Friday, August 18, 2006

Are there rational grounds for religious belief?

"If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? …Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

There's no point in arguing with a person who assumes a religious perspective may be justified merely by dogma–the tradition of Scripture and religious institutions; yet the religious person who does hold that his dogma and religious concepts can be justified rationally (as the Jesuits used to assert) runs up against the Theology 101 "Top 10 of Skepticism" very quickly: the problem of evil, immateriality, status of other faiths, fallibility of Scripture, evolution, etc. as well as the basic epistemological issue of why anyone should accept any religion as a true account of reality, rather than say a common-sense physico-logico account. That may not be very subtle, or appealing to those who work for Christendom Inc., but theists continually assume that those issues have been settled in their favor, when of course they haven’t been.

Kant himself rejected all the classical arguments for a Deity (including the Design argument, which has sort of made a comeback as Intelligent Design Theory--), 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) than there are rational theists. There does not seem to be a shortage of irrational theists however.

* * *

Is the existence of miracles used to confirm the truth of Scripture? If it is, then obviously other religions 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.

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 damage 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.

* * *

Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s Brother Karamazov doesn’t believe in God. Ivan (who I think we can imagine has read some Voltaire [as had Jefferson] and other French or English skeptics and scientists) claims, if such a “God” existed, he allows wars, Napoleons, plagues, all sorts of injustices anyways: so He kills the innocent, while commanding us not to do it. And by definition God would both have commanded the deaths of innocents and known about it. Ivan thus rejects “God” (Nietzsche also enjoyed reading some FD) , but I don’t think he is saying everything is permissable, merely that theological concepts of justice are absurd. (Of course some nut like Kierkegaard chooses to believe anyways, as do most fundies and catholics: tsunami wipes 300,000 people off the earth and yet the fundies goes to Church and says it was a sign of Gott).

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