First Things

There are many ways one can divide up religion and arguments for religion in order to discuss or analyze them, many ways one can draw a line down the middle of the room and put all the Xs on one side and all the Ys on the other. (And then draw another line and sort the Ys, and then draw another line and sort their progeny, and so on, until everyone goes mad and the game is over.) One way is to separate questions about veracity from questions that leave veracity aside. To separate the epistemic issues from the moral and aesthetic and emotional, one might say. So on this side of the tavern we argue about whether there is any reason to think religion tells the truth or not, and on that side we argue about what social purpose religion serves, or whether religion is necessary for a sense of wonder or a sense of meaning, or whether without religion everything is permitted.

That sort of argument has been going on in the comments lately. But there’s a problem with it, it seems to me. This is the problem: if religion is lacking in the veracity department, then what’s the point of saying ‘yes but it’s good for social cohesion’? Or at least – if religion is lacking in the veracity department, there is a serious problem with saying ‘yes but it’s good for social cohesion.’ There is grave danger of intellectual dishonesty and sloppiness in saying that. There is a risk of getting everything wrong and confused. We can see why via analogies, I should think. It would be good for social cohesion if every human on the planet had a magic bowl that would fill with whatever food we wanted whenever we asked it. Yes. But that is not the case, so is the fact that if it were the case, that would lead to social cohesion, some sort of argument that one should respect the idea that it is the case? It doesn’t seem to be, does it. The idea seems silly. So why is it otherwise with religion?

In other words, why do we talk about whether or not religion is useful for social cohesion, or provides a sense of meaning, or is necessary for a sense of wonder, before we ask whether or not there’s a shred of truth in it? Isn’t that slightly back to front? It is, you know. Because if it’s just a load of nonsense, then what good is it to say it’s good for social cohesion? Lots of things would be good for social cohesion if they were true, but they’re not, so what good does that do? Next time social cohesion breaks down in your neighbourhood, tell everyone ‘We wouldn’t be having this quarrel if Bugs Bunny were here, we’d be too busy asking him how Elmer Fudd is doing.’ See if that helps.

No. The first question to ask about religion is, surely, whether or not its truth claims are true, whether there is any evidence for them or not, whether they are anything more than a human invention. If the answers are all No – then asking all those questions on the other side of the line is a little dishonest, isn’t it?

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