Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Religion Matters to Everyone; Or, The Universal Foundations and Consequences of Belief (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

The follow is a "response paper" I wrote while in grad school. It was during a rhetoric class that dealt with the reliability of texts (specifically rhetorical texts). Aside from a corrosive premise that all things deemed "rhetorical" were inherently propagandic and thus inherently unreliable, one thing that irked me about the class was the assumption that the reliability of religious texts was a issue only to the religious, and that the concerns of religion were of no consequence to the secular. In order to politely disillusion the class and its professor, I wrote the following paper. I present it here with a few, non-fundamental alterations.

If we are to be true critical thinkers, it is necessary to view no text as "off limits" in regard to discussion and critique. In the true spirit of Plato's "double open-endedness," no conclusion or assumption is immune from scrutiny. Everyone's assertions, if they are robust assertions, are up for grabs; this is a fact that we must not forget if we are to be honest and clear in our engagement with the world. That being said, I feel that this view of critical thinking must be bolstered with a necessary caution.

We must not kid ourselves: it is erroneous to assume that the reliability of religious texts is a "landmine" issue solely for the religious, and that somehow the non-religious stand in impunity on the sidelines. This is a false premise; it assumes what it seeks to prove, i.e., that religious texts are unreliable. The fact is that the non-religious (and even the anti-religious) have just as much at stake in the reliability of religious texts as the religious. This is because religious texts in general (and the biblical texts specifically) do not claim to be about religion or religious things. Rather, they claim to be about truth, reality, life and death, right and wrong, i.e., the way things really are and really ought to be. This means that their verification or falsification has consequences for all of us, because we all have some kind of foundational assumptions about what is and ought to be.

Most of the non and anti-religious, however, when considering this issue, do not understand this. Their default position runs something like this: The sincere yet wrong-headed religionist, upon discovering the falsification of their holy writ (upon which their entire worldview was grounded and found sustenance), is indeed in a world of trouble, perhaps more than nonchalant speculation has realized. To have your philosophical underpinnings completely undermined, to have your foundational assumptions on metaphysics, epistemology, and morality completely shattered into a million irreparable fragments and lost to the wind, is a position beyond all nightmares. It is true that some manage to survive such an ordeal and move on to some other philosophy, but history gives us other common responses to such a traumatic event: varying degrees of madness possibly accompanied by suicide. Beliefs are not so easily cast aside.

Beliefs, however, are not just a "religious" thing; they are a human thing. We all believe in something (even if it is in "nothing," like nihilists), and those beliefs/biases/assumptions shape our view of the world and how we should function in it. Moreover, because belief is an inherent human quality, the reversal of the non/anti-religious default position on the reliability of religious texts is an equally viable consideration (though it is oddly less considered).

Let us suppose, then, such a reversal. Let us imagine, instead of a sincere yet wrong-headed religionist, a born and bred, thoroughly modern secularist who has been long schooled in the tradition of his elders, viz., that the Dark Ages began at the birth of Christ and continued to the Enlightenment where mankind was set free from superstition and declared (in the words of Lucretius) that " trampled underfoot, / and by [this] victory we reach the stars." He has long been taught that religion was nothing more than a concoction of the weak-minded who happened to be in power, and that their chief points of serious doctrine were the flatness of the earth, the smallness of the universe, the number of angels on a pinhead, and other ludicrous assertions. As such, he sincerely believed in the death of God, the unquestionable reliability of empiricism, the infallibility of scientific inquiry, and the closed system of cause and effect that is Nature, whose highest (and only) elements are matter and energy. To him or her, religion has proved itself impotent and has long lost its voice in any and all matters other than those discussed in churches or seminaries, those last remaining cloisters of narrow-mindedness. Let this be our first supposition.

Now, let us additionally suppose that within the lifetime of this sincere secularist, there arises a rather rebellious traditional religionist with a strong head on his shoulders and a penchant for irony. This religionist (with tact and force) rises up and dares to proclaim that any and every religious text is open to rhetorical (and even scientific) scrutiny. Let us also suppose that this rebellious religionist (through long, arduous study and research) releases a seminal work to much controversy because it substantially demonstrates (on the word of "most scholars") the absolute reliability of religious texts. Let this be our second supposition.

If these two suppositions be the case (we are speaking hypothetically, of course), what is our conclusion? What has become of our secularist? He has suffered the same fate as the religionist, because the same cause has befallen him, and thus the same effect is produced: the very foundations of their beliefs (the death of God, etc.) have been shaken to the ground, and they too are left in the same nightmarish position. Though I could (and would) argue that moving from a vacuously atheistic, materialist position to a substantial robust, theistic position would ultimately result in sanity and joy rather than madness and sorrow, let it be enough for now to say that in the initial stages of the annihilation of first principles, the secular and the religious are in the same boat.

The point that we should gather is this: we take the issue of the reliability of religious texts far too lightly and flippantly if we assume some sort of immunity from the consequences of the verification or falsification of religious texts (or arguably any text whatsoever). We all have a stake in the claims of religion, and I would postulate that this is a fact that even the secular realize. It is perhaps true that the religious avidly fear analysis because that analysis may falsify their beliefs, but it is perhaps equally true that the secular fear such an analysis because it may very well verify the beliefs of the religious (and subsequently falsify their own). In other words, the avoidance of analysis (when there is any) is most likely not the result of stubborn ignorance or denial on the part of any party. The avoidance seems far more ecumenical, stemming from a very human, almost religious-like dread of the consequences. It may very well be that, on the one side, the religious quake, "What if I'm proven wrong?" While on the other side (and somehow able to be ignored), the secular fearfully whisper amongst themselves, "What if they're proven right?"

In either case, if we are to be critical thinkers who approach all texts and all views (with their assumptions and conclusions) honestly and openly, we would be wise to remember to tread deliberately yet softly, for the "religion" we trample on could be our own in the end.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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