Questioning religious beliefs

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris repeatedly questions the societal taboo against critically evaluating religious beliefs. For instance, people are hesitant to raise evidence or arguments that contradict religious claims, as well as point out instances in which different claims made by the same religion contradict one another.

This is at least a bit different from evaluating religiously motivated actions, as was discussed here earlier. As in that case, however, I think Harris argues convincingly that it is wrong to put religious beliefs into a special category deserving special respect. Of course, this is a provocative claim, given that many religious beliefs simply cannot stand up in the face of evidence and critical examination, and people find it awkward when important parts of their religious belief structure are shown to be in a state of obvious contradiction with the kind of every-day mechanisms they use to evaluate new information. People tolerate the fact that claims are made in holy publications and from the pulpit which cannot be made with any credibility in a newspaper or political speech.

The idea that religious beliefs deserve special protection often comes from religion itself. Religions are often extremely hostile toward ‘heresy’, which is understandable from a kind of institutional evolutionary perspective. In many circumstances, faiths that maintain theological and ideological coherence are likely to attract more adherents and last longer than those that tolerate a broad variety of views. Faiths of the latter kind are probably more likely to fragment and fracture, and they are also probably less likely to attract extreme devotion, dedication, and efforts to convert the masses. It is no coincidence that the first commandment (though the notion that there are a clear set of ten is disputed) is that you should make sure not to honour the wrong god. It also doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the more dogmatic forms of Christianity (to choose one example) are winning more converts around the world than the more progressive forms.

Of course, humanity has a whole has an enormous interest in understanding the world well. It is demonstrably the case that our understanding of things like physics and biology allow us to live richer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. Particularly in cases where scientific claims based on evidence and reason contradict religious claims based on someone’s supposedly divine authority, I think it is bad for humanity when large numbers of people place the religious claim above the scientific one. There are plenty of contemporary examples. Access to contraception and sex education demonstrably improves the kinds of lives people live, and yet one major force preventing those things from being universally available is religious beliefs that oppose them (arguably, with a hidden patriarchal motivation).

Ultimately, people possess a right to understand their own bodies and control their own sexuality and reproduction that is more important than the religious preferences of others who would seek to restrict and control those rights within the general population, especially among women.

If we lived in a world that took the kind of evidence that Harris finds convincing more seriously – things like the psychological consideration of what effect various circumstances have on human flourishing – I think we would ultimately find it preferable to a world where we continue to rely upon the kind of ‘evidence’ that supports substandard education and medical care for women, or the prohibition of promising types of medical research, or the teaching of utterly refuted theories about the history of life on Earth. People often argue that we should give respect to religious beliefs in the name of ‘tolerance’. While that argument might be somewhat convincing when it comes to benign beliefs, like the existence or non-existence of the Easter Bunny, it seems indefensible in the case of beliefs that have large and harmful effects on the lives of a great many people. Those beliefs – whether religiously motivated or not – deserve to be challenged honestly, openly, and vigorously.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Questioning religious beliefs”

  1. Insofar as religious myths are misinterpreted as statements of fact, Harris is right. But that’s the interpretation of religion that only pays attention to idiots who happen to be religious – the people who wrote basically all of religious dogma didn’t even know what scientific fact was, let alone were they qualified to make statements about states of affairs which they appear to be describing.

    Harris does try to make the case that science can deal with moral claims as well – but he’s far from providing a convincing argument as to why Science is the best way to solve the interface problem that confronts us when we try to evaluate moral beliefs. In reality, moral beliefs counsel us as to what we should do in a world far too complex to model representationally. Science can certainly provide some useful information, as Harris is quick to point out, but he does not offer, nor do I think anyone could offer, an argument as to why Science can deal with moral problems without the help of sociology.

  2. “According to [Pascal] Boyer, religious concepts must arise from mental categories that predate religion – and these underlying structures determine the stereotypical form that religious beliefs and practices take. These categories of thought relate to things like living beings, social exchange, moral infractions, natural hazards, and ways of understanding human misfortune. On Boyer’s account, people do not accept incredible religious doctrines because they have relaxed their standards of rationality; they relax their standards of rationality because certain doctrines fit their ‘inference machinery’ in such a way as to seem credible. And most most religious propositions may lack in plausibility they more than make up for by being memorable, emotionally salient, and socially consequential. All of these properties are the product of the underlying structure of human cognition, and most of this architecture is not consciously accessible. Boyer argues, therefore, that explicit theologies and consciously help dogmas are not a reliable indicator of the real contents or causes of a person’s religious beliefs.”

    Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. p.150 (hardcover)

  3. Harris also describes the case of Francis Collins, a scientist who wrote in Nature about how science and Christianity are compatible. Harris says of Collins:

    “Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards? On the contrary, he would have been met by an inferno of criticism… What accounts for the double standard? Clearly, it remains taboo to criticize mainstream religion (which, in the West, means Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).”

    p.169 (hardcover)

  4. “Collins has written that ‘science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence’ and that ‘the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted’. One can only hope that these convictions do not affect his judgment at the [National Institutes of Health] NIH… Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?”

    p.173 hardcover

  5. Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950), is an American physician-geneticist, noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time”. He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Collins has written a book about his Christian faith. He founded and was president of the BioLogos Foundation before accepting the nomination to lead the NIH. On October 14, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Francis Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

  6. On not disputing the religious beliefs people hold, as Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum apparently recommend:

    “While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, the accommodation that [Chris] Mooney and [Sheril] Kirshenbaum recommend is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. They assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque of Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again. By comparison, the ‘combativeness’ of the ‘New Atheists’ seems quite collegial. We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion – just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbours as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality.”

    p.175 (hardcover)

  7. As religious beliefs don’t claim to be scientifically provable, I think that it ok. But when religion tries to interfere with science, then there must be a strong opposition. Science should dominate and if religion has any true final answers then it shouldn’t cntradict any scientific achievements.

  8. THE musical had been declared dead. Broadway’s producers have sunk millions into tarting up old classics or adapting Disney’s latest gob of sugary goo in search of the next hit. But even tourists have tired of shelling out good money for dumb glitz—unless it involves the perverse thrill of watching a harnessed superhero fall from the rafters.

    Now, like the ancient gold plates that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, unearthed in upstate New York, the musical’s saviour has come in an unexpected package. Debunking the myth that a popular show must be as inoffensive as oatmeal, along comes “The Book of Mormon”, which skewers any number of pieties, including religion, Western imperialism and Disney’s “The Lion King”, all with great music to dance to.

    The production is the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind the cartoon television show “South Park”, now in its 14th year. With music from Robert Lopez (a talent behind “Avenue Q”, one of Broadway’s longest running musicals), and confident direction and choreography from Casey Nicholaw, the show follows two young missionaries—the square-jawed Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and the round, goofy Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad)—as they woo converts in Uganda.

  9. Religious studies
    The good god guide
    Tentatively, scientists are asking: exactly what is religion, and what is it for?

    RELIGION is ubiquitous but it is not universal. That is a conundrum for people trying to explain it. Religious types, noting the ubiquity (though not everyone is religious, all human societies have religions), argue that this proves religion is a real reflection of the underlying nature of things. Sceptics wonder why, if that is the case, it comes in such a variety of flavours, from the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea—each of which seems to find the explanations offered by the others anathema.
    To bring a little scientific order to the matter, researchers taking part in a multinational project called Explaining Religion have spent three years gathering data on various aspects of religious practice and on the sorts of moral behaviour that religions often claim to govern. The data-collection phase was wrapped up at the end of 2010, and the results are starting to be published.
    At the moment, most students of the field would agree that they are still in the “stamp collecting” phase that begins many a new science—in which facts are accumulated without it being clear where any of them fit in. But some intriguing patterns are already beginning to emerge. In particular, the project’s researchers have studied the ideas of just deserts, of divine disapproval and of the nature of religious ritual.

  10. “If one fully accepts the metaphyiscal presuppositions of traditional Islam, martyrdom must be viewed as the ultimate attempt at career advancement. The martyr is also the greatest of altruists: for not only does he secure a place for himself in Paradise, he wins admittance for seventy of his closest relatives as well. Aspiring martyrs also believe that they are furthering God’s work here on earth,with desirable consequences for the living. We know quite a lot about how such people think — indeed, they advertise their views and intentions ceaselessly — and it has everything to do with their belief that God has told them, in the Qur’an and the hadith, precisely what the consequences of certain thoughts and actions will be. Of course, it seems profoundly unlikely that our universe has been designed to reward individual primates for killing one another while believing in the divine origin of a specific book.The fact that would-be martyrs are almost surely wrong about the consequences of their behavior is precisely what renders it such an astounding and immoral misuse of human life.”

    Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. p.63 (hardcover)

  11. Saudi blogger likely faces harsh punishment over Prophet Mohammed tweets

    A Saudi blogger whose tweets about the Prophet Mohammed were deemed blasphemous and tantamount to apostasy has been deported from Malaysia back to Saudi Arabia, where he is certain to face trial and possibly the death penalty.

    Hamza Kashgari, 23, fled Saudi Arabia last week in hopes of finding political asylum after his tweets sparked a Twitter lynch mob that called for his death.

    Mr. Kashgari used the occasion of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday nearly 10 days ago to send out three tweets.

    One of them read: “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you.”

    “I will not pray for you,” he added, as reported by AFP.

    The tweets resulted in a barrage of over 30,000 tweets condemning Mr. Kashgari for blasphemy and apostasy and calls that he face execution.

  12. “He knew at once that he wanted to writer about iconoclasm, to say that in an open society no ideas or beliefs could be ring-fenced and given immunity from challenges of all sorts, philosophical, satirical, profound, superficial, gleeful, irreverent, or smart. All liberty required was the space for discourse itself to be protected. Liberty lay in the argument itself, not the resolution of that argument, in the ability to quarrel, even with the most cherished beliefs of others; a free society was not placid but turbulent. The bazaar of conflicting views was the place where freedom rang.”

    Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton. p.210 (hardcover)

  13. “Supporters of the idea of public justification see democratic politics not so much as a battle for power, settled by elections, but rather as a kind of public conversation about issues of common concern, with a decision-making procedure for reaching temporary closure on these issues when the time for action has come. When we take part in this conversation, we seek to justify our views to others, and in so doing we should acknowledge the fact of political and religious pluralism. We should show that we recognize that we live in a community with a diversity of political and religious views. Hence we should offer reasons that can appeal to all, not only to other members of our own community of belief. Otherwise there can be no public conversation that embraces the entire society; we are implicitly dividing society into separate communities that do not seek to persuade each other.”

    Singer, Peter. The President of Good & Evil: Questioning the Ethics of George W. Bush. 2004. p.103 (paperback)

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