Religion "versus" Culture

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Over at Secular Right, a blogger calling himself David Hume makes the following interesting observation:

[Stephen] Prothero points out that religionists often use logical constructs to play word games which reinforce their in-group. Caste is not a problem with Hinduism per se, but is a cultural problem. The treatment of women is not a problem with Islam per se, but a cultural problem. The history of European anti-semitism was not an issue of religious conflict per se, but a detail of history.
Hume follows this up with a couple of other interesting observations that I have discussed here as well. These are (1) that religion is profoundly entangled with and shapes culture, and (2) that atheism often ends up incorrectly being regarded as a part and parcel of a particular (leftist/nihilist) worldview. (Follow the preceding links for what I have said about each of these points.)

Sadly, Hume follows the above up in part with the following impotent, bitter sentiment, variants of which are all too common among conservatives: "Of course most humans are too stupid to even spell 'philosophical,' ..."

I have discussed this folly as well from two completely different angles: (1) This is rude, and quite possibly untrue of anyone interested enough to read his post, but who is making up his own mind about something he is addressing. And (2), for anyone who might still be left, Hume offers no recourse since this outlook misses or ignores the importance of both free will and philosophical ideas, as if mere intelligence would lead everyone inexorably to the same conclusions all the time. In a way, though, these limitations are good news, for Hume's point is that man is incapable of objectivity, and he gets to it only after insulting practically everyone.

In any event, I found his first point interesting in that the metaphysical and ethical teachings of religion set the stage for the way religionists excuse their beliefs from any culpability. Religions teach a mind-body dichotomy, and with it a moral-practical dichotomy, which leaves men with little practical guidance in their daily, selfish affairs, aside from giving up to others the fruits of their labors. Furthermore, the ethical teachings of religions, such as they are, are laundry lists of commands -- rather than actual principles that can be rationally derived from or applied to one's daily life.

(Any secular cultural influence can provide even more cover by, for instance, causing many adherents to a religion to ignore certain more barbaric tenets -- and even regard acting upon those as "not really" part of their faith!)

So, what happens when someone acts barbarically based on an understandable conclusion drawn from, say, a learned antagonism to "infidels?" If it's not spelled out word-for-word, it's easy to write it off as being contrary to the faith. If it is, and most of the followers are somewhat secular, they (the horrified fellow believers), "don't really mean" for something like that to occur.

As I once said before, religion is an ideology. And ideologies, as motivators of behavior, have consequences.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

In your post you wrote;

Prothero points out that religionists often use logical constructs to play word games which reinforce their in-group. Caste is not a problem with Hinduism per se, but is a cultural problem. The treatment of women is not a problem with Islam per se, but a cultural problem.

Surely the best example in the last century has to be this from C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity."

I conclude then, that though the difference between people's ideas of Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of Behaviour at all, yet the things we are bound to think about these differences really prove just the opposite. But one word before I end. I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between difference of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, 'Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?' But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did — if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather — surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simple about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believes there were no mice in the house.

When I first read this in my teens, I was curious about why Lewis ignored the huge role the Church played in people thinking that witches were real and in removing the punishment for false accusations. Before Pope Innocent VIII (I think) if you made a false accusation of witchcraft you could face the same penalty as a witch. I have to say the contortions that defenders of the faith indulge in to explain away why his papal bull acted as the foreword to the "Hexenhammar" are interesting. In this bull he restores the inquisitorial powers to the author who had been stripped of his office by local authorities who actually had a clue. The great witch hunts of Europe also date from the publication of the Witches' Hammer.

C. Andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


I can't speak to Mere Chjristianity because I am unfamiliar with it, but I found the following summary of one of its arguments a hoot:

"Eventually [Lewis] arrives to Jesus Christ, and invokes a well-known argument now known as the 'Lewis trilemma'. Lewis, arguing that Jesus was claiming to be God, uses logic to advance three possibilities: either he really was God, was deliberately lying, or was not God but thought himself to be (which would make him delusional and likely insane). The book goes on to say that the latter two possibilities are not consistent with Jesus' character and it was most likely that he was being truthful."

I guess that settles it: I was wrong all along...

But, back to your post, you do raise interesting points regarding punishment for witchcraft, both in terms of how beliefs about the existence of witches bear on the question, and regarding the role of religion in both encouraging belief in witchcraft and in encouraging persecution of its alleged practitioners.


mtnrunner2 said...

Objectivists don't typically make the same mistake as certain commentators on religion, of thinking that religion consists only of concrete edicts taken from a sacred text.

As you say, religion is a set of abstract ideas, whose application usually explains the bizarre and destructive tendencies of its extremists.

I'd be more inclined to say that the more reasonable practitioners are the hypocrites, in a good way. That is, they are more rational than their religion.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good summary of what my position essentially is.