Religious Logic and Religious Morality

No Miracles Here
No Miracles Here
I got myself into an odd debate on Peter Hitchens’ blog site of all places recently. It was a blog (one of several by PH) denouncing the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After I had made some points about the nature of the scientific method and its reliance on ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ a commenter came up with this statement:

‘Faith in science is at least as superstitious as any faith in God’.

My response was:

I don’t believe it is, despite the problems I mention in my earlier post. If we broaden ‘science’ to include all knowledge acquired by the experimental method – ie: we find a consistent correlation between particular events, assume this to be a persistent feature of the world, and then proceed further on this basis – then this method is adopted because it is self-reinforcing. We can build up a network of propositions that, while none of them are certain, tend to support each other. Every time we find one confirmed, this helps in a small way to confirm the others.

Faith in God (meaning I presume the belief that God exists, is benevolent and is important to mankind) on the other hand, seems to result in the opposite. If the above features of God are assumed, we are led immediately into contradictions. Many believers in God are in conflict, despite sharing these apparently over-ridingly important beliefs. God would appear to allow (or at least fail to prevent) much evil. And why does belief in God not seem to lead to any important further hypotheses, but in fact rather to close them off?

The commenter’s response was then about the benefits of religious belief (by which it turned out he exclusively meant Christian belief). So I replied:

I was arguing that ‘faith in science’ is less of a ‘superstition’ than ‘faith in God’, on the background of some previous comments I made about the problems of grounding the scientific method. What I was trying to get across is that the ‘beliefs’ that arise from science tend to be re-enforced by our ongoing experience of the world, whereas this is not true of beliefs about God.

Your initial response seems to be that ‘Christianity’ has been a great force for good in the world. It may well have been. But this doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the robustness to experience of its belief system as it relates to God.

And I don’t understand why you now switch from arguing for ‘faith in God’ to simply arguing for ‘Christianity’. If you do so then you now have to explain why one person’s set of religious beliefs, other than those I suggested, can be shown to be more robust to experience than another person’s different one.

As for your ascribing blame for the ‘gulags and the concentration camps’ to atheists, I am not sure what this says about the robustness of specific beliefs in relation to God. It might suggest that the morality reportedly taught by Christ (and unfortunately not always followed by those claiming to be Christians) is a powerful buffer against the grip of evil pseudoscience. But plenty of non-believers have similar moral views without the accompaniment of ‘faith in God’.

In summary, I’m accusing you of shifting the goalposts!

Well, he denied shifting the goalposts, but then came back with some more evidence about the benefits of religious belief over its absence and the nature of Christian morality, so I said:

The reason I say you are shifting the goalposts, is because you are making value judgements. To say ‘Faith in science is at least as superstitious as any faith in God,’ which was your original assertion, does not seem to me to have any value implications. It is a factual assertion about the ways in which these beliefs come to exist and to persist.

But your argument is that ‘belief in God’ (by which you exclusively mean belief in the factual truth of Christian teaching about God and everything you believe goes with it) leads to a better world than any alternative. That, I would not profess to be able to argue one way or the other – nor do I think it would be constructive to do so.

‘Faith in science’ is a belief that a certain ‘method of enquiry’ about the world is self-consistent even across many different observers. That to me is what makes it not superstitious. It seems that you accept this for the physical but not the social sciences. Is this because of your analysis of the method of the social sciences or because their findings sometimes conflict with Christian teaching?

‘Faith in God’ cannot be self-consistent between observers in the same way as the scientific method. It is possible to copy the scientific method without initially believing that it works, and yet obtain evidence that it does. Clearly to copy ‘faith in God’ without believing in God is a contradiction! I think that the most you can hope for is that your belief in God leads to evidence that further convinces you, the believer.

I think you might risk betraying weakness in your position in some of your other assertions. You say ‘Christianity preaches sacrifice, the embrace of suffering, taking up one’s cross and cheerfully carrying it in Christ’s footsteps.’ to refute my claim for morality outside Christianity. I think you should consider whether it is ‘moral’ in itself to sacrifice oneself or to suffer, or whether it is necessary for there to be some appropriate purpose to the sacrifice or suffering. I think ‘moral’ atheists and Christians would agree more often than not on what counted as an appropriate purpose. (In this I should declare a long-standing admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.)

You say ‘Atheism, the most intrinsically mendacious religion, is the seedbed of theft, murder, state terrorism, disorder.’ If we define atheism as the lack of ‘faith in God’ (you may mean something else) I think you are left with the burden of proof here. And even if you prove it, what would you do about it? Can you make people believe in something? Or are we talking about a sort of ‘Pascal’s Wager’ pretence here?

I didn’t think there was much more to say, although on reflection I thought I might have expressed the argument more tellingly, and it belatedly occurred to me that the commenter was actually using the scientific method in his own argument! So when he responded to the previous post by basically ignoring my points about the difference between truth value and ‘moral’ value, and simply pushing more evidence of the superior moral behaviour of Christians (especially as seen from a Christian viewpoint!), I took the chance to recast the argument a bit.

My point was that the holding of a belief in the tenets of the Christian religion is not a belief about acquiring the knowledge that event A leads to event B on a consistent basis, when event A is not that belief.
So it is logically possible that belief in the tenets of Christianity always and everywhere leads to all sorts of wonderful things (and indeed the converse: that the absence of such belief leads to madness, unhappiness and worse), even although those tenets are not literally true. Any evidence that supports the former is therefore not evidence that supports the latter.

Whereas, the scientific method (the belief that if event A has been regularly observed to lead to event B, then it will continue to do so) is literally true if its predictions that event A (when event A is not belief in the scientific method) will lead to event B are always and everywhere correct. Otherwise we are led into a contradiction. This means that any evidence that subsequently supports A leading to B also confirms the truth of the scientific method.

I haven’t actually posted this, since neither he nor I have so far identified any actual weakness in the foregoing argument and I wanted to say a few more things in the allotted 500 word space, which were:

Your claim that the evidence of history suggests that belief in the tenets of Christianity always and everywhere leads to a better world, can only be relying on the scientific method! You are implicitly claiming that because the evidence of history shows that people who have held Christian beliefs have behaved much ‘better’ than those that did not, the more that hold such beliefs now the better human behaviour will be.

So if you claim that Christian beliefs can rely on the scientific method it may be misleading to say ‘Faith in science is at least as superstitious as any faith in God’. ‘Faith in science’ could logically only be less superstitious or equally superstitious. In fact, your argument bases the ‘effectiveness’ of the tenets of Christian of belief on an application of the scientific method, and no application of the scientific method can ever be incapable of future disproof. Therefore, the absolute belief that ‘Christianity works’ in the sense that you mean is likely to be ‘more superstitious’, since it relies firstly on implicit belief in the scientific method, and secondly on an application of that method.

To be honest, having said all that, I am not sure that you or I should consider this logical argument to be all that important. After all, if I am correct, your argument about the benefits of Christian belief can stand on solid ground. So why not trade points? You accept that the scientific method can be self-supporting in a way which belief in God cannot be; and I accept that the balance of evidence (which would have to include all the bad things done by Christians, all the good things done by non-Christians and a common scale for measuring these things) shows that Christians behave better than non-Christians.

We would then move on to what I think are more fundamental questions:

1) What if, speaking purely hypothetically, the evidence came to show that some other group, perhaps very small and not yet discovered, with different beliefs, behaved even better than Christians? Would you then immediately be convinced of the need to adopt those beliefs?

2) Assuming, purely hypothetically, you found yourself wanting to adopt the above beliefs how would you go about it?

3) Given that we are relating behaviour to the holding of certain beliefs, what can we say about the beliefs of God that lead him/her to ‘allow’ non-believers to do all the bad stuff they do? Is God, perhaps, not a Christian?

4) Or is it simply that he/she has limited power to intervene? If so, what is the causal mechanism that explains the good behaviour of Christians? (We can’t assume that it’s simply because they accept Christian moral teaching, since it would then be possible to be moral without being a believer.) If you can identify a causal mechanism, how would you go about proving it to be the correct one? Would the proof rely on the scientific method?

Are these fair questions? I’m not sure. But they are certainly the questions that occur to me when I think about religious belief. Let’s see if we get a response.

3 thoughts on “Religious Logic and Religious Morality”

  1. There’s a good article by an American novelist Robinson on the front of the Guardian Review today. It’s actually been syndicated. Still, I think she makes good points from the religious side of “argument”, whilst observing most of the niceties of reasonable discussion. Her acknowledgment of science’s capacity to overthrow it’s own certainties is nicely made. She also, possibly, puts her finger on the tendentious impulse of some crusaders for science.

    The new points of view emerging about language, that seem to marginalise the great cause of “universal grammar”, is possibly – too early to say, perhaps – an interesting example of science’s never-ending progressive oscillation that leaves, even quite major figures, marooned and outmoded.

    That continual demand for reunderstanding what has been understood is amazing, but not entirely different to the endless reunderstanding that we bring to our own lives.

    The religious have a marvelous human culture of worshipful ritual, architecture, music, pastoral care, monasticism, and integrity to celebrate. This has been thoroughly compromised by types who are too coarse to understand the richness of this heritage, and its opportunities for continuation. Such continuation would be the measure of religion’s continuing relevance.

    I am prone to bad-mouth religion. It is a way to align yourself with the enlightened, the robustly enlightened. But there may be some useful truth in the idea that the scientific and religious cultures can both inspire honest adherents, both capable of a tough intellectual liveliness.

  2. Hi Tom

    Yes, I’ve read ‘Gilead’, and have a copy of ‘Home’ which I intend to read’. I’m interested in how religion can make people behave – for good or ill.

    ‘But there may be some useful truth in the idea that the scientific and religious cultures can both inspire honest adherents, both capable of a tough intellectual liveliness.’

    Of course. The truly great ones will always emphasise the uncertainty of their beliefs. But they must be able to give a rational explanation (even if only a subjectively rational one) of how they arrived at them.

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