Abstractions and Morality in Religion

The problem of faith based religion is not unique to theist religion. The problem also exists in other philosophies, such as Marxism and Nazism. What is the common thread that ties these different, dangerous ideas together?

One of the important differences between the arguments for and against the existence of God is that the theist attempts to convince the atheist to believe in something they do not currently believe in. The task for the theist is even more difficult when it comes to arguments between different theistic religions because in order to be convinced by another theist, a theist must first renounce a belief and then accept another. A Christian who sets out to convert a Muslim must not only get the Muslim to abandon Allah, he must then convince him to take up a collection of beliefs held about the Christian God. The task of an atheist, on the other hand, is to convince the theist only to abandon a certain set of beliefs. Is this really so? Are not atheists committed to a series of beliefs that the theist must then adopt? I do not think that this is the case.

One interesting aspect of humanism is that it consists of a series of beliefs that a vast majority of people already hold to some extent or other. The Christian who holds God as more important than anything else in life still loves their friends and family. They still experience the sadness empathy conveys when they see a stranger suffer. It is for this reason that humanist arguments can still reach theists without causing them to abandon their religion. It speaks to those aspects of human life that are universal. Religion, on the other hand, attempts to introduce an abstraction on which a variety of truths should be based.

There is an extent to which abstractions can be beneficial. Companies, governments, and other institutions do not actually exist in the sense that they are physical entities. They exist only in our collective imaginations. This does not prevent them from being important. It is thanks to our faith in institutions such as governments and markets that we are able to maintain the level of freedom and peace that exist today. However, it is important to note that the benefits they provide should be measured by the effects they have on individual people (or other conscious beings), not the benefits accrued by the imaginary entities themselves. While money (another abstraction) can confer a variety of benefits on people, a government or company is not benefited by the accrual of money because it is not a physically real or conscious being. Abstractions are tools to be used for the benefit of conscious creatures, they should be used as means to an end and not treated as ends in themselves.

One of the problems that religions and other harmful ideologies share is that they treat abstract entities as ends in themselves. In religion this end is God, in Marxism and Nazism it is the concept of humanity. In both cases, they consider abstractions as morally more fundamental than individuals. This prioritization allows for the destruction or oppression of people in order to please God or benefit “humanity”. The problem with assigning moral value to abstractions like this is that it is very difficult to come to agreement on how to understand these abstract entities.

Because these abstractions are based on a multitude of controversial texts written by fallible human beings, it is nearly impossible to come to a consensus as to what they tell us to do. Communists and Nazis held the benefit of humanity to be the greatest good but disagreed about what that was. Muslims and Christians agree about the importance of God but disagree about which texts are fundamental. There is no basis for criticism that will be accepted by all of these groups.

A falsificationist approach to this problem provides some interesting results. First, it helps shed some light on what exactly the problem with these dogmas are: none of them are formulated in such a way that they are falsifiable. They are bad explanations in that they are easy to vary and can explain almost any normative or empirical truth. The ways in which a literal interpretation of holy texts can be refuted do not sway the position of the believer. Faith, instead of being seen as an aspect of our intellectual life that should be mitigated to whatever degree possible, becomes an explanatory tool without limits. God is not a bad explanation in that it explains too little, but that it explains everything. The origins of the universe, good luck, and beauty are all often attributed to God because this is a realm where better explanations do not yet exist (or so some believe).

Second, in intending for a belief system to be maximally falsifiable, the impact it has will naturally expand because the best explanations will be those that are accepted by the widest range of conscious beings. For a historical example, as people realized more and more what they had in common with people of other races, they began to expand the degree to which they allowed others to criticize their moral beliefs. Moral systems that allowed for the suffering of people of other races began to appear to be inadequate explanations of what is right and wrong. Currently, the moral sphere is beginning to expand to the non-human realm as we begin to formulate our moral theories in such a way that the suffering of animals is considered a serious criticism of our theories.

In contrast, the dogmatic nature of non-falsifiable ideologies restricts the reach of their explanations. Criticisms from belief systems which hold different fundamental truths from those of religions are not often accepted. Religions seek justification of their beliefs instead of criticism.

The moral progress that has been made since the enlightenment even among religious people is a testament to the power these sorts of criticizable explanations hold. However, while most religious people have been influenced by these arguments, there are still ways in which they are unwilling to abandon certain normative positions laid out in their holy texts. This is due to a difference in what is considered intellectually fundamental. The religious person will not accept that what they believe in is an abstract idea. What motivates this difference?

There are roughly two motivations for becoming religious. The way that is likely the most common is having been raised in a certain tradition. Belief in religion is accepted as the status quo. Because someone in this situation is unlikely to be presented with opinions that shed doubt on their religious beliefs, they do not see any need to second guess what they consider to be fundamental.

The second path is the religious conviction that is found after a deeply meaningful spiritual/religious experience. This may lead one back to a religion that they were raised with or to something new. The steps that one takes in this journey are what I would like to focus on here.

The initial event is obviously the experience itself which has been described in a variety of different ways by people of different belief systems. What some describe as a feeling of oneness with the universe, others might describe as a feeling of invulnerability or communion with God. I must say that I believe that those that hold the latter are imputing ideas onto the event that were not actually aspects of the experience itself. Having experienced moments like this, I was likely to explain them in a way that was in accordance with the spiritual framework with which I was familiar. My first experience, while meditating, I would describe as an experience of dissolving barriers between me and the outside world, a shrugging off of the concepts that I usually attach to external objects. The influence of the Buddhist beliefs that undergirded my practice are evident in this interpretation of events and are, in my opinion, very precise descriptions of the experience. However, I must admit that they are not necessarily fundamental to the experience itself. Any description of such an event is inevitably a rationalization of an experience that cannot be communicated in words. A similar rationalization likely occurs with those whose only spiritual education is based in a theistic religion.

This step, in which one attempts to place the spiritual experience in some context, is the most crucial. It is here that a whole system of beliefs consisting in a variety of fundamental tenets may be adopted. For some, this step is never taken. Instead, one might see the truth that a variety of religions point toward, or explain the experience through more secular means such as science or other cultural beliefs. What is the difference between these two reactions? This question is certainly impossible to answer conclusively here. However, I do believe it is plausible that one of the significant factors is the degree of self-criticism that is practiced by the individual. This makes each step of the process from religious experience to religion less likely to happen. For instance, the science of these sorts of experience indicates that these states are correlated with certain physiological changes. Someone who is critical of the meaning of their experience is more likely to consider the fact that what they experienced (or certain aspects of it) are in effect illusions caused by changes in states of the brain and do not have metaphysical implications.

Another aspect that may be even more important is the degree to which one values being able to find common ground with others. Some may be satisfied with the fact that the explanations they have come up with to understand their experience cannot be understood by others. Others may consider the communication of the experience important, valuing feedback on the ideas communicated. If this is the case, they will structure their thoughts in such a way that a common understanding can be reached by others. The system of beliefs they end up holding should be structured in such a way that they can be falsified.

Humanist values have superseded religious values in the common discourse in a multitude of ways. Even religious people often trust current scientific explanations over religious explanations of the same data. While there remain many ways in which religious people hold their own normative beliefs, many of their beliefs have been influenced by secular morality. However, secularists have yet to come up with an adequate response to the monopoly on spirituality that religion holds. While those who have grown up in religious households may change their minds about religion when exposed to criticisms later on, it seems less likely that those who have religious experiences will be convinced by them. A framework in which these kinds of experiences can be rationalized in such a way that the explanations can be expressed and critically considered by an expanding number of sources is needed.

The connection to God that many theists feel is what grounds their belief that God is not an abstract concept. They may feel his presence so strongly so as to consider him as real as a human being standing before them. The degree to which rational argument may affect such a believer is likely small. However, the degree to which arguments based on a high degree of faith in the wider discourse are accepted could have a large influence on the willingness to take up or continue to hold such beliefs.

Having pointed to some of the flaws in religion and other ideologies, we can now begin to consider what would be desirable in a religion. First, abstractions should only be assigned moral value to the extent that doing so affects conscious beings. For instance, it may be moral to maintain certain institutions because of the positive effect they have on individuals. Institutions should be changed if they do not fulfill this purpose and abandoned if they cause significant harm to individuals. Second, all normative and spiritual beliefs should be formulated in such a way that reasonable conditions may be met to successfully criticize them. Ad hoc hypotheses should be added whenever possible to make theories more and more falsifiable.

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