Saturday, March 02, 2013

Religious practices are rooted in doctrine

By Mathew Goldstein

In his March 1 article in the Huffington Post titled "Faith Isn't Irrational, But Beliefs May Be", Peter Georgescu, Chairman Emeritus of Young & Rubicam Inc., citing Karen Armstrong's arguments, defends Christianity in particular, and religion more generally, as follows: "Belief in Christ has little to do with intellectual agreement on some ostensibly factual truth about God." Similarly he says "The major Western monotheisms all concerned themselves primarily with practice, the doing of religion, rather than doctrine. " For him "A good Jew observed the Sabbath and remained committed to the Law and the ritual year; and a good Christian embodied the Sermon on the Mount by caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God's love." It should be impossible for intelligent people to buy into this argument for a number of reasons.

First of all, contrary to what Armstrong, or in this case Georgescu, asserts, religion has historically been doctrinal. People throughout history killed each other in wars fought over conflicting religious beliefs because they took the competing factual claims of their religions literally. The book of John, for example, self-claims to be a factual, eyewitness, historical account of real, historical events by one of the actual disciples (21:24 This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true). The Quran and the Hebrew Tanakh, like the Christian bible, are preoccupied with asserting factual, historical events, complete with the names of real locations, governments, and people. Throughout history even the most intellectual religionists claimed to extract divinely revealed facts about how the world works from their holy book. For instance, Thomas Aquinas believed that God created the body of the first human, Adam, from the "slime of the Earth" and God created the first female, Eve, immediately thereafter using Adam's rib. Similarly, he believed that God produced the fish and birds from water. Thomas Aquinas cited the book of Genesis as the source for this factual knowledge.

Secondly, the practice of religion is itself rooted in religious factual claims. It is only on the basis of endorsing the particular factual claims of a religion as being true that people can credibly justify a commitment to observing the commandments and the resulting practices of the religion on an ongoing, daily basis. According to Christianity, for example, the historical, factual, resurrection of Jesus Christ opens the way to eternal life and glory for those who believe. Anyone who claims that the resurrection is fictional is contradicting a basic premise of Christianity that is needed to justify the practice of Christianity. The religious practices of Judaism and Islam are similarly justified by, and thus dependent upon, their distinct factual claims.

Atheists don't keep kosher and observe the Sabbath because there is no proper justification for doing so. We recognize the Sermon on the Mount is seriously flawed, giving some bad advice, contradicting itself, a hodgepodge lacking any underlying theme. It characterizes poverty as a virtue and wealth as a vice, asserts that there is an afterlife, calls for lending on request without regard to need or likelihood of repayment, and the like, which are rationally unjustified. A faith that obscures or denies these flaws is a faith in conflict with the empirical evidences regarding what is true and false.

Thirdly, many of the practices of different religions are mutually compatible, while the factual beliefs associated with those practices are often mutually incompatible. Accordingly, if religion was about practice only, and not about beliefs, then it follows that there is a lack of good justification for segregating practices by religion. If religious people frequently combined the practices that originated from different religious beliefs then we would at least have some evidence that the incompatible factual claims unique to each religion don't matter to them. Yet Christians rarely commit to the religious practices of Jews and Muslims, Jews don't commit to the practices of Christians and Muslims, and Muslims don't commit to the practices of Jews and Christians.

Reading arguments like those of Karen Armstrong, and of her fans, that religion has nothing to do with beliefs regarding what is factually true or false is like reading an argument that joining a political party is properly motivated only by that political party's practices, which are devoid of factual content, and that the political party's policy statements and orientations are not rooted in any claims about what is factually true or false. That otherwise intelligent people publicly make such a superficial argument is a testament to how desperate some people are to defend religion and of the weakness of the mindless religious identity that they cling to. Liberal religionists tend to deny that their beliefs are rooted in any facts about how the world works, conservative religionists prefer to buttress their beliefs with facts about how the world works that are counter-evidenced. Underlying this disparity in approach is a single common mistake: They are both failing to take an evidence first approach to justifying their beliefs.


Steven Bollinger said...

A very nice smack-down of an assertion one sees very often on HP Religion (where I found a link to your blog post). HP is rife with articles insisting that religious does not equal irrational, that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, that literalist readings of the Bible are no older than the English word "fundamentalist," and other similar hair-raising nonsense, very often written by authors funded by the Templeton Foundation. I hope you continue to comment on HP.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


Good comment on HuffPo and Templeton. We've had some earlier discussions tsking on the latter such as in the blog "Religious Conservatives Lie, But Sometimes They Have A Point " See