Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

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.

Faith Hidden Within Reasoning?

May 1, 2011

“But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt belief A except from a position of faith in belief B.” — _The Reason for God_, Introduction

Maybe he’s right on this point, but let’s dig deeper; I’m not even sure what my conclusion will be here.

First we need to define faith. From Dictionary.com, it seems to me that the best definition in this context is, “belief that is not based on proof.” The Bible seems to agree with this definition, e.g. Hebrews 11:1 and John 20:29.

Let’s suppose Keller is right when he says that everyone has some set of core beliefs for which there is no proof. It does not necessarily follow that it is valid to believe the claims of the Bible without proof. I think it’s safe to say that none of us in this discussion are relativists, so none of us would argue that all faiths are equally valid. For example, most (if not all) of my readers would agree that Islam is an especially dangerous faith, because there’s no escaping the fact that it advocates violence. So even if we concede that everyone has faith in something, there’s no denying that some beliefs are better than others, and there must be some criteria for determining which beliefs are the best. What might these criteria be?

As I understand it, here is the main criterion used by rationalists: All of our beliefs must be compatible with observable reality. Observable reality includes the findings of scientists and historians, as well as any facts on the world that anyone can perceive. Keller might argue that this criterion comes down to faith in one’s own ability to observe reality and judge beliefs accordingly. To that I would respond that our minds are indeed limited, but that we obviously have some ability to observe reality, collect facts, judge new claims against those facts, and act accordingly; that ability has gotten us a long way, especially since scientific inquiry began in earnest a few centuries ago.

Scientists have rigorous standards for judging truth claims regarding the physical world. We should be no less rigorous in judging truth claims about the most important questions in life, such as origins, morality, purpose, and whether there is a God who expects anything in particular of us. If we all must have at least one belief that has no proof, maybe that belief should be this: that all other beliefs must be based on evidence. In everyday life, in science, and in modern legal systems, we expect truth claims to be backed by evidence. So again, why not apply the same standard to the most important questions?

I conclude that faith in the importance of evidence is probably better than faith in any specific set of historical and metaphysical claims. So if there is a type of faith hidden within reason, it’s certainly not the faith one normally talks about.