Thursday, October 20, 2011

Everything In Moderation? Maybe Not.*

Many religions, especially the three Abrahamic religions, claim their scriptures are inerrant and infallible. They cannot be wrong.  They cannot be challenged.  They are the Word of God.  End of conversation. To many adherents of scripture any critical thought, corrections, refutations and discussions of the Torah, Bible (Old and New Testaments) or the Qur’an are not only objectionable, but they are considered heresy (FYI: “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikos which means “able to choose.” Neat!).  Obviously not all believers think the scriptures are inerrant.  Many moderate, relativist believers see them as allegory and metaphor.  While this is commonplace and accepted in the modern world, it is a slippery slope.  So-called “moderate” religious beliefs are the product of cognitive dissonance that allows obviously irrational religious beliefs, which are incompatible with reality, to continue by altering some specifics to preserve the core beliefs. This is despite evidence to the contrary that the beliefs have any basis to begin with. To explain this I’ll use the following:

  1. Belief that religious scripture is 100% correct is provably false.
  2. Belief that religious scripture is allegory is OK because it cannot be falsified.
  3. Original belief upheld since religious scripture is allegory and therefore cannot be falsified.

This is how cognitive dissonance works. When something is provably false it is not abandoned. It is altered so the psyche does not have to deal with process of reevaluating everything it believes about reality. In situations where cognitive dissonance produces so much conflict that the belief cannot simply be altered, a process called “doublethink” occurs. This allows the mind to hold to contradictory ideas or concepts in the mind simultaneously, thereby ignoring the dissonance. Such as saying you are one religion, but other religions are OK. Why are either coping mechanisms necessary? The basis of the religious belief, and therefore religion, is that the scriptures are true. If they are not true then there is no basis for religious belief and religion. This is simplistic, but accurate.
First, let us discuss what is considered inerrant and infallible.  Let us start yet
another post with definitions. I like the dictionary.  I am a nerd.  

Inerrancy – noun  
  1. lack of error; infallibility.
  2. the belief that the Bible is free from error in matters of science as well as those of faith.

Infallible – adjective  
  1. absolutely trustworthy or sure: an infallible rule.
  2. unfailing in effectiveness or operation; certain: an infallible remedy.
  3. not fallible; exempt from liability to error, as persons, their judgment, or pronouncements: an infallible principle.
  4. Roman Catholic Church. immune from fallacy or liability to error in expounding matters of faith or morals by virtue of the promise made by Christ to the Church.

Followers of a religion must have faith that the scriptures are inerrant and/or infallible otherwise what would the authority of their religions be?**  The written scriptures are the only link to the ancient and supposed events, people and rules so they are paramount to belief systems.  I would venture an educated guess that very few, if any, organized religions do not have sacred texts of some sort.  Oral tradition is too fluid.  The stories change from retelling to retelling and person to person.  You cannot have concrete, unchanging ideas and authority without the written word.  The written word was likely concurrent with early stages of social evolution into larger and more complex, organized human groups.  I don’t think that it was a coincidence that religion shifted from animism and naturalism to organized religions of gods, and eventually in some cases God, around the same time and places as the earliest civilizations that included writing and social and political hierarchy.  Writing stabilizes ideas.  It allows an idea to be spread, relatively unchanged, to other people.  It’s when these written ideas and beliefs become static and are seen as sacred that they become dogmatic scripture. The beginning of any threat to knowledge, science and progress is dogma.

As seen in the definition above, there is a difference between the
inerrancy of scripture and the infallibility of scripture.  For example, in discussing the Christian Bible, Stephen T. Davis states in his book The Debate about the Bible: Inerrancy versus Infallibility:

"The Bible is inerrant if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever. The Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice."  

It is important to note and understand this difference as this is where many believers split between so-called “Fundamentalists” and “Relativists” or between the literal truth versus allegorical truth.
Fundamentalist religion asserts itself when someone believes their scriptures are inerrant as the absolute Truth and the Word of God. With inerrancy, we get Christian Nationalism/theocracy (Dominionism, New Apostolic Reformation, etc.), the Taliban, Creationism, Inquisitions, Sharia Law, genocide, war, slavery, justifications to discriminate or persecute women, homosexuals, non-believers, and a host of other backwards, oppressive and intolerant beliefs.  These beliefs persist despite evidence to the contrary through complete denial of fact and willful ignorance.  When beliefs cannot be questioned and ideas cannot be challenged, you get religious authoritarianism.  Power is unchallengeable and in the hands of one leader (God or his “appointed” leader) or a few leaders (self-appointed religious leaders). The inerrancy of religious texts is so obviously incorrect to most educated people that mainstream Western society largely dismisses these ideas. Actually it is more accurate to state that they are politely ignored. They are very rarely challenged. Not really. Hence…

Infallible concepts of scripture teach that it doesn't matter what historical or factual basis scripture has; it is the content of the teachings that are perfect.  For example; the story of Job may not have actually happened, but that does not matter.  What matters is that everyone should try to emulate Job’s humility and servitude to God.  Simply due to its flexibility, allegorical thinking tends towards what is considered moderate religious beliefs since there is room to ignore historical and natural inaccuracies. It is now provably true that the world is older than 6000 years.  It is provably true that life on Earth has evolved.  It is now obvious that slavery is bad and so on.  Moderate believers recognize that scripture was written millennia ago by people and cultures very different from our own and that they had little to no understanding of how the word and the universe worked.

logical problems with “allegorical scripture” and moderate belief in general are that once one starts to pull at the strings of scripture and calling it allegory, the basis for faith unravels. What is faith based on if not scripture? If the scripture is not the Word of God (i.e. your evidence) and is considered written by man and to be viewed as allegory; how can one base an entire rigid religious system on such likely flawed and open to interpretation documents?  That would work as philosophy, but it makes no sense for religion.  This mindset of “scripture as unimportant” is a growing attitude within relativistic, moderate religion.  This view of scripture has become a staple for apologists in defense of their religions and in defense of the religious who are ignorant of their religion.

Moderate religious faith ignores the basis of religion which is fundamental and absolute belief. The basis for religion is devotion to ideas and behaviours that are flat-out wrong. Plan and simple. In doing so, moderate religionists can never really challenge their deluded and sometimes dangerous counterparts. To use a cliche, it would be like looking into a funhouse mirror. The image is all warped and crazy, but it is still you.

Examples of this mindset show up in two op-eds critical of the
Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Two religious apologist’s articles (Media Images of Religious Americans: Elitist, Condescending and Wrong and Test Your Saavy on Religion) make the case that religious knowledge is not important.  This is an after-the-fact rationalization, of course. Had the results been reversed with atheists scoring poorly with the religious getting high marks there would be much rejoicing and lo, it would have been good.  The former op-ed article irritated me so much I couldn't help but fire off a quick post in response immediately after reading it.  Please see Dissecting a Theist’s Strawman for my specific response.  

The latter op-ed piece included the author’s own attempt at a religion quiz.  The problem with his quiz is that it had obtuse questions and a clearly stated agenda as the author himself stated:
“ you’ll see, there’s a larger point to this quiz.”  This is a fundamental problem for the author’s premise.  The Pew Research Center’s quiz, as a tool in an objective study, had no agenda.  It asked neutral questions to gauge the religious knowledge of the respondents.  It did not care what the answers were, what the respondents “got out of the quiz”, or what the data revealed.  The author further embarrasses himself with the following statement:

...the point of this little quiz is that religion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, and that we should be wary of rushing to inflammatory conclusions about any faith, especially based on cherry-picking texts. The most crucial element is perhaps not what is in our scriptures, but what is in our hearts (emphasis added).

Again, if the scriptures are so unimportant then what is the basis of belief? In all organized religions, the entire basis of each religion is scripture.  Every law and story is meant to convey holy information. How can this be justifiably ignored by the righteous? Obviously, I am playing devil’s advocate here.  I think these scriptures are wildly inaccurate and convey false information about our origins, morality, and “afterlife” which adversely affects our ability to coexist and prosper in the only life we have here on Earth.  

The larger problem with moderate religious views is that they enable detrimental beliefs, both moderate and fundamentalist, to continue within society when they should at the very least be discussed openly and honestly by their proponents.  This is not happening and it is why we have many of our largest social conflicts.  If the moderate religionist would step back and evaluate what they believe and why they believe it (as in
“what are you basing that belief on if not scripture?”) then they might see their cognitive dissonance at work.  This may not necessarily cause them to discard their religion, but to honestly evaluate what it is they defend.  This is important in that they would, presumably, acknowledge how destructive their Fundamentalist “cousins” are and become a louder voice in the Culture Wars on the side of Reason.  The stereotype of the “angry atheist that wants to destroy religion” is untrue. Most  vitriol from atheists is borne from the constant slander and attacks on their character (or worse) from those who see apostasy and non-belief as evil.  The irreligious have been seen as the enemy of faith for centuries.  That fact and the very real and obvious detours from reality that are defended or forced on others is wholly unacceptable. What is disconcerting to atheists is the rejection of reason, logic and science in society. Atheists may not like religion any more than a believer doesn't like an atheist’s lack of belief.  Fine.  The reality is that neither is going away.  We really do need to be able to coexist. What cannot be allowed to happen is to let backwards, hateful, fundamentalist religion, of any sort, take over and eventually destroy our society.  

I just want to end this post with some questions for any believers potentially reading this post.  I don't think any atheists would have to contemplate it for too long.  What do you really think would happen if the United States of America were to allow any religion to establish itself in the government?  Would it be your religion? Would it be your specific sect of your religion? Would laws be based on your religion? Would our educational institutions be allowed to teach anything outside of that established religion’s dogma?  Would there be any groups that this religion decrees as “evil”?  What do you think would happen to these groups?  It’s not too much of a reach to look at some other countries and see where it would lead to in a short amount of time.  Open your eyes.  They would eventually come for you too.

*This essay was originally published on October 21, 2010. It is a heavily revised and updated version of an older post of mine. For more on moderate religious beliefs please see my more recent essay dealing with why moderate religion doesn't make sense from a religious standpoint The Doublethink of Liberal Theology.

**This excludes the type of believer that “just, like, feels like God or something exists, maaaan.” They fall under a subset of liberal theology in a belief system category that I like to call “why not?” They aren't really part of a larger religion. They are just culturally influenced to put it in those terms.