MavPhil Cairo correspondent, Spencer C. writes,
I've continued to think on one of our old disagreements, the one about religion and zealotry, and I'd like to continue the discussion. Previously, I'd put forward the argument attempting to show that religious belief is rationally unacceptable. Now, I'm thinking it might be profitable to repackage the argument for a more modest conclusion. I want to say something like, "Given other epistemic commitments that I have and, on reflection, find myself unable to give up, I find that I am rationally unable to accept religious belief of the sort in question." Since I take these commitments to be closely related to the conservative disposition which you and I share, perhaps you will find that you, too are committed to abandoning religious belief." This is, to use a phrase from Robert Nozick, non-coercive philosophy, and I am growing increasingly inclined to think that herein all real persuasion lies.
BV: I suggest we divide persuasion into nonrational and rational, and then subdivide rational persuasion into coercive and noncoercive. Noncoercive rational persuasion, I take it, would be rational persuasion that makes use only of propositions already accepted by the person to be persuaded in an attempt to get him to accept a proposition to which he is logically committed by what he already accepts but does not yet accept. I agree that in the vast majority of cases only noncoercive rational persuasion has a chance at success.
Let me now re-frame the argument that I have presented earlier, with the hope that I can improve on my earlier formulations. When I was a soldier in Afghanistan, I attended a ceremony for a fallen comrade. Nobody I knew. In main sermon, the chaplain said, "Sgt. So-and-so got a big promotion that day," referring to the day an IED [improvised explosive device] ended the life of this unfortunate soldier. His reasoning is that now this soldier was enjoying the loving embrace of Jesus. Whatever suffering this caused him or his family is comparatively small.
I found the chaplain's speech off-putting because his account robbed this soldier's death of its tragedy. He went well beyond consoling the survivors to telling us that we should be positively happy that this event occurred. What disturbed me more, though, is that the chaplain arrived at this conclusion very reasonably from very widely held set of religious beliefs. If one believes, as a majority of the people of the world do, that an eternity of happiness of a much higher grade than any that exists on earth awaits the righteous after death, then one is left to draw this, and other unpalatable conclusions. For instance, if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to
religion, then it would seem one should do it.
I too am put off by the chaplain's speech but for a different reason. What I find offensive is his presumption to know that the unfortunate soldier is now in a far better state. No one can legitimately claim to know that God exists, or that we survive our bodily deaths as individuals, or that Jesus is the son of God, or that a given person is in heaven as opposed to the other place, etc. (Nor can one legitimately claim to know the negations of any of these propositions.) People can and do believe these things, and some have good reasons for (some of) their beliefs. Since no one can know about these things, the chaplain had no right to offer the kind of ringing assurance he offered or to make the claim that one should be positively happy that the soldier was blown to bits.
So I would say that the chaplain was doubly presumptuous. He presumed to know what no one can know, and he presumed to make a comforting assurance that he was not entitled to make. But had he said something tentative and in keeping with our actual doxastic predicament, then I wouldn't have been offended. Suppose he had said this: "Our faith teaches us that death is not the end and that this life is but a prelude to a better life to come. We hope and pray that Sgt So-and-So is now sharing in that higher life." I would not be put off by such a speech. Consolation without presumption.
What you are offended by is something different, the very content of the Christian message. But suppose it is true. Then there is nothing ultimately "tragic" about the soldier's death. (I also think you are misusing 'tragic.' Was hubris displayed by the soldier prior to his death?) He has left this vale of tears and has gone to a better 'place.' You see, if Christianity is true, then death does not have the 'sting' that it has for an atheist (assuming the atheist values life in this world). Are you then just assuming that Christianity is false? If it is false, then Nietzsche is right and it is a slander upon this life, the only life there is. But is it false? You can't just assume that it is.
Distinguish the question whether Christianity is true from the question whether it can be known to be true (by anyone here below). I claim that it cannot be known to be true, using 'know' in a strict and intellectually responsible way.
Now one of the "unpalatable consequences" you mention is this: "if you could inflict a great amount of suffering on an innocent person, and by so doing, influence that person's choice, or someone else's choice, to turn to religion, then it would seem one should do it." But this is not a consequence of Christian belief, but at best a consequence of the fanatical and dogmatic belief that one knows that Christianity is true. Suppose I did know that Christianity -- or rather some fire-and- brimstone variant of Christianity-- is true, then why wouldn't I be justified in torturing someone until he accepts the saving truth, the truth without which he will spend all eternity in hell? What's worse, a day of torture or an eternity of it? Besides, if I really care about you, wouldn't I want you to have an eternity of bliss?
What you are giving us, I think, is an argument against religious fanaticism, not an argument against religion. Religion is a matter of faith, not knowledge. More precisely, genuine religion is a matter of a faith that understands that it is faith and not knowledge. Once that is understood your "unpalatable consequences" do not ensue. For if I understand that my faith transcends what I can legitimately claim to know, then this understanding will prevent me from torturing someone into acceptance of my creed. For surely it is clearer that one ought not torture people into the acceptance of metaphysical propositions than that said propositions are true.
Now, as our previous discussions have shown, one is not compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook, as I have done, because of these considerations. One is only compelled to adopt a non-religious outlook if one also accepts the idea that earthly goods are not negligible in terms of the reasons they provide. To be clear, I mean things like: the pleasures of laughter, friendship, sex, families, etc., as well as achieving important life goals (including the goal of living a philosophical life in a tumultuous world.) I accept that these things are non-negligible and I feel confident that any theory of the Good Life must afford them a central place. I don't think I can provide a further justification for why I believe this, other than I find the thought compelling. If an interlocutor is happy to accept that these are all axiological ciphers because they are nothing when compared with the goodness of God in the next world, then I must part ways with him. I would, however, be surprised for a conservative to take that view, since conservatives, more than progressives, tend to value the familiar.
I am not sure I follow this last paragraph, but I take you to be saying that there are certain non-negligible goods that this life provides (friendship, etc.) and that anyone who accepts that there are must adopt a non-religious outlook. Your argument can perhaps be put as follows:
1. If a religion such as Christianity is true, then the good things of this world are relatively unimportant as compared with the good things of the world to come.
2. But it is not the case that the good things of this world are relatively unimportant: they are absolutely important.
3. Someone of conservative bent, someone who is capable of appreciating what actually and presently exists, ought to reject a religion such as Christianity.
I would respond to this by saying that the goods of this world are certainly not absolutely important, but they are not "axiological ciphers" either. A theist will say that what exists in this world is good because it comes from the source of all goodness, God. So the conservative theist has plenty of reason to appreciate what actually and presently exists, but he is also in a position to evaluate the goodness of finite goods properly and without idolatry because he appreciates that they are other than that which is wholly good. The goods of this world are neither negligible nor absolute, neither illusory nor absolutely real.
I would further argue that atheists typically succumb to axiological illusion: they take what is relatively valuable for absolutely valuable.