Justin Li

Re: Rational People


There were two comments on my previous post Rational People.

Yvonne wrote:

As a semi-religious person, I have to say that I don't know if I'd ever have become a Christian if it wasn't for entering HKIS/such a Lutheran-based society. I don't go to church/Bible study/prayer groups so I don't have any sort of support system in that regard - but I do agree that I'm probably in religion for some sort of emotional appeal. Even if I can't put my finger on exactly what it is yet.

I believe religion is completely irrational...which may or may not make it "true" (if we define 'true' in the first place)

Faye wrote:

So I've been reading more of that Dawkins. For the record, I do think that we do need crazies like him in the world to argue one extreme view in an articulate manner. He's alright in that respect.

But I do quite disagree with him when he says that the world would be better off without religion at all. He says that religion causes violence, bigotry, discrimination, and a whole slew of other negative social effects.

He completely neglects (at least as far as I've read) that many rich cultures around the world can hardly be divorced from the religions upon which they are founded. I'm talking tribal religions, religions centered around stories and traditional practices, religions that create foundations for whole ways of life and a way for people to find connectedness with their surroundings.

What are your views on this? Given that religion is almost the definition of irrationality, in the face of scientific facts, should we try to abandon it altogether in favor of logic? What would the benefits of a purely logical social world be as opposed to the religious one we live in now?

I will respond to both comments and give a few more thoughts on my unemotionality.

Yvonne: I don't think religion is completely irrational. As I mentioned (and have yet to expound on), I think religion can be a rational choice. What is irrational is the belief in God. What, then, is religion without that belief? Good question. Buddhism, even though it doesn't have a God in the normal sense, still says something about an external, imperceptible reality - that we will reincarnate over and over again until we reach nirvana. As I learned earlier this quarter, for something to be classified as religion it must have some supernatural element - which by definition cannot be demonstrated in science.

A religion without the supernatural is, I think, what we call philosophy. If the main affect of religion is the passing on a moral code, it would be ethics. The study of ethics itself can be rational, and many philosophers have tried to find the "best" morals for humans. One way this is done, which I personally belief in, is through the realization that other people have feelings too. For me this entails a version of the Golden Rule. If one understands that they are also human and are just as flawed, makes just as many mistakes, and be just as hurt, one would treat them with respect. This foundation of personal morals is observable; it is hard to deny that other people are humans without giving up a lot of other common believes (that our senses cannot be trusted - this goes into epistemology). It is rational to have this moral system as long as the senses are to be trusted to a certain degree. If, however, the foundation of those morals are based on a unprovably existing supernatural being, then the set of morals rests on an irrational base.

I have to consent that this could be a debate on how much (or which) of our senses should be trusted. One could say that we have a sense for Godliness. I would argue here that we have instruments which confirm the feedback from our normal five senses, while none exists for the existence of God.

The purpose of this little detour is to show that, what some people consider as a major part of religion can also be built without resorting to supernatural phenomenon.

There is another aspect of religion which is crucial, and that is the social aspect. Durkheim was the one who pointed out that magic is not a religion - there is no "collective effervescence", because magic is an individual activity. There is no society of magicians (in the medieval sense of magic, not magic tricks). Shamans operate alone, and villagers come to the shaman to be healed. For this reason, it is called shamanic magic, and not shamanic religion.

And this, I think, is the main rational reason for joining a religion: it provides a sense of community. For immigrants, which we've been reading about in class, religion provides a lot of support for people new to a country. Not only is it a more relaxing place to meet new people, but it often also gives people comfort. Ethnic churches also provide a connection to their home country, and a sense of fellowship among similarly situated immigrants. To the extent that one wants a sense of community, then joining a religion is a rational choice.

To sum up my response: theology is irrational, but religion - with its extra social and psychological affects - might not be.

Faye: My response to Yvonne's comment applies a lot to yours too, because it argues that religion is not pure irrationality. My thought on Dawkins: religion does cause a lot of problems, but only the theological side. The Crusades were started because two groups believe in two different Gods (well, not really... but you know what I mean). I think it's important to note that the existence of said Gods, never mind what the Gods want, is unprovable. To cut to the chase, it's the irrational portion of religion that is causing wars and violence.

If you read my post of logic, the above statement can be cast as "if people believe in theology, then there will be wars". I want to be clear that I'm not denying the antecedent. I am not saying that if there's no theology, then there won't be wars. I think there will be less, if only because there have already been wars brought on by theology, but there are also wars fought around other differences. But having less wars would be a good thing.

Would a world without religion be a better place? I can't really say. There are questions in the philosophy of science we cannot answer, and probably will never be able to. My dad brought up this point and I had dismissed it before, but now I'm not so sure. Certainly, the social aspects of religion can be replaced by secular groups - groups that discuss science or current events, or groups that play sports together. Will that have the same psychological affect as the "certainty" that there is a purpose in life? Maybe. I do think if people were less devote there would be more progress in science, medicine, and other fields, which might have more immediate, practical effects on the world. Gene therapy and stem cell research are both blocked by what I think are irrational reasons (see my abortion post), and if it does lead to a cure for AIDS, that will save more people than religion can.

In conclusion: I think there are pros and cons to a world without religion, and I'm not sure it's possible to say whether it will be better.

I want to address one specific part of Faye's comment further. She wrote that Dawkins

neglects... that many rich cultures around the world can hardly be divorced from the religions upon which they are founded. I'm talking tribal religions, religions centered around stories and traditional practices, religions that create foundations for whole ways of life and a way for people to find connectedness with their surroundings.

To be honest, I can't say I entirely disagree with Dawkins.  I can see where Faye's argument comes from: without religion, these cultures would not have existed, and we would be losing the diversity of the world. On the other hand though, the fact that religion helped build up the culture says nothing about the culture not adapting new things.

The thing is, I see very little value in tradition. The ancient civilizations of the world have social structures very different from what currently exists in the modern world. There is value in studying those cultures historically, to understand what happened in that time period, but it would be a mistake to say we should continue those traditions because they are traditions. Absolute monarchies, slavery, theocracies, etc. have been eradicated in most countries, and I think we can all agree it's for the better. The fact that they were important in the history of modern nations says nothing about their current value.

To me, this idea extends beyond political systems to cultures and behaviors. I don't see value in a lot of things. Birthdays, for example. I understand the usefulness of marking the passage of time, and how the current system is related to the sowing and harvesting of crops. But on a cosmic scale, a second is not tied to the earth's orbit around Sol, but vibrations of a cesium atom. Earth-days and earth-years can be built on top of that - which of course, means light years are also completely bogus units of measurement, as is the astronomical unit. A human birthday, then, is some arbitrary demarcation of time. There is nothing inherently celebratory about periods of 31,556,926 seconds after our birth, or death, or the publishing of a book.

Back to religion. So what if religion contributed to the development of a culture? The parts of a religion which explains natural phenomenon (for example, the kidnapping of Persephone causing winter) is being gradually supplanted by science. Keeping to the tradition of religion here has no benefits, both in descriptive ability and in technological progress.

Despite this, however, there is value in religion, for its societal, communal, and psychological effects. As Faye pointed out, it is also of historical importance. Therefore, I simultaneously disgree with Dawkins' total abolishment of religion and the embrace of religious irrationality. Rather, religion should exist as a community of support for people who need them, but it should stay away from the realms of science.

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