Sunday, February 01, 2009

Is Religion Bad For Us?

Well, it's epistemically bad to have unjustified beliefs, so there's that. But at least one study seems to indicate that religious societies are also morally worse than secular societies:
“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies."
No sense in trusting a single study about any subject though.

It's always been clear that religious belief was not necessary for morality, despite the fact that many Christians (Mr. Ratzinger, the current Pope, included) are fond of insisting otherwise. And if it should turn out that religion actually makes people morally worse it would come as no surprise to many of us.

Even if the conclusion of this study turns out to be correct, however, I don't see that it counts as any evidence against the truth of the God hypothesis. (And, of course, even if religion made people better, that wouldn't be evidence in favor of the hypothesis.) But I do think that such a conclusion would help to rob religion of a certain kind of psychological plausibility. I think many people do incorrectly assume that religion is the only thing standing between humanity and chaos. And so they think there is a practical need for religion, and--since they already want to believe--this is easily translated into illicit support for belief.

As a footnote, I've recently become more sympathetic to religion, especially when it's cast in terms of hope (or, perhaps, faith) rather than belief. Christianity attempts to bully its adherents into believing with threats of Hell, but this is not a necessary feature of religion...and, in fact, it seems to me that this ad baculum and the corresponding insistence on belief could be stripped out of Christianity without much loss. It'd be an improvement, actually. But there's really no need to focus on Christianity which, despite its insistence that it is the ultimate truth, is almost certainly--at best--just another fallible step (perhaps a step backwards) toward our understanding of certain enduring questions.


Blogger Spencer said...

I would be interested to know more about the method used in this study. How did they isolate religion among all the other possible correlates to other societal ills?

But even if they didn't, you are incorrect to attribute to Pope Benedict XVI the belief that Christian faith is necessary for morality.

At least, I think. The statement "faith is necessary for morality" can be understood in two ways. First, it can mean that faith is necessary to be moral at all. This would be the view of some hard-core Calvinists that the virtues of pagans are really only sins. The Pope would disagree with this statement. He holds rather to a Catholic understanding of natural law, which insists that the human conscience can distinguish right from wrong even without Christian revelation.

However, we can understand the claim "faith is necessary for morality" also to mean "faith is necessary for a full morality" in the way that any single component of the ethical life constitutes a necessary but not sufficient condition for morality. If there exists a God with whom we can and should relate, then we have moral obligations to that God just like we would have moral obligations to any other person with whom we can and should relate. It may be that faith is one such obligation. But the sufficient condition of the above hypothetical is just another way of asking the God question. It therefore turns out that this second version of the claim is merely a restatement of (one version of) the God question in ethical language.

Note that this latter interpretation of the claim that "faith is necessary for morality" (some version of which I take to be espoused by Pope Benedict) is much weaker than the first, and entails no proposition that would be falsified by the kind of study mentioned above.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

(Incidentally, I use "faith" rather than "belief" because faith is an act which can be implicit in a way that belief cannot. This allows for the possibility, generally acknowledged in Catholic theology, of an implicit act of faith which accompanies a sincere propositional disbelief in God.)

10:46 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

One more thing: I disagree that Christianity stripped of belief would be better.

Christianity as a placeholder for general human hopes provides some effective symbols, but on the whole, I would say, those symbols are too misleadingingly (if it is wrong) enmeshed in historic truth claims to be ultimately more useful than generic symbolic references to "God" or - perhaps better - "gods". If the more grandiose truth claims of Christianity are wrong, we'd be better off making use of some other symbols for hope less likely to be mistaken for claims of fact.

Only if it looks to faith as a supernatural (and therefore God-given) virtue can Christianity (I am tempted to say "religion", but I don't want to step past beyond my particular competency) hope for some kind of (externalistic) epistemic justification. And only if Christian theology rigorously adheres to its original act of faith and the objects thereof can that theology attain any modicum of epistemic plausibility. Or, since plausibility in this case will be a matter of perspective: the less it so adheres, the closer does Christian theology approach zero epistemic plausibility.

It seems to me that here we have a case of either all in or fold. But that's just as best as I can figure it out, and I could be wrong.

10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Christianity attempts to bully its adherents into believing with threats of Hell, but this is not a necessary feature of religion."

Bullying isn't a necessary feature of Christianity. In fact, Christianity is very nice. Karma is cosmic justice, and justice is good, but forgiving sins is something that we couldn't do on our own. Only God could be that stupid. Peace, brother.

Don't let the faith thing get you all aggravated. Faith is easy when you let your heart be soft, not hard. It's a lot more simple that it seems.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I think I stand corrected on the point about Ratzinger's view about the necessity for morality of a belief in God--thanks for that correction, Spencer.

He does say that you can't have a society with a full measure of social justice without "moral consensus" about fundamentals. This is a line I've heard Catholics of Mr. R's persuasion use before. It's hard to tell whether they mean that it's got to be consensus on *their* view, or whether consensus per se is enough. Either claim is false, but it'd be interesting to know...

Your second point, S, in the first post is very interesting, but doesn't it seem to be rather a cheat? I mean, doesn't that point entail that I'm missing something morally if I mistakenly think that ANY person doesn't exist when they actually do?

As for the points about faith: I've recently become interested in the epistemology of faith (now, whatever your view, you've GOT to admit that that sounds like bullshit...). Anyway, faith shows up in Peirce's early philosophy of science in very interesting ways. (He's a realist, but he doesn't think we can prove that realism is true; what he thinks is that we have (inter alia) something like faith that realism is true.) At any rate, I always had a pretty cartoonish view about faith: it was belief in something you couldn't prove. But it isn't, is it? or, at least, that's not the only view.

The question: if faith isn't belief (e.g. in something you can't prove) then what is it?

8:59 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Also, tho, Spencer, I, too, would like to see the methodology. Though frankly this is one question I'd almost rather not see answered. Almost inevitably either religion or non-religion will turn out to be better for people--it's unlikely that there will be a perfect tie. And once that information is out, whoever comes out on the winning side will inevitably use the information in illicit prudential arguments allegedly supporting the conclusion that their favored theory is true.

This is one case in which I'd (almost...) just as soon not know.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

As to the consensus on fundamentals bit, I think that he (the Pope) and others of similar mind would say that a truly just society needs to have a broad consensus on the basic moral principles of natural law. So, the consensus needs to be grounded in moral truth (relativism epistemic and moral being BXVI's personal bugbear). I haven't given that idea enough thought to weigh in on it. But I must admit that much natural law theory seems forced and simplistic (e.g., arguments against gay marriage).

Aquinas says that faith is a theological virtue motivated by the will that perfects the intellect. This definition of faith will serve for my purposes because a) it is representative of the Christian tradition on faith and b) it pretty well describes the experience of faith that I have had and am currently trying to articulate. I think that what Aquinas' definition does is present an externalist account of justification for religious belief. Let me take it apart.

First, faith is a theological virtue because it is given by God and is not able to be naturally acquired. That no person can have faith without divine grace indicates that faith is something other than simply believing without evidence.

Next, faith is a theological virtue because it perfects a power of the human mind. In this case, it perfects the intellect, by which Aquinas specifically means that part which contemplates eternal verities and no other (so faith does not perfect our ability to conduct empirical research). Also, we should note that by "perfects," Thomas means something more like "makes it better" than actually "brings it to a point than which nothing could be better" - faith is inferior to understanding, for instance.

This is tantamount to saying that faith is an act of the intellect which grants justification to certain religious beliefs. Because only God can give faith to an agent, and God does not lie, faith is an inherently reliable process of belief formation. However, one has no access to the fact that one has benefitted from this process other than the process itself. Therefore, Aquinas is providing something like a reliabilist account of faith.

Okay, but what position does this leave the believer in? After all, he still doesn't know if what he takes to be faith should be trusted. Here is where the will component of the definition comes into play (here I depart from Aquinas, mostly because I don't understand him really on this point). The initial grace of faith presents itself to the mind as something like a clear or forceful idea. One may embrace it or struggle against it. I hesitate to say "reject it" because it has been the experience of myself and others that the struggle against it never really effectively gets rid of it. Here, in thinking about it, I think of Peirce often: after the effort to do so, I have found myself unable to rid myself of the "forceful idea". I accept it in a way similar to the way I accept sense data - though I find myself incapable of actually proving the basic reliability of the process, I accede to it because I can't really do otherwise. So, I open my will to the action of faith on my intellect.

It is this openness of will, I take it, that is really meant when I or others talk of "implicit faith," "natural faith," "philosophical faith," or analogous faith. One's will can be open or closed to truth without being given the gift of explicit faith.

That's the short version. There are lots of holes (e.g., why would God not give the grace of faith to everyone?) and unclarities (I imagine the "forceful idea" being one of them), but that's more or less where I'm at in figuring out how to articulate an experience which I have had and seem to share with others in this particular religious tradition. I don't know if that's any better than "belief without evidence" in the end, but it seems a not wholly implausible view to me.

Anyways, there you go, for whatever its worth.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

Re: the methodology of the study.

It also seems a bit simplistic to put it in terms of "religion" or non-religion. Religion is so a diversified phenomenon as to be an unhelpfully broad category. It's not clear, for instance, that proving that Christianity is worse than secularism would get anywhere towards showing that Taoism is worse than secularism. (Granted, that doesn't help me make a case for Christianity, but it's probably a worthwhile distinction to make in the interests of truth.)

10:06 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Just as a first whack at this: do externalist accounts of justification seem plausible to you? I mean, externalist accounts of knowledge, maybe...but justification?

7:30 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

You two leave Daoism out of this. It didn't do anything to you.

8:44 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

BTW I always thought "faith" was one's conviction that a proposition which one cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt is nonetheless true.

So, faith is a certain kind of belief. It lacks strong rational justification necessary for philosophy, but it likely includes experiential justification or some other form of grounding - emotional perhaps being another example.

I wouldn't say faith is an act which grants justification to beliefs. I think the beliefs are without justification (in the philosophical sense), and that's what makes them faith.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say, I've had to go back and do a lot of re-reading of accounts of justification since this discussion.

Off the top of your head, can you think of a top 5 things on justification that an interested person could/should read? I've been looking in the Blackwell companion to epistemology, but some of it seems not to be that good. Especially the article on internalism and externalism.

2:17 PM  

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