Friday, May 28, 2010


The site on which I found that definition of "intellectual incest" in the previous post is rather interesting (remember, that's my code-word for not necessarily agreeing with all of it but still finding it thought provoking). It is from the so-called Church of Reality that seems to promote a sort of existentialist humanism.

I disagree with it, ultimately, about Faith not corresponding with Reality. Good religion (smart religion) is unfalsifiable (if only by design), and so cannot be said to contradict reality. I think this is where a lot of militant atheist dreck becomes just ridiculous. Marx himself, though not a believer, found atheist rhetoric crude, as he believed that religion was the natural and necessary outcome of human alienation and would be stopped not by polemics, but only ultimately by eliminating the conditions that led to human alienation in the first place. Again I disagree ultimately (while sympathizing) but I'll write more about Marx later.

One point, however, when it comes to these questions, is that praxy is much more important than theory. People who rail against religion do so assumably because they believe that religion causes problems. At least that's me giving them the benefit of the doubt. For many of them, I actually suspect they are just as much ideologues as anyone else, and that atheism is just as much their sort of fundamentalist religion (Marx believed the same thing about ideological atheism, by the way). But for these purposes I'll assume that they sincerely believe that religion is an obstacle to human progress or happiness. And certainly it very often is, but that's usually not the fault of religion in itself, but of human beings. As that post the other day discussed, if religion is just making you more of a jerk or just more miserable or repressed without even helping anyone...then you might as well just drop it completely.

In reality, it isn't belief in things, real or not, provable or not, that is making people unhappy. Some abstract belief that 2000 years ago a woman was conceived without without something called Original Sin has never harmed anyone. Neither has the sacramental or liturgical practice of religion generally: no one has died because they had some water poured over them to remit that same Original Sin. Liturgy on an aesthetic level can be beautiful and even fun. Even if it weren't true, someone merely believing in the Immaculate Conception in the abstract doesn't hurt them anymore than accidentally believing Lincoln was the fifteenth president (instead of the 16th) or that their first grade teacher's first name was Jane (when it was really Jean), as long as it doesn't effect their behavior negatively. And even if I lost my faith, I'd keep going to the traditional Mass just for the aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation of the experience.

And I think that's just the thing. What hurts people and makes them unhappy, or causes them to harm others or make others unhappy, or gets in the way of advances that would generally increase practice, not theory. Such is the "religion" of people who believe they are supposed to kill or coerce others in the name of God. On a more subtle level, it can take the form of those who want to impose their religion on others in the form of trying outlaw condoms even for non-believers or get government funding for things that other people don't agree with. Or even are just being scammed into giving money to some big institution to support its parasitic clergy (which can happen even if the religion is true!)

Sometimes it's harder to tell. Creationists are only a problem if their theory would hamper scientific investigations. The science of evolution has led to medical advances that presumably would never have been achieved if the scientists had constrained their thought to the paradigm of anti-evolutionism and not allowed themselves to even hypothetically consider other possibilities. That's a huge problem with many "religious" people; they won't even let themselves think outside their own box even just in a hypothetical "what if" way. But, as long as some scientists are willing to think outside the box that way, and as long as the Creationists don't somehow prevent that research...who cares what they personally believe on the matter? I doubt it effects their day-to-day behavior negatively (except when they waste all sorts of time in long youtube comment-box arguments with militant atheists on the matter, lol). And if, all the better, they are able to come up with an explanation that is just as good at making predictions and explaining the evidence (even if it doesn't satisfy Occam's Razor) then who is hurt?

The point is, it's only when beliefs start causing dysfunctional behavior or feelings that they become a problem. And realistic religion shouldn't do that. That's where I think we could learn somethings in dialogue with the Church of Reality. I think they make a lot of good points about ideologues not being intellectually honest, and about people letting their "religion" actually warp their view of objective reality and affect their behavior for the worse.

For example, they point out, the belief in heaven or the imminent end of the world has led some people, many people probably, to put less emphasis on trying to improve conditions in this world. Of course, then you look at someone like Mother Theresa and see how the opposite can also be true when religion is properly applied. Or how toggle-switch absolution has made many people just fall back on a cycle of guilt and forgiveness without really changing them morally as people, in fact relieving them of the sense of urgency when it comes to changing. Then again, there are many Saints who have shown the opposite can also be true.

The Church of Realism would probably argue that people depriving themselves of things that would otherwise make them happy or give them pleasure, for the sake of some (they would say: "imaginary") reward in the heaven is another problem. But, I believe that as long as you aren't hurting anyone else, you should let people do that even if you believe they aren't actually going to get any bigger reward. I would also argue that what people who think that self-denial is unnecessary and makes people unhappy don't realize is that many mystics and ascetics do experience very tangible benefits in the here and now in terms of altered states of consciousness, inner peace, even ecstasies (whether you believe their cause is natural or supernatural) that are not dependent on the reality or not of their heavenly reward later.

People are much more rational actors than some of these atheists would believe, and they are actually much more influenced by their present material concerns than abstract ones, even if they themselves would attribute their actions, putatively, to the abstract ones. Marx would say that their religion is merely the natural symptom or rational expression of people's material situation, a responsive behavior, not some irrational cause wherein all problems could be solved simply by getting rid of the belief. There are reasons people believe dysfunctionally or let even neutral or good beliefs affect them in dysfunctional ways, and, if anything, it is those reasons that are the problem (whatever they may be), not the belief itself in the abstract.

I've complained about this many times. Faith is about truth. Yet so many religious ideologues are intellectually dishonst to the point of hyping false statistics or "interpreting" facts in disingenuous ways; the recent crisis in the Church has had many examples of this. The fact is, as the Church of Reality people say, if you're convinced that your faith is real, then you wouldn't be afraid of the facts of reality or try to hide from them.

So many idealists do just that when they insist that something about human society is true in fact just because something ought to be morally speaking. Or they'll take a good or condemned thing from the religion and try to prove that it is associated with good or bad effects in practice. Just for one example, trying to create evidence that children raised by a gay couple are psychologically harmed or that allowing openly gay soldiers would ruin the effectiveness of the military, when there really is no such evidence. Believing homosexual acts are immoral and unnatural is one thing, but that's an abstract moral question. It's really neither here nor there when it comes to expected outcomes of such studies. The same faulty logic is expressed in looking for evidence that prayer has salutatory health effects. Or expecting that Christians will, as a group, be more moral than average. Or that priests actually are celibate just because they are "supposed to be."

In other words, trying to drum-up evidence about concrete effects to try to bolster an abstract moral belief, is not only dishonest, but also makes no sense. The material facts and the question of morality should have nothing to do with each other as they're two separate categories; sin doesn't necessarily lead to bad material effects, and just because Christianity spreads a message of moral improvement, doesn't mean its followers will actually follow it. Trying to draw some sort of correspondence between the abstract non-falsifiables of faith, and the concrete falsifiable facts of reality, is bound to get you into trouble.

My faith, on the other hand, has nothing to fear from reality.

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