How to Defend Religion?

(found from Nullfidian’s excellent blog)

I was reading the write up on the various Times Online sites of the “Intelligence Squared” event which tool place recently. Basically this was a debate on the motion “We’d be better off without religion.” On the side For the motion were Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling and Christopher Hitchens. On the side Against the motion were Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton and Nigel Spivey.

Ruth Gledhill, the Times’ Religion reporter, has written an interesting summary of the proceedings titled “Articles of Faith.” Gledhill describes herself as someone who is sure God exists, yet there is not much in the way of a pro-theist bias in the reporting. All in all, it struck me as a reasonable post (not least because she says the “For” argument was better than the “Against” one 🙂 ).

Towards the end of the piece it gets a bit strange though. When talking about the dangers of creationism, she writes:

Well I’d be upset if my son became a creationist but there is no chance of that, not in the Church of England at least.

Which, while reasonable, is a risky proposition to take. Creationism / ID is a fundamental part of the monotheistic doctrines, so while [insert religion] may not overtly push it, it is there below the surface. I would love to see a Christian doctrine which does not assert the universe was created by God, and that man was not made in his image. Although I may be biased, I find it hard to see how some can reconcile this belief with anything else.

Next she comes to something I find very strange, yet it seems used all the time by “reasonable” people when they want to defend their faith:

[Dawkins] problem is that he takes religion too literally, and as many have pointed out, is too fundamentalist about his own atheistic creed.

Wow. All over the net, on TV, the radio and in papers people try to defend religion, and deflect criticism, by saying the critic is taking religion “too literally.” Personally I am at a loss for any other way to do it. Either God exists or he doesn’t. I assume Christians (and Jews/Muslims) believe God exists – is that taking religion too literally?

Religion is built around doctrine and “rules” which are claimed to be the word of God. If the faithful get to pick and choose which ones they follow, doesn’t that make a mockery of that which is already comical? If the best defence for “religion” is that it is something which gives people the chance to get together with each other and has some vague good ideas (don’t want to take the doctrine literally, do we?) then it strikes me it really is an idea which has passed its sell by date.

If religion is not meant to be taken seriously, what is it?

On a different note, as always, the comments in response to a post like this produce much more entertainment. Gledhill is too good, too reasonable, a writer to really froth properly – unlike those who comment … 🙂

Some examples include:

I agree with Richard Dawkins, we WOULD be better off without religion.
But Jesus… without Him, we are all – literally – lost! (David Smith)

Not sure if that was supposed to be a joke or what.

This kind of format suits both Dawkins and Grayling if they speak in the same way that they write. They like to write controversial bluster which they don’t need to provide references for or explain further. (Phil Craig)

I assume that was a joke. Both write books which are filled with references, unlike the religious apologists or more relevantly the holy books themselves. When the Bible claims that “In the beginning…” where is the reference to back this up? Interesting when Phil Craig is challenged about his comments, David Smith responds:

Mike George:
‘To suggest that [Dawkins] offers ‘controversial bluster’ with no explanation is to ignore the fact that the whole of his writing offer rational arguments and link to scientific study and theory.’

Richard Dawkins:
1.’It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane, or wicked… ‘

2. ‘I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywherein the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection (i.e. evolution).’

Still, at least Dawkins is consistent with Darwin himself.

Having made an exhaustive study of Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’, which set the evolution ball running, American engineer Henry Morris wrote: ‘One can search the whole book in vain for any real scientific evidences for evolution – evidences that have been empirically verified and have stood the test of time. No proof is given anywhere – no examples are cited of new species known to have been produced by natural selection, no transitional forms are shown, no evolutionary mechanisms are documented… One can only marvel that such a book could have had so profound an influence on the subsequent history of human life and thought.’

Which broadly shows a lack of understanding (two references out of context – sounds like Uncommon Descent to me..) about both Dawkins’ work and the actual mechanics of the theory of evolution (and how science works). For some reason, UD may be to blame, anti-evolutionists seem to think that the whole current theory was written by Darwin in Origin. Madness. I suppose this is what comes of being tied to a book which is not supposed to ever change…

There are more, but I could end up spending all month writing about them so I will stop now. Have a look, see what you think and if there are any more howlers please let me know.

14 thoughts on “How to Defend Religion?

  1. Have to reply to my own post. As you would expect, among the comments is the tired old refrain that Stalin was an Atheist:

    The argument advanced by atheists that religion is “dangerous” or causes human suffering and therefore should be somehow outlawed or rejected is not applied by them to other belief systems and is unsupported by any historical model.

    The violence of the last century was not motivated by religion. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge and the other spectacular murderers of the 20th century were atheists. They were also self socialists and thought of themselves as following (psuedo) scientific models such as eugenics or marxism. I don’t hear the atheists talking about the need to outlaw marxism.

    Hitchens and Dawkins seem to take a position that “but for” religion everyone would live in peace and harmony and embrace rational concepts of good will. There is no evidence in the historical record for this belief. Atheistic models of governance from our recent past expressly rebut this notion. What they miss is that religion, with some exceptions, has tended to place admittedly imperfect and often violated limits on the human capacity for violence. (read original)

    Pure nonsense and I suspect this is going to be the source of a new post later today…

  2. Personally I am at a loss for any other way to do it. Either God exists or he doesn’t. I assume Christians (and Jews/Muslims) believe God exists – is that taking religion too literally?

    I have also been accused of taking the various scriptures too literally, but I plead ‘what else can I do?’

    I have no ulterior motive for creatively interpreting individual passages; for casting judgements as to if they are supposedly literal, metaphorical or allegorical; for taking liberties with translations.

    As far as I’m concerned, if you take any one part of it as literal, you have to, by default, take the whole damned thing literally. Otherwise, it’s not even worth mentioning.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. I am (oddly) constantly amazed that people will try to defend their particular brand of invisible friend by cherry picking which bits they want to take literally and which they don’t.

    Personally, I find it easier to just think they are all deluded 🙂

  4. There are quite a few people who are in religion for something other than the belief. “Not taking it literally” describes most Pagans I know, and quite a few Jews. They just seem to want a system that gives structure and tradition to their lives, whether it’s based in fact or not.

  5. I can understand that as being the reasons why a person remains in a religion, when their “intellectual” understanding says it is wrong – but as a reason to “justify” religion it pretty much escapes me.

    There are many ways to have structure and tradition…

  6. “Religion is built around doctrine and ‘rules’ which are claimed to be the word of God.”

    Not always. The example that falsifies that statement is the Quakers–at least, the liberal and conservative branches of the Society. And there are branches of Buddhism that don’t fit that description, either.

  7. I wouldn’t take Wikipedia as gospel on the Quakers (or anything else, for that matter). There are several things in that segment you linked to that I don’t consider correct, speaking as a liberal Quaker. But, because Quakers are historically suspicious of doctrine, that’s not surprising.

    I agree that the Testimonies can look like doctrine, but they’re not. They might best be described as categories into which a Quaker fits the leadings he or she gets from God. For me, at least, God speaks in specifics (don’t buy sweat shop clothing, for instance), and then one fits that into a Testimony (the Testimony of Equality, or Community, perhaps) as a way of linking it to one’s whole web of meaning.

    The interesting thing, at least from the standpoint of readers of this blog, is that there are actually non-Theist Quakers. We have some in our meeting. I don’t understand how that works, but at least a couple of them are what we call “weighty Friends,” so I don’t doubt their sincerity.

  8. I think that you are talking about following a moral code rather than a religion. Agreed that being a quaker seems to be a lot more about inner experience and morality rather than worship, I wouldn’t knock it.

    I think the point of the debate is whether there is a God in the general “divine being who created and rules everything” sense.

    I could believe my shoe has an inner soul (lame pun)which created the universe and worship it. I could believe it gave me rules to live by and techniques for obtaining wisdom. They might even work for me, but it wouldnt make the shoe thing any truer.

  9. TW March 30th, 2007 at 16:29 says:
    ‘The violence of the last century was not motivated by religion. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge and the other spectacular murderers of the 20th century were atheists’.
    In response:
    The element in common with religious-inspired mass murderers of the past is fundamentalism: certainty about what is true or right. That’s my theory. My only certainty is that uncertainty breeds tolerance. The world needs less belief, not more.

  10. The whole debate over the existence of God is pointless. Stop! Think in other categories – laterally!
    Apparently, our brain patterns affect the way we experience “Life”. It seems that people who learn to let their thoughts settle and quieten have a higher happiness level (and tests have shown that brainwaves change). It is reported that they feel more “at one”: complete transformation in a positive sense seems to be possible. This seems plausible: we all know how excessive and uncontrolled thinking brings us down.
    God, Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, Wakantanka, etc are, and always have been, nothing more nor less than human words to describe that Totality. Discovering this “new” state of mind is called by different names in Christian, Buddhist, and other traditions. “God the Father/Creator” is a metaphor, for God’s sake! 🙂
    But people of many different religions tell us that the reality of that experience, and the beauty of life when we clean the “doors of perception”, are so amazing that they talk of them in terms reserved for the “Highest”, most special, transcendant. Exporing a state of letting go of ego-driven thinking is clearly mentioned by Jesus (why do so few Christians see this?), Buddha, and many other great “Pathfinders”. But our ways of thinking are very entrenched, so progress is usually slow.
    Do we believe in the existence of this other “country”? Pointless to say, unless we make the journey, and don’t turn back when the going gets tough.
    “Literal or not literal” doesn’t come into it! A map is a description – like a scripture. If you find the real place, you won’t ask “is this literally true?”!
    May you all be happy!

  11. Nick said (in part),
    The element in common with religious-inspired mass murderers of the past is fundamentalism: certainty about what is true or right. That’s my theory. My only certainty is that uncertainty breeds tolerance. The world needs less belief, not more.

    I reply: TOLERANCE IS NOT A VIRTUE. Shocked? Consider: If I say that I tolerate child abuse, you would not consider that tolerance a virtue because you find the object of my tolerance (child abuse) intolerable (unless you are a very sick person). Tolerance derives its value ENTIRELY from the objects of its toleration. So, as I say, tolerance considered apart from its objects is NOT a virtue.

    If tolerance is not a virtue, then your value system collapses. You must KNOW what is virtuous so that you may “tolerate” it, and you must KNOW what is evil so that you will not “tolerate” it. You must have a secure basis for making such distinctions, and this basis should be universally applicable. Without this you have no right to criticize the actions of others, whether they be Communist, Christian Crusaders, the Armies of Allah, or Scientific Materialist.

    While I am not “certain” (to use your word) that my worldview is entirely correct, decades of examination and comparison with other worldviews has given me a high degree of confidence that mine is essentially correct. So I reject your conclusion that the world needs less “certainty” or “belief.” People need to arrive at greater confidence through careful examination of evidence and reason.

    I’m sure you all know who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

  12. I am not sure I fully agree with everything you have said here, however I do agree that tolerance is not something which can be considered virtuous in itself.

    Also, I dont want to defend what Nick has said, but even after you accept tolerance is not a virtue, the implied tolerance of “each other” remains arguably virtuous.

Comments are closed.