This is my first week at Marquette University and I’m already delved into the academic world. So far this week, I’ve been reading a detailed analysis of Plato’s Euthyphro, Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty, and some excerpts from my philosophy of religion class. I was particularly intrigued with my religion class so I want to talk about that and see what I can develop from that.
The first reading is from Daniel Dennett. If you know anything about him, he claims that religion can be reduced to some scientific explanation, most notably through some biological and cultural evolutionary account. For evolution, the addition or subtraction of some feature must be a benefit, it must pay off. Ok, well religion didn’t appear on the earth, and then all of the sudden, it did. Why? What are the pay-offs for this? To start off, Dennett states that our evolutionary ancestors started to have beliefs about the world, but then they started to believe that other creatures could also have beliefs as well. This is known as the intentional stance. After that develops, parents typically pass on their belief and value systems to their children, and since it would be beneficial for the children to trust these parents, the children start to believe these parents. Eventually, the notion of divination was invented because God knows everything, and somehow he must communicate to the people. Maybe our brains have evolved to be born with some pre-packaged sponge to hold on to some folk religious ideas, to be sensitive to rituals and such. Eventually, they developed into and organization where non-participation became deadly. Over time, the thing that keeps people in check was the profession of the belief, never mind that the object of belief got lost over the years. As long as you professed that you believed, then you were biologically helpful to the pack. If not, you were a liability and you had to be shunned, burned at the stake, or excommunicated. And so religion has become a useful function in order to give people meaning, order, purpose, and maybe values. . . ahh, but is it true? Dennett says no. I have cited him a lot in my paper which you can read here.
The next reading is from Roger Trigg and he claims that people like Dennett have and ill-founded foundation for doing religion. Religion may serve a function and purpose, but there really is a truth/false distinction behind them. In other words, we can say whether these religions are true or false and we can’t dismiss those. The question is this: can religion be reduced to science? Dennett says yes, Trigg says no. If we do, Trigg claims that we ignore that religious beliefs themselves can be held with some rational ground, and thus having some sort of right to claim truth. Religion and science are incommensurable. If we’re only looking at their use, we may be missing if it’s true. While I was reading this, I could hear Dennett reply that all religious beliefs have the same type of function. And this makes sense for him because he’s along the functionalist route in the philosophy of mind. Thus, it doesn’t matter what the origin of religions are (although I think Dennett is being more robust and gives a good hypothesis on the origin of religion). So if religions have different origins, Dennett could reply “so what?”
First, let me say that I agree with Dennett on a lot of things. I think religion can definitely be explained in evolutionary ways and I think he gives a good plausible account on how. His notion on beliefs in beliefs really struck a chord with me when I read it a couple of years ago, and re-reading it now just affirms that. However, I think Trigg has a good point too: to study religion in a scientific way seems to filter out the significance of religion. It’s as if explaining the awe, the inspiring storytelling, and sacredness and the values behind religion gets ignored when you look at it scientifically. Can religion truly be reduced to science? Yes, but only if we set it up so that it can be reduced to it. In other words, it seems to be missing something once we do that. On the other hand, I thought it was disingenuous that Trigg criticizes social scientists and anthropologists for looking at religious claims in a scientific way. Well, isn’t that the job of the scientist in the first place? Their job is to look at the subject descriptively and any deviation from that gets away from their job.
In many ways, I agree with both, but I think they’re talking past each other. This bring up the last reading by D.Z. Phillips where he brings in a Wittgensteinian account of religion. Wittgenstein says that it comes down to our linguistic grammar and when one says that “I believe in God,” it’s just another way of saying that I do certain religious practices and rituals. Phillips brings out an example. To say “I believe in p” is the same as saying “p.” Or at least, it’s acting in a way where p is true. Thus, if you acting in a way where p is true, then it’s obvious that you believe in p. At any rate, Phillips is saying that both realists and nonrealists are missing the point. It’s all about the form of life. I was a huge Wittgenstein fan as an undergraduate, and in many ways, I’m still a fan, but I think when it comes to religious affairs, the language-game of religion is different. I actually find this analogous to the language-game of politics and love, but that’ll be another story. Anyways, I find that saying “I believe that it’s raining” is a very different language-game than “I believe God exists/doesn’t exist.” Phillips even mentions that the believers are shown by the practices of which they are a part. The practices can’t be cut off from the beliefs. This is where I believe Dennett’s belief in belief has a strong reply. There are plenty of people who can make this divorce. I’m sure you know plenty of people who profess to believe in God, but their actions don’t apply to that belief. Indeed, this goes to many instances. If not, we wouldn’t have the word “hypocrite” or the phrase “bad faith” in our vocabulary. Then again, maybe Phillips is talking about religious claims in general. If “A believes that R” (and R is some religious proposition), we cannot understand “A believes that R” without looking at the practices in general.
All in all, I’m enjoying this part for the week.