Monday, August 21, 2006

One of the Many Problems With Religion

Is that the religious keep changing the playing field when you are trying to have a discussion.

Case in point: Michael Novak on Religion on National Review Online. I won't do more than touch on his plain mistakes.
They did not overcome the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, by force, but by argument
As far as I know, Christianity did not "overcome" Aristotle and Plato. These philosophers were taught in every university in Europe and America from the Renaissance until the 60s when it became less than fashionable to study "dead white men" and their teachings. Did Aristotle get everything right? Of course not. Did he get everything wrong? No. So I don't see exactly how he was "overcome." But let's move on to his arguments.

First Mr. Novak says what is important is whether a religion is true.
Either the Catholic Church (to stick to what I know best) is true, or it isn’t.
He's Catholic, but substitute Christianity or any religion, or at least any Levantine religion since these are the three that are most insane about whether they are true or not.

But then a few paragraphs later, the test is whether a religion works.
The Christian faith is intended to be tested by experience. Try living it, and see.
Whether a faith "works" is independent of whether the list of miracles is true.

Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime studying various religions, said that every religion had three main functions: cosmological, psychological and sociological.

The Cosmological function is one in which the religion explains the world around you. When a religion divorces itself from the best scientific explanations of what is happening, it is in trouble. If your religion says the world is flat, for example, you have some problems with a round planet.

Humans have some very standard changes in life. From child, dependent on the parent, to adult independent and ready to be a parent, to an elder, no longer interested in (or able to do) the work of the younger adults, to preparation for death. Religions, when they work, help people make these psychological transformations and become contributing members of society.

Religions almost always support the societies they are embedded in. Judaism is a perfect example. The rules of society are handed down from on high. They carry the same weight as the rules of gravity - ignore them at your peril.

Any religion that performs these three functions can be said to work. And indeed many religions work for the people who adhere to them. Working does not make reference to whether water was changed into wine (Christianity), or a giant serpent was hoarding all the waters of the world (Hinduism), whether someone actually found an unmovable spot on the earth and resisted three temptations (Buddhism) or whether galactic lord Xenu did whatever (Scientology). A religion works if it helps you lead a full life.

Then of course Novak reverts to his argument about truth. Just because Euclid's geometry works well enough to get you through most day-to-day problems, is no guarantee that it represents the Ultimate Truth™ of the universe. In fact, it doesn't. The best that can be said about Euclid is that he offers a fair approximation over short distances to what is really going on. It only means that Euclid's Geometry is one of many systems devised by humans over the millennia to solve certain problems.

Does Christianity do a better job dealing with modernity than the other faiths, or not? This is another argument Mr. Novak puts forth as a demonstration of "truth." But not all branches of Christianity do so. The Amish come to mind of course, but then there is this story, - Church Says Women Shouldn't Teach Sunday School Classes To Men, Cites Bible. Citing a letter from the first epistle to Timothy, a woman was dismissed from her position teaching Sunday School. So how is this different from the ranting of Islam about the same thing? It isn't.

Christianity is opposed all over the place to the teaching of evolution. Why? Because it directly undermines their world view. (Genesis states man is strictly separate from nature, where evolution states man is a part nature and a product of natural processes.) Is evolution true? Is Genesis true? Can you prove it? Which gives us better understanding of the workings of the world around us? Don't like evolution as an example? Hold up Genesis next to the Big Bang theory. Is the universe four to five thousand years old, or much older?

Novak also cites the growth in the Catholic church as more evidence of truth, but if the majority of the people in the world think that the earth is flat, does that make them right?

Mr. Novak seems to come to the point where what he is saying can be reduced to the following: what he believes helps him get through the average day and the struggles in life, so it must be true. I'm glad that it works for him, and for others, but that is hardly a demonstration of truth.
[h/t Llama Butchers for the NRO article and my friend Keith for the Fox News article]

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