Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Progressive Religion: Indispensible for Social Progress

Over at AlterNet, Sara Robinson has written a compelling and eloquent essay on why the American progressive movement cannot hope to succeed in making real social progress without the help of the progressive religious community. I thought I'd share and comment here on a couple of highlights.

Robinson writes,
For most of human history...the task of imagining a different future and giving people the inspiration and courage to reach for it has been the primary role of religious prophets. (So has the job of warning the people that they're wandering into grave error or betraying their own values, and must change their ways or face disaster.) Religion is the native home of the prophetic voice -- the voice that calls people to transformative change. Throughout America's history, our most evocative political prophets -- both Roosevelts, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Van Jones, Barack Obama -- have invariably been people who spent a lot of time in the pews, learning to speak the kind of language that calls us to a better place.
This is one of the things that, in my judgment, the new atheists have most consistently neglected in their analysis of religion. Following the lead of sociologists of religion (such as Durkheim) who see religion primarily as a tool for social control and regulation, they have lost sight of the fact that some of the most important figures in the history of religion have been counter-cultural "prophets," that is, individuals who channeled a moral vision challenging the establishment and its beneficiaries.

What Jesus preached wasn't status quo religion. It wasn't an opiate of the masses. It wasn't primarily about getting people to conform to the standards of the community. It was, rather, about standing with those who were marginalized and against the privileged elites of the day; it was about speaking out for those who were oppressed by the dominant social system.

There can be no doubt that religion has served and continues to serve as a tool of social regulation. In a sense, Robinson makes this point herself when she discusses the power religion has to organize diverse people into a cohesive community willing to work together and make personal sacrifices for shared goals. But if we reduce religion to this dimension--if we lose sight of the prophetic tradition that shakes up society and challenges the status quo--we fail to fully understand religion even in its social dimension.

Another point that Robinson makes is that "over the course of American history, liberal religious faiths have been the primary promoter of progressive values throughout the culture -- and also the leading institution when it came time to inculcate our progressive sensibilities into the next generation. Many, if not most, progressives in America are progressive specifically because they believe that this is what their faith demands of them."

Again, the most vociferous anti-religious voices today seem to lose sight of the role that religious communities have played in cultivating the very values that the anti-religious themselves tend to espouse, the humanistic concern for all people, the separation of church and state, the commitment to gaining an unbiased understanding of how the world operates. It may well be true that conservative religious communities have been one of the biggest sources of resistance to these progressive values. But this is consistent with it being the case that liberal religion has been one of the primary inculcators of these values.

Indeed, were I not a Christian I would not be as adamant and committed in my support for gay rights as I am. In fighting for my gay and lesbian neighbors, I am motivated and energized by the love ethic that Jesus proclaimed so forcefully. If there is a reason I stand for same-sex marriage, it is because I take myself to be called by God, by the very font of creation, to love my neighbors as myself. And I cannot see how to do that if I am consistently marginalizing my gay and lesbian neighbors by denying them the right to participate in the bedrock social institution of our culture.

Robinson also highlights a point that I have been making for awhile: Free market capitalism, paired with the powerful and psychological nuanced tools available to advertisers and marketers, has been a driving force in magnifying consumption rates. In the absence of a counterbalancing force, capitalism would push us ever deeper into a materialist culture in which people look for happiness in the possession of things.  After all, people by more stuff when they think stuff is the source of happiness. And businesses thrive when people buy more stuff.

Where can we find a social force strong enough to help resist this inevitable tide of consumerism--a tide which is not only pushing us to the brink of environmental collapse but is systematically misdirecting humanity, leading them to keep looking for joy and meaning in more shoes or bigger TVs? How many of us pine for those college days when we didn't have a penny to our names...and then comfort ourselves by going shopping? Advertising has enormous power to speak to our hunter-gatherer brains, to convince us subconsciously (even while we consciously know better) that love is found in a bottle of Axe Body Spray and contentment is found in a Calgon bath.

In the face of this reality, Robinson reminds us that "progressive religion has always been America's most credible and aggressive front-line defender of non-market-based values against the onslaught of capitalism and greed." As she puts it,

...our liberal faith communities -- mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics, Jews and Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and the rising wave of reformist Muslims -- are the strongest remaining cultural forces left with the moral authority to insist that we have a duty to the poor, that democracy cannot survive without a commitment to justice, and that compassion is always a better survival strategy than competition.
I would add that progressive religious communities are the place that continues to remind us of something Aristotle stressed: Happiness is not found in stringing together as much pleasure as possible, regardless of what we take pleasure in. Rather, an essential part of happiness is finding pleasure in the right things. Because this is true, it matters how marketers and advertisers are using their power to shape our desires, to influence what we find pleasure in. It matters a lot. The more we can find pleasure in things that don't put us in competition with others for a shrinking pot of limited material resources, the better off all of us will be.

And religion teaches not only that we should care for the material needs of the poor, but that the best life isn't one of endless material consumption. Once our basic needs are met, what most enriches our lives isn't a bigger clothes closet or more gadgets, but more belly laughs, more hours in the company of loved ones, more time engaged in collaborative community projects, more spiritual seeking, more prayer and meditation, more compassion, more hope, more time spent feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. 

I think this message is true. And I think if we want this message to catch hold in the face of powerful market forces inculcating a contrary message with every resource at their disposal, we need progressive religious communities. We need them desperately. 


  1. Eric-

    Atheists are not by nature politicians. We attack people's illusions which they hold most dear. Does that sound like a path to community or power? It does not to me. While many atheists are liberal, many are libertarian or conservative in other directions. The categories are orthogonal to some degree.

    Obviously, we tend to justify our attack on illusion and untruth with various utilitarian rationales, like the tendency of religion of any stripe to, in philosophical and cultural terms, support the validity of all religions, including the most extreme forms, which require the greatest "deepest!" faith, etc. Whether we are carrying water for Democrats or liberal causes is not always the top issue. Not all of culture has to revolve around the red-blue divide.

    But basically, we are appalled by all this lying and delusion, and want to put a stop to it. Whether humanity can actually live by truth and dispense with existential illusions.. well, that is a deep question, isn't it. Sociologically, the correlation seems to be that the more secular a society is, the more liberal and prosperous it is. But the causation may go backwards too.

    At any rate, we feel pretty sure that making the world more (voluntarily!) secular is not such a bad thing, whether at the expense of liberal or conservative religion. I am sorry that you feel so put out about it. As a community, we certainly take sharper aim at fundamentalist than at liberal religion. (Though fundmantalists for their part seem perhaps not to care as much.)


    On your pleasure principle, I could comment that what the "right thing" is is again a matter of pleasure, of the long-term variety. I think it would be naturally pleasurable to build a sustainable society even as that involves some short-term sacrifices. That is the nature of right things, vs wrong things which we enjoy in a rush and rue at leisure. That is what makes philosophy (and other scholarly pursuits) so pleasurable, since it helps expand our horizons to transcend (oh- there's that word!) the ravening appetites of today towards the larger interests and meanings we see in our lives, and those of others and posterity in general.

    If that has to be wrapped up in mythical stories and archetypal ritual, well, that is humanity. But to drag philosophy into such nonsense ... that is disappointing.

  2. You cannot follow the second commandment without following the first. You cannot understand love one another if you do not understand what Godly love is.

    There is no love in encouraging or affirming sinful behavior.

    1. Right--and since categorically condemning homosexuality is unloving, and hence sinful (while there is nothing sinful about two gay men or lesbians developing the virtues of loving intimacy in a lifelong same-sex partnership), it follows from what you say that there is no love in encouraging or affirming the practice of categorically condemning our gay and lesbian neighbors for expressing love in faithful, covenantal relathionships.

      I assume that's what you meant, right?

  3. Hi Eric

    I'm not sure I understand the argument here. If it is simply to point out that within the US context, many progressive movements have had a strong religious component, then this seems to make too much of what is almost a statistical necessity. The US stands as an outlier in terms of religious belief, reporting levels of commitment much more common amongst low income economies. Given this, we should expect that all US movements, be they conservative, progressive or indeed apathetic, will be dominated by those with religious belief, simply by weight of numbers.

    If you are suggesting causation, that having religious belief can lead to more progressive views, it becomes very hard to account for the correlation Burk has pointed out, that in general we find more progressive views in those societies with lower levels of religious adherence (I think this works state by state in the US to).

    In a country like New Zelaand, movements in support of environmental concern, indigenous rights, poverty elimination, gay rights etc, have not in general been led by religious figures, quite the reverse. Again, I suspect this is more reflective of general demographics than a mechanism of non-belief leading to progressive beliefs.

    While I must take you at your word that your commitment to gay rights stems from your religious beliefs, very many of us share your pinko liberal sensibilities despite having no religious belief. So it is certainly possible. Whether it is more likely in one population seems to me to be difficult to firmly establish, but the US example perhaps stands as perhaps the best counter-example to your hypothesis.


    1. Bernard,

      I certainly agree that secular worldviews have been a source of progressive values. The main point here is that progressive movements should seek healthy collaboration between secularists and religious progressives--that a convergence of values should not be ignored, or the potential for collaboration compromised, because of differences in the foundations that generate it.

      The second main point is that some (thankfully not all) secularists/atheists have tended to paint all religion with a single brush and thus have failed to really appreciate the reality of substantial congruity of values and commitments with many people who self-identify as religious. Some very prominent and influential atheist writers have distorted perceptions about religion, generating a kind of polarizing effect.

      The third point is more implicit--and should probably be developed more explicitly. It is this: There is a difference in KIND between what I call "progressive religion" and what is often called "fundamentalist religion." The latter, by virtue of its distinctive features (which I discussed in a University of Tulsa lecture that was videotaped and can be found online) lends itself to progressive values and by its nature is opposed to and critical of (rather than implicitly underwriting and legitimizing) fundamentalism. As such, while the generic claim that having religious belief can lead to more progressive views is false, I think the more specific claim that a certain KIND of religion nurtures progressive values is true.

      And I think it likely that progressive values are more likely to gain strength in a society if the kind of religion that nurtures it is treated as a "friend" of non-religious progressive movements, as opposed to being treated as an enemy by being falsely identified with those species of religion that generate opposition to progressive concerns.

      Does this make sense?

  4. Burk: Grant your premise--that all religion, or at least all theistic religion (even in its more progressive forms) is "illusion and untruth"--and the rest follows. What is problematic for me, what has been problematic for me from the start of our ongoing online interactions, is the utter certainty with which you cleave to this premise, and the ease with which you set aside arguments that call into question that premise (far before, as I see it, you've taken the time to fully understand them and their import).

    More often than not, your responses to arguments challenging your naturalistic/empiricist philosophy strike me as ultimately question-begging. Perhaps I'm wrong about this and I'm missing something--but it's hard for me to tell because of the manner of your presentation.

    Far too often--and this is a matter of personal confession here--when I read your comments I'm forced to puzzle my way backwards from your attacks in an attempt to tease out what you are attacking and how it relates to what I actually said...and I get frustrated, decide I have better ways to spend my time, and so ignore you instead.

    I believe that, on occasion at least, I have explicitly invited you to reflect back your understanding of the arguments offered on this blog. If not, doing so--attempting to put yourself honestly into the perspective of the person presenting the opposing view and reflecting it back without judgmental commentaries and interpretive filters--would really facilitate thoughtful dialogue. I'm still not convinced you appreciate the problem of the criterion and its relation to evidentialism, the difference between facts about the world of experience and holistic interpretations of the world of experience (and the difference between religion that trades primarily in the former and religion that is about the latter), the nature of Hegelian progressivism in the evolution of speculative worldviews and the philosophical rationale for it, the significance of the noumenal/phenomenal distinction as it relates to religious belief, etc., etc.

    These are serious philosophical matters. They have bearing on religious life and hopeful religious visions of the world, on the question of the reasonableness of taking mystical experiences as veridical, on the pragmatic value of decisions to "believe beyond the evidence," on the comparative robustness of naturalistic and supernaturalistic worldviews, etc. To dismiss these philosophical endeavors as "drag(ging) philosophy into such nonsense" strikes me as rooted either in a failure to grasp the philosophical problems that are at stake (a failure to see that there IS a problem, perhaps) or in a failure to understand what philosophers do.

    It is one thing to disagree with a view or think an argument fails. It is something else to dismiss those with a different perspective or an opposing argument as purveyors of nonsense. The latter carries with it a heavier philosophical burden--and the first step to meeting that burden is to make sure you have fully *understood* the position and the reasoning behind it. And you demonstrate and refine such understanding by articulating it and asking those who hold the position whether you've gotten it right. You may not have the desire or the time to meet that burden, but if so, making premature public pronouncements of absurdity are, it seems to me, inappropriate.

  5. Hi Eric

    Yes, this does make sense, and I absolutely agree that the key thing required for progress is a rejection of the tribal instinct that seeks to paint alternative world views as necessarily harmful. Were you and I to ever sit down and sketch our views across a range of social issues, I suspect we would agree on almost all of them. And this makes us brothers in arms, so to speak. The way we choose to name the foundations of our beliefs, and the extent to which our metaphors are religious or not, strikes me as more interesting than important.

    One thing that progressive religion can do, and progressive atheism can't, is speak to the conservative religious lobby in its own language. For a young person, suspicious of the social prejudices endorsed by their church, but reluctant to give up all the positive things their faith brings, the progressive religious lobby can perhaps provide a helpful pathway towards what I would regard as a more humane value set.

    Finally the atheist argument that endorsing one form of religion necessarily validates all forms of religion, feels too much like an argument that says endorsing one form of government gives validity to all forms of government, no matter how corrupt. The key question is what does the endorsement hinge upon. (Not that I'm yet convinced by your model of warranted and hopeful belief, but understanding it better is part of the fascination).


  6. Hi Eric,

    You say there is a difference in kind between progressive and fundamentalist religions. I am not sure where the division lies but, clearly, your views contrast radically with what, I would say, is usually called religion around the world. And perhaps there arises a problem when responding to critics or religion.

    I mean, fundamentalists fighting against gay marriage because they deeply believe it's evil or, even, muslims going on a westerner killing spree after somebody has drawn a cartoon of their prophet have as much right to call their brand of religion the true one than you have. Religion is what religious people are doing and there is such a variety of it than the term risks becoming dangerously ambiguous.

    My impression (and I don't claim to know) is that atheists like Dawkins don't care very much about your brand of religion. If this were the only kind around, they would never have written anything about religion. I think they either ignore your brand, it being off the radar so to speak, or they find it unintelligible, obscure to the point of being meaningless (remember how scientists value clarity) – but certainly not a threat. Most of what they criticize I believe you would also criticize. For all I know, Dawkins could join you and Bernard (see his comment above) and you three would agree on a lot of social issues.

    So, if I am allowed to speculate a bit more, I don't think your brand of religion was ever a significant target of the “new” atheists. But, while you say (and I agree) that there is a difference in kind between your views and “ordinary” religion, you nevertheless insist in calling your views the “true” religion. So, you see, bundling together all religion in the same package is a shared responsibility.

  7. Hi Eric

    A further thought I've had, while considering this. Might it be fair to say that one distinction between the religious and non-religious world view is the role of intuition? While I appreciate, and only partially understand, your system of pragmatism, Hegelian convergence, hopeful belief and Kantian distinctions, the package in the end hinges, as you often say, on a deeply held intuition. A certain hopeful view of the world feels not only useful to you, but also deeply true. And given this feeling, acting as if it wasn't true would amount to a kind of dishonesty. Do I have this right?

    In this discussion, (if I have them right), then Burk, JP and I might be lumped together in a camp that are much more wary of such intuitions. For my part, a belief becomes unwarranted when defeated by contradictory evidence, or by the existence of equally powerful competing intuitions. I base this, in part, on my inability to justify why my intuition should be any better than anybody else's, but also on the caution any evidential study of intuitive processes encourages. We are clearly hopeless (or should that be hopeful?) fabricators.

    If this distinction is valid, then I can see how one might argue progressive religious belief lends credibility to more fundamentalist versions, insomuchas the fundamentalist version also leans very heavily upon intuitions. The trick then becomes in explaining why trusting intuitions in one case (the progressive) is valid, while in the other it is not. One thing I don't yet understand about your philosophy is how you do this, and I wonder if this isn't what Burk is getting at?


    1. Part of the answer for me (and this shouldn't be a surprise) is fallibilism. A characteristic of fundamentalist religion is a lack of fallibilism, that is, a dogmatic conviction in the truth of one's own way of seeing things. Part of what is characteristic of progressive religion in my experience is a fallibilism that inspires a willingness to revise one's own position and to take seriously and respect alternative ways of seeing things.

      There's more, but that's what I have time for at the moment.

  8. Hi Bernard,

    Yes, you're right. I am very skeptical about the value of our unaided intuition when going after the unknown. We need, I think, external data of some sort. For example, could we have figured out quantum mechanics from intuition alone? I don't think so. On the other hand, religious intuitions seem, as a rule, to produce the expected results; there's never any real surprise.

    On the question you raise, of the difference between religious and non-religious world views, there may be another way (perhaps complementary) to look at it.

    Those on the religious side (more or less) seem to look for an all-encompassing view of reality, a view that leaves nothing unaccounted for. To use a mathematical term, the introduction of God builds a closure for all reality, God constituting its boundary, so to speak.

    On the other hand, there are those who leave reality wide open: there is just so much we know and the farther away we look the more mysterious it becomes, with perhaps no prospect of ever figuring it all.

    There you are: closed versus open reality. Mathematically speaking, think of the compact unit disk (including the boundary circle) in the plane versus the open disk (without the boundary circle). With the open disk, there is no way to ever reach the “end” - simply because there is no end.

    I don't claim this has any real value, this is no more than an image I've been playing with lately. But perhaps this illustrates something real about the difference we're talking about. What do you think?

  9. Eric-

    Thanks for your critique. It is through critique that we grow. I am, incidentally, 100% behind your liberal political and ethical projects.. just say if you would like me to deposit positive comments there. I will try to be more structured here. Being less peremptory.. that is hard, but I will try there too.

    Also, feel free to ignore me and not engage.. I am writing as much to get this off my chest as anything else, and appreciate the opportunity very much!

    Obviously, I can't hold a candle to your abilities to tease apart Hegel and related issues. At the same time, I regard most of them (noumena, Hegelian progressivism, holism) as stalking horses for a presumptively theistic position. I have draft responses to each, but let me just defend the charge on nonsense, which clearly rankles the most.

    Firstly, there is a discrepancy between your philosophical and personal position. Philosophically, you defend as reasonable a "hope" for an ethical supernaturalism / theism of some vague kind. If you really believed this, you would be a deist, in the tradition of Jefferson or perhaps Spinoza, rather than a Christian. Yet you also go on to defend heaven, scriptural logic in your fight against hell, a god with personality and motivations, and other Christian tenets. So there is a double life going on which you seem to defend as purely experimental, pragmatic, as a living-out of a loosely held hypothesis, in case it leads to some better sequelae than some alternate life you might have alternately lived. I think you can appreciate that this seems a weak argument. If your philosophy truly guided your life, deism would be a far as you could go, tradition, mysticism, intuition, etc. aside. Evidently, intuition is a stronger guide than philosophy.

    Secondly, it is clear that this intuition plays out along rather traditional, if liberal, lines. If a few battles had gone the other way in the middle ages, you might be Catholic, or Muslim. Or if a few missionaries had made it from India, perhaps Buddhist. The historical contingency of the religious systems / dogmas one practices is one argument for their substantial nonsense. Which is not to say that they don't share a deeper commonality, but that commonality could as easily be psychological as supernatural. Both hypotheses are live, and the track record of supernaturalism as an explanation of anything we know about is stunningly poor, making it to my mind the distinctly less live alternative.

    Thirdly is the topic of intution directly, as Bernard touched on as well. You wheel out intuition to defend the most central religious doctrines, like a deus ex machina. But then pack it away again and don't promote it as being useful in dealing with other issues and questions we face more frequently. Science is OK for all those mundane things which are not meaningful. I regard this as highly suspicious. To be such a central support of the most important doctrines, held frankly in some opposition to even your own philosophy, one would think it should be a better validated source of knowledge. Basically, in view of the vast range of intutions exhibited historically and its weakness in anything other than social & artistic issues, one smells an epistemological rat.

    So for all the Hegelian dialectics and progress, the intution that we can transcend to the absolute, or perceive the noumena like god does, or that holism rather than analysis is the way towards knowledge.. all this seems seriously compromised by a reliance on the shakiest of epistemological foundations. While our senses and phenomena are subject to a critical stance - i.e. empiricism- where is the critical stance vis-a-vis intuition? You know that whole cultures have lived rather happily in various delusions and continue to do so. Animism, paganism, and other perfectly intutive dogmas have a very long track record. So one's happiness and self-perceived morality seems a poor metric of philosophical truth. I may have missed other forms of a critical stance vs intution, however.

  10. Bernard,

    I would disagree that fundamentalists lean heavily upon intuitions. They normally, in fact, distrust intuitions. In fundamentalism one’s personal/subjective feelings are not to be trusted. One should only go by what the Bible literally teaches and by what the main teachers teach and one’s intuitions are to come in second. The only exception might be fundamentalism within the Pentecostal stream, where much is made of the internal “witness” of the “Spirit.” But even here there is a strong tendency to distrust one’s personal emotions “feelings” or intuitions and to go strictly by what the Bible literally teaches.

    Fundamentalism is very evidence and empirically oriented, which is why creationists believe the “evidence” supports their literal reading of the Bible. One of the most popular books in the 70s and 80s used for apologetics by both fundamentalists and evangelicals was a book entitled “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” And all this goes strongly against relying upon intuitions or feelings.

    Fundamentalists read Biblical texts as literally as the “new” atheists read the world literally. There is nothing layered or deeper—everything “is what it is”. It is a surface reading of everything and is why all fundamentalism, whether of the religious or secular type, end up being just different sides of the same coin. And if feelings or emotions seem to point toward something deeper, they are normally not trusted because they seem to call into question the literal surface reading of either a text or the physical world.

    This is one reason progressive religious beliefs are held in such suspicion by fundamentalists.

    My only other thought here is that I read more into the word “intuition” when Eric uses it than I think is being understood here. I don’t think Eric is ultimately saying that because he “feels” good about something or has a warm fuzzing feeling that such makes something true for everyone. I hear him meaning something more but perhaps I’m wrong and will let him speak to that.

  11. JP,

    I would counter your “open” “closed” analogy with these thoughts. People who are open to the transcendent and open to more than a surface reading of everything seem to me to be the ones who are much more likely to doubt their ability to know everything, because they sense there is always more to everything than they can see, touch, taste, hear or reason their way to. On the contrary, if one believes the material is all there is or can be—then logically one is barred from even going down certain roads or being “open” to other possibilities. A world that is only material is a “closed” universe. In fact many atheists refer to our universe with the word "closed." However an infinite God or transcendence means the universe is open to being more than what appears on the surface and is therefore mysterious and holding infinite possibilities.

  12. Hi Eric

    You are right, fallibilism sits at the heart of our difference. The claim I'm interested in is this: does the intuitionalist approach to truth, no matter how progressive, provide an intellectual framework by which sets of beliefs we would both dismiss as slightly wacko can gain credibility?

    You offer fallibilism as a potential point of difference, and for me it doesn't do the job. I'd explain it this way. Take the person who, with no evidence other than their deep personal conviction, believes they have been abducted by aliens. Now let's say theirs is a fallibilistic belief. Okay, they say, I accept I could be wrong, but in the absence of defeaters, I'm going with my gut feeling. Or the fallibilist whose intuition tells them they must sacrifice their first born to please their lord, or the fallibilist who believes their dead grandmother has instructed them to give all their family's possessions to the local cat shelter....

    Fallibilism strikes me as a form of false humility. I could be wrong, it says, but hides from the view the implicit end of that sentence, but I don't think I am. The point, for me, is that the fallibilist, faced with nothing but their own intuition, prefers one belief over another, concluding in essence that it is more likely to be true. My counter claim is that intuition is a lousy guide of probability, evidenced by the obvious fact that different people's intuitions lead them in opposite directions.

    In this sense, I think Burk is on to something here. It may well be that for all their differences, progressive and conservative religion share an intellectual framework that distinguishes them from materialist agnosticism, for instance.

    If you ever get time to return to this point, it's one that fascinates me, and I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts.



  13. Hi Darrell

    It may be we are just using terms slightly differently here. By an intuitionalist approach, I am referring to the decision to form a solid belief in the absence of a shared set of evidence. You are quite right, fundamentalists will often point to scripture as evidence, but it doesn't serve as shared evidence. In other words, without a prior commitment to a particular holy book, a particular sage or a particular way of interpreting, there is no guaranteed path from evidence to conclusion. This is what I am referring to as intuitionalism.

    It stands in contrast to those who say, I will form my beliefs about those things where the standard of evidence/measurement is shared, e.g some physical models of the world, and for the rest I will tell the stories I need to make my life rich and satisfying, and acknowledge them as such. I'm not sure if this will seem like a valid distinction to you, and as always I'm interested to hear what you think.


  14. Hi JP

    Absolutely, the distinction between open and closed systems does strike me as important. There appears to be a significant difference of taste between those who enjoy mystery, and those who prefer an explanation, even when there is no evidence to which it can be tethered. I'm not sure this is a religious versus non-religious distinction, a number of atheists, it seems to me, are also vitally interested in closing down mystery.


  15. Hi Darrell,

    You should not read too much in my analogy – and I don't mean it derogatorily. The image I tried to convey is that the introduction of God creates a sort of outer boundary to reality, enclosing it within its domain. I use “closure” in the sense that it leaves nothing outside of it, which I think is part of the idea of God. Another aspect of this is that it somehow “tames” reality, makes it more human-like and, perhaps, more intelligible.

    But, again, don't read too much in this. And, to be sure, I use close and open in a more or less mathematical sense. I don't mean any reference to “close-minded”, or such. Sorry if I was not clear.

    I'd like to comment on what you write about the idea that non-theists see the material as “all there is or can be”. Can't speak for others, of course, but this is not how I look at this at all.

    I don't know what reality is or isn't (it's not even clear what matter is). There are a few things we know quite well, others are more speculative, others about which we have no clue at all. Perhaps we could paraphrase Newton and, speaking for mankind, say we find ourselves on a beach and now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before [us]. Note that this leaves room for all the transcendent and non-material you may care about; it just says we don't know anything about it (and may never know).

    I certainly don't claim we are any close to understanding it all but, at the same time, I have no temptation to “close” reality as I described above, in what I can't help seeing as an effort to reduce it to human proportions. I am perfectly satisfied to lave it “wide open”, to accept we very possibly may never figure it out.

  16. Bernard,

    Well, to be precise—fundamentalists don’t point to scripture as evidence per se. They say that the shared evidence of whatever field one may be speaking of (geology, astronomy, psychology), proves or lines up with what the Bible already knew or taught. Where it appears the “evidence” is contrary to the Bible, they try and show where the evidence has been misunderstood or they concoct conspiracy theories as to how the “real” evidence is pushed aside or suppressed.

    The more important point was as to your speculation: “If this distinction is valid, then I can see how one might argue progressive religious belief lends credibility to more fundamentalist versions, insomuch as the fundamentalist version also leans very heavily upon intuitions....” I think we must see this as very doubtful because fundamentalism does not at all lean heavily upon intuition for the reasons I pointed out.

    Perhaps the most important point being missed here is the irony that fundamentalists insist that their beliefs and the way they interpret the Bible is based on and lines up with the “evidence.” Their methodology is very modern and they want to play by the same rules as the new atheism. Fundamentalism, of the religious or secular variety, is a modern phenomenon. Thus why the move from the modern to the postmodern has been the greatest challenge to fundamentalism, especially of the secular type.

    I would say that intuition (or faith) is not the belief in something contrary to shared evidence. It is also not the belief in something in spite of the evidence. Faith or intuition is our deepest held summations of how we interpret the shared evidence and what we think it means in a holistic way and in such a way that we correspond our life (or want to) to line up with that summation.

    And I think this is something we all do, whether we think ourselves religious or not. We all live by faith. But perhaps Eric means something else and, again, I will let him speak for himself.

  17. Hi Darrell

    It may be the use of the term fundamentalist has led us down a blind alley, here. I have very little to do with, or knowledge of, US fundamentalist religion, and my target is a broader philosophical one. In essence, is it possible to create an intellectual framework for intuitive belief that doesn't, in the name of consistency, allow in any intuitive belief not directly contradicted by shared evidence? I'm not sure it is.

    I think your take on intuition is correct here, by the way. It is the way we extrapolate from the shared evidence, creating a narrative framework in which it is interpreted and made meaningful. It seems to me that once we acknowledge this is what we do, we have two choices. One is to withhold belief in our speculations. We might say, here's a guess, and while it will sometimes suit me to behave as if it holds, I wont assign it any truth value. This is, I think, in the spirit of JP's accepting that most stuff we simply don't know.

    The second choice is to trust one's intuition as a reliable guide to deeper realities and therefore not just weave narrative, but believe it. A problem I've always had with religious belief (for me) is that if I did this I would feel like a fraud, knowing full well that somebody whose intuition told them they'd been abducted by aliens, or that scientology really was the business, was relying upon the same intellectual mechanism. And yet I would wish to reserve the right to dismiss their claims as slightly bonkers. How does one escape this trap, is my question.