As this is my very first blog post, I think it fitting that I set the tone for any future posts, and the tone I want is one of criticism without prejudice or value judgment.
So I’m going to begin by criticising with prejudice a common value judgment: that to tell someone that you think their religion is wrong is bad. That to do so is a ‘dick move’ and an act of unmitigated arrogance or even cultural bias to the point of racism.
Religions seem to get a free ride when it comes to criticism. While specific political and social positions informed by religious beliefs do receive criticism, those religions themselves don’t often enter into a critical discussion. They are seen as a product of culture, of personal identity, and of freedom of expression. They are held in esteem for their tradition and heritage. To broadly attack a religion is to place oneself into a category of intolerance and hypocritical subjectivity that is unpalatable to many in a liberal society.
It is my instinct to criticise everything, often with far less tact than is probably advisable. But it is also my desire to be a respectful and ethical person, and to allow people as much freedom and dignity as possible. So I’m inclined to think carefully about how religion should be criticised. Some key questions come to mind:
1. What is a religion?
2. Why are people very attached to religion–even those who aren’t religious? Why are they so opposed to criticism of it?
3. What forms do criticism of religion take?
4. How should the answers to these questions inform the way we criticise and discuss religious beliefs?
1. What is a religion
Basically, a religion is a register of propositions about what is true, right, and beautiful, along with a set of rituals and symbols, or other kinds of practice (thanks, Archer).
A religion has core tenets of faith that constitute axioms. For the sake of practicality, it is worth assuming that one axiom will almost always be the existence of an interventionist supernatural entity of some kind. All dogma are propositions that are justified, or ‘proven’, by arguments which are supposedly valid inferences. While all religions have debates within them over the correct interpretation of scripture or authoritative texts, these debates occur within the system. When debate over the axioms themselves occur, the result is potentially a major schism and the formation of a new system (for example the development of Christianity from Judaism).
A religion is also a guide on how to live one’s life. Religious dogma contains rules of social conduct and morality, and those rules are often very comprehensive. An adherent will consciously connect their behaviour to the codes set down by their religion (or at least, their interpretation of it): they will make choices of action based upon prescriptions contained within their religion and judge the behaviour of others according to the same. They may contextualise their observations of even the natural world according to religious belief.
A religion is lastly a set of socially and personally resonant symbols. At the most superficial level, these symbols can signal a pious–and therefore ethical and right-thinking–lifestyle. Adherence also usually has a ritual component, and rituals have symbolic value. More deeply, religions are usually rooted in long historical narratives, and those narratives are important to many people, particularly those who feel as though their community is under threat. Images and words that signify a connection between one’s religion and one’s broader social identity are powerful symbols.
It is important for me to note that some religions are less comprehensive and less formalised than others, and that affects the scope and complexity of belief within them as logical inference over superstition and ritual.
2. Why are we attached to it?
If religion is a logical system which is used to build and justify comprehensive rules for behaviour and judgement, and contains symbols that signal not only a person’s dedication but also their cultural, social, ethnic, or national identity, it’s not all that surprising that it occupies a pretty sacred part of most people’s sense of self. It’s personal: a matter of being. So it’s also not surprising that even non-adherents to a given religion respect the enormous significance that religion can have to a person, and how painful and oppressive an attack upon it could be.
When evil, nasty, bad men such as Dawkins or Hitchens crawl out of the ivory towers of Mordor (inb4 ‘metaphor schizophrenia’) and criticise the very core of religious belief, they invalidate the ethical, heuristic, and social platforms on which so many people build their entire life. No-one wants to be the target of such criticism, and those who are targeted often seem maliciously attacked in the eyes of onlookers.
Malicious people are arseholes. People who attack entire religions seem malicious. Therefore, those who attack religion seem to be arseholes. Nobody likes an arsehole.
3. What is this criticism really?
I see criticism of religion taking two possible forms:
1. Criticism of the axioms that form the system either analytically(‘they are mutually inconsistent’) or inductively (‘evidence undermines them’)
2. Criticism of inferences within the system: i.e., ‘your dogma is internally fallacious’ (for example, a moral critique whereby one argues that a piece dogma is incompatible with the supposed ethical tenets of a religion)
Both forms are potentially sound. However, the first form is likely to be seen as the most offensive. This is because it undermines…well, everything. It’s a direct attack upon a person’s reasoning. If you tell a person that their dogma–really just an interpretation of religious principles and texts–is wrong, you’re usually not violating any social convention. Most religions include a normatively acceptable intellectual space for debate, and you can fall within it. Even if you don’t, you’re still speaking the same language as they are.
BUT if you tell someone that one of the cornerstones to their identity and understanding of the world is wrong, you’ve made it a zero-sum game: either you’re right and everything they think is unsupportable (‘divide by zero’) or you’re wrong and probably evil.
4. What is to be done, comrade?
Criticism is the vehicle by which we achieve self-improvement, refinement, and ultimately part of the best methods available to us for seeking knowledge and happiness. No belief, not even ones that are critically important to us, should be beyond question. However, I suppose we should consider whether we’re trying to find truth or convince others that we know best, before choosing how we express our criticism. Sometimes it’s best to be non-confrontational, though not always. Shall I pause while you all take a moment to digest the enormity of that statement?