07 October 2005

Ain't no use arguin' about religion

My nephew, an evangelical Christian, suggested I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, I suppose to encourage me, whom he knows to subscribe to Buddhist teachings, to at least have a better idea where his faith comes from. I’d actually read the book, or part of it, years ago, but I dutifully went out and found an old copy and read it. I can’t say I found it particularly profound. Professor Lewis, in the first part of the book, The Case for Christianity, tries to prove the truth of his religion in six sentences or so, but this seemed like a series of non-sequiturs to me. The conclusion was foregone. The rest of the book presumes at least a degree of acceptance of the basic premises, i.e. that the World was created by God, that he sent his Son, begotten not made, to Earth to save us, etc. He seems to be trying to make a logical case for belief in his religion, but I think his task is impossible, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t succeed. It isn’t that Christianity is any more difficult to prove logically, it’s just that religion, by practical definition, must transcend rational issues like real-world proof of its premises. Acceptance must be based on something other than… (more than, if you prefer) ... reason.

I suggested to my nephew nothing in return, not because there aren't useful commentaries on what I believe, but because I have no desire to try to convince him or any Christian of anything, or to question, or try to induce them to question, their beliefs. I’m perfectly content for to have different religious views from my friends and relatives, and only hope that they can be marked by mutual respect. Of course, no one follows, to any considerable extent, a religious tradition, without being convinced that it comes closer to Truth with a capital T than other traditions. That doesn’t mean, though, that he can’t respect those who have come to different conclusions, even if he believes they would be better off if they believed as he does, which of course is equally inevitable.

I think it is inherent in any religion, to at least some degree, that intuition, (or faith, if you prefer), is involved. Thus, the holding of belief or practice is in some degree dependent upon logically or factually indefensible acceptance of specific statements of belief taught or related by past spiritual teachers on whom one chooses to rely. Religious doctrine, again all but by definition, will necessarily contain that which is not falsifiable (or verifiable), and which is necessarily open to the charge, by those who choose not to believe in it, of being arbitrary. Were it otherwise, the doctrine under examination would be provably true, and would cross over from being religion to being science, and denial of such doctrine would go from being an intellectually defensible difference of choice to being mere stupidity. Yet most (not all) people find that if all they are willing to accept, or practice, must be derived from that which can be verified, i.e., that which is science, there is something missing, something important to their well-being. Thus, they make a conscious (or sometimes unconscious) choice to rely on intuition, or faith, and accept as true certain spiritual elements which they find irresistible, regardless of proof. In simpler terms, they choose to believe something not because it’s provably true, but because it seems to them that it just must be true; i.e. they feel it to be true. As an aside, the fact that many of these spiritual elements are in fact common to most spiritual traditions is at least suggestive of their universal truth.

Still, this lack of possibility of proof of spiritual belief is the uncrackable nut: just as the old saw says de gustibus non est disputandum, it is equally true that you can’t usefully argue logically about faith, or intuitive belief. These are ultimately personal matters, apart from the ethical and moral standards which we accept as societal conventions in the interests of public order, insisting not on belief in their truth but in obedience to their form, under compulsion, as the price of living in society. This is the borderland not between religion and science but between religion and law, which of course gives rise to a whole series of other disagreements, based on how people view ethics, but these cross the frontiers of religious categories as well.

Sometimes someone (usually a young person) is seeking something, and is open to suggestion about matters of intuition or faith. And sometimes people’s beliefs gradually evolve, or even spontaneously and suddenly change, in a process common enough that there’s a word for it: epiphany. But usually there are no logical arguments, and no amount of cajoling, short of brainwashing techniques, which will convince someone to change his mind about these essentially non-rational beliefs, on which all religions ultimately rely to at least some extent.

1 comment:

  1. Everyone knows that the only true religion is the First Reformed Church of Latter Day Pentacostal Angli-Methodists (I tried to find the exact quote from Reverend Lovejoy but I had to go from memory). Another good one is "What if we pick the wrong religion? God just gets madder and madder every Sunday" - Homer Simpson


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