Monday, March 31, 2008

Leaving Believers Alone and Vice-Versa

Here's Oliver Kamm, quoting and then replying to Nigel Hawkes:

"To deny religion is to dismiss most of human history as an error, only now being corrected." I know literally no one who would "deny religion" in the sense of disputing its salience in human history. But whether there exists a personal God with an interest in our affairs is surely a question with a right and a wrong answer. I see no particular reason to demand of religious believers justification for their faith, provided - and it's an important qualification - they leave me alone. But I have little patience with the notion that those of us who reject, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the things which are not seen and are eternal, are somehow being obtuse in taking the question seriously. [emphasis mine]
I agree with Oliver Kamm here -- I am perfectly willing to demand nothing of and otherwise leave religious people undisturbed so long as they return the favor.

But I question whether it's possible for genuinely religious people, especially Christians and Muslims, to follow such a hands-off principle. Reaching out to non-believers and converting them -- spreading the teachings, winning converts, extending god's reach here on earth -- is a central duty in Islam and Christianity. If you're a Christian or a Muslim who isn't working to save souls by bringing people to a full appreciation of god's will, it's fair to say you're doing it wrong.

And the outreach goes beyond gaining individual converts. Christians and Muslims tend to want to bend entire societies toward their vision of god's will. They want to make man's law subordinate to god's law. This, too, is fundamental to these religious systems, although it is not the first priority of every believer in every sect in every time and place (please spare me the listing of Christian and Muslim communities that aren't, this morning, openly agitating for social and political change).

I also think Kamm is too quick to let pass this bit of twaddle from Nigel Hawkes:
But can literature, music, art and jurisprudence not also achieve truthfulness? Nobody denigrates Tolstoy or Mozart for lacking a GCSE in physics. The same applies in greater measure to religion. It is true that an absolutist belief in the Creation, for example, is incompatible with evolution by natural selection. This caused Darwin sleepless nights. But those who wear religious belief more lightly need not despair. They can see the Creation story as a parable, or a myth along the lines of Beowulf. Christian belief, at least in the Church of England (whose oft-derided spinelessness is actually a priceless virtue), does not depend on literal interpretations of the Bible.
Christians who are content to regard the Biblical creation myth as myth will be left alone, and they will be left alone because they will not, ipso facto, try to replace evolutionary theory with Genesis in science classes. But we know that all too many Christians and other religious believers are far from content to see their religious texts as mythical. And thus the battle is joined.

As for whether Tolstoy and Mozart "achieve truthfulness": I am afraid not. Literature, music and art can illustrate, illuminate, inspire, and even assert truth claims. Some of these will be deeply felt, resonant, and profound. But the method of validating these claims will be the scientific method, which is to say, these truth claims -- however appealing, elegant, beautiful, or otherwise attractive -- will stand or fall on the basis of of reason, evidence, and logical cogency. What The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 sings to your heart or suggests to your intuition may or may not prove out.

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