In the West we were raised with a certain way of approaching disagreements. We internally call up the ancient Greek model of logic. “If A is true then not A is false.” This is a great way of thinking about certain questions. (In the East they are more comfortable with the idea that A and not A can both be true. For more on this read The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett.)
This logical formula starts to break down, however, when applied to imprecisely defined abstract notions.
As an example, let’s say I wanted to argue that Americans are good people. I could make a list of all of our good traits and conclude that we are great folks. The knee-jerk counter argument would be that Americans are bad people. You might list all of Americans rather annoying and destructive habits and conclude that Americans are jerks. Of course Americans are both good folks and jerks. In fact, depending on the type of day she has had, a single American might qualify as both a good person and a jerk.
There are a lot of these types of overly broad arguments when it comes to religion.
Is religion (or belief in God) good or bad for the world?
I have written a couple of articles on this subject before, (see Is Religion Good for You? and my review of Upton Sinclair) but the question of whether “religion” is good or bad is overly vague. What do you mean by “religion”? No one practices “religion” they practice particular religions. The way that people argue this question is generally by making a list of either good or bad outcomes of religious observance. Those on the good side focus on those things and write off terrorism, closed mindedness and other negative aspects of religion as being “fanaticism” or “not real religion” or “a perversion of real religion.”
Whereas those who argue that religion is bad will dismiss the positive role that religion plays for many people or the positive things organized religious people can do. Religions are made up of human beings and as such are, like people, both good and bad. It may make sense to argue whether a particular belief or practice is generally positive or negative and in what specific way, but arguing over religion as a whole seems far too vague to be useful. Those who argue in favor of religion do not need to deny that the Crusades and modern terrorism have religious motivations. On the other hand, if religion did not exist human nature would not change. Fanatics would still be produced. They would just be motivated by some other grand calling. Likewise, the sense of the divine and the deep meaning that practicing worship in community has for people should not be written off by the non-religious. On the other hand, the religious should not assume that those who are not religious have no access to meaningful experience or any framework for ethics. Morality is not only a property of religion.
2. Is human nature essentially sinful or essentially good?
Human beings are essentially human. One of our biggest challenges as human beings is figuring out how to get along with all those other people. It can be hard. Not only are those other people completely unreasonable so much of the time, but we’re not really a picnic either. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine a life without other people. A life of complete solitude would be meaningless. Other people, in all their complexity, give meaning to our lives. They give us love, they are sometimes compassionate and graceful and can inspire us and support us. We all have our sinful moments. The word “sin” means to fall short. We all fall short of our highest aspirations from time to time. On the other hand, we often live up to them, even surpass them. To focus on the fact that we fall short and to define human nature as falling short is only half of the picture. And while we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, we have to admit that human beings are not only good and have the capacity for bad as well.
Which is more important tradition or progress?
This is one that I find a great deal in the gay marriage debate. Those who are opposed often argue that the law should not be changed because it goes against tradition. The underlying assumption is that tradition is, by definition, good. As with religion, there is no one thing called “tradition.” Rather, there are many traditions. It was traditional for barbers to treat illness with bloodletting. It was traditional to perform animal sacrifices. It was traditional to consider wives to be property. It was traditional to wear powdered wigs and corsets. These are all traditions we’ve decided we no longer need. The question should not be “is it traditional” but “is it a tradition worth keeping?” I think we can safely put animal sacrifice into the “not worth keeping” category without getting rid of traditions that are worth keeping like devotional art, the mass or Passover Seder. The other side of this is that not every change is progress. The Germans have a word “schlimbesserung.” It means “a so called improvement that actually makes things worse.” Arguing that something is the “modern world view” is not the same as saying it is better than the previous world view. The question is not is this traditional or is this modern. It is rather is this a valuable practice or not? Why or why not? (See my other articles on tradition here and here.)