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Posted by on Dec 3, 2007 in Is religion dangerous | 2 comments

Is Religion Dangerous (II)

William Hawthorne takes me to task on “Is religion dangerous?”

My responses below. William’s stuff is in italics.

[Y]our argument runs as follows:

(1) Religion has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly.

(2) Religion is also unpredictable.

(3) If something x is unpredictable and has the power to get so many people to believe something so ridiculous so quickly, we should have safeguards in place against x.

(4) So we should have safeguards in place against religion.

I think this is a fair construal, given your comment above. Now, where are your supporting arguments for (1) and (2)?

All you did in your original entry is bring up examples of particular religious people who hold ridiculous beliefs. But, as I said earlier, it doesn’t follow from that that religion has the “power” to do thus and such. At the most, you could claim that some religious people have the power to assent to ridiculous beliefs. And certainly that’s true.

My response: Seems to me there are features of religious belief systems, in particular – widespread appeals to “faith” (e.g. in the literal truth of scripture, irrespective of whatever reason or empirical enquiry might happen to show) – that means religion is likely to have at least some power to make people believe ridiculous things. This is a characteristic feature of the belief system itself, note.

So: (i) the wacky belief came from religion itself.
and (ii) religion itself has characteristic features that give it at least some power to get people to accept wacky beliefs.

The question is, how much power does it have?

I provided an illustration of a palpably absurd religious/scientific belief spreading out into a hundred million people – in many cases smart, well-educated people – in barely more than a half century. This certainly wasn’t predicted, or easily predictable.

Pretty good evidence for (1) and (2) in your presentation of my argument, right?

Now you may say – “But Stephen, you’ve committed the post hoc fallacy. Just because these people are religious, and believe something absurd, doesn’t establish a causal connection. This may just be a coincidence.”

Highly unlikely, surely. Here’s an analogy. I know steam can be used to generate power, but I have no idea how much. Not much, I guess. You show me a steam engine pulling along a heavy train. I observe. Great evidence of considerable power, right?

If I were to say: “But this may just be a coincidence! You haven’t established that the steam is the cause. Perhaps something else moved the train!” You’d consider me a fool, right?

What does it even mean in the first place to assert that “religion has the power…”? This is surely translatable into talk of religious people having power, right? Like a football team, or the Navy, or the media, religion is composed of people who hold many different kinds of beliefs. It’s not an entity that exists over and above the set of people who compose it.

So if a subset of religious people have bizarre (or even dangerous) beliefs, it seems more sensible to say that we should safeguard against them, not “religion”. If you disagree, then are you prepared to suggest that we should safeguard against football, say, if we find that many of its players abuse steroids and hold irrational beliefs?

I have just explained that there are characteristic features of religion itself that generate this power. E.g. appeals to “faith”. It’s not a coincidence that these religious individuals happen to believe scripture irrespective of what reason or empirical inquiry might happen to reveal. They don’t just happen to have this tendency (in the way that, say, many football players may happen to follow astrology). They have it because they are religious.

You also provided no arguments for (3). If you think you did, then would you mind formulating them for me in your next comment? Anyway, (3) is subject to obvious counterexamples. Using your reasoning and terminology, one might say that the blogosphere has the power to get so many people to believe ridiculous things so quickly. Should we safeguard against the blogosphere?

Given belief is linked to action, if something has immense power to get people to believe ridiculous things, there is clearly a risk. A risk worth managing, if we can, I’d suggest. See below.

True, the blogosphere also has some power in this respect, of course (though not as much as religion, I’d argue). For that reason, I think this risk worth managing, too.

Manage in what way? I suggested fostering “a critical culture”. In the case of religion, I suggest making sure all children are raised to think and question, even about the religious beliefs they take with them, into the classroom. I don’t object to religious schools. I do object to the kind of school that clamps down on independent critical thought. Independent critical thought should be fostered, even about religion.

It’s the same safeguard we should have in place against the potentially corrupting power of the blogosphere. Let’s give young people an education in critical thinking, so they can spot bullshit and manipulation when they come across it. Including on the web.

It’s not a particularly oppressive safeguard, is it – training and encouraging people to think and question (it’s not like putting all religious people and bloggers in jail)? Do you object to my suggested safeguard?

And again, the key terms you employ in your argument seem either ambiguous or too vague. What does “safeguarding” against religion entail? (I’m not asking for necessary and sufficient conditions; a rough sketch would be nice.) And why should we safeguard against religion, rather than just particular religions? Do you want us to safeguard against theistic buddhism, hinduism, neoshamanism, bha’i, dianic wicca, christian wicca, santeria, progressive judaism, and all the other thousands of religions in the world? You might say something like, “No, only certain religions should be safeguarded against.” But if you say that, then O wonder why you wouldn’t just say, “Only certain religious people should be safeguarded against.”

As I say, my recommended safeguard is a critical culture (as I said in original article). I’d apply it to all religion (and not just religion). If you want more detail, see my book The War For Children’s Minds. Be interested in getting some feedback.