Thursday, May 09, 2002

God is dead, and boy is he pissed

Crub. So, I had this spectacularly good day, all chock full of physical exercise, personal creativity, and concrete accomplishment, and just when I was about to sacrifice in thangsgiving a pair of rock doves (they're nesting on the porch lamp and crapping on the welcome mat - I must remove their nest and shoo them off) Avram Grumer posted this interesting entry to his weblog - a critique of religion and received morality:

This reminds me of something a friend of mine once said, when we were talking about science, religion, and worldviews. My friend (a Hasidic Jew) said that the reason he found the scientific worldview unsatisfying was that new facts and discoveries were always coming along, often undermining the old ones, and what he wanted was to just know the truth and have it always be the truth, forever.

I think a lot of people feel that way. Matter of meaning and morality are immaterial, so they aren’t subject to empirical testing, but they affect how we act in the physical world, so they are important. Since human beings are pattern-finding animals, we like to believe that our beliefs fit into some kind of coherent pattern, and it’s therefore possible to undermine a competing argument by showing it to be inconsistent. That means that belief systems compete with each other on the basis of (among other things) internal consistency.

The problem with consistency (well, one problem) is that the best tool for checking consistency is logic, and all logical systems must rest upon axioms which cannot themselves be verified within the system. Ultimately, as you explore your belief system, you’re going to come to some point where you can’t shore it up with logic, and that’s the point at which the system is going to look vulnerable to attacks from proponents of competing systems.

Many people deal with this by trying to shove the axioms off into the realm of things that are more difficult to question. Religious worldviews often claim that their axioms come from a supreme deity; they often also claim that the actions of the deity are beyond human comprehension, and therefore cannot be questioned logically. Ta-dah, instant attack-proof worldview, as long as you don’t watch the dealer palm the cards. (There are materialistic worldviews that do this as well, but I haven’t witnessed it done often enough to be able to summarize it well; Your Materialism May Vary.)

One problem with this argument - and it is a major, major problem, is that it reifies logic - a useful but arbitrary set of rules for evaluating and proving syllogisms. Instead of God, or the logos, or Al-Lah, or the numinous, we have the sparse rules of logic, a set of rules just as uncritically assimilated as theology.

I'll not open the can of Harvard Beets (which I hate with the fiery angry passion of a thousand nova suns) that is the epistemology of religion. I'll address something that I think is at the center of Avram Grumer's critique - his frustration with the tendency of religious thinking to make

attempts to trace a few principles out to their vanishing points, so as to be able to make new moral decisions without the troubling and difficult process of evaluating new situations on their actual merits.

In other words, the tendency of religion to robotically prescribe and elaborate a restricted repertoire of particular desired conduct. I can understand why Avram has this terrible difficulty with inflexible codes of behavior (which are, I may add, codes - rather like the law codes are - and where do they derive their coercive legitimacy?). I do - he finds the religious prescription of moral judgement and behavior regarding certain particular "sins" to be insane. Religion punishes actions that Avram cannot find any earthly reason - particularly any reason derived from the cultural norms of the society in which he lives - to condemn (for example, the Biblical prohibition of male homosexuality or any sexuality not within a marriage bond, both highly ordinary in the culture, and highly anathemized by the big 3 monotheistic religions.)

I'll simply say the following - we all have the responsibilities to be upright, honest, brave, thoughtful and generous people. We are bound to the categorical imperative - present in theology and in humanist moral philosophy. Inasmuch as the continuous and autonomous generation of contingent moral judgement is a task too great for any single person (and it is, no matter what someone might brag about their critical sense), theist and atheist codes, systems of belief, and rational discourses, are all necessarily unreflectively applied by the individual - most of the time. And since Avram is concerned with this world, that's the only issue that needs to be addressed - not whether the inspiration of the moral conduct is rationally or divinely derived.

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