). Here, the impediment to clear thinking is not due to an appeal to authority, but to a refusal to use the grounds of reason where one ought to do so.

    A reason for making this distinction is that the two senses might require different remedies. I assume that there are adherents of religious views on social and political issues who correctly acknowledge when an issue should be dealt with on the grounds of reason, but who simply trust that the relevant authority has thought about the issue hard enough so that they do not have to do the thinking themselves. When challenged to defend their positions, these people would not simply end the discussion with "it has been revealed to me that this is what god requires" but would leave the door open for further rational discussion by giving the beginnings of an argument. The beginnings of an argument might be, say, something about the sanctity of life and the wrongness of killing, if the issue is abortion or contraception.

    10/26/2005 07:11:00 PM  

  • Just to add to my previous comment on this post, Simon seems to use both senses of 'religion being irrelevant to clear thought' in his post. Plato's point seems to have to do with the fact that the ultimate arbiter or ground for moral judgments is reason not revelation. Whatever is revealed by religion must in turn be grounded in reason if it is to count. But Simon also mentions the laziness of appealing to the religious edicts rather than reasoning for oneself.

    10/26/2005 07:21:00 PM  

  • This is clearly an interesting issue.

    My thoughts are that religion is such a entreched social institutions that one is not goign to have any clear idea whether or religion does or doesn't do the work we claim it has.

    My own feeling has more to do with the foundation and the types of values cultivated in the family and often for many families religion provides those values for exactly the reasons Mr. clarke outlined.

    My sense is that now particularly in America, we have a rampant liberalism that undercuts the necessity of consistent values in favor of a free form individual autonomy that creates a value and moral plurality that obfuscates any clear resoning and argument about beliefs and values particualrly when we tie it to a person, or moral conviction which may or may not be inspired by religious sentiments.

    10/27/2005 06:13:00 PM  

  • Erik, you say that "My thoughts are that religion is such a entreched social institutions that one is not goign to have any clear idea whether or religion does or doesn't do the work we claim it has."

    I'm not sure I understand the claim. It may well be that, since religion is so entrenched in social institutions, it is hard to attribute the blame for a purported fault on religion per se rather than on other institutions with which it is closely bound. But can't we still talk with considerable clarity about at least the following issues: (1) to the extent that proponents of religious stances on social and political issues rely on appeals to authority rather than reasoning, they are not living up to appropriate standards of rational discussion of social and political issues and (2) to the extent that proponents of such stances ground their view in revelation or religious experience rather than in reason, they also fail to follow the standards expected in rational discussion of these issues. Of course, I am claiming that the appropriate standards in discussions of social and political issues are those of reasoned argument. Surely part of the ideal of liberal democracy is that, given the diversity of conceptions of the good, social and political issues should be decided by the force of the strongest rational arguments.

    10/28/2005 02:32:00 PM  

  • Sagars, I am not saying I disagree with you, however, I am indicating that in many cases for the people who don't have a reasona dn articulated argument supporting the religious claim, their move is to bank on the power of their faith. Indeed, if one is not prepared to give them quarter on the strength of faith and belief alone then one is at an impasse. The fault we have been arguing about all along is that religion allows people to not use reason to substantiate their claims and so when the rationalist comes to argue they end up talking past each other.

    My comment about entrenchment was to signal the long period and easy with which religion has wrapped its tendrils around our social institution vis a vis the non-requirement of proper reasoning and articulate and valid argument supporting their claim moreover the faith card is a powerful one because of the nature of faith. Further, the rationalist has so much to prove and disprove that he is left with the larger burden because he has nothing but reason and the contigency of persuasion to lead him. At no point do I think that persuasion os coercive precisely because the capacity of argument independent of truth is to get the perty being argued to, to believe what is being argued for.

    10/29/2005 08:05:00 AM  

  • Along the lines of what Reuben said above, I would contend that it is not "religion" as such that is to blame for these things, but intellectual laziness. I do not think that religion causes intellectual laziness but rather, that people who are intellectually lazy continue for the rest of their lives believing whatever they were told as children, and never question these beliefs (it merely happens to be the case that these beliefs are usually "religious" in nature). THIS is where the obstacle to clear thinking sneaks in. Some people, C.S. Lewis being a popular example, seem to have been led TO religion by reason (and we can argue about how good these people are at reasoning, but that is not the point). Other people certainly seem to have been led away from it. But these people, on both sides, tend to be clear thinkers and not dogmatists. On the other hand, there are intellectually lazy religious and non-religious people, and these people tend not to be clear thinkers and to have narrow dogmatic views and to be unacquanted with opposing viewpoints, due to never having taken the time to consider them.

    Now it is, sadly, true that much of Christianity, and probably segments of other religions, has spoken of the virtue of "faith" and then defined it in such a way as to praise people who never bother to consider other points of view, when in fact such people should be criticized. However, (1) there certainly exist atheists who criticize people who consider the possibility of the existence of God (though I do not claim that there are as many of these as of the previous group), and (2) the "thinkers" on either side tend not to be these people, and religious people who are true thinkers, such as C.S. Lewis or, to pick some better, though less popular examples, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Plantinga, van Inwagen, etc., tend not to define faith in this way because they, like me, cannot understand how believing something contrary to reason without having considered any other points of view could possibly be a virtue.

    Perhaps one may wish to define "religion" as dogmatism, but this will not match up to the common usage of the word, as we will then have "religious" people who are atheists and "non-religious" people who belong to what are popularly called the major "religions" of the world.

    11/01/2005 11:27:00 AM  

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