Posts Tagged ‘dichotomy’

On Keeping Religion Private

May 1, 2011

In chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_, Keller discusses three proposed methods of solving the problems brought about by the exclusivity of religions: outlawing religion, condemning religion, and keeping religion private. He argues that the last of these is impossible. In particular, he argues that it is impossible to discard one’s deepest convictions about purpose and values when discussing public policy. I agree with that; the only way to keep religion private would be to exclude religious people altogether from discussions of public policy.

Keller also argues that there is no universal foundation for secular claims about morality. He cites two examples: whether or not to eliminate safety nets for the poor, and how easy or hard divorce should be. I’m not surprised that secularists have deep disagreements on issues such as these, and I have no reason to argue that they don’t. But it doesn’t follow that any of the traditional religions, including Christianity, is therefore a reasonable default position.

In the first paragraph I mentioned the possibility of excluding all religious people from public policy discussions. Of course, by Keller’s broad definition of religion, everyone would be excluded from such discussions. So perhaps the right word in this context is not religion, but dogma. In common usage, a dogma is a firmly asserted principle that generally isn’t subject to revision, even in the light of evidence and reason. Dogmatism is often equated with stubbornness. Each of the major religions has some set of dogmas, but secularists can also be dogmatic. So perhaps dogma itself, in all its forms, needs to be excluded from public policy discussions.

As an aside, I think that both individualism and socialism can be held dogmatically. As always, evidence is important. So in the case of divorce laws, which Keller touched on, we must consider the overwhelming evidence that divorce is harmful to children, and let that inform our laws, rather than any firm stance on individualism or socialism.

Likewise, if the evidence shows us that the Bible is not the Word of God, then we must not dogmatically insist on deferring to the Bible in matters of public policy. True, we don’t yet have a universally accepted standard of secular morality to use in place of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth about morality. While we try to figure out that truth, we can still do our best to base our policies on evidence and reason.

In the end, for anyone who views religious faith as a problem, attempts to keep religion private are only dealing with the symptoms, not the root problem. Of the three proposals Keller discussed for dealing with the problem of religious exclusivity, I suspect the only one that will work is some version of number 2, condemning religion. But it seems to me that the antidote to religious exclusivity is not pluralism or relativism; it’s reason, with a healthy dose of caution and humility.

On Condemning Religion

May 1, 2011

In the section in chapter 1 of _The Reason for God_ about condemning religion, Keller discusses several axioms which are used to condemn all exclusive religious claims as unenlightened. It seems to me that all of these axioms come down to relativism, pluralism, or over-generalizations about truth claims. I am in full agreement with him about the inconsistency in these axioms, as I think any rationalist would be.

Keller writes, “Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true.” That may be true of some skeptics, but not all. Some skeptics, myself included, don’t doubt Christianity because of its exclusivity, but because of the lack of evidence to back it up.

So it appears that this is another instance of the dichotomy between religion and relativism. Keller seems to overlook a third possibility here, namely skepticism based on lack of evidence. I’d like to suggest a new axiom to add to Keller’s list: All of the major religions are very unlikely to be true, because they al lack evidence. THerefore, none of these improbable truth claims should be the center of our lives, let alone our societies.

As always, I welcome comments.

The Dichotomy Between Religion and Moral Relativism

May 1, 2011

Early in his book _The Reason for God_, Timothy Keller seems to set up a dichotomy between religion (including Christianity) on the one hand, and moral relativism on the other. I have seen this dichotomy before in Christian apologetics, and it seems to me that it’s a false dichotomy. I’ll try to explain why.

Let’s consider a third point of view: There is objective truth about morality, which is potentially discoverable through science and reason, because moral values can actually be reduced to facts about the well-being or suffering of conscious beings, including humans. This is *not* the same as saying that evolution dictates morality, and that the best system of morality is therefore “survival of the fittest”. The theory of evolution can help us understand why we are the way we are — it can even help us understand our deeply ingrained moral intuitions — but it is not enough to tell us how we *ought* to behave. However, other sciences, such as sociology, psychology, and neuroscience, can give us more information about the interactions between humans and the workings of the human brain. And from that information we can derive principles about how we should behave, and possibly even moral absolutes in some cases.

Keller’s dichotomy between religion and relativism comes up again and again in _The Reason for God_, so it will likely be a recurring theme in my posts here. I believe this is a false dichotomy, but I’m willing to be corrected. Is there a reason why relativism is necessarily the only alternative to religion?