From Faith to a Pernicious Idolatry

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

It might seem easy to avoid idolatry, to avoid worshiping false gods. All you need to do is avoid worshiping either an image of your own god or some other religion’s god(s). However, a more pernicious idolatry is easy to fall into. It comes as a result of a certain kind of belief process, namely, faith.

“Faith” has a variety of meanings, but my understanding of the Christian perspective on it is that “faith in God” means not only trusting in God, but believing in God’s existence without evidence and come what may. As such, belief in God on the basis of faith does not provide any epistemic (truth preserving) reasons for belief; moreover, such faith is taken to require that one maintain belief in the face of controverting evidence.

So the person of faith holds certain beliefs without evidence and maintains those beliefs despite counter evidence, often rationalizing the counterevidence away. An extreme example of this would be to say that all of the fossils that suggest a very, very ancient earth are put there by God to test our faith. To question God is unthinkable. From a psychological perspective this is understandable given the weighty nature of the issues involved, e.g., the inevitable eternal stay in heaven or hell, and the existential fear they produce.

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Why are you a Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.)?

Much of what I have to say is critical, but I do not mean any disrespect to my family and friends, or any one else of a particular faith. The purpose of this short essay is to further my project of trying to understand religious belief and to cultivate a certain kind of humility that I find lacking in many religious people. The latter may seem condescending, though I certainly do not intend it to be.

When asking for the reasons why a person believes something, e.g., that gay marriage is a good/bad idea, there are two importantly different kinds of reasons that we might appeal to (there are more than just these two, but these are the most salient). One kind is called epistemic reasons. Epistemic reasons are relevant to the truth of that for which they are reasons. That is, their truth is supposed to guarantee or make probable the truth of that which is believed. For example, Bob believes he will get over an infection because of the known efficacy of antibiotics. That known efficacy is a reason for believing, it makes it probably true, that Bob will get well; and thus it justifies his believing that he will get well.

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The Dangers of Religious Extremism

In my last blog post, I indicated that I believed that the religious extremes that dominate public discussion of religion are dangerous. Here I will briefly give reasons for thinking that is true. To begin, I consider atheism and agnosticism to both be religious perspectives simply because they concern religion or religious issues. So one can be an atheist and still be a religious extremist. In my last post I wrote:

“On the one hand, there are those who openly, inwardly, or both, mock or simply dismiss the very ideas of God, religion, and man’s need and yearning for the two. What I call the radical atheists, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are typified but such dismissiveness,  though it is not just the radical atheists who mock and deride God and religion. On the other hand, there are those devotees of religion who are overly and non-critically zealous and accepting of religious dogma, while at the same time seemingly ignorant of the inherent fallibility of all humans.”

I take it that both poles, both sides, are dangerous for the same kinds of reasons. Nothing I say here is meant to apply without exception, but here they are:

1) Both sides are closed to the possibility that the other might have something important to contribute to the discussion of what it is to live well (which,  I believe, requires contemplation of, and engagement with, God and/or spiritual issues). That is, the mocking atheist identifies the religious life with the extreme forms of religion, e.g., versions of Christianity and Islam, that one finds in the news and thereby dismisses the possibility that there are more sophisticated forms of not only Christianity, Islam, and other religions, but also non-denominational theisms. The religious fundamentalist, on the other hand, is often unwilling and unable to consider the possibility that some of the tenants and dogma of his/her religion may be flawed such that they should be reexamined, possibly altered or discarded.

2) The above is due, in part, to a failure of those involved to fully acknowledge and embrace their own fallibility as humans. Each side is convinced that they have accurately apprehended the true nature of the other side and the Truth in general about religion. And each side reinforces the other: the vitriolic and, at times, unreasonable proclamations from each side cause the other to hunker down more deeply into dogma and closed-mindedness.

3) The first two points are further problematic because they remove the possibility of affirming a reflectively religious life that minimizes dogma as far as possible. I take such a life to involve an appreciation of the value of a religious/spiritual life, while acknowledging all of the difficulties of comprehending what such a life should be, and whether there even is a God or what the role of God is in a religious/spiritual life.

The mocking atheist denies the value of a religious or spiritual life, whether of the reflective kind that I am advocating or the unreflective, dogmatic kind I have mentioned. The dogmatic believer denies that the dogma that rules his/her life may be flawed and refuses to take seriously the possibility that God does not exist or does not exist in the way he/she imagines. And again, I take it that many on both sides are operating with overly simplistic ideas about God and religion.

Thus, the two religious extremes I have canvassed are dangerous because they lesson the likelihood of finding the truth, and they foster an environment hostile to the kind of reflective theology that I see as being vital to living a fully good life.  Note that a “reflective theology” need not come with a god, but requires simply an openness to, and appreciation for, the possibility and value of a spiritual/religious life in a reflectively sophisticated form.

Escaping from Between two Extremist Poles

I believe it is important to promote what I take to be a healthful middle ground between two dangerous religious poles that exist. On the one hand, there are those who openly, inwardly, or both, mock or simply dismiss the very ideas of God, religion, and man’s need and yearning for the two. What I call the radical atheists, e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, are typified but such dismissiveness,  though it is not just the radical atheists who mock and deride God and religion. On the other hand, there are those devotees of religion who are overly and non-critically zealous and accepting of religious dogma, while at the same time seemingly ignorant of the inherent fallibility of all humans.

There are, of course, exceptions; not everyone fits neatly in either pole or between. But it is my impression that the majority of people discussing religion in the public sphere, e.g., radio, TV, newspapers and magazines (those sources with the widest audience), tend to fall into one of these two groups.

Again, my concern is to promote the middle ground between these two poles. I take that middle ground to consist not necessarily of belief in God (though it by no means excludes it) but in taking religion and man’s religious yearnings seriously, while at the same time seeking to approach the issues as rationally and charitably as possible.

And with those who might claim that religion and belief in God do not fall under the purview of rationality, I would disagree for two reasons. First, insofar as there may be respects in which God and religion concern things beyond human understanding or things that are ineffable, that does not mean that reason is excluded, since we should use reason to help figure out what exactly is beyond our understanding or ineffable. Second, while there may well be limits to our understanding and to our ability to conceptualize God, that does not imply that religion and spirituality are exempt from rational and critical analysis. Again, as far as possible, reason should be used to help distinguish nonsense from things beyond our understanding.

I’ll address in the next post why I think the lack of such a middle ground in public discussions of God and religion is dangerous.