Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Pragmatic Assessment of Religious Belief

A couple of months ago, John Shook expressed his frustration with the tactics used by religious believers to immunize their beliefs from rational criticism. One of his concerns had to do with the pragmatic assessment of religion, especially Christianity. The idea behind pragmatic assessment is, roughly, that one way to evaluate a belief system is to look at how it affects behavior. If these effects are positive, then that speaks in favor of the belief system. If the effects are negative, then that speaks against it.

Now there are a range of difficulties here that I could get into, having to do with how we arrive at the value system that we then make use of for the sake of doing pragmatic assessments of beliefs. But I will set that issue aside for now (perhaps taking it up in a future post), and assume that we at least have a general consensus on basic values that we can appeal to when assessing the pragmatic effects of beliefs and belief systems.

Shook clearly thinks that there is considerable bad behavior that can be directly linked to Christianity—such things, I suppose, as crusades and witch burnings and Inquisitions; although I would also add the heterosexist marginalization of gays and lesbians and the patriarchal subordination of women. Shook’s first complaint is that, when confronted with this sordid history, Christians will say that “it’s the bad Christians doing the bad things (or they really weren’t Christians at all).”

His second complaint focuses on the use of the Christian doctrine of original sin. “Very convenient,” Shook complains, “how Christianity ensures that we are already such bad sinners that no bad behavior at all need ever be attributed to a Christian belief.”

Now I think there is some merit to both of Shook’s complaints. And any reader of my book will know that I take pragmatic assessment of belief very seriously. In fact, it is one of the main aims of my book to distinguish between ways of being religious that are pragmatically pernicious, and ways of being religious that are pragmatically benign. In a recent post on this blog, I attacked the doctrine of hell on essentially pragmatic grounds, arguing that the doctrine tends to promote and perpetuate ideological in-group/out-group dichotomies.

Although I think Shook is right that some Christians throw up smoke screens to block pragmatic assessments of their beliefs, I think we need to make some distinctions so as not to cast blame where it isn’t deserved.

First, there’s a difference between, on the one hand, resisting pragmatic criticism of your faith by blaming all the bad things done in its name on “bad” Christians or pretenders to the faith, and, on the other hand, pointing out that there are different versions of Christianity, and that not every version has the same pragmatic effects. The former is an attempt to avoid pragmatic assessment. The latter is an insistence that such pragmatic assessment be conducted with care so as to avoid false generalizations. Furthermore, with any complex belief system, it is never adequate to simply blame the belief system as a whole for specific negative pragmatic consequences. The diagnostic challenge is to identify more specifically where the problem lies. If we don’t take this diagnostic challenge seriously, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

In my book, I make extensive appeal to Plutarch’s distinction between what he calls religion and what he calls superstition. The former is about living in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness. The latter is about trying to appease a supernatural tyrant in the sky. I maintain that these two phenomena could not be more different, especially on a pragmatic level. And I argue, furthermore, that both the divine command theory of ethics and scriptural fundamentalism, when embraced by Christians, tend to move them away from religion (in Plutarch’s sense) and into the dangerous domain of superstition. Also, in my book, I distinguish religion from what I call religionism, which is a kind of bifurcating ideology that designates in-groups and out-groups according to religious allegiances. Religionism, like racism and ethnocentrism, is a dangerous belief system that foments violence and oppression. But religious worldviews, experiences, and ways of life needn’t be paired with religionism in this sense.

My point, of course, is that there can be very good reasons why a Christian might want to say that Christianity in some broad sense should not be blamed for the evils that have historically been done in Christianity’s name. It may be that a careful investigation will reveal that the source of the negative behaviors can be traced to specific doctrines or patterns of thinking that are not essential to Christianity, even if they have often been embraced by Christians at various times and in various places. What the pragmatic criticism therefore warrants is not a blanket criticism of Christianity, but rather the rejection of those versions of Christianity that embrace these troublesome elements.

To me, however, the more interesting of Shook’s complaints is the one that implicitly gestures to the doctrine of original sin. His thinking seems to be this: Christianity has built into its worldview a picture of human depravity that essentially immunizes it from pragmatic criticism. Since any evils done by Christians can be chalked up to the effects of original sin, the proverbial chickens can be neatly kept from ever coming home to roost. It will never be Christianity’s fault that these evils are done. The blame will lie with our sinful human nature, a nature that prevents even the most sincere Christians from behaving in the praiseworthy ways that Christianity should inspire—and would inspire in the absence of sin’s corrupting influence.

I think that Shook is absolutely right on track here, in terms of how the doctrine of original sin is too often invoked. And what is so pernicious, in my judgment, about this use of the doctrine, is that it is fundamentally at odds with where a careful theological understanding of the doctrine should take us.

For Christianity, sin is the Problem (with a capital “P”). It names what’s wrong with the world and with our lives. At heart, sin refers to the state of alienation from God and from one another. Specific behaviors referred to as “sins” are merely by-products of this condition of alienation, which cuts us off from the source of all good and all value. It’s this state of alienation that is our “original” human predicament—our starting point, if you will. And until we move past this starting point, until our alienation from the divine is overcome, we will continue to be in bondage to affective states that render us too cowardly to stand up for what is right, too superficial to attend to what really matters, too fixated on earthly security or immediate appetites to care for our neighbors in need.

Christianity professes to offer a pathway out of this original predicament. It tells us that we can find salvation from the ravages of sin. Here, “salvation” is taken to mean something far more profound than getting into heaven when we die. Salvation isn’t something that needs to wait until death, nor is it about enjoying some paradise realm of endless pleasures. It is, instead, about overcoming the state of alienation that traps us in our narrow egos, that cuts us off from one another and from the source of all value. It is, in other words, about becoming connected to the whole of reality through bonds of love. And while the “beloved community” may require a level or reciprocity we are unlikely to enjoy in this life, we come closer to salvation even in this life when our love extends around us in such a way that we become catalysts for the promulgation of loving community. When Christianity speaks of salvation from sin, this is what is most profoundly meant.

But if this is right, if in some way Christianity offers the cure for sin, then shouldn’t Christianity be uniquely susceptible to pragmatic assessment?

I think, in fact, that it should. But let me be careful about something up front. If we are to speak precisely, it would be a mistake to say that Christianity claims to be the cure for sin. Rather, it claims to teach us about the cure.

Of course, there are complications galore, some of the most theologically difficult pertaining to the relationship between justification and sanctification (two important elements in the Christian understanding of salvation). But I want to sidestep these complications to make a general point, which is this: There are different ways of developing and interpreting Christian teachings, including teachings about sin and grace. And these alternatives need to be assessed on their own terms.

Some, for example, think that salvation comes from accepting the truth of certain doctrines about Jesus, or from accepting the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m suspicious of all such views for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are pragmatic. If salvation comes from accepting the truth of particular religious teachings, then we should expect that those who strive diligently to believe the relevant teachings will lead lives that are discernibly better, in a moral sense, than are the lives of those who do not. But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, this isn’t what I observe. Instead, it seems to me that there are people from a diversity of religions who exhibit what I would call “saintliness,” and that across religions there are doctrinal devotees who are as far from saintliness as one could imagine. And this constitutes a pragmatic reason to be skeptical of the idea that doctrinal commitment as such offers any kind of real salvation from the power of sin.

My own understanding of Christian theology is a roughly Lutheran one: salvation comes, not from anything that I do or believe, but from what a benevolent God does on the basis of unconditional love. In Luther’s language, our salvation comes from divine grace (mediated through Christ's work on the cross--but addressing that issue is something I will need to explore in a later post). On this view, our salvation is not something that is in our power. What is in our power is whether we block the influence of divine grace or open ourselves up to it. And one of the chief ways that we block its influence is by insisting on earning salvation for ourselves—or, stated in more secular terms, by clinging to the idea that our happiness can and should be earned by our own efforts. The idea here is that we have a right to be happy only if we’re good enough, and the responsibility for being “good enough” must rest with us.

According to Lutheran theology, this “works righteousness” is a recipe for beating ourselves up for our inevitable failures and shortcomings—or worse, for hiding from and denying our failures and shortcomings, since we can’t face them honestly without believing that we deserve only misery. In other words, works righteousness is a pathway either to false self-righteousness or to self-loathing. But more profoundly, it stands in the way of the only real pathway to salvation from the effects of sin: opening ourselves to the transforming power of a transcendent benevolence.

So, how do we pragmatically assess this version of Christian theology, which I will call the theology of grace? The difficulty here is that, while some Christians interpret their faith in this way and internalize it, others in the very same congregations are mouthing platitudes from the pews without giving them any real thought, while still others are so deeply habituated into works righteousness that they twist and distort the theology of grace even as they espouse it, turning it into another species of works righteousness.

So how do we make sure, when we try to pragmatically assess the value of a theology of grace, that we adequately distinguish those who really embrace such a theology from those who embrace something that resembles it only in the most superficial way?

Put simply, how do we make sure that our pragmatic assessment is focused on those who really are striving to put their trust in a benevolent higher power that can work through us and in us to help us overcome bad habits and impulses we just can’t seem to resist by ourselves?

My suggestion is this: we should look, not at the church down the road, but at our local meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But for a detailed discussion of the religious significance of AA, I must hold off for a later post.

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