Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why I Don't Talk About Religion

I know many people for whom religion is a fixation. The historical impact and philosophical implications of what we call "religion" provides an allure to people young and old, devout and atheist. I, however, seldom write, talk, or think about religion. In this post I will sketch out the reason why.

My unwillingness (or, more accurately, disinterest) in addressing the topic centers on the inability for what we call "religion" to contribute to either the deep philosophical or everyday practical problems of our day. For the purposes of this post, I consider "religion" to be "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe" (, which entails a comprehensive system of belief which provides a basis for all truth.

The problem with religion as such is the inability to coherently say anything about it. To understand this, it is instructive to appeal to Immanuel Kant's famous analytic/synthetic distinction. This distinction is used to separate propositions into two different categories.

An analytic proposition is one in which a description is implied within the definition of the subject. Thus, "red is a color" is an analytic proposition. Another way to look at an analytic proposition is to say "if the subject were not described by the predicate, it would be logically incoherent." It makes no sense to consider "red" as anything but a color, therefore the statement "red is a color" is analytic.

A synthetic proposition is one which combines two concepts that do not entail one another. An example of this is "red is a pretty color." "A pretty color" is not an essential property of "red," so this proposition is providing information not entailed in the subject. In addition, if red were to turn out to not be a pretty color, it would be no stretch of the imagination to say that it would still be "red."

Using this distinction, the problems with making statements about religion begin to become clear. I will use two statements important to religion (or to most anything related to man for that matter), "religion is true" and "religion is good" to illustrate this point. If these statements are treated as synthetic, then the predicate is a concept divorced from the subject. This means that religion would continue to be what it is without the qualities of "good" or "true." But if religion as a comprehensive doctrine of ethics and beliefs is to be of any use, then it must be both good and true. Thus, these statements cannot be synthetic if religion is useful.

Thus, in order for religion to be useful, the questions of its goodness and validity must be analytic propositions. But that means that the statements "religion is true" and "religion is good" hinge on a definition of religion that implies both truth and goodness. In this case, if religion is good or religion is true, then religion cannot be questioned as either false nor evil. Any evidence we have to the contrary of religion being both good and true (negative outcomes of religion, times that religion has turned out to have untrue tenants) must be thrown out to preserve the statements as analytic. This approach makes the qualities of "goodness" and "truth" subservient to religion, which means that reason, intuition, emotion, or any other determinants of goodness or truth will always lose when they disagree with religion. Even if we are to ignore the glaring intuitive absurdity of declaring the two statements analytic, the outcome of such a declaration surrenders every other tool man has to understand the world.

While the synthetic route renders religion hopelessly useless, the analytic route renders religion terrifyingly dangerous. This, however, leads to some silver lining in the usefulness of religion: religion identified not as a philosophical concept but as a sociological concept can still have merit. Religion can provide social capital, solidarity, and brotherhood that has spearheaded such mass movements in the United States such as abolition and the civil rights movement. As much as a society of perfectly rational people who could see the inherent evil of slavery or Jim Crow has an intuitive appeal, it does not fit with the nature of homo sapien, a species that has progressed on the back of certain unjustified analytic assumptions since the dawn of time.

Thus, religion, like the doctrine of natural rights, provides a convenient social glue that holds society together but is ultimately based on a shaky foundation. Can society ever persist without such convenient falsehoods? Is the statement "man is an irrational animal" synthetic or analytic? The answer is yet to be determined.

1 comment:

  1. "Inability for what we call "religion" to contribute to either the deep philosophical or everyday practical problems of our day". "The problem with religion as such is the inability to coherently say anything about it". Really?