Religion and Truth Claims

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.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Daniel Dennett, Education, Evolution, Paper Topic, Religion, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Religion and Truth Claims

  1. Kristina says:

    “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.” And you’ll be writing this, shortly perhaps?
    =D I think your right. Religion, or particularly the language used when referring to religion is a completely different thing, depending on who is involved. It might not even be anything to do with your relationship to God directly. This sparks me to want to share an experience I had earlier in the week.

    Since enrolling at Weber State I have been receiving letters from LDS. Most recently they sent a letter asking for me to confirm that I am living at the address, and wether I am married. Well yes, I do now live at this address and no I am not married. As a super sensitive note, not that I don’t want to be. Rather it is not legal. And to be asked that of a church I don’t, nor have I ever my life past the age of 7, attended. You can see where I am going with this. Well I desired to be removed from thier records. And asked for that politely in writing. Anyways, apparently you need a phone interview with your local bishop in order for this to be done. In otherwords, they want you to be well aware of the consequences of such a decision before they respect it.

    Without any resentment I awaited my call. Surely a week later I recieved a call from a very well spoken man who was the bishop in my chapter. He wanted me to know that it was not in any way pressure to join, return or what have you. But that if I chose to be removed from the records I would be making a decision of “eternal consequence”. He informed me that my being on the “books” was not in anyway going to invoke any visits, pressure or any benefit to them directly. Somewhere I thought being on the books meant there was a chance they would find you. Apparently I was mistaken. They don’t look for you necissarily. So I politely asked that if there is no convenience to the church in having my records there such as statistical means, that I respectfully wish for them to be removed. The bishop was rather baffled as to why I would want to do so if it did not effect me negatively. Well to say the least, he was not happy. Not once did he ask me if I had found comfort in another church. If I was spiritual, or if that I was in need of help. Rather, I needed to know the dire consequences of not being apart of his church. Even if it is non active. I found that funny. I am extremely spiritual, and have been involved with churches volunteering regularly in the past. But yet, there are dire consequences of my choices to not be apart of thiers.

    The language of religion, in this case, is now not a matter of what your believing or even that you do “do”. At least not in this case. It was not even relavent to the matter. But rather I was apart of the “right religion”, as being apart of just any one was not the issue nor granted me any grace. That was a new dynamic that in all my life here I never experienced from the LDS. I am not in belief that his views or impression should be respective of all. However, I do in a sense believe that since he remembered me. He has been in his role for well over 20 years. You would think that to be alot of time to fine tune your delivery of what it means to be religious.

    The language of religion to me, did not represent the same to him. We were completely talking past one another. Without even much words being exchanged.

  2. Handsome Matt says:

    Is it strictly religion that is an evolutionary process or is it merely the belief in a higher some thing. For example, those select few whose beliefs in science rival the devotion of religion.

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