Questions for Men and Women of Faith and for Skeptics

Often when people talk about religion the discussion gets really boring because religious and anti-religious people have been arguing at each other in the West for four hundred years and everybody knows the moves and the counter-moves.  I think it’s better (more interesting, more likely to lead to a fruitful, mutually respectful discussion) to ask religious people what they do about people who are too religious (or religious in the wrong sort of way), and skeptical people what they do about people who are too skeptical (or skeptical about the wrong sort of thing).

If somebody is a Breslover Hasid and says the modern world has too little faith and the like faith, ask “What do you say to a follower of Pure Land Buddhism?”

If somebody is a religious skeptic like Bertrand Russell ask “Is there any position that if someone you loved decided to deny its truth would cause you pain, even though you can’t prove that it’s true?  If you love peace, how would you talk to your child if he said “Dad, I love and live for the thrill of war?”

Both the religious and the anti-religious have a sort of Maginot line in place pointed at the other side.  It’s interesting to creep around the flank and see how the left-side guards against its left side and the right side against its right.

At the end of the day I think this investigation will show us that “religion” (and thus anti-religion) is a poorly defined concept and we will have to seek out sharper ways of delineating what sort of propositions people are willing to take big bets on — sometimes life-sized ones.


4 thoughts on “Questions for Men and Women of Faith and for Skeptics

  1. pbasch says:

    Interesting take… I was listening to Sam Harris interview Deeyah Kahn, and they have very different approaches. She goes to the extremists and listens to them. Sam debates them on their ideas. I think she has the right idea. Sam is convinced about the “power of ideas”, while I suspect that community and identity are more important than ideas, except insofar as the words you say identify you. Any religion at all has a sufficiently large “idea” bank, that you can pick and choose whatever you wish to justify whatever you want to do.

  2. I consider myself religious, but as you observe, the idea is ill-defined and has different meanings for different people. To me, it means belief in a transcendent moral order ordained in some manner by a transcendent consciousness, as well as the believers’ personal commitment to live consistently with that moral order. Those beliefs and commitments are reinforced by rituals and stories that a community of believers shares. Their rituals and stories are a big part of what differentiates religious communities from each other.

    On the other hand, I know an Orthodox rabbi who once told me with total assurance that certain passages in the Book of Jeremiah were talking about World War II. To me that’s incredible: both the belief itself and the fact that the rabbi believed it. However, he is a decent man who works for a living, obeys the law, and has all the usual virtues one would associate with a good person. So if incredible beliefs like that support him being the good person he is, I think it’s fine, even if I don’t share his beliefs. The place I draw a line is where beliefs cause people to harm themselves or others. But in that case, it’s not the beliefs *per se*, but the harm that’s at issue.

    The social function of religious (and “anti-religious”) belief systems is to unite believers into a cohesive, orderly community that can survive and prosper in competition with other such communities. I put “anti-religious” in scare quotes because in order to be anti-religious, one must have a belief system at least comprehensive enough to deny the claims of the religion toward which one is “anti” — in other words, one part of what makes a religion. Add the fact that anti-religious people tend to form communities similar to those of religious communities, in which they reinforce each other’s anti-religious beliefs, and you have what amounts to a religion, regardless of how “anti” its communicants think it is.

    I have beliefs whose denial by certain people would cause me pain, but they’re not typically religious or philosophical beliefs. If a loved one believed things that would lead to harm, it would distress me (as it occasionally does).

  3. “But doesn’t all life have conflict inherent to it? So you are really saying you love life?”

    “Nah, I really like the idea of killing!”


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