On the Other Hand: Nonsense Questions We Keep Debating

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.)


The opening sequence of the film (and the play) Fiddler on the Roof features Tevye joyously and unforgettably celebrating his culture’s traditions.

On the surface, Fiddler on the Roof is about a Jewish community in early 20th Century Czarist Russia.  More essentially, however, it is about the conflict between tradition and change.  Which traditions are simply outmoded and which are essential to our sense of history and balance as a community?  How do you allow for positive change without losing the value that comes with tradition?

One of the vital roles that religion plays in society is tradition keeper.  In the church and other religious institutions people record and remember the every day lives of their members.  The history that is kept in church is different from that taught in schools.  It is not the history of monarchs, kings, politicians and powerful political and economic interests.  It is the history of our seasons, our harvests, our births and deaths.  This is where our sacred ordinary lives are recorded, if not in name, in rituals that tie generations together.

The other side of this, however, is that in its role as tradition keeper, the religious institution tends to be the segment of society most resistant to social change. 

As Mark Twain wrote: “Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch — the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it has persuaded them to do.”

Does this tendency towards inflexibility mean that religion is inherently outmoded or bad? I do not think so.

The problem I see with the idealistic atheist argument, most poetically rendered in John Lennon’s Imagine, is the assumption that if you eliminated religion all of the world’s people would live together in peace.  If you eliminated religion you would change human nature.

If there were no religion we would still have all of the conflicts that arise when people try to come together in community.  There would still be tension between the needs and desires of the individual vs. the demands of society.  How much should a person compromise to get along?  When is conformity positive courtesy that allows a community to have a cohesive sense of being “us,” and when is the demand to conform simply wrong? 

If there were no religion, you might not have Catholics fighting Protestants or Muslims fighting Jews, but you would still have cultures and communities with traditions and ideologies that would inevitably come into conflict with those of the neighbors. You might be able to eliminate the use of sacred texts that would allow each group to claim “God is on our side,” but you would not eliminate certainty, inflexibility, and passionate belief in conflicting ideologies.  (Think Republican vs. Democrat.  They do quite well at vilifying each other without a Republican or Democratic Bible.)

This is not an argument for God or religion, nor against them.  What I am saying is that the question of whether “religion” is “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic and will not yield much in the long run.  It is more likely to serve as a distraction from the real underlying question of the role of the individual in society. 

"Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

Review of The God Delusion by Terry Eagleton

"Listening [to an atheist and a priest agree on these questions] made me realize that disagreement, with at least a little emotional heat, is useful. It provides the listener with a sense of what’s at stake. Friction grips. It’s perhaps why…the Bible’s many conflicts and arguments are not embarrassments, but are necessary as the substance that has brought the people of the book to where they are with God."

— Mark Vernon

Is Religion Good for You? The Question is Wrong.

In the Huffington Post today Victor Stenger takes to task studies that link health benefits with religious observance and asks whether or not religion provides a health benefit.  He concludes:

Religion blinds, deafens, and numbs us to the reality around us and though this may temporarily soothe our anxieties, like drugs or alcohol, there is a painful price to be paid down the road for such cowardly denial and self-defeating ignorance. Not only can we be both well and good without God, we can be better.

My problem with this kind of analysis is that it considers “religion” to be a single entity.  Some religions may numb, deafen and blind people to reality and soothe anxieties.  On the other hand, I correspond with people whose faith has led them to social work with prisoners, the homeless, those who are in pain and dying.  This is not a form of religion based on comfort or the avoidance of unpleasantness.

In arguing against the dangers of “religion” Stenger writes: “The idea that you will live forever gives you a false sense of a glorious self that leads to extreme self-centeredness in this life. Furthermore, you may live in constant fear that any sin you might have committed will condemn you to an eternity of suffering in hell.”

This belief he criticizes, of Heaven and Hell, eternal punishment or reward, is not a description of all religious belief.  The Hindu ideal, for example, is not to earn an eternal life but to escape the endless cycle of birth and death.  Buddism does not have Heaven and Hell.  Heaven and Hell are not even the main focus of all Christian belief.  

Stenger notes that if you are religious you “may not exercise your own best judgment in matters and allow yourself to be controlled others who claim sacred authority.”

This is true.  People are at risk of not thinking for themselves and giving others authority over them.  This is not only true of religious cultures but of secular cultures.  There are many ways in which our American consumer culture causes us to give others authority over our manner of thought.

When you argue against giving others authority over individual thought, does this extend to any system of belief or practice that comes from a community, for example your ethnic or national culture, your social class, your education, constant bombardment of marketing messages? 

Again, there are some forms of religion that ask people to follow the authority of religious leaders without question.  But this is not true of all “religion.”  The Jewish faith asks its followers to submit to right practice, but it also has a long tradition of argumentation, debate and questioning of the meaning of its sacred texts.  Unitarian Universalists have built their whole religion on questioning.  They don’t require any fixed belief- up to and including belief in God— they only “affirm and promote” various ideals such as “the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.” 

No one is generically “religious.”  No one believes in “religion.”  Rather individuals believe in a religion or they practice a particular form of faith or worship.  (Not all religions are based on correct belief, many are based on correct practice.) 

I agree that it is probably right to debunk studies that ask if “religion” is healthy.  It is far too broad a question to be meaningful. By religious do you mean attending church (in which case the community involvement may provide the benefit), meditating, prayer, dietary restrictions, sexual prohibitions?  Does “religious” mean reading theology and studying great works of devotional art, poetry and music?  Does it mean belonging to a group with a sacred text or does it mean expressing appreciation for nature through ritual dance and sacred feasts?  Does religious mean Christian or Muslim or pagan or Buddhist? 

In find that I generally agree with atheists in the type of religion they do not believe in.  The God they do not believe in, the one that denies scientific fact and asks people to turn over their lives to an authority, to stop thinking and feel secure knowing that they will be rewarded, is one I cannot believe in either.  It is also one that many religious people do not believe in.