Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Are there rational grounds for religious belief? (various skeptical musings)

If you assume a religious perspective is justifiable by dogma--the mere presence of Scripture--there's really no point in arguing; yet if you think the dogma can be justified rationally (as the jesuits used to assert) you have to overcome all those Phil. 101 chestnuts: the problem of evil, immateriality, status of other faiths, and the basic epistemological issue of why anyone should accept any religion as a true account of reality, rather than say a commnon-sense physico-logico account.

That may be unsubtle, and not very appealing to those who work for Christendom Inc., but theists continually assume that those Phil. 101 issues have been settled in their favor, when of course they haven't been

As you probably know, Kant himself rejected all the classical arguments for a deity, and there are I think far more philosophers and scientists arranged on the skeptic side (e..g, that there are no convincing, rational grounds for religious truth, or for an omniscient and just God) then there are rational theists. There does not seem to be a shortage of irrational theists however.

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Is the existence of miracles used to confirm the truth of Scripture? If it is, then obviously other religons and cults claim miraculous events (though I assert wrongly), so the mere presence of claims that a miracle occurred doesn't really prove anything: that water was instantly converted to wine is about like saying the Buddha levitated. One can believe that, I guess, just as people believe in astrology. But most theists believe that there's more to the plausibility of scripture than the presence of miracles; if not, it would be a situation of which cult features the best miracles (and all the creepy pagans and occultists in LA would say their's does).

In fact the catholic church routinely confirms miracles, yet as Chris Hitchens recently pointed out in a great essay on Mother Theresa's death, the confirmaton is in no way scientific or objective: it's usually based on flimsy, anecdotal evidence (and an incredibly sentimental process as well). It may be thought such claims of miracles are amusing or charming, but as Hitchens points out, the belief in miracles acutally does great damdge to rationality as a whole.

I shall let Mr. Hitchens speak for himself (and for rationality), since he does it much better than I:

"Those of us who are against miraculous claims for the more obvious reasons--that the laws of nature do not respond to petitions and that what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof--have a tendency to forget that this vulgarity and hysteria also increases the sum of misery on Earth, without at all diminishing it in the false promise of the afterlife."

* * *

Quote (from Christian blogger):

"in order to do that without actually investigating each miracle- or religious experience-claim, you'd need to give arguments for why we shouldn't believe in miracles or see religious experience as evidentially weighty"

In other words, prove to you that pigs don't fly. I have never seen a flying pig in person or photos. I don't know anyone that has, and never read any history indicating that pigs do fly. I did see a drawing of one with wings on a website. But it was not flying.

You are right, though to some degree: all the laws and rules of physical science could be overturned tomorrow and pigs might fly, just as Hume said tomorrow his billard table might obey different physical laws--I would agree there is no logically necessary reason why physical laws could not be overturned. But I'd wager the probability of the pig flying ( or billard balls flying backwards after the break of the table) is about the same as Jesus out strolling on the waves or the Virgin of Guadalupe making her annual appearance in the reflection of some campesino's windshield or whatever. I think Bayes theorem shows this too: each day a miracle has not been confirmed increases the unlikeliness of the original anomaly having occurred.

Mystical experiences are another thing. I don't doubt many people have those experiences, but they in no way demonstrate or confirm theological concepts. Recently some experiments have shown that the mental state produced by monks and nuns meditating or praying can be electrically stimulated in various brain lobes. So what was thought to be a calm "oneness with god" or satori was in fact some biochemical process in the corpus callosum.

* * *

Does that imply that if there are no rational grounds for accepting the all-powerful, spiritual Being then there are no grounds for His morality either? If there are no rational grounds for either Christianity or pagan feminism (and I don't think there are) then any laws or policies based on those irrational ideologies would not seem to be permissable. I.e if you allow one cult's morality it would seem you would have to allow all major cults be represented. (Should laws be allowed which are based on Astrology? And Christianity is in many ways akin to astrology)

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