9/16/09

Defense by Decimation

It's always good to keep myself away from the endless wrangling at religion websites, but I've fallen off the wagon, yet again. I'm intrigued by what Karen Armstrong has to say in defense of religion here. I think I'll read her forthcoming book before making up my mind. But here's another defender, with a not entirely different strategy. Armstrong and Josh Rosenau are both engaged in a kind of defense by decimation. First you cut down the pretensions of religion; then you say religion is alright.

Rosenau says that if religious scripture doesn't deliver scientific knowledge, like a physics textbook, it can still deliver some kind of knowledge. It can deliver knowledge like novels do. Quoting another blogger, he writes:
Vampire stories tell us, for example, than any of us can have great power if only we are willing to prey on others. Feed off the blood of others and great power will be yours. This is demonstrably true. It's how the pyramids were built. And Standard Oil.
We could get very confused here if we didn't make a distinction. When you understand fiction as fiction, you understand that it's true in vampire stories that there are vampires. What's true out there is only that power can come from preying on others. If you don't separate truth-in-fiction from truth-out-there, you're liable to make mistakes. Maybe you'll go around looking for vampires to hang out with, in the hopes of getting bitten by one and living forever.

So what's Rosenau saying? Maybe he's saying that there's an element of actual religion that's salvageable, even if the claims about miracles and the supernatural are false. If everyone would just recognize scripture as fiction, religion would be a good thing--at least the religions that involve good, edifying fictions. The truths in these fictions would stay safely in the fictions, and the edifying lessons would be learned. These are lessons about human psychology, morality, happiness, and much else. I agree with him that fiction makes us smarter and wiser, and that scripture-as-fiction sometimes has something to teach. (And I think some of his critics -- here and here -- are just missing the point.)

But he seems to be saying more. He argues that Jews have been understanding the bible non-literally for thousands of years, quoting Maimonides. He points out that Augustine also defends biblical non-literalism. He at least very nearly seems to say that religious folk already do recognize scripture as fiction, making the necessary distinctions between truth-in- fiction and truth-out-there, and placing the right things in each category.

But Jews and Christians, even of the most liberal sort, don't think of scripture simply as fiction. They certainly don't think of God as a fictional entity, like a vampire. If they read it as fiction at all, Jews read the bible as a sort of historical fiction. In that genre, the goal is to represent real things and happenings, but there is also fabrication and embellishment. Liberal Christians could take the same view of the New Testament. The most liberal take the realities represented in a very abstract way. A liberal Christian friend of mine once told me her faith did not depend on there being an actual, historical crucifixion and resurrection. Christ really did die for our sins, and we really are saved, but in some less that solid "bricks and mortar" sense. (Frankly, I didn't understand what she meant.) Liberal Jews don't think Moses met God on a mountain top, but still think there really is a covenant between God and the Jewish people, and that God wants certain things from us.

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Rosenau's real interest is in arguing that religious people ought to be brought to science without being made to feel that their religion has to be left at the door. If religion delivers truths to us in the way that fiction does, it would be a bad idea to leave it at the door. That's his basic idea, I think. But he's simplified reality to make his argument more compelling. Religion delivers truths (like fiction does), but also falsehoods. Some of the falsehoods are inimical to science. You really do have to leave religious fundamentalism at the door, if you want to enter into the temple of science. But what about the very basic tenets of liberal religion? If you want to learn, teach, or do science, do you really have to leave the idea of the covenant or the saving power of the crucifixion, at the door?

Why should you? Nobody has shown that people with these fundamental beliefs make worse scientists or worse advocates for science. They don't, because these beliefs have little power to disrupt rational and scientific thought. The beliefs do concern events in the natural world, but they are long ago, isolated, non-recurring events. In a liberal Jewish setting, there is not constant talk of miracles, intercessory prayer, the afterlife to come. The God of liberal Judaism is not constantly poking his fingers through the clouds. So for all intents and purposes, believers are free to understand the world in an entirely secular, rational way.

I know less about liberal Christianity, but I suspect it is somewhat the same way. Though the Christian God is poking his fingers through the clouds a lot more often, there's something isolated and remote about the miracles. A liberal Christian scientist doesn't ever suppose that we should let God be the explanation for what happened, and not look at the physical facts.

I don't think a solid reason why religion has to be abandoned by the science-friendly is in the offing. Surely it would be unattractively paternalistic for atheists to want liberal religion to be abandoned just for the good of the benighted. There's the oft-heard argument that liberal religion gives cover to the worst kinds of religion, but even if that were so, you'd have to bring in a good accountant to draw any conclusions. Even if the good enables the bad, the good may still be the greater quantity. Besides, there's a more fair way to stop the bad: by going after it directly. It's not fair to expect good novelists to give up their craft, because they give luster to writing generally, thereby dignifying bad novels. Creators of wonderful technology like my ipod shouldn't feel guilty for dignifying the creation of bad technology, like guns.

So--I'm on the same team as Josh Rosenau. I don't think it's either true or helpful to say that a choice must be made between science and religion. But we can make that argument without decimating religion--making it out to be just a tiny, innocuous fraction of what it really is.

Updated 9/16 2 pm

25 comments:

ben nelson said...

As far as ways of knowing are concerned, I don't see what Rosenau is getting at. If knowledge of the real is your goal, then you have to choose science. Even Mooney agrees on this point.

So by "ways of knowing" he must mean something like moral knowledge. In which case I'd rather point to the practices and habits of interpretation (more than to the text), and then ask about how philosophically competent those practices are, before begrudgingly admitting that it is a way of knowing. Then the secular activist's argument, rephrased, is as follows: leave your superstitions at the door, and be prepared to face the possibility that your religion is nothing but superstition.

Jean Kazez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jean Kazez said...

Ben, That's a comment for Rosenau, not me. If you read the post, you know I'm diverging from Rosenau. I'm asking why religious people have to leave religion at the door, even assuming that they do make claims about the supernatural. Please...the comment section of this blog gets less and less useful to me the more people just free associate from the post to something that's on their minds. I've made specific arguments. Comments should relate to them.

ben nelson said...

I'm afraid I don't understand why you feel that way, since I have explicitly addressed the comments against Rosenau, not you. Read the post again, more carefully. We mostly agree.

Wayne said...

What exactly do we gain from religious beliefs? You admit that there is some bad with the good, but if we can learn that good without the bad, then why don't we just do that and do away with religion? e.g. If we learn not to murder people, then we can learn that from other parables, fables, movies, etc. We have limitless alternatives virtually on this point. Maybe we just need more vampire stories, and Buffy to kick their butts.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry, I don't see any connection between your comment and my post.

Jean Kazez said...

That last was to Ben.

Wayne, The issue here isn't whether religion is good and bad.

Here's the issue Rosenau is addressing:

Should science educators broadcast the message that accepting science means rejecting religion?

Say that Sue believes in God's covenant with the Jews, or what have you. If she wants to become a first class, card-carrying scientist or science student, is there any reason at all for her to give that up?

Rosenau is saying No by arguing that the belief is really part of some sort of edifying fiction, so it does not collide with science.

I'm saying No by arguing that the belief does no damage to Sue's scientific aspirations.
I don't have to argue that the belief is actually valuable, for present purposes.

Faust said...

So this argument really ties back in to previous posts where you point to the pragmatics of the situation, something like:

If someone has a belief, and that belief has no practical effect on their purusing a course of action (e.g. doing quality scientific experiments), then those who think that they should give up that belief have no case unless they can point to a particular good that the belief DOES interfere with. Further: the truth status of the blief is also irrelevant, since it has already been stipulated the the belief has no bearing on the actions we are interested in promoting.

Something like that? (a bit rough and awkward but I think I have you about right).

ben nelson said...

Jean, I made a comment explicitly about Rosenau. You seem to have misread it as if it were a careless comment about your argument. I pointed out, again to you, that my comment was about Rosenau, not you. You lately have continued to insist that I must make comments about your argument.

Well, maybe another time. This time I didn't -- honest. Take a look and see. The post is very short, consciously and meticulously so, out of respect for your comments policy.

And if all this isn't "useful" to you, then you're essentially saying I'm not allowed to agree with you without first condescendingly trumpeting the fact that I agree. And I can do that, if you think it will help, though it makes me feel awkward.

Wayne said...

I don't suppose that scientsts should ever tell people what their values should be, they're ill equipped for it (scientists in terms of investigational tools). There are times however that religions encroach upon science. Creation, souls, etc.

But something tells me that when we have this fictional religion and scientific belief together, that the fictional religion gets smashed up. I guess I'm just having a hard time envisioning someone who truly believes X because of their religion, and at the same time, thinks their religion is a fiction. Maybe more specifically, I have a hard time seeing someone treating their religion as fiction, since it rarely occurs.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I agree with him that fiction makes us smarter and wiser, and that scripture-as-fiction sometimes has something to teach. (And I think some of his critics -- here and here -- are just missing the point.)"

How am I missing the point? (That first 'here' links to a post of mine.) I too agree that fiction makes us wiser - and I said that! So how am I missing the point?

Especially since you immediately go on to say that Rosenau says more than that. It's the more that I disagree with (in different ways from the ways you disagree with it).

amos said...

I had a liberal Jewish upbringing, and maybe liberal Jews have changed since way back then, but I learned that God talked to Moses from a burning bush, that Moses received the 10 commandments in two stone tablets on the top of Mount Sinai. I don't doubt that liberal Jewish theologians interpret the Old Testament in a more post-graduate style, but at least in the 1950's
Jewish children learned a very literal version of the Torah every Saturday morning.

ben nelson said...

Amos, I'm currently reading "Betraying Spinoza" by Rebecca Goldstein (a fantastic read). She grew up in New York (state I think), and she describes a similar upbringing, where Charles Darwin's theory was taught as a vicious lie contradicted by Torah, and the Jewish Enlightenment is derided by the term "modernity". Spinoza himself continued to be regarded as a wonky loser by Goldstein's childhood teachers (a "bumulke", or bum in a yamulke, as she amusingly puts it).

It would be interesting to find out what things look like these days.

Ophelia Benson said...

There's an email interview I did with Goldstein on B&W's articles page.

amos said...

Thanks Ben. I've read Goldstein's book. It's a good read, as you say. However, her Jewish education was Orthodox, while mine was liberal.

Jean Kazez said...

Ben, I don't mean to give you a hard time...really. But it's not enough for a comment to be about the same topic as the post. While I made lots of claims and arguments in my post, your comment did not directly touch on any of them. It's very time consuming to write a clear, concise, polite comment getting things back on track, so I'm just trying to save time by being more insistent on relevance to the original post.

Ophelia, Maybe I'm being picky. You admit that fiction gives us "understanding," but you're pretty adamant that it's not "knowledge." Well...there's room for debate there, I guess. Jerry Coyne is more dismissive of what scripture (taken as fiction) could teach. Maybe I've ignored the difference between your two posts.

Re: Rebecca Goldstein. A good example of a novelist whose books tell us important things (maybe about the flaws of philosophers, among other things--see The Mind Body Problem). I want to read her book about Spinoza. It looks downright yummy.

About "what Jews believe." My kids started off in religious school at a reform temple and then rebelled. I sat in on a few classes to see what was bothering them, and it was fascinating. One day I hope to write about this in detail. But (in a nutshell)--I definitely don't think kids in that setting are taught that everything the bible says is true. Far from it.

Ophelia Benson said...

Jean - I don't 'admit' that fiction gives us understanding, because I would never dream of denying it in the first place. And 'adamant' is the wrong word - I qualified what I said with 'I think' or 'I don't think' four times in two paragraphs; that's not very adamant! You call me 'adamant' a lot; sometimes it fits but other times it doesn't. I think you have me pegged as adamant now so you just read whatever I write through that filter - at least I can't see why else you would have overlooked the fact that I said pretty much what you said about literature and wisdom.

I love The Mind-body Problem. But I don't think of it as a body of knowledge.

ben nelson said...

Amos, I didn't quite catch on -- I'm reading three or some-odd books at once. Still

Ophelia, thanks! I'll look at it. Good old B&W is a one-stop shop.

Jean, if you don't think you can do anything useful with a post, then don't respond to it. I don't mind -- I understand that charitable reading involves practical constraints like effort, time, interest, and other factors. But someone else might have the resources to engage with the sorts of reasons put on offer.

Jean Kazez said...

Ophelia, I think you're reading things into my word choices that aren't there.

Ben, You'll have to let me moderate my own blog. No, I don't choose to just ignore comments I find off target and distracting. And no, I don't think I'm reading you uncharitably. If you don't like my refereeing, you have your choice of blogs. There have to be about a billion others.

amos said...

Maybe your children not only didn't believe that the Bible stories were real (as I didn't), but also didn't find them particularly interesting or wise as fictions (I didn't either). The first work of literature I can recall finding to be compelling (and wise, although as a teenager, I never would have used that word) was Camus's The Stranger, and that
is clearly atheistic and anti-clerical. However, to each his or her own fictions.

Jean Kazez said...

They had a lot of questions and felt like they were the only ones...which made them feel weird and alienated. It was a problem. They'll kill me if I say more about this.

amos said...

Lots of questions. There's something about Hebrew school that makes an awake child want to ask lots of questions. My best to them.

Faust said...

Well as I see it there are two primary topics being discussed here:

1. If pragmatically speaking you need to give up "religion" (regardless of its truth value) in order to contribute meaningfully to science.

2) The difference between, and relevance of, the categories "knowledge" "imagination" and "understanding.”

I'm more interested in number 2) because it seems obvious that very religious people have contributed to science. So the two topics may be "incompatible" in the sense that maybe you can't be religious if you try to be "scientific in all your beliefs," but they are certainly "compatible" if you are OK with compartmentalizing your beliefs: scientific Monday through Saturday but religious on Sunday. I take this line of thinking to be generally accepted by most people arguing in this debate though there is substantial disagreement about how OK such compartmentalization actually is, or even if it deserves the name "compatibility" in any sense.

The second question, about knowledge, seems very underdeveloped. I agree "ways of knowing" is a pretty terrible phrase, but I'm pretty intrigued by "understanding" vs knowledge, or imagination vs knowledge, and other issues in this vicinity.

What does it mean to gain an increase in understanding without an increase in knowledge? And so forth.

amos said...

Understanding may be more like insight. Knowing would be more superficial than understanding. For example, I may know that empathy is important because I read it in a book, but I only understand the importance of empathy after having lived through a life crisis in which the empathy of others was crucial to me.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, That's the problem with a long post that's about 10 things. It's hard to find the essence. Next post--much shorter, one essence.