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Musings > Sunday, 25 April 2010 21:36:48 EST

How Should We Deal With Religion?

Keywords: religion, epistemology

For those of us who consider ourselves skeptics, rationalists, or critical thinkers, there's a question about how we should handle religion and religious people.  The question has been brought up on several podcasts, blogs, and online forums that I frequent, so it's been on my mind.

How should we deal with religion?  What part should skepticism play in the discussion?  Can religious people really be critical thinkers? 

There's a school of thought that says that we should oppose religion and religious thought completely.  That religion stands as completely opposed to critical thought, and that religious people cannot really be in "our camp".

This way of thinking makes me uncomfortable, and I want to explore it a little more in this post.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I have no problem with doubting and poking fun at religion.  I don't think that religious tolerance means that you have to bite your tongue to avoid criticizing religion.  Even ridicule is fair game. 

But I think that if you harangue people about their religion unprovoked, you're kind of acting like a jerk.

Some people believe that critical thinking necessarily entails the abandonment of religious beliefs.  I don't believe that's the case.  Certainly, I believe that critical thinking necessitates the abandonment of many religious beliefs.  Creationism, for example, stands completely opposed to critical thought.

But what about religious people who make no empirical claims?  The ones who don't believe that the Bible is literally true, and offer no evidence for the existence of God other than ambiguous personal experience?

My view is that critical thought can only apply when there's some empirical claim to be tested.  If there's no claim, there's nothing to analyze critically.

I don't think that means that you can't criticize those beliefs.  But I would argue that those criticisms shouldn't be considered to be a skeptical activity.  Critical thought may inform your criticisms, but those criticisms shouldn't be considered to be an extension of critical thinking.

And this is where I tend to get stuck explaining this to some people.  To me, it's extremely nuanced, and I have trouble getting across what I mean to people who believe that skepticism naturally entails the opposition of religion.

To me, the default skeptical position on any claims with no empirical evidence presented is "I don't know.  You could be right... but I have nothing to go on here."

Now, you may believe that one should never form any beliefs without empirical evidence, and that's a perfectly valid way of thinking.  Hell, it may even be the best way of thinking.  But I don't believe that it's a necessary way of thinking in order to be a critical thinker.

It seems to me that critical thinking only applies when there are claims to empirical evidence to analyze.  When there are no such claims, critical thinking just doesn't apply.

I recently read a book called "Crimes Against Logic" by Jamie Whyte.  I enjoyed it very much, but there were a couple of times when I thought he went beyond what was necessary.  For example, he ranted a good deal about how the holy trinity just doesn't make logical sense.  And he's right, of course.

But then, the Catholic church have basically given in on that.  They've called it a "mystery", which means that it's beyond logical analysis.  I'm perfectly fine with that, because it's a double edged sword: it also means that they can't use the doctrine of the trinity as a logical argument for anything.  By calling it a "mystery", they've basically admitted that it doesn't make sense, and they've made it irrelevant to skeptical inquiry.

You can criticize them and say that they're using a cop-out to avoid seriously examining this, and that's fair.  But as far as critical thinking goes, spending a lot of time ranting about how illogical it is doesn't make much sense.  By calling it a mystery, they've admitted that it's illogical.  You've already won that argument, so why beat a dead horse?

I think that often this opposition is driven more by personal feelings about religion than by critical thinking.  I can't see the same people speaking out as vehemently against common superstitions.  They may laugh at somebody who throws salt over his shoulder, but performing the sign of the cross evokes more serious snorts of derision and disgust.

The reason for this, I'm often told, is that other forms of superstition haven't done the same amount of harm that religion has caused.  And it's true that religion is often at the center of extremely regrettable events.  But I'm not about to accept this as a valid argument against religion any more than I'm going to accept that Social Darwinism is a valid argument against evolution. 

Clearly we should oppose anybody if we find their actions morally objectionable.  But determining what's morally objectionable and opposing it isn't the purpose of critical thinking. If the people we oppose make empirical claims that don't stand up to scrutiny, we can use critical thinking to debunk them.  And we can make logical arguments about why certain acts should be opposed.  But that's only using critical thinking to inform such activism, it doesn't mean that the activism is an integral part of critical thought.

And we should be fair and acknowledge that even skeptical atheists often engage in forms of magical thinking that go completely unchallenged.  Few would blink an eye at somebody who spends a good deal of time and money to acquire a first edition of Darwin's "On The Origin Of Species".  But isn't the idea that a first edition is somehow more desirable than other copies a form of magical thinking?  The text is much more easily, not to mention less expensively, available elsewhere, and an older copy is bound to be in a more fragile condition. 

There doesn't appear to be any real benefit to obtaining a first edition, but few would call those who engage in such a purchase uncritical or in any way at odds with the skeptical community.  Clearly, the mere presence of non empirical thinking is not a barrier to critical thought.

I don't think we need to treat religion as some sort or pariah in our midst.  You may not understand how a person can believe in critical thinking and also hold a belief in God, and that confusion is perfectly natural.  I personally have more sympathy for the viewpoint of religious people who also consider themselves skeptics or critical thinkers.  I've tried to explain the mindset before, but it's really hard to explain it to people who just don't understand.

I know there will be skeptics who still don't agree with me on this.  I was having a debate with a few online not too long ago until I fell out of the discussion because I got too busy.  So I'm summing up my thoughts here, and hopefully I've managed to lay them out in a semi comprehensible fashion.

If you don't agree with me, or don't understand my point.... well, you're free to attribute it to me just being a dumbass.


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