The crusader

The other day, I posted about James P. Carse, a longtime professor of religious studies who reminds us that religions are not reducible to sets of beliefs, and who argues that the tendency to treat them as if they were is responsible for much evil in the world.  I was reminded of Carse’s arguments yesterday when I was looking up the latest links on my favorite filter blog, 3quarksdailyThere was a link to a piece by Richard Dawkins, “The Faith Trap.”  Dawkins considers the case of a clergyman who has ceased to believe inb the doctrines of his church.  Dawkins holds that the only honest course for such a clergyman is to give up his job and look for another line of work.  Non-theistic belief of the sort associated with writer Karen Armstrong won’t satisfy Dawkins:

To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.

Notice that clause, “who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.”  Apparently, Dawkins believes that acceptance of those and similar propositions is an essential condition for qualifying as a Christian. 

Further on, Dawkins writes:

What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

“Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?”  Some do, I’m sure, though not in the sense Dawkins wants to invoke.  If we define medicine as a set of beliefs to which one either does or does not subscribe, then it would be strange if a doctor were to cease to subscribe to those beliefs.  But of course no one really thinks of medicine that way.  Medicine is a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results.  There are indeed certain beliefs that come easily to people engaged in medicine, but those beliefs are at most one aspect of medicine, not the essence that makes it what it is.  The same description might be applied to farming or to astronomy. 

Taking up that description, we can revisit Dawkins’ question.  Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?  I suspect any number of doctors do just that.  One enters a profession because one has some idea of what the work of that profession is in itself and what results such work can be expected to achieve.  After some years in medicine, a doctor might very well discover that his or her initial ideas were unrealistic, and that s/he is not willing to continue with the practice of medicine.  So too might a farmer or an astronomer decide that s/he would be better off in some other occupation.   

If we think of a religion, not as a set of propositions to which certain people all assent, but a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results, then we might find that members of the clergy are not so different after all from other professionals.  For some people, belief in the truth of a particular creed or notion might be one of the goals of religion; it would be very strange indeed if this were the whole function of a religion for any sizeable number of its adherents.  However prominently particular beliefs may figure in debates between adherents of various religions, in attempts to defend particular religions, and in power struggles within religions, the vitality of religion does not come from agreement with any given set of propositions, but from the bonds it sustains between people.  I’ve come to know a great many deeply religious people in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of these who seem to spend any time dwelling on the dogmatic beliefs of their traditions.   

Dawkins provides a rather amazing example of what I like to call “the Academic We.”  This is a construction in which a professor-type uses the first-person plural to describe the state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.   Dawkins claims that “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  Do we really?  Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine pointed out that we believe a particular man to be our father and a particular woman to be our mother based on authority, not on evidence.  Readers of Augustine have had no trouble since coming up with any number of other vitally important beliefs that come to be widely accepted without any evidence whatever.  Vast numbers of people believe in racist ideologies, for example; on what kind of “evidence” could those beliefs possibly have been formed?

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4 Comments

  1. lefalcon

     /  April 10, 2010

    To talk about the role of belief in religion — my opinion is that one needs to reference specific religious traditions. The role played by belief differs from one tradition to another. In traditional Christianity, belief in particular doctrines is obviously extremely central.

    I am with you in finding elements of Dawkins’ position a bit silly. His is another flavor of the old “Religion is inherently bad” argument.

    However, I think he’s on pretty solid footing in claiming that there’s a lot of stuff in the world that’s much better corroborated than the official beliefs of Christianity. I see his weakness in that he doesn’t qualify the sweeping word “religion” or specify any particular tradition(s).

  2. acilius

     /  April 10, 2010

    “To talk about the role of belief in religion — my opinion is that one needs to reference specific religious traditions.” I’m sure you’re right. Once you do that, of course you get into all sorts of exceptions, variations, etc.

    Rereading this, I’m amazed that Dawkins can claim that no profession outside of the clergy comes with beilefs you’re required to hold as a condition of employment. I suspect that virtually every profession comes with beliefs that are at least tacitly required of its members.

    Shortly after I was first hired to teach in the classics program, I mentioned to one of my senior colleagues that I had misgivings about movies set in the ancient world. She took offense at my qualms and proclaimed “If you believe that, you can’t teach in our department!”

    That wasn’t quite true, as witness the fact that I’m still here, but it might have been. Hollywood cranks out a lot of movies set in the ancient world, and a great many classicists pin hopes for the future of the profession on the popularity of those movies. In many departments, including ours, faculty are encouraged to incorporate material from those movies in their classes. If you not only dislike most of those movies, but make a habit of arguing that they are worse than useless as advertisements for classical learning, you are very unlikely to be hired by an American classics department.

  3. lefalcon

     /  April 11, 2010

    I liked _Gladiator_, but I’m not sure how – or even if – a teacher could incorporate footage of Russell Crowe struggling against various muscled adversaries as an effective pedagogical tool.

  4. acilius

     /  April 12, 2010

    It’s worse than that, of course. As I’m sure you know, the trend is to standardize college teaching around particular methods. If you don’t believe in those methods, you’re in trouble as a college teacher. And much of the reason why this trend has support is that it brings college teaching in line with other professions, which are already standardized around models that are heavily laden with ideologies. Reject the ideology of the standard model in your profession, and you’ll likely need to start over in your career.

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