Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet, Part 2

This is a continuation of a previous post of mine about arguments against religion. In my previously post I (some what imperfectly) tried to point out that the reason why I have not found any good arguments against religion (in general) is because of the fundamental approach taken in most of the arguments. Most of the arguments against religion center around a basic attempt to disprove, ridicule, or point out the obvious flaws of some of philosophical pronouncements of religions. When these flaws are pointed out the person then making the argument then insists that that specific religion, or even religion in general should be done away with, because the "foundational" philosophies are misguided or naive (at least in the opinion of the arguer). When these arguments fail all too often the arguments quickly devolves into less sophisticated attacks.

My point in my previous post was to point out that the actual foundation of religion is not in the esoteric philosophical statements and syllogisms that are typical of so many theologians, but is in fact grounded in a way of thinking about others and in governing how we act towards others. The philosophical "foundations" that are the subject of so many attacks on religion are actually derived from the more, shall we say, central aspects of religion, that of how we treat each other. There can be no true attacks or arguments against religion that do not address this central point. All other things are incidental.

So if someone is to argue with me about religion, they would do well to realize that no philosophical argument against some particular point of doctrine will convince me. This is not because I live in denial, it is because that is not why I believe and why I follow a religion. If someone were to argue with me about why I should not believe, or why I should not follow a religion they must first and foremost convince me that I should not strive to have a positive way of treating other people. In effect they must convince me that the simple things of religion, such as how we treat each other, are not desirable and should not be endorsed. In effect, if someone is to convince me that religion is useless they must first convince me that the ideas taught in the simple children's song I'm Trying to be Like Jesus are not admirable or they are not a desirable way to live. If you can do that then you just might have a case to begin to argue that I should reject religion. Until then, I have not heard a good argument, because this is the foundation of religion, not the myriad of technical, philosophical arguments that have been used at one time or another in defense of religion.

I’m trying to be like Jesus;
I’m following in his ways.
I’m trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say.
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice,
But I try to listen as the still small voice whispers,

“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

I’m trying to love my neighbor;
I’'m learning to serve my friends.
I watch for the day of gladness when Jesus will come again.
I try to remember the lessons he taught.
Then the Holy Spirit enters into my thoughts, saying:

“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet

By argument against religion I mean an argument against religion in general and not against a specific religion. This is something I have been thinking about for a while, but I was inspired to write this post after reading an opinion piece on the BBC that dealt with the same topic.

Most of the arguments against religion that I come across generally consist of "This particular proposition about religion is either false, unfalsifiable, unprovable or I consider it to be silly, therefore religion is false." In other words, the arguments treat religion as a series of propositions, or logical syllogisms, that can be proven or disproven through rational argument. But as the commenter on the BBC put it,
"The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe."
What it comes down to is there is an attempt made to disprove some key aspect of religion (i.e. God created the world, Jesus' resurrection, the ex nihilo creation, the immutability of God etc.) and then conclude that religion is therefore wrong. But despite all the arguments, some in depth and intricate, others not so much, there are still rational, logical, well-balanced, well-educated, people who still believe and follow a religious way of life. Perhaps the most common response given by critics of religion when these kinds people are encountered is, "Well they must be crazy or delusional or both, because I proved [blank] and disproved [blank] and they still accept religion. They must be ignorant."

But these people, such as myself, are not ignorant. It's just that religion to us is not just a set of propositions that must be logically proven in order to be acceptable of belief. Religion is more about a way of life than it is about being able to accurately and completely describe reality in a set of well formed philosophical propositions. It is something that inspires us to become better people and to do things we would not naturally do. So when ever I come across arguments against religion I realize that the people making the arguments think they are attacking the core of religious belief by forming their best arguments, but in reality they are only attacking the inconsequential philosophical fluff that is mostly wrong anyway.

The core of religious belief is (or should be) a morality that guides our interactions with others. From my perspective, and experience, most arguments against religion are not ultimately motivated by philosophical doubts, but are instead are arguments against moral systems in general. When ever I am confronted by arguments against religion, my thought is not, "Hmm. I will have to think that one through to consider how this argument fits with all the other propositions of my religion." but I think, "Why would I have to give up being nice to my family, and other people just so all my logical propositions can 'fit together', based solely on my current understanding of the world (which will definitely change)." This is because religion for me, and many other people as well, is about how we treat other people. So an argument against religion is essentially a statement that we should not have a consistent set of rules that govern how we treat other people. From this perspective, religion is an effort to avoid moral and social anarchy, and it would be illogical and irrational to reject religion simply because of some esoteric philosophical argument (which ultimately may or may not be valid anyway).

So while those who bring up arguments against religion may think they are being quite cleaver, they are unfortunately missing the point of religion and the basis on which it stands. Religion works not because it has a complete set of philosophical propositions that have been rigorously argued and logically thought out, but because its moral system is self propagating and allows for stability and happiness.

I believe because religion allows me to find comfort when I feel sorrow, find help when I need it, find peace when the all around me have none, and inspires me to treat others better than I naturally would. Why would I give up all that because of some philosophical argument to which there is no real answer? That is why I haven't heard a good argument against religion yet, and probably never will.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9-11

Now ten years later it is interesting to see the course that history has taken since September 11, 2001. At the time no one had any idea the course that history would take, or the outcomes that we would see. At the time there seemed to be an unrestrained movement towards national unity in response to the terrible acts of that day, but ten years later the legacy of that day, and all its effects, have left us more disunified than at almost any other time in our nation's history.

I remember it was a Tuesday morning. I had slept in a little and I had just gotten up and was getting ready to go to class. It was my first semester in college and I had to be to Mission Prep. that morning when my roommate, Ryan Weaver, came in and said that something had happened. He told me that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. I stood there in my room for a moment trying to decide what to do since I had to be to class in 5 minutes, but after a moment of thought I decided that class wasn't that important anyway and I made my way into the lobby of the dorm (we didn't have a TV in our apartment). There were two or three people out there watching the news and I sat down with them and watched the events unfold.

By the time I got out there both towers had already fallen and the news was showing footage of the strikes and the collapse. At the time I had a sense that this would be a defining moment in history, but I really didn't know what the end result would be.

I had just graduated from high school and while I was there I had the opportunity to have the same history teacher for both my sophomore and junior years. His name was Rob Helsel and he instilled in me a sense of the important moments of history that determine future events. I realized that I was living to see one of those important events that would determine so many things in history. It was one of those, "Because of _____, this happened, which caused this and that and all this other stuff, which led this happening because of these things that were going on here." moments in history.

Perhaps the two things that put the whole thing into perspective were two speeches I listened to that were made in the days and weeks following 9-11. The first speech I listened to was President Bush's address to Congress. I remember thinking, "Uh oh. This may turn into another Vietnam." In one sense I was right, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not approached the level of the Vietnam war (despite what some people would have you believe). Mostly I was concerned that it would never end.

The second speech was actually a conference talk (you can hear the audio of the talk here) by President Hinckley given on October 7, 2001. It was at the end of the Sunday morning session of General Conference and President Hinckley got up and said, "I have just been handed a note that says that a U.S. missile attack is under way." At that moment I knew that my life and history had changed again. But it was definitely that talk that put it in perspective for me. I will share a few of the highlights from his talk here. You can find the full text (and audio) in the above links.
"You are acutely aware of the events of September 11, less than a month ago. Out of that vicious and ugly attack we are plunged into a state of war. It is the first war of the 21st century. The last century has been described as the most war-torn in human history. Now we are off on another dangerous undertaking, the unfolding of which and the end thereof we do not know. For the first time since we became a nation, the United States has been seriously attacked on its mainland soil. But this was not an attack on the United States alone. It was an attack on men and nations of goodwill everywhere. It was well planned, boldly executed, and the results were disastrous. It is estimated that more than 5,000 innocent people died. Among these were many from other nations. It was cruel and cunning, an act of consummate evil.
"Recently, in company with a few national religious leaders, I was invited to the White House to meet with the president. In talking to us he was frank and straightforward. 
"That same evening he spoke to the Congress and the nation in unmistakable language concerning the resolve of America and its friends to hunt down the terrorists who were responsible for the planning of this terrible thing and any who harbored such.
"Now we are at war. Great forces have been mobilized and will continue to be. Political alliances are being forged. We do not know how long this conflict will last. We do not know what it will cost in lives and treasure. We do not know the manner in which it will be carried out.... 
"The terrible forces of evil must be confronted and held accountable for their actions. This is not a matter of Christian against Muslim. I am pleased that food is being dropped to the hungry people of a targeted nation. We value our Muslim neighbors across the world and hope that those who live by the tenets of their faith will not suffer. I ask particularly that our own people do not become a party in any way to the persecution of the innocent. Rather, let us be friendly and helpful, protective and supportive. It is the terrorist organizations that must be ferreted out and brought down. 
"We of this Church know something of such groups. The Book of Mormon speaks of the Gadianton robbers, a vicious, oath-bound, and secret organization bent on evil and destruction. In their day they did all in their power, by whatever means available, to bring down the Church, to woo the people with sophistry, and to take control of the society. We see the same thing in the present situation. 
"We are people of peace. We are followers of the Christ who was and is the Prince of Peace. But there are times when we must stand up for right and decency, for freedom and civilization, just as Moroni rallied his people in his day to the defense of their wives, their children, and the cause of liberty.... 
"Religion offers no shield for wickedness, for evil, for those kinds of things. The God in whom I believe does not foster this kind of action. He is a God of mercy. He is a God of love. He is a God of peace and reassurance, and I look to Him in times such as this as a comfort and a source of strength....
"No one knows how long it will last. No one knows precisely where it will be fought. No one knows what it may entail before it is over. We have launched an undertaking the size and nature of which we cannot see at this time.... 
"Let us be prayerful. Let us pray for righteousness. Let us pray for the forces of good. Let us reach out to help men and women of goodwill, whatever their religious persuasion and wherever they live. Let us stand firm against evil, both at home and abroad. Let us live worthy of the blessings of heaven, reforming our lives where necessary and looking to Him, the Father of us all. He has said, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). 
"Are these perilous times? They are. But there is no need to fear. We can have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes. We can be an influence for good in this world, every one of us."
I think the most important measure of our lives is not what happens to us, but how we respond to it. If we respond with hate and fear then we will have hate and fear all the days of our lives. But there is no need to fear, and no need to hate. If we strive for the good then we can can heal the hurt and pain of the past and present and overcome all things. Simple kindness has done more to overcome barriers than any army or weapon devised by man. Perhaps by pausing a thinking a bit, and by offering simple kindnesses and forgiving the faults and failings of others, and by holding the lives of others as more precious than gold, or land (or oil), or even ourselves, we can begin to heal the hurt, and close the divisions we have in our society.

I will end with this video of remarks by President Bush from the memorial service yesterday.