Sunday, February 6, 2011

Religion and Rhetoric

[Recently I've been reading a lot of philosophical anarchism, which is all about questioning the authority of the state. Locke, Nozick, and others make sophisticated arguments to defend the legitimacy of the state's authority. No one seems to be doing the same for religion, though. This is my attempt at filling that gap. Comments are very welcome.]

Where does religion's authority come from? All religions proclaim to tell the Truth, but if you are to ask an average religious person why you should believe they'll say, because The Holy Book said so. If you question further they'll say, you just need to have to have faith. The discusion usually stops there. Intelligent people, who need to have good reason before believing in something, have naturally come to have totally written off religion. 

I think people who offer these sorts of explanations do religion a large disservice. It's mispresentation, really. This answer is the child's answer, but for some reason it's still pretty much the only one offered to curious and skeptical people.

The adult answer grounds itself in the idea that religion is rhetoric. Religion is essentially an argument for a way of life, and like all arguments it needs to develop its logos, pathos, and ethos. The first two elements are obvious components of religions. It's the last one, ethos, that seems more elusive.

So where is the appeal to ethos in religion? The answer is that it comes from the same place that ethos always comes from: the identity of the speaker. What religious leaders so often fail to mention—and what holds religion together in the first place—is the credibility, respect, and trustworthiness of both the founder of the religion and the religious leaders who maintain it. If religious figureheads preach a standard that they don't live up to themselves, then thinking people will naturally reject that religion as false.

In Hinduism, there is a saying: When the student asks for guidance, the teacher tells her to go to the Scripture, and the Scripture tells her to go to the teacher. The idea is that the two are mutually reinforcing; the theoretical ideas of moral behavior find a living example in the teacher.

The purpose of religion is to make us better human beings. It's a system for self-improvement and inner development and transformation. Of course, people may become worse in the name of religion, but there are also lots of quiet but inspiring inner self-unfoldments taking place because of it too. Swami Chinmayananda, my own spiritual teacher, made the point that we can't judge religion by how bad religious people are, since after all if they had nothing to improve upon then religion would do them any good. Instead, he said, we should focus on the before-and-after, i.e. how much did they change by sincerely applying religious practices. That's the real test. In that sense, if there is even one person who has achieved significant self-improvement, then that validates the religion: it means that the religion, as a system for self-improvement, actually works.

Faith plays an important role in religion, but it's hardly anything more special than the faith we require to function in everyday life. In religion we need faith because we can't travel back in time to verify the accuracy of scriptures; because we have to trust our religious advisors; and, most importantly, because sometimes religious doctrine contradicts our intuitions. But we also have faith the same kind of faith in the science textbooks we use, in our spouses, and in our doctors and our medicines. It's nothing new.

Thus, choosing to follow a religion can be a very reasonable, considered decision. If I see that in history certain spiritual men and women have led unparalleled moral lives, and that they explain their thought processes, and that many people over the centuries have come to live great, inspired lives by following this system, then these present good reasons to me for trying the religion too. Why not? I can always test it out for a year, sincerely, under the direction of knowledgeable people, and see if it produces any results.

So where does religious authority come from? Consent, of course (the same place political authority comes from). We give religion our consent when we decide that sometimes religion knows what we want from life and how to achieve it more so than our own (faulty) intuitions do.


  1. Hey, this is Ethan. This seems like a very level-headed discussion of religion (which is, obviously, a rarity these days), and I'd like to thank you for posting it.

    The idea of a before-and-after test for religions is a good impulse; after all, that's part of the standard for medicine. However, in the development of (good, reliably useful) medicine there is also the concept of the placebo, which applies to behavioral and psychological interventions as well. Simply focusing on one's behavior and knowing/thinking that an observer is too can have a profound effect, regardless of whether all the advice given is moral, true, or even followed by the subject. Religion and supernatural accounts of spirituality and morality indeed do help some people become better people, but it is not a necessary ingredient, and the betterment of its subjects doesn't give strong evidence for the religion's truth or efficacy. (One last point on this: it can be seen as a tad biased to claim all the improvements for religion, but blame all the out-group discrimination and anti-life practices on human nature: the value of a medicine is mitigated by the severity of its side-effects.)

  2. (Part two: the comment system thinks I'm being a bit wordy ;))

    I also have one qualm with your comparison between the faith required to understand science and the kind required to understand religion (namely, supernatural claims. "faith" may be required to know whether Plato or Socrates is responsible for a particular bit of philosophy, but the reasoning should stand on its own, so that sort of historical reasoning is unnecessary.) In science, there are innumerable counter-intuitive claims, many possibly flawed or contradictory experts, and many subjects (e.g. abiogenesis and astronomy) which are impossible to study directly or experiment on conventionally, as they are too far back in time. And indeed, a lay person may have the same reasoning model for believing that e=mc squared as they do for believing that jesus died and rose from the grave: so it has been written, so I have been told, so it is.

    The appeal to scientific authority, however, does not stop at the most famous speaker for a theory: it has the virtue of being falsifiable. For every bickering scientist claiming that their way is the only truth, there are empirical predictions made which, if they turn out to be false, would wreck the theory. In the early 1900s, scientists believed that light wasn't affected by gravity, and that Einstein's theory was therefore false. But in 1919, during a solar eclipse, the observation was made that light from a distant star bent around the sun, thus lining up with general relativity's predictions and falsifying the old physics.

    Many of religion's factual claims (e.g. God created the earth in seven days; humans differ from animals because humans have souls) are held until science comes up with contradictory evidence. However, rather than accepting that bad factual claims are evidence that religion might be in the wrong, mainstream religion recedes into areas of metaphor, metaphysics, and whatever realms of the empirical that science has yet to dissect (e.g., God created the earth in seven eras of some sort, and in a different order than Genesis predicts, and also made bacteria and viruses and quarks at some point, but he definitely created the universe; humans differ from animals because of their brains, which can account for every psychological and behavioral observance, but also have souls which provide eternal life, unlike animals.) The net result is often a "God of the gaps" approach, where religions only seek to account for that which science hasn't yet. Why don't we have gods for thunder and fire, or for stomachs and embalming, as the Greeks and Egyptians did, respectively? Because science has explained these phenomena to our satisfaction. Why do modern gods cover morality, the beginning of life and the universe, human emotions and transcendence, and the metaphysics of life-after-death? Because science hasn't gotten there yet.

    I hope I haven't been too brash -- I'm clearly pretty passionate about the philosophy of religion, and I'd love to discuss this with you further.


  3. It seems that under your viewpoint, religion is little more than a self-help system. But if I agree with the ten commandments yet do not believe in the Bible's account of creation or that supernatural miracles actually occurred and will occur, if I accept Jesus' teachings as good but deny his holy status, am I really a Christian? I have essentially done what Thomas Jefferson did (his version of the Bible, lying around in some museum, is severely abridged to include mostly the teachings of Jesus).

    I think the faith religion demands from us is different from the faith we have in our automobile (that it will get us where we need to go) or our diet programs (that it will improve our body and health). Faith in our science textbooks and doctors is always conditional, and the conditions are very very specific. I cannot seriously demand of religion that it improve the number of friends I have if I am to give it my faith. Perhaps going the faith route is the best way to get the masses to be moral, but an intelligent, thinking person has to wonder if it can offer what it claims it does.