Noble Objectives and Deficient Methods

In my legal philosophy course this week, the professor asked us what we thought of religion in general. Although I’ve discussed my views on other religious questions in earlier classes, I didn’t respond to this particular query. I did, however, formulate an answer that expresses my simultaneous interest in and rejection of religion, whose precise terms I had never previously used: I think the objectives of believers are mostly noble, but the methods they use are deficient with respect to some of their objectives and additionally cause unintended harm to themselves and to others.

Although the list of reasons people believe in and practice religion is potentially endless, I believe I’ve identified a fair number of noble or at least unobjectionable things people seek in religion:

  • knowledge of…
    • where we’ve come from
    • where we’re going
    • why we’re here
    • how we should act
    • nature of reality
  • hope for…
    • existence beyond death
    • ultimate justice
  • identity
  • community
  • quiet contemplation
  • emotional experiences
  • escape from the mundane
Of course, there are also a number of less noble things people seek in religion such as power, respect, money or sex, but this is true of business, politics, sports, acting and music, as well as many other areas of human activity. The only point is that one can have neutral or even good reasons for considering religion.

Just as people’s objectives in religion vary, so do their methods. But here are some very common unreliable methods people use to achieve their objectives:
  • blind faith
  • unquestioned trust in authority (text, person, tradition, etc.)
  • emotion and intuition
  • dogmatism
These methods are sometimes effective in achieving the last five items on the list but not knowledge or (justified) hope. That is, stirring one’s emotions with song is certainly a useful way to escape the mundane, but it’s not a legitimate tool for establishing the truth of supernatural claims. In the same way, dogmatism can help build orthodoxy and thus a sense of community, but it doesn’t help anyone understand our origins if it limits acceptance of scientific inquiry. Believers may object to my classification of these methods as unreliable on the ground that their faith, trust or emotion corresponds to the voice of a deity, but my point here is not to explain in detail why I think they’re mistaken but merely to state my general view of religion. Let’s just say I don’t think anyone has a justified claim to have access to the mind of any disembodied spirit. Some believers may also respond that they’re open to the voice of science and reason as a source of knowledge. This is true, but to the extent they receive such information, it’s not from their religious leaders or sacred texts; it’s from scientists and philosophers. I certainly don’t object to that. Others may say that they’re not interested in actual knowledge or that they’re satisfied with any hope at all in the face of great injustice and certain death. This may be true of them, but not of me; I prefer the best approximation of the truth available, not simply what is accessible or comforting. I just don’t think any of the listed methods are valid avenues to knowledge, and I’m not willing to sacrifice knowledge in order to achieve any of the other objectives on this list, as offered by many, if not most, religious groups.

My personal view of any given approach to spirituality strongly correlates negatively with its reliance on faith, authority and dogmatism rather than skepticism, reason and progressivism. I hold a very negative opinion of religious fundamentalism, tied to a rigid interpretation of a static text, and a much more positive opinion of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism, in which individuals are actively encouraged to question and to think for themselves. I’m still too much of individualist, however, to belong even to a UU congregation, so it seems I’m on my own seeking the bottom part of the list of objectives. At least I have science to help me with the first!


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