The Road to Rationalism pt 3.2

In part 3.1 I attempted to show that all of the world's religions provided us with pre-scientific explanations for the existence of the Universe, and that the acquisition of knowledge through the process of science has revealed all of them to be false.

It was my premise to suggest that explanations for the existence of the Universe (or at least the relevant religion's corner of it) form the core of any religion; we cannot doubt that any dedicated believer of one of the Abrahamic religions, for example, must believe the creation stories told by genesis to be true.

A reader was kind enough to take the time to comment on my post, casting doubt on my conjecture that the primary role of religion is to explain the world around us. He said:

"I think the trouble with this sort of analysis is that it makes certain unexamined assumptions about what religion is "meant to do". In particular, you assume that it's role is to somehow "explain" things in the world, in the same way that science does, but of course, much worse."

He goes on to say that although religions do have "cosmogenies associated with them" these explanations are most likely secondary considerations, and that we should view the ritualism (sacrificing goats, to take my favourite example) of religion as the primary function.

I am happy to concede that this may be the case, and would be happier still if the reader could cite any of the "lots of evidence to the contrary" to which he alludes.

I must disagree with the main point of his argument though, which is to suggest that since explanations are only a secondary consideration and not the primary function, my fundamental argument that religious explanations are inferior to scientific ones is somehow weakened...

"I bring these points up because I don't [doubt?] that the phenomenology and anthropology of religion and religious experience at all support the "explanatory" theory about primitive religion: and thus the implications that follow from this sort of theory are also suspect."

The 'implications' of course being the main premise behind my Road to Rationalism posts - that all religions teach evident falsehoods to be true, and require their followers to believe in unscientific, unsubstantiated nonsense to the exclusion of all evidence to the contrary.

As I said in my reply

"The main thrust of your argument appears to be: 'explanation is not the primary role of religion, as you have suggested, therefore comparing the validity of explanations put forward by religion to that of scientific explanations is suspect.' I strongly dispute this argument, if that is indeed what you are suggesting, for the fairly obvious reason that it doesn't matter whether the founder of a religion invented the story, or whether the stories were set in stone much later by an organised church; what actually matters is the truth value of the explanation put forward.

We live in a world where the vast majority of people accept that their religion's creation stories are true.

Tell them that their explantions are only secondary roles in their religions, and see how far you get."

I look forward to continuing this debate.

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Beda said...

hi Dave,

And thanks for the response - and posting in your blog! I'm flattered...:-)

If one takes ancient religious texts, with the Old Testament as a well-known example, it is remarkable how little space is devoted to "theories about how the world is". Only the first 11 chapters even of Genesis really address this theme: and out of these only the first three chapters; and then the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. The rest of it is much more straightforward narrative.

On sacrifice: the "appease the angry God theory" has the disadvantage of not actually doing anything. I mean, from the standpoint of there not being any god, then sacrifice looks just plain silly. But there are other theories of sacrifice which actually give sacrifice an important role in the community.
The most interesting of these is probably that of René Girard, in his book (and others) The sacred and violence.

It is a bit difficult to outline briefly, but I'll try:
i) Girard takes as a given that humans are inherently violent. I think we have some reasonable experimental support for this theory. In particular, in "primitive" societies without a well-developed justice system, blood feuds and revenge are common. The trouble is that one violence starts, then tit-for-tat revenge tends to spiral it out of control, and indeed there are plenty of case histories where this happens. How does one then stop this? One sees this sort of thing over and over again.
Girard claims that when this sort of violent spasm strikes, eventually a sort of mob mentality takes over, and eventually a particular (and arbitrary) person can be singled out as the "cause". Mob violence is then directed against this person and they are killed. Thus, the community becomes united in its violence against a single object; and when this happens, the community feels a sense of relief and peace. This sort of event is depicted in some of the Greek tragedies.
The victim thus takes on a double role: they are seen as the guilty one; but they also bring peace to the community, and this feeling thus elevates them to a god-like status (the connection of ancient royalty and sacrifice is very telling in this regard). Thus the origins of sacrifice are hidden by this mythologising.
The point is that once the community is united against one person, no further revenge is possible, and thus the violence ceases. Through time, this communal violence becomes hidden by substituting a scapegoat; eg an animal, which shares some characteristics with humans (it is always nice animals that are sacrificed, animals with a close connection to humans). Thus, the sacrifice provides a release for the violent urges of the community and protects the community itself from it being unleashed.
There is thus a close connection between the sacred and violence. But still, sacrifice is - to a certain extent - effective; and the real issue is not that religion is "violent" per se but that humans are.
Sacrifice only works because there is a deception involved; it imputes guilt to the victim, and thus there is a collective cover-up that protects the community from its own violence.
Girard goes on to point out that in the Old Testament, though, there is a progressive uncovering of this guilt: from the beginning (i.e. Cain and Abel) there is a declaration of the innocence of the victim: and thus a revelation that the real issue is human resentment and violence, not the guilt or otherwise of the victim.
Sacrifice can break down in two ways: either victim becomes too distant from the community, and thus fails to diffuse violence; or too close, in which case it encourages it. Either route shows that the sacrificial mechanism is a delicate one that often collapses. But it still plays a protective role.

Dave said...

Hi Beda

Thanks for your comment and response...

I felt a response to your original comment was necessary, and wanted to put across the main point of my argument which is really that explanations provided by religions have no apparent truth value.

If people can accept this, it calls into question all other assertions made by their religion, and I hope to sow the seeds of doubt... a vain hope perhaps but it keeps me occupied on my days off!

Girard's book seems interesting, I might get around to reading it one day, so thanks for bringing that to my attention, and thanks for commenting at length on the role of sacrifice.

As for the flattery? Lol, no need... you're the only reader who's so far taken the time to respond. If I become overwhelmed with comments, which seems unlikely at the moment, I will be unable to respond, until then I'll do my best to acknowledge any comments.

Take care!