GabeEisenstein

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Belief as Attire

I appreciate the effort to sort out "improper beliefs". As a philosopher with a background in distinguishing surface-level propositions from speech acts with goals that may be masked by those propositions as such, I am inclined simply to say that "improper beliefs" are NOT beliefs. I prefer reserving "belief" for the anticipatory dispositional beliefs that you call "proper".

This is so far just a semantic difference, but the real difference comes out when you say that people have to "convince themselves they are passionate". From my perspective, no such "convincing" is necessary when a person moves from literal to nonliteral interpretations of mythic language, because the esoteric perspective can be as exciting and full of significance as the exoteric. People can be passionate about the real, positive benefits of religious practices: psychological well-being, social connectedness, aesthetic sensibility, self-respect, etc. Discovering these benefits as the real meaning of myths can be as eye-opening as the adoption of a counterfactual, mythic perspective.

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

The mixing of perspectives within a community (as I noted) makes your example problematic, but I agree that some easy cases exist: for example, a church that preaches "faith healing" for sick children may be expected to run into a specific set of difficulties, not shared by a church that tells everyone to reinterpret texts for themselves in the light of reason. And again, I agree that pronouncements of people claiming to be Jesus may be taken as indicators of delusionality. Both cases involve belief, whereas I claim that in religion, non-propositional linguistic behavior, is more significant than propositional (as regards unusual beliefs).

I'm waiting to see if anyone disagrees with my main assertions, that orthogonal-to-facts religion can be valuable, and that it is not a modern phenomenon.

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

I don't understand the claim you take to be unjustified, that there's a "good reason to use that reference class"--use it for what? My point is that there are valuable religious practices, yes. I distinguish them from the affirmation of supernatural beliefs, including the belief that one is Jesus or that the earth was created in 6 days. I am not challenging any assertions about the truth or falsity of any beliefs. Maybe my comments are out of line with the spirit of a website devoted to the rationality of beliefs, but it seems to me that some of you may hold a mistaken belief about the nature of religious language, namely that it primarily functions as a representation of beliefs.

If you are asking for me to justify my view that there are valuable religious practices, I don't think this is the place for it, so I'll just say that there are valuable works of philosophy written in the context of religion, and valuable insights about ethics and aesthetics that are sometimes transmitted in religious education (especially when they are only nominally related to the pronouncements of ancient texts).

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

Thank you, I read all of those. What I find is that you are able to focus on some of the non-propositional uses of religious language--like cheering for one's affinity group--yet your attitude toward such utterances is still to treat them as false propositions. I would suggest that someone who emphasizes the absurdity of her own language (that is, absurdity from a factual, propositional perspective) is trying to shift attention away from the propositional and toward an aesthetic sensibility.

If we expect science and get art, we will be disappointed; but if we look at linguistic behavior in its variety, we learn to expect more emotional expression and social interchange, less representation of facts.

I also find that you concentrate on fundamentalist or other strange examples, never the work of thinkers like Buber, Merton, Campbell, Watts, etc. I would especially recommend to you Wittgenstein's views on religion, as found in his essay on Frazer's Golden Bough.

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

There is a wide range of ways of interpreting mythic material, both between religious communities and between members of a single community.

In two of the three branches of American Judaism, as well as many varieties of Christianity and amalgams such as Unitarianism, not to mention Buddhism, etc., respect for science is encouraged--and thus the stories must be held to be stories, even if they are very special stories for the community. Such communities are radically different from those in which the Bible is treated as a source of scientific knowledge.

Nevertheless, there are communities in which the children literally believe in Santa Claus, while the adults know it's a myth. And there are countless other ways of mixing up more and less literal interpretations. The same parent who disbelieves Santa Claus may take the story of Jesus' resurrection literally. And a group of people can recite language together, which some of them treat metaphorically and others literally.

So the point isn't what is "typical", nor how a majority might have approached the text at a given point in history, it's that there are examples of religious thinking that are, for those who understand them, orthogonal to questions of fact. Historically this has often been reflected in the difference between exoteric and esoteric subtraditions. Those who know the "inner meaning" of the texts no longer treat them literally. Such esoteric subtraditions are far from a modern phenomenon, as Eliezer's argument would imply.

Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

I found this site through the posts on decoherence and many-worlds; I haven't yet read them all, and look forward to doing so. Also enjoyed the posts on Bayesian rationality.

But I was disappointed by this one. The main reason is that it implicitly reduces all religious phenomena to matters of belief, which I think is a mistake.

To be clear about where I'm coming from: I don't hold any religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I think that much of what goes on in religion is psychologically or sociologically beneficial. And I think that religious language is often misconstrued (by religious and nonreligious people alike) as expressing beliefs, when it actually (or also) functions in other ways. (It expresses certain kinds of attitudes and perspectives.)

Eliezer's main point is to deny that religion can't be disproven. In order to do this, he paints a picture of religion as essentially a set of beliefs. Addressing people like me who want to save some non-epistemic subset of religion, he says "The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept." I want to make two points about this.

The first is that even if it's true, it says nothing about the value of modern people pursuing such non-fact-based activities. Explorations of attitudes and global perspectives can be pursued via religious language in much the same way as it is pursued in non-religious art, literature, poetry, etc. Eliezer takes "ethics" as the core of the non-fact-based questions. His argument against religious ethics is that the Bible contains elements that conflict with contemporary ethics, which has "progressed" since the Bible was written. The argument simply ignores the fact that religious ethics also progresses. In other words, Eliezer implicitly focuses on fundamentalist religion; but many modern religious people explicitly treat the Bible as a literary background to rational reflections taking contemporary attitudes and insights into account. Eliezer seems strangely unaware that many modern religious people have fought against slavery, for women's rights, gay rights, etc.

In fact, he seems unaware that such rational revisions of traditional attitudes have been going on for thousands of years--and this leads into my second point: the separation between myth and morality is not something new. The prophets Hosea and Amos explicitly reject mythology when it overshadows morality; they make fun of people who think that animal sacrifices can atone for bad deeds, or that religion essentially depends on anything beyond morality. The book of Deuteronomy contains many revisions of earlier material in Exodus, turning laws from a mythic to an ethical rationale. And the Talmud contains countless examples wherein Biblical morality is reversed, explicitly or implicitly.

So I think Eliezer is doubly wrong about the orthogonality of religion and factual questions.

I clicked on a link in this post to "believing in". I expected to find an acknowledgment of the purely non-epistemic sense that this phrase often carries ("I believe in the right to organize","I believe in myself", "I believe in America"). Instead I found arguments against people who hold factual beliefs without or despite evidence. But I would hypothesize that many people who affirm beliefs without evidence are actually just affirming an attitude which they are used to expressing in the misleading belief-language. For many, "belief in God" expresses solidarity with a particular community and a set of attitudes toward the world and other people.

The main fault I find with Eliezer's analysis is that it appears blind to the literary character of many Biblical texts. He says "The vast majority of religions in human history…tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened." But this is also true of literature in general. It in no way implies that authors or readers of the stories take them literally. Anybody who thinks that Ezekiel literally expected bones to rise from graves, or that the author and audience of the story of Balaam's ass took it differently from, say, Aesop's stories, is operating with a deficient view of how stories work.

Final point: Eliezer sets himself against those who posit "wonder" as a basis and/or effect of religious language. He finds no (or very little) wonder in ancient texts. But from a philosophical point of view, I would nominate a different emotion as the essential religious category: gratitude. The most positive attitude toward the world or one's life must contain gratitude, even when what one is grateful for is something as vague as life itself, and even if one posits no metaphysical entity toward which one is grateful. And ancient religion certainly expresses such global gratitude.