I found a blogger today who motivated me to say a little more about religion (I’m going to end up writing a damn book, at this rate). The blogger feels a need to educate Dawkins and his cheerleaders, with me chief among them. I can always do with educating (I mean that literally), but this lesson didn’t quite take. Some of what the blogger says is true enough but I doubt that anyone including Dawkins disagrees with it, and the rest of it I maintain is not true.
This is what I would like to tell Dawkins and all of his cheerleaders: they need to go beyond their scientific atheism to a more mature vision of what it means to be a human being in a community, and the various kinds of knowledge which are required to make that community function. Intelligent and educated people have found many different ways to discuss the various and complex issues which arise for human beings. Science is only one mode of expression, and it is a very useful one, but there are aspects of experience which it systematically excludes. This is why even scientists continue to read and appreciate literature, a form of expression with no pretense to literal truth, but which describes some more general truths about human experience which it would be difficult to capture in scientific prose. Religion is, I think, similar to literature in its attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation.
Certainly – of course there are many different ways to discuss human issues; certainly literature is one of them. On the other hand – science is not primarily a mode of expression, and much more to the point, neither is religion. Religion does attempt to capture what exceeds scientific explanation, yes, but it is emphatically not a method ‘with no pretense to literal truth.’ That’s just it. That’s exactly why religion is indeed different from literature, and capable of vastly more harm. Religion does make truth claims about the world. It also tells people what to do, and in no uncertain terms. It is important not to lose sight of those two facts. I think it’s possible that well-meaning secularists tend to do exactly that – to think that religion is basically just a nice attitude. For some people no doubt it is, but at its core it makes factual statements about the world, history, the universe, reality as a whole; and it prescribes how we are to live. That being the case, surely we want to know on what it bases its truth claims and its claims to tell us what to do. Don’t we? Do we instead want to shrug all that off and just let religion get on with it because it always has? I don’t. If its truth claims are wrong, and its normative claims are either also wrong, or right but right for the same sorts of reasons that other normative claims are right, as I think is the case, then surely that’s relevant to discussions about both religion’s utility and its veracity.
In short, what we have here is, I think, a kind of thing that one sees a lot of from well-meaning defenders of religion: a resort to various maneuvers that redescribe religion in such a way that it seems more innocuous, benign, useful, and profound than it in fact is. Redefine it so that it’s essentially the same sort of thing as literature, when in fact the differences between the two are enormous and central. Omit to mention the destructive, coercive, cruel, vindictive aspects of it and dwell only on the emollient ones. Misattribute to religion what in fact belongs to other entities – to philosophy or rationality or common sense or secular ethics or all those.
But that just won’t do. When Soapy Joe tells his rivals they should talk about religion more, he doesn’t mean just Nice Thoughts – he means they should pledge allegiance to a supernatural deity of one kind or another. He’s not picky which one; religious people so often aren’t these days; one is allowed to believe in almost any deity, it’s only nonbelief in any deity that is not allowed. And all the supernatural deities in question have very nasty sides to them – yes, even dear old Jesus. There are bits of Matthew and John that make the blood run cold – and that didn’t do the Jews any good over the years, either. And when it comes to morality, none of them says anything better than other, secular thinkers have also said. Religion may be good at motivating people to be better – but alas, that possibility has to confront the other one, that religion is also good at motivating people to be worse. It may be that lukewarm secularists are on the whole safer than impassioned believers.
In any case I don’t think it’s possible to figure out anything about religion if we pretend it is what it isn’t and that it isn’t what it is. Obfuscation is not helpful.