And now, a conversation between a Rooster and me:
The Rooster: I despise religion. And not just so-called "organized" religion, but all forms of religious thinking. I think it is one of the most oppressive, evil forces in human history. I think that if an otherwise sane human being can be convinced that there is an omniscient invisible man that lives in the sky, he or she can be convinced of anything. I also think the distinction made between religious moderates and extremists is somewhat pointless, because I think that moderates lend credence to the views of the extremists, and support this "hands off" policy whereby the religious views go unchallenged. I think that religious views should face the same scrutiny as scientific or historical views. Therefore, I think that espousing a religious viewpoint is tantamount to supposing that leprechauns and werewolves really do exist; there is the same amount of evidence for both. I believe that someday in the future, people will look back at the way children were indoctrinated into believing their parents' religious superstitions and see this religious training for what it really is: child abuse.
I agree that religion has been one of the most oppressive, evil forces in human history and lends itself naturally to all sorts of abuses, but I don’t think it’s inherently evil. That’s akin to saying that the abuse of science (eugenics), politics (fascism), and philosophy (the French Revolution) indicates that those infrastructures are inherently flawed. People created religions that they use to oppress and abuse people because people are evil and thus create ideologies that support their ascendancy at the expense of others; religion is one form that those ideologies take. To dismiss all religion as evil is to ignore the potential of religion to assist in ordering the world. (Am I correct in supposing that you are a libertarian and not an anarchist?) Religions should absolutely be challenged. The pervasive viewpoint that everyone’s faith should be accepted blindly because you don’t want to step on their religious toes is an absurd bastardization of the concept of freedom of religion. Religions should be challenged on the same grounds as science, philosophy, and politics because they are all attempts to organize the world and to the extent that they fail or lead to greater evil, they should be discarded. Asserting that some over-arching order exists in the world is not tantamount to expressing a belief in vampires and werewolves; that’s a very limited conceptualization of religion/theology. True, you cannot test the hypothesis of whether God exists (regardless of the attempts of Maimonides, Halevi, and Aristotle to do so) and God’s existence is beside the point, anyway. Religions provide a social order. Beyond that, they are a way for people to make sense of their existence. Do I find that particular aspect of my religion useful? Only insofar as it helps me frame self-reflective questions. Do extant religions largely fail at the goal of creating social order (or creating as much disorder as order)? I think so., but I do not use that argument to dismiss their potential to help people order their lives. For my personal views on religion, check out the Gene Weingarten Loves Me post.
On second thought, all human created systems of ordering the world are inherently flawed. I just don't understand why you're picking on religion and it's faith in God and not politics and it's faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest. Social contract. Yeah, right.
The Rooster: I wasn't explicitly quoting Dawkins, but I love him.
The point of religion is not (or at least should not be) to create social order. There is only one reason there should be a religion, and that is if there really, truly is a God (or gods) that wants his/her/its adherents to think and/or behave in a certain way. However, there is no God, or at least no God that exerts any influence in human affairs, so these religious rules actually come from flawed human beings with an agenda. And people are much more willing to do some heinous immoral act for God than, say, the President. But more to the point, religion should be rejected on the sole grounds that there is no rational basis for any of it. You say God's existence is besides the point. As far as I'm concerned, that couldn't be further from the truth; God's non-existence is the point!
"I just don't understand why you're picking on religion and it's faith in God and not politics and it's faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest."
I don't agree that politics is built upon faith in a human ability to look beyond self-interest.
Also, science, as long as it does not venture beyond its prescribed limits, is not flawed.
Harley: I also love Richard Dawkins.
The purpose of religion is explicitly to create social order. The expressed purpose of all of ancient wisdom literature is to create social order (unless you buy Karen Armstrong's argument that religious ritual was about interacting with a spiritual sphere that humans innately experience). Religious systems are the precursor to politics and government. It's a system of laws and social norms. The reason that ancient religions casually moved between gods was because the god him or herself was beside the point. Not that these ancient people did not believe that gods had power, just that the details of human interaction were more important than the defense of a god. Gods were only useful insofar as they provided rain and supported the troops. If your god was better at providing rain and supporting your troops, then your god would soon become mine. That’s ancient theology for you. Religion, on the other hand, was not discrete from ethnicity, culture, or nationhood. That’s because it was an extension of those identifying factors. Religion discrete from culture/nation is a Christian idea, codified in the 5th C CE. Before then, and for some religions still, you could not separate politics and governance from religion because the purpose of religion was to provide a motivational basis for social order. Motivational because of the reward/punishment heuristic for legislating/controlling behavior, which is not different from our current penal code, except that the gods would punish you, instead of the courts.
I don’t mean that science is a flawed system, but I do contend that a faith that it won’t “venture beyond its prescribed limits,” is a naïve understanding of human agency. Science is not an independent entity. What you mean is that so long as humans don’t use science to venture beyond its “prescribed limits,” it’s not inherently flawed. My point was that to the extent that all infrastructures for ordering and explaining the world are human inventions, reliant on human beings to operate them, and to the extent that human beings are flawed and prone to abusing the system to their own benefit, all of these systems have the potential to be abused (and therefore, are flawed). I agree that science is the best way to understand the world; I don’t understand how you don’t also see that as a kind of religion.
The Rooster: My point before was there is only one present-day justification for any religion, and that is the actual existence of a deity.
We have better ways of ordering society now, not that there isn't room for improvement.
Science is not a type of religion. Science is the complete opposite of religion: science reveals actual truths rather than obscure everything in a mystery. It also follows a rational procedure. I don't buy that "faith in rationalism" bit because human beings don't have a choice about whether to have faith in rationality; we'd be helpless without it. On the other hand, we do have a choice about whether we are going to murder people in "God's" name, or create an environment philosophically hospitable to those who do.
The difference between science and religion is that science might be used for destructive ends, whereas religion is almost always used for destructive ends, including filling a child's head with medieval bullshit. Any good that might come from religion could come from somewhere else. Therefore, religion doesn't offer anything but ugliness.
Harley: I've been thinking about this discussion a lot over the weekend. I'm not sure I can argue that religion is a better form of social control than more modern forms (or even that it's an adequate form). The justification for religion that you miss is the communal aspect, which I think is an extension of your view of religion as discrete from other identities. The reason I maintain my Judaism is not because I desire a halakhically (Jewish lawfully) ordered world, but because I find that the Jewish community enriches my life, providing me with a context for socialization, a common language and mythology, and rituals that infuse my life with meaning. (In person, one day, we can discuss my very personal views on religion and death rituals, but it’s not suitable to post online.) You could argue that the reason I find my identity through Judaism and not through my other ancestral labels (Russian, Polish) is a result of the religious bigotry that forced my ancestors into the Pale (and, therefore, my point provides another example of the evils religions wrought on the world; although that bigotry was more political than religious in nature and execution). Within the framework of history, religion offered a social cohesion when nationality was denied. In modern times, you could argue that religion is no longer necessary to provide a social framework, but I think that denies a basic human need to belong to a community, a need that’s not necessarily met by nationality (in a nation as diverse and disperse as the U.S.).
As for “faith in rationalism,” that’s not what I meant when I referred to science as a religion. I was being reductionist: if I define religious epistemology as an attempt to discern the universal order, then science is a form of religion, in the sense that it attempts to uncover a universal order. In this sense, it’s absolutely an improvement over religion and philosophy for all the reasons you raised.
Lastly, don’t try to sell me on “science might be used for destructive ends, whereas religion is almost always used for destructive ends” because it forces me into an argument of scale. Religion may provide the justification and impetus for war, but science provides the tools (my favorite example is the invention of the cross bow during the Crusades). Raising that argument forces me to take what appears to be an anti-science position, which I find absurd and unnecessary, particularly because I am not against science by any stretch of the imagination. You say, “Any good that might come from religion could come from somewhere else.” Offer me some positive suggestion about what good religions offer and from where else you’d garner that good and I’ll concede. But don’t try to convince me that philosophy or politics can replace religion, because that’s a replacement of kind.