Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Importance of Atheism


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In a national survey, part of a broader project on multiculturalism and solidarity in American life that we call the American Mosaic Project, we found that one group stood out from all others in terms of the level of rejection they received from the general public. That was atheists. And not by a small margin, either.

This was a surprise to us, at least at first...How does such a small group pose such a threat to a large majority? The more we explored this finding, the more we came back to a simple answer for it. Like it or not, many (possibly most) Americans see religion as a marker of morality,,,

Should this have been a surprise to us? Maybe not, but the fact is that people tend to talk mostly to other folks who are like them, and academics can be as sheltered as anyone. Academics of course are by and large a secular bunch. If anyone approximates the European model of the Godless secular humanist, it is the academic. Our colleagues were genuinely interested in our finding, but many also had a hard time accepting it.


I have a suspicion that respondents might have been equally negative if asked about "feminist" or any other ideological tag that carries countercultural baggage. Most people declare that they are "not feminists but" they are on board with with all the central goals of feminism as historically understood--equal political rights for women and equal access to education and jobs. Because feminism has become mainstream there is no real work for the tag "feminist" to do, so it now suggests left-wing belligerence and flakiness. That is why I think it may be time to retire the F word.

"Atheist" has been a countercultural tag for much longer than "feminist" and carries much of the same ideological baggage: people who self-identify as "atheists" have axes to grind and reject normal standards of civility; they campaign against hilltop crosses, creches in public parks and all manner of harmless cultural practices; they are even against Christmas, so the story goes.

Most Americans however have nothing against non-churchgoers or even people who, by ordinary criteria, don't believe in God--so long as they don't use the A word. When I give anonymous surveys to new freshman in my critical reasoning class, modeled on gallup polls canvassing belief in the paranormal and supernatural--including ESP, UFOs, alternative medicine, haunted houses and the like--approximately 70% profess to believe in God. The remaining 30% are about equally divided between those who say they don't and those who say they don't know--that is, between atheists and agnostics. However on their student records, which I have since they're my advisees, almost all put a religious affiliation--about 2/3 Catholic since my college is Catholic. This isn't surprising: I can't find the reference now but amongst the general population only 70 some odd percent of individuals who consider themselves Catholic, a smaller percentage of self-identified Protestants and a larger percentage of those who identify as Jews, say they believe in God.

These Catholic, Protestant and Jewish non-believers aren't liars or hypocrites. Their statements reflect the fact that for many Americans--particularly those who identify as Catholic or Jewish, religious preference is a matter of cultural or ethnic affiliation rather than ontological commitment. Moreover Hoge et. al. in Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers note that about half of Protestant churchgoers are "lay liberals" who are indifferent to theological claims and hold that "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live right." They have no theological or atheological axes to grind: they simply aren't interested in these matters. If pressed they may say that they're "spiritual but not religious" or that "there might be something there" but they are, at most, agnostics--thought they would never dream of using that term because they are, of course, by religious preference and social affiliation Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists or Lutherans.

Self-identifying atheists are another kettle of fish. Most are more reflective and clear about what they believe, more interested in theology and much more knowledgeable. Who wouldn't rather deal with Dennett or Dawkins, for all their ranting, or with Flew, Ayer or Russell? So, apart from a widespread distaste for active ideologues (which I don't share) it takes some explaining to understand why atheists, apparently, get such a bad rap.

In large part it is because Americans do indeed "see religion as a marker for morality." This should hardly be surprising since religious leaders promoted this view, particularly in the US when they sought to engage a population that was highly practical, impatient with philosophical abstractions and largely uneducated. From the fire-and-brimstone preachers and promoters of the Prosperity Gospel to Norman Vincent Peale and other purveyors of generically religious self-help literature to contemporary megachurch gurus peddling the "purpose-driven life," the pitch in the US has always been practical: religious belief (in whatever) and good behavior will improve your life.

Liberal clergy were especially keen on the idea that religion was at its core ethical and that theology was, at best, peripheral. Concerned to promote pluralism and tolerance, they had the notion that whereas theology was divisive, ethics was ecumenical: theology, which launched crusades, inquisitions and holy wars, should be minimized, fudged and made generic in the spirit Pope's Universal Prayer: "Father of all! In every age, In every clime adored, By saint, by savage and by sage, Jehovah, Jove or Lord!" Moreover, since the Enlightenment, metaphysics and theology in particular had become something of an embarrassment, and there was a sense amongst liberal clergy that if churches were to survive and appeal to educated people they needed to get into some other line of business. Ethics was, in any case, more salable than metaphysics--as philosophy course enrollments consistently show.

There is however a deeper, less parochial reason for the identification of religion and ethics--the idea that morality has to be metaphysically grounded and externally enforced. This idea becomes especially compelling at times and places where there is mass migration from villages to cities or when large groups of people accustomed to living in homogeneous, face-to-face communities find themselves is impersonal, heterogeneous, cosmopolitan societies. In these circumstances they run amok: think of the world of Gay's Beggars' Opera, Hogarth's Gin Alley or contemporary Nairobi--reminiscent of London during the Industrial Revolution, replete with street urchins picking pockets.

This is hardly an original observation. In the village people behave themselves because there are external constraints: custom, kinship, publicity, fear of social disapproval and fear of the gods keep people in line. Villagers don't "internalize" moral rules or councils of prudence because they don't need to--like the kids in the math class I'm taking, clicking away at calculators because they can't do even simple arithmetic in their heads since they don't have to. In the Secular City, where they're anonymous and the constraints are loosened they see no reason to behave themselves: these people are strangers--why shouldn't I steal from them or beat them up? No one is going to stop me or even notice--why shouldn't I just stay drunk all the time? These credit cards are free money--why shouldn't I spend until I max them all out?

These are bad life strategies--not only, or primarily because they they promote anti-social behavior but because they individuals who adopt them get mired in poverty, stuck in debt, and wasted. Strong religion fixes that. Conservative churches provide trailer trash with scenarios for successful living; they encourage them to look more than a day ahead and set goals; they preach horse sense, give external, theological reasons for good behavior, impose discipline and provide face-to-face communities in lieu of the village and kinship group. Puritanism is the royal road to social mobility. People who buy in find that their lives are improved: they sober up and get their acts together, pay off their debts, work harder and get ahead--and discover a kinder, gentler, more organized, and altogether more pleasant world. They infer that they've been saved by the grace of God and, further, that without without religion most people will behave as they would if they hadn't been saved.

They simply haven't got the idea that people can reliably exercise prudence and self-discipline without external constraints--provided by the fear of God, the stern father and the cops. The Lakoff hypothesis--stern father vs. nurturing parent is correct as far as it goes but it isn't a deep explanation: preference for the strict, patriarchal family is just a special case of preference for external constraint. Religion provides such constraint for the masses. This is an old idea too, reminiscent of the notions of Victorian freethinkers who went to church to set a good example for the servants--convinced that even if they knew better, the lower classes needed religion to keep them in line.

I'm more optimistic. People can and do learn: most, within a few years or a generation, acclimate to anonymous, urban living and get the idea that they should behave themselves even when no one is looking. But lots of Americans--not only the few who have been saved in conservative churches but a great many more who assume that religion, however minimal, is the basis of morality--are not convinced. They don't realize how many well-behaved educated people--not just academics--are secularists and in any case assume that, even if there are good people who are not religious believers, secularism is risky: like the Victorian freethinkers, they believe that without religious constraints lots of people (not themselves of course) would run amok.

For them, "atheist" does not simply mean one who does not believe that God exists: it means a crusading ideologue who aims to undermine the religious beliefs, institutions and practices that keep people under control and maintain social order. This is also an old idea--Dostoyevsky's dictum that "without God all is permitted." Even if there are a few skeptical but conscientious intellectuals like Ivan Karamazov--or members of the American professoriat--who are, by themselves, harmless, their views if propagated can only lead to violence and chaos: Raskolnikov's senseless crime or the anarchist schemes of The Possessed. How do you convince people otherwise? That's the key to ending Culture Wars--getting it across that people can be civilized: that you don't need churches or religious regulations, guns, get-tough policies, harsher punishments, more external discipline, more jails or more cops to have a decent, pleasant, safe society.

Popular misconceptions aside, self-identifying atheists are by and large people who believe that atheism is important. Given the literal, strict constructionist definition of "atheism" as nothing more than disbelief in the existence of God it is hard to see why: beliefs about controversial metaphysical issues have no practical import and there is no reason why disbelief in God should be of any more importance than disbelief in Platonic forms.

One reason I suspect that some atheists think atheism is important is the assumption that belief in God is a symptom of a more general soft-headedness and irrationality--like belief in the power of crystals or herbal medicines and various occult phenomena. This isn't true--in general, views about controversial matters of ontology have little or nothing to do with hardheadedness or rationality. I know some very smart philosophers whose ontological views are bizarre: one believes that there are no people and has argued for this in a famous article; another believes that there are people, and organisms, but no inanimate objects other than "simples"; yet another believes that all that really exists is Stuff and Platonic forms.

Mainly though I suspect atheists think atheism is important because like most religious believers they imagine that religion is inextricably linked to morality--though, they believe, the wrong morality: they note the assumption of many religious believers that morality requires external constraints and their propensity to promote oppressive, conservative social and political agendas. If that's the problem though atheists should work to break the association between religion and ethics instead of campaigning against metaphysical theses, religious symbols and cultic practices. And that may not be as hard as many people imagine. The association between religion in the narrow sense--the belief in supernatural beings or states of affairs, myths, fetishes and cultic practices--and morality is a relative novelty. The Greek gods didn't give two hoots about morality and generally behaved badly themselves.

If atheists are serious about the importance of atheism they should stop preaching metaphysics to the choir, stop crusading against religious symbols in the public square and drop the pretense that harmless religious customs and practices are the thin end of the wedge driving in fundamentalist theocracy. Certainly it is important for atheists, and everyone else, to fight against the introduction of "intelligent design" in public school biology classes and work to stop fundamentalists from imposing their socially conservative agenda on the rest of us; it is however impossible to understand what good waging an expensive, long-running legal campaign to move the cross on Mount Soledad does for atheists or for anyone else.

During the heyday of American civil religion in the 1950s, Peter Berger, a conservative Christian though no fundamentalist, complained that Americans were inoculated with a weakened form of religion at an early age and so were ever afterward immune to the real thing. As a liberal Christian I'm for Christianity in it's weakened form--for the myths, symbols and practices people enjoy and for the cultural practices of other religions as well. I like Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the little earth god shrine at the entrance to the Vietnamese supermarket where I shop. I'd like it if public schools celebrated Hanukah as well as Christmas, and holidays of any other religions as well, and if public parks featured midsummer celebrations for Wiccans and naked pagans dancing around the maypole. I'd like to live in a world where religion was broad but shallow, where churches, temples and shrines were thick on the ground, where everyone knew the myths, observed the holidays and enjoyed the music--but no one imagined that religion provided a basis for morality, looked to it for rules to guide their lives or attempted to impose those rules on others.

Atheists who believe that atheism is important should consider supporting religion in this weakened form to inoculate people against more virulent strains. You can't get rid of religion--there are too many people who simply like it too much. You can only de-fang and civilize it so that people can enjoy it without being harmed or doing harm to others.

17 comments:

Sanpete said...

It may be weak enough in many to overcome in individual cases, but I think most Americans are basically suspicious of the character of nonbelievers. This isn't just a moral concern in the narrow sense. It's also a suspicion of arrogance, of overintellectualism, of inability to connect with the holy, and so on. To some extent there may be something to such suspicions, though that wouldn't show atheists to be wrong. (I'm an atheist.)

I thought there had been polls that asked their questions in neutral terms, such as "Would you vote for a presidential candidate who doesn't believe in God?" But I'm not sure now.

Moreover, since the Enlightenment, metaphysics and theology in particular had become something of an embarrassment, and there was a sense amongst liberal clergy that if churches were to survive and appeal to educated people they needed to get into some other line of business. Ethics was, in any case, more salable than metaphysics--as philosophy course enrollments consistently show.

The metaphysical underpinnings of ethics are just as embarrassing as those of religion, to the point that many moral philosophers have pretended that conventional ethics doesn't require metaphysics, that the metaphysical points have no practical implications, something you seem to believe as well. It's as false as it is convenient. The kind of metaphysical view one has of ethics, or the rejection of such a view, has important implications for where and how to look for moral bearings and how to understand them. Plato didn't believe in the Forms simply because he had a particular metaphysical bent. He didn't see any other way to secure morality of the kind he believed to be necessary. He was opposing the relativism of Protagoras and others. His motivation is just as relevant now as ever.

Ignoring the metaphysical side of ethics tends to result in the largely irrational and in any case not well founded selection of ethical theory and particular moral beliefs based on intuition. This is as good as the average metaphysically mediated approach, but is no more reliable.

Villagers don't "internalize" moral rules or councils of prudence because they don't need to

Where does this nugget come from? I doubt it's true. The analogy to your students is inexact. It often takes no effort to internalize moral rules. Maybe you're conflating "internalization" and universalization? You can internalize the idea that you should be kind to your kin without universalizing the idea beyond kin. Lots of people seem to think "villagers" lack this universalization, and that we sophisticates have "grown" beyond this.

Strong religion fixes that. Conservative churches provide trailer trash with scenarios for successful living; they encourage them to look more than a day ahead and set goals; they preach horse sense, give external, theological reasons for good behavior, impose discipline and provide face-to-face communities in lieu of the village and kinship group. Puritanism is the royal road to social mobility. People who buy in find that their lives are improved: they sober up and get their acts together, pay off their debts, work harder and get ahead--and discover a kinder, gentler, more organized, and altogether more pleasant world. They infer that they've been saved by the grace of God and, further, that without without religion most people will behave as they would if they hadn't been saved.

They simply haven't got the idea that people can reliably exercise prudence and self-discipline without external constraints--provided by the fear of God, the stern father and the cops. ... Religion provides such constraint for the masses. This is an old idea too, reminiscent of the notions of Victorian freethinkers who went to church to set a good example for the servants--convinced that even if they knew better, the lower classes needed religion to keep them in line.

I'm more optimistic. People can and do learn: most, within a few years or a generation, acclimate to anonymous, urban living and get the idea that they should behave themselves even when no one is looking. But lots of Americans--not only the few who have been saved in conservative churches but a great many more who assume that religion, however minimal, is the basis of morality--are not convinced. They don't realize how many well-behaved educated people--not just academics--are secularists and in any case assume that, even if there are good people who are not religious believers, secularism is risky: like the Victorian freethinkers, they believe that without religious constraints lots of people (not themselves of course) would run amok.


This rather snide analysis is only half right, at best. This isn't a matter of the enlightened thinking that they can be good without religion but others can't. Nor is it primarily a matter of fear that others will run amok. It's not simply a question of whether secular alternatives to religion can work. It's a question of which can work best. Every religious believer also has secular reasons to be good. The reverse isn't true: secularists don't generally have all the reasons to be good that the religious have. The obvious question is whether the combination isn't effective for more people in more ways than just the secular. I'm interested in your view of this. The further question is which works better when all things are considered, including the drawbacks of each. Few people consider this question in any rigorous way. Most on both sides just emote about it very firmly, decorating their opinions with very partial and ill-considered arguments.

Your analysis also overlooks the extent to which secularists may be parasitic on the religious for their basic moral outlook and attitudes, as well as the culture to support those. Secular morality tends to assume basically the stance of religiously mediated morality, just with the religion and perhaps certain inconvenient moral points removed. But there's no good foundation for this for most secularists. They just believe in it, as their religious fellows believe in their faith. If the secularist applied the same skeptical tools that lead him to reject religion to morality, he would reject some of the conventional secular foundations for that too. What he would be left with wouldn't inspire so much optimism.

What's striking to me about the attitude of the Victorian freethinkers and their modern counterparts you refer to isn't that they misunderstand the potential for the masses to be moral without religion. It's that they fail to appreciate how weakly founded their own morality is.

Morality doesn't reduce easily to self-interest, as your analysis seems to assume it does. There is a gap that secularists have an extra challenge trying to deal with.

That's the key to ending Culture Wars--getting it across that people can be civilized: that you don't need churches or religious regulations, guns, get-tough policies, harsher punishments, more external discipline, more jails or more cops to have a decent, pleasant, safe society.

This goes beyond optimism to wishful thinking, I'd say. What do you base this on? The moral lives of privileged academics who depend on others with very different moral training and challenges to actually produce the wealth that supports the academy? I'd be hesitant to generalize from that.

beliefs about controversial metaphysical issues have no practical import and there is no reason why disbelief in God should be of any more importance than disbelief in Platonic forms

I'll admit this strikes me as pretty funny. Belief in God is typically tied with some very important particulars, such as belief in life after death, the belief that life has some grand and good meaning after all, and various more directly practical points. Here you're showing some of the same thinking you criticize in the liberal clergy who try to turn religion into morality. Belief in Platonic forms also matters. If you believe in them, then you seek your moral bearings differently than if you reject metaphysical foundations for morality.

I know some very smart philosophers whose ontological views are bizarre: one believes that there are no people and has argued for this in a famous article; another believes that there are people, and organisms, but no inanimate objects other than "simples"; yet another believes that all that really exists is Stuff and Platonic forms.

And you want these people to be our moral leaders? That's a serious question.

The association between religion in the narrow sense--the belief in supernatural beings or states of affairs, myths, fetishes and cultic practices--and morality is a relative novelty. The Greek gods didn't give two hoots about morality and generally behaved badly themselves.

I don't think the Ten Commandments and the rest of the moral heritage of Judeo-Christianity-Islam is a novelty. I don't think the link between religion and morality is as easily severed as you imagine.

I agree that many atheists are mistaken in opposing religion, but partly for different reasons.

As a liberal Christian I'm for Christianity in it's weakened form--for the myths, symbols and practices people enjoy and for the cultural practices of other religions as well. I like Buddha statues in Chinese restaurants and the little earth god shrine at the entrance to the Vietnamese supermarket where I shop. I'd like it if public schools celebrated Hanukah as well as Christmas, and holidays of any other religions as well, and if public parks featured midsummer celebrations for Wiccans and naked pagans dancing around the maypole. I'd like to live in a world where religion was broad but shallow, where churches, temples and shrines were thick on the ground, where everyone knew the myths, observed the holidays and enjoyed the music--but no one imagined that religion provided a basis for morality, looked to it for rules to guide their lives or attempted to impose those rules on others.

Atheists who believe that atheism is important should consider supporting religion in this weakened form to inoculate people against more virulent strains. You can't get rid of religion--there are too many people who simply like it too much. You can only de-fang and civilize it so that people can enjoy it without being harmed or doing harm to others.


This seems to be related to your belief that the "deep" aspects of culture are harmful but the superficial ones OK, even fun. I'm lost by this line of thought. I can see why some would reason that the superficial aspects of culture and religion aren't harmful, but the idea that we should therefore favor superficial culture and religion would hardly follow from that. The superficial aspects of religion (and culture) only have value because they grow out of the deeper aspects. Merely superficial religion isn't worth much. And, the question remains, what are the deeper aspects of religion worth? It seems to me you fly right by this without amy serious effort to recognize its significance.

Boofykatz said...

Fascinating. I am impressed by the consistency of your 'religion as a cultural phenomenon' approach.
I think that you may have missed one atheistic objection to religion, not the metaphysical or pseudo-ethical objection but the epistemological objection. It is the fear that people who believe in a supernatural rich uncle are equally likely to adopt other poorly justified and socially harmful beliefs. I do understand that you think peoples habits and beliefs have little to do with any kind of conscious justification, and I strongly agree, but that does not mean it is wrong for the atheist to strive for a better world in which more human beings DO think about justification. I may be terribly mistaken, but I think the world would be a better place if more people felt the need to make their actions and beliefs coherently reasoned.
I will put a link to your comment on my blog. Apparently I have a reader who is going to read philosophy at Leeds university and she could do worse than read your pieces for some real 'applied philosophy'.

H. E. said...

Thank you! And Leeds is pretty good for philosophy--Geach was there.

I take the objection and deal with it in the critical reasoning class I teach where I do a debunking number on various beliefs about the paranormal. I use Schick and Vaughn How to Think About Weird Things as a text. What I claim though is that, just as a matter of empirical fact, religious belief and practice of the conventional kind, doesn't contribute to soft-headedness in the way that, e.g. involvement in New Age activities, conspiracy theory circles, herbal medicine conclaves, etc. that figure in the culture of flakiness does. Whether religious belief is rationally justified or not, most conventional, mainstream religious believers compartmentalize it and it doesn't undermine the tough-mindedness that it's my job to instill in undergraduates.

Mainly though the causal arrow goes the other way: soft-headedness causes people to buy into New Age activities, conspiracy theories, etc. whereas, again, as a matter of empirical fact, it doesn't have any correlation with conventional religious belief. I'm always amazed (and used to be furious!) at the number of people who buy into every piece of hooey, including empirical claims that are just plain false, but dismiss Christianity as unworthy of serious consideration.

Most scientists aren't religious believers--but substantial minority, 40% last I heard, are--and some are very active in fighting against the Christian fundamentalist anti-science agenda in the US. Here for example is Kenneth Miller's Evolution Resources site. I doubt that you would find even 4%, or 0.4% of scientists believing in astrology, auras or the extra-terrestrial origin of crop circles. I'm not claiming here that conventional religious belief is less irrational than these other beliefs--that's open for debate--but just that it isn't part of the culture of flakiness and, as a matter of empirical fact, doesn't either induce soft-headedness or have attract a disproportionately soft-headed clientele.

Sanpete said...

Are your colleagues with the weird metaphysical views soft-headed? (Are their weird views really any better supported than those of the conspiracy theorists?) The conspiracy theorists I'm aware of aren't abnormally deficient in the ability to think clearly. A friend of mine who indulges extensively in conspiracy theories is actually a very able thinker and skeptical about many things. (Indeed, being skeptical about many things is necessary for conspiracy theorists, ironically.) Though I think his conspiratorial interests do involve (glaringly) faulty thinking, it seems to me that this is an effect and not a primary cause of his beliefs. Or, more precisely, it's fundamentally the effect of whatever it is that drives him to such beliefs. Similar considerations apply to New Age and other beliefs we don't take seriously. Deepak Chopra is no slouch in the ability to think clearly. Maybe I don't understand what you mean by "soft-headedness." I tend to see the fundamental issues here as more emotional than rational.

My impression has long been that people tend to think well in some respects and then to think poorly in others for reasons other than general ability or practice. Those who come closest to being exceptions are those who think they know the least and who are the best natured emotionally (two qualities that probably naturally go together). Spotty thinking may be partly just a necessary part of having finite mental resources and time, and partly the fact that we are driven primarily by emotions or other nonrational factors, after all. The emotions of "rational" thought and discourse often seem to be more determinative than the logic and evidence, even for philosophers. It's a commonplace that people get offended or tired or scared or, on the other hand, their pride is stroked or they really want to believe something or whatnot and there's a logical short-circuit, or a whole series of them. Or they just don't have a motive to follow a line of thought outside the bounds of comfort, including career comfort.

The latter point is especially relevant to academics and scientists, for whom peer approval is crucial. This may be more fundamental to scientists rejecting supernatural explanations of crop circles and such than clear thinking. Scientists in general seem to me very muddled in their thinking about some such things, such as Intelligent Design (not that I believe in it either).

One thing I admire and enjoy about Plato is his recognition of and emphasis on the emotional aspects of "philosophy" (in the generic sense of loving and seeking wisdom). Few people wanted to talk to Socrates because he was obnoxious, intellectually threatening and bullying, seemingly tedious, wrong-headed and off in the clouds, and a general pain in the ass. But this brought out the emotional side quite well, as did his rapturous odes to philosophical pursuit and friendship.

I think academic philosophical training is a mixed bag in this regard. It tends to increase the ability to think well within the bounds that are currently conventional within the discipline but often further limits the ability or at least the motivation to think well outside those bounds. My own training at a large secular university reminded me in some ways of my religious training, where what seemed to me certain rational elephants in the room were routinely overlooked or just dismissed as having always been there. One effect of the training in both cases seems to be to produce people who just don't think about the elephants in whatever room they happen to favor, or make their living in. They might question moderately sized rodents in the room quite effectively, though.

I share the concern Boofy mentions. I think religion can and does interfere with good thinking in some harmful ways, such as in the current debate over same-sex marriage, but that it is hardly alone in this, and that this disadvantage must be weighed with the many other pros and cons of religion. In some ways religion might help people think better, to the extent it helps alleviate depression, for example, or (if only this worked better) increases love for others.

I should add that I know some religious believers who are far more rational about their belief than some of the atheists and agnostics I know. Some are as rational about it as anyone I know. I don't doubt that the same is true of some New Agers and possibly even some conspiracy theorists (though that involves special issues relating to paranoia that are harder to make fully rational than faith per se). I can't see these things primarily in terms of soft-headedness, whether in religion or elsewhere.

I was trained in both religion and academics to believe as Boofy does that increased rationality will make things better. (Mormonism is big on rationality.) It often does make things better, but that it always has or ultimately will is largely an article of faith. I suppose it's obvious from things I've said in other comments that this is a belief that I no longer have complete confidence in, to put it mildly. One of those elephants, I think. (The biggest elephant, to my view, is the place of intuition in philosophy, including moral philosophy.)

Boofykatz said...

Intuition.. a very slippery concept. I was once told by a civil servant to do an 'intuitive analysis'. On pressing, he confessed that what he wanted was informed guesswork. In a pinch there is some merit adopting that kind of heuristic, but the quality of the output is dependent upon the quality of the 'intuition' and I am very suspicious of intuitions. It seems to me that intuition is as much the child of passion as of reason.

Sanpete said...

Intuition is indeed a slippery concept. What I mean by it is primarily what we take for granted because it just seems right. A typical moral argument, even one by which we judge entire moral systems, consists of considering a moral situation and judging intuitively, perhaps with allied arguments and perhaps not, that such and such is right or wrong. Others may reach the opposite conclusion with exactly the same evidence.

As I see it, the most important difference between science and philosophy, what keeps philosophy from being science, is the lack of insistence on going beyond intuition to some kind of empirical test. Intuition is essential to thinking even in science, but science has a method for getting beyond it. The failure of philosophy to do this is usually justified by the claim that philosophical issues aren't open to that kind of verification. To the extent that's true, and in some ways it may not be, I think it suggests that philosophy is just off in the clouds, spinning its wheels, as it clearly has been for millennia. I think history shows us that intuition isn't a reliable guide, and if we can't do any better than that, we won't get any further. Obviously this is a big subject, and I could be wrong, but after years of thinking it over, I still can't see it any other way.

By the way, an empirical test need not be one that involves scientific instruments or the five senses. Those have proved to be the most reliable empirical tests in general, but any kind of test based on repeatable experience would be fine with me in principle. Just seeming right isn't an adequate test in the relevant sense, of course, even if it seems right to everyone (as the parallel line postulate once did, and still does to most--in that case the intuition was wrong without any influence from passion).

Every true moral objectivism relies on moral intuition. (Another big topic, but one easy enough to show in particular cases.) My teacher T. K. Seung gets credit for that point. There are forms of moral subjectivism that don't rely on moral intuition, and which are essentially open to scientific verification.

Anonymous said...

In another recent post you wrote this: "After a generation or two of secularism, the Church is so remote that it's off the radar screen. The secular world provides all the goods and services reasonably comfortable people in affluent countries want and there's no point in looking any further."

But here, you say this: "You can't get rid of religion--there are too many people who simply like it too much."

So how can both of these things be true?

H. E. said...

Ouch. You got me--I wasn't being careful.

What I really think is this: religion is a minority taste. I couldn't say what percentage of the population--possibly 5 or 10 percent, maybe more are simply wired for it. They like religion as such--not for any of the extrinsic benefits it provides, whether moral rules, "community," opportunities for volunteer work, a sense of control over the environment, an explanation to make sense of historical and current events or for anything else the secular world can provide. They just like religion, and if public religion disappears they'll invent their own. So to that extent religion will never disappear entirely because there is a minority of people who just like it too much.

There are also lots more who like culture-religion. If the UK, which I know pretty well, is not atypical of secular Europe, even in secular countries people will still want to preserve cathedrals and village churches--and not just as "museums of culture." They'll expect some religious ceremonial or symbolism at state occasions--coronations, war memorials, etc. And quite a number will still want to be married and buried in church. It may be that these ceremonies can be replaced by secular events, purged of religious symbolism, and in the US I think that was to some extent done. But it's not likely to happen where religious ceremonial and symbolism is deeply entwined with nationalism and cultural identity, as it is in (highly secular) European countries with a history of state churches.

So it really depends on what you mean by "secular" and I'm using the term loosely. In my sense, the UK is secular. I've seen some figure to the effect that only about 50% of the population say they believe in God in response to surveys. But more importantly the percentage of regular churchgoers is in single digits and for most religion really is off the radar--except to the extent that it's part of the landscape and figures as part of school life and national events.

I'm also a contrarian in making predictions. I'd bet that religion in this sense will persist long after the kind of Christian fundamentalism that seems to be booming in the US disappears. That's because fundamentalism doesn't have the cultural hooks that the CofE has in (secular) England, or the RC Church has in (secular) Italy or, interestingly, traditionally black churches have for American blacks, and doesn't appeal to people who are wired up to like religion as such either. The rhetoric sounds religious but the sell is pragmatic: the promise of essentially secular goods and services: moral rules and councils of prudence to create an orderly, safe, prosperous society and help people get their acts together. Listen to the public rhetoric: they don't talk about personal salvation or otherworldly rewards and punishments, but "family values." Their hell is this-worldly: a chaotic, decadent dangerous world, without order or discipline. They happily affiliate with conservative Catholics and Jews who support their socially conservative agenda because the cut between sheep and goats for them isn't theological.

Anonymous said...

OK, so you're saying, then, that most of what's going on in religion is actually secular at this point, at least in the West? I think that's an important point, and what's more I think I would agree.

But you also seem to be saying that many people still find meaning in religious rites, as in marriage and burial. Does this not mean that religion itself is still doing certain kinds of important work? IOW, couldn't religion still be a part of people's day-to-day life, since it seems to have a handle on some of the major human events? Aren't you saying that religion touches something in the human psyche that nothing else can or does?

Or are you saying that weddings and funerals - and people's emotional approach to them - are also now essentially secular?

Sanpete said...

Religion looks secular as long as you only look at its state-related/political side. If you actually go to church for regular meetings, you get a very different picture. This is especially true of Christian fundamentalism and other conservative Christianity, which is still very much about Christ and him crucified (as Paul put it), not primarily family values. They take their Bible very seriously. And conservative Christian churches like the Pentacostalists and Adventists are the fastest growing churches world-wide and in the US, growing very fast. The more secular religions tend to be the more liberal ones, and they have long been shrinking. You'd think they'd all be shrinking by now, both liberal and conservative, but it hasn't happened that way. Not yet.

By the way, last I heard, some huge percentage of Italians, over 90%, I think, believed in God. Interesting contrast to other parts of Europe.

There are some areas in which there are both religious and secular ways to get what you want, but the products aren't always the same, and often don't work equally well. The secular promise of imperfect justice now and the religious one of perfect justice later are very different. The idea that you'll be punished for certain wrongs if you get caught is very different from being judged by an all-seeing God. The prospect of living on in memory is very different from the prospect of actually living after death. Worship of a being infinitely worthy of admiration, who loves you, is very different from appreciating the indifferent wonders of nature.

I wouldn't use the word "like" to represent the feeling those drawn to religion experience. It's often much deeper and more intense, and sometimes isn't really a species of liking at all. Sometimes it isn't primarily emotional. Some people are drawn to it because it seems true to them.

Anonymous said...

But fundamentalism is a small subset of religion in the United States. There is definitely "conservative Christianity," but I honestly think that the majority of it is based in cultural and "family values." Religion is a conservative cultural counterbalance to a secular, liberal society; I doubt that most US Christians know very much about theology anymore. The Bible, yes; the Three Persons of the Trinity, no.

I think people go to Church for other reasons: community, peer pressure, for the kids, etc. And, like I said, religion is the most conservative of institutions; it's a corrective to a fast-changing society, and a place to feel safe. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

H. E. said...

(1) I suspect that American-style conservative evangelical Protestantism, including the mega-churches, is secular to the extent that the draw is life-improvement, prosperity, and the quest for a safe, clean, organized world. I may be wrong, as Sanpete suggests (I've never known it from the inside) but the fact that conservative Christians form alliances so readily with people they should officially regard as damned suggests that what matters is the social agenda.

(2) With the weddings, funerals and civic events, I think it's just a taste for ceremony, symbolism and some wider context. Religious symbolism and ceremony is just a special case of that. Made-up secular ceremonies often seem artificial and vulgar--not because they're secular though but because they're contrived. There are some secular ceremonies though that have more authentic character--particularly patriotic and military rituals. There aren't any really convincing secular ceremonies for weddings or funerals--yet, though here are secular ceremonies for other rites of passage though, e.g. graduation, that are authentic, convincing and emotionally satisfying.

What I was suggesting was that in some places, for historical reasons the authentic cultural ceremonies for some occasions are churchy, and whether people are religious or not they go with those ceremonies because they're culturally authentic. This gives religion cultural hooks. History could have gone differently though. Weddings, funerals and coronations could have developed without any churchy components and I think that they would still do the same job for people.

The interesting question is; why should religious people have to make the case that everyone is deep down needs religion, if only for "major human events"? I've been reading a pop book on the history of work on Fermat's Last Theorem. Here are all these people who have a compelling interest in discovering mathematical truths, and proving them. I can understand that, though I'm not particularly good at math. Most people, including lots that are better at math than I am, just don't have that taste. The fact that the taste isn't widespread doesn't mean that math is just a trivial game, or that the theorems aren't really true. Some people have a taste for religion. Most don't. But it doesn't follow that religion is just a trivial game or that religious doctrines aren't really true.

Maybe because there's the notion that religious belief and practice are, in some sense, "necessary for salvation." But why should we believe that? You can live your life perfectly well without knowing that there's no number greater than 2 that satisfies a^n + b^n = c^n and without even being interested in whether it's so--and there's no reason why you should be interested in it. We can't all be interested in everything. I think you can live your life perfectly well without believing in God or even being interested in whether God exists or in any other religious matters. Why not?

Anonymous said...

"The interesting question is; why should religious people have to make the case that everyone is deep down needs religion, if only for "major human events"?"

Well, I'm only going by what I read in this post and elsewhere: 70-85% percent (or more) of Americans say they believe in God. And lots still choose to be married and buried from the Church. Not as many as in the past, of course.

I agree with you about the military rites, too - but this is exactly what I'm talking about. These things express deep feelings, and make big transcendent connections. I think all people do want to feel like this, at least periodically, and especially at big moments in their lives. (Also, they make important connections to the past that are hard find anywhere else anymore.)

I don't think people "need" religion - but I think more would like it, if it did its job better. IOW, I don't think it's just a matter of specialized taste. And the difference between math and religion is that the former is for specialists and the latter includes, by definition, everybody.

Anonymous said...

(IOW, religion is more like English than like Math or History. It's something that we all use - or at least can use - every day, rather than being a speciality subject that has no relevence to our lives after we graduate.)

H. E. said...

Religion is for "by definition" everybody? What definition? The question I'm posing is precisely why we should think of religion that way rather than as a specialty item for a relatively few people who like that sort of thing.

Math and history have no relevance to your life after you graduate??? I'll drop that though, and ask once again why assume that religion should has relevance for everyone's lives. Some people like me are history buffs and read history for pleasure; others can't imagine why anyone would be interested in such stuff. I'm a religion buff; in my experience though most people aren't interested and i don't see why they should be.

Sanpete said...

Anonymous, maybe I don't understand what you mean by saying that conservative Christianity is based in cultural and family values. I can say that what they regard as the fundamental teachings aren't about that but are about theological matters, such as salvation in Christ, and that the sermons, the Bible studies, the hymns and so on stress that. Whether they should bother with the later philosophical ideas that have historically been associated with the Bible, like the ins and outs of the Trinity, is an open question. Some do take that kind of thing very seriously (though they have trouble explaining why it matters).

Some interesting research from a conservative religious but well respected source (cited as authoritative by all kinds of people):

Americans Reveal Their Top Priority in Life
http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=226

Family trumps faith as the top pick of 51% versus 16%. But this is reversed for evangelicals (see definition below), 47% of whom pick faith (the figure for family isn't given, but as the question was open-ended, and there were other answer categories such as career, lifestyle and health, I'm sure the figure for family was substantially less than 47%). Those who are "born again" (definition below) but not evangelical pick faith at 21%, higher than the average but still, I assume, far lower than family, though the figure isn't given. This doesn't directly show how family and faith fit specifically into their religious lives, where faith would naturally be expected to come more to the fore, but it does show that there is a strong correlation between how conservative one is religiously and picking faith as the top priority. (Evangelical is very conservative and fundamentalist, born again is the next most conservative group.)

Barna Survey Reveals Significant Growth in Born Again Population
http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=231

According to that one, 45% of American adults (in the 48 contiguous states) are "born again" and 9% are "evangelical" Christians according to the following definitions: "Born again" applies to those who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicate they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. In addition to being born again, being "evangelical" also includes all of the following: saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works (this rules out Catholics, Mormons, Witnesses and several other groups); believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches (often treated as the defining characteristic of fundamentalism); and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. (Based on that, I'd say well over 10% of Americans are fundamentalists, since not all fundamentalists believe in salvation by grace alone.)

Spirituality May Be Hot in America, But 76 Million Adults Never Attend Church
http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=229

That is, 34% of adults don't attend except for weddings and such. But many of these consider themselves religious, with 62% praying weekly, and 20% reading the Bible weekly.

Half of Americans Say Faith Has “Greatly Transformed” Their Life
http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=240

Five Out of Seven Core Religious Behaviors Have Increased in the Past Decade According to Barna Survey
http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=232

That one includes what seems to me an amazing fact that 84% of US adults pray at least weekly.

Other recent research listed here: http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdates

Sanpete said...

HE, there are some conservative Christian churches that emphasize secular goods, and they have gotten lots of press lately, but they are still a minority of conservative Christianity. There are also many conservative Christians who appeal to concerns about family and other secular matters (or rather matters that overlap secular matters, as they would see it) to try to draw people in (Mormons do this very effectively), but they see that as the means to the greater end of salvation, and the converts are taught that as well. Go to some Baptist or Pentacostalist meetings, or read their instructive literature.

There is no reason conservative Christians shouldn't ally themselves with people they may (or may not) think are damned to achieve their moral aims. That doesn't show they are secular.

The interesting question is; why should religious people have to make the case that everyone is deep down needs religion, if only for "major human events"?

Many religious people feel no need to make this point and some don't even believe it, and there are nonreligious people do believe it and argue for it. Some people, as the latter comment implies, just see this as a fact, and that's why they argue for it. Others may argue for it because it helps in proselyting, in that it would show a need they can fill.

I think my own view is somewhat different from yours. You tend to minimize the natural draw religion has for people, but I think it can be quite strong for more than just a few, depending partly on circumstances including what religious options are practically available and how much people know about what those options can offer. Most nonreligious people have a fairly narrow and shallow knowledge of religion. It's analogous to health regimes, from yoga to jogging to all sorts of diets: we don't understand very well how much we would feel drawn to one of them and benefit from it without trying it or at least closely observing others practicing it.