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Thursday, June 08, 2017

Religious Illiteracy

Notorious bully Moses descends from Mount Sinai with a list of suggestions regarding possibly inappropriate conduct.

We need solid religious education in the schools. It is child abuse not to provide it.

Sure, children may, when they get older, choose to reject it all. That is their choice. But they need to have it.

Understanding the meaning of life, why you are here and what it is you are supposed to accomplish, is a fairly important matter. One might call it, if one has one’s head screwed on right, the most important matter conceivable.

And without knowing what religion teaches, we are in no position even to decide whether we accept it or not; we are simply removing that option from the table for our young.

So how then can we not teach it? How are the kids otherwise supposed to know? By telepathy? By instinct?

And then we wonder why so many seem to get lost in our teenage years. Or later.

Any casual conversation today, or a glance at the daily paper, brings confirmation that most people, even those supposedly well-educated, have simply no idea what Christianity, or any other religion, for that matter, teaches.

A recent article in the Catholic Register makes the case. What most people think is Christianity is simply nonsense. The slightest acquaintance with theology or the catechism would make this known.

The Register begins with a very important, and common, one: the claim that Christians have no business pointing out sin, because we are required by Jesus to forgive.

No. We are required to forgive if the sinner repents and asks for forgiveness. “Go thou,” Jesus said to the prostitute, “and sin no more.” If we simply ignore the sin, we are accomplices in it. 

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.

Not a difficult concept. But most non-religious cannot seem to grasp it. Or do not want to.

Another biggie is the notion that tolerance means you accept and embrace a thing. Criticism, then, is intolerance. No, that is not what tolerance means, and the difference is the difference between a free and a totalitarian society. Given this false definition, either you end up prohibiting anything you do not like, or being unable to object to anything—no freedom of thought or speech.

Another biggie is the strange idea that religious “faith” is simply belief in the existence of God.

Just in case you, gentle reader, believe I or the Catholic Register are making all this up, I submit in evidence an editorial which has recently appeared on the CBC web site, written by a well-known journalist.

This man is so ignorant about religion he does not even suspect he is ignorant, but thinks he is an authority. That is how far we have come.

“Religion,” he writes, “is by definition not fact-based. It is a pure belief system.”

Amazing that he did not even bother to look in the dictionary. His knowledge of the matter is so sure he has no need of facts.

No, religion is not “a pure belief system”; any more than is, say, science. A religion is an assertion of truth, of the value of things, and most of all, of how one ought to lead one’s life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Its relation to facts is this: religion is truth. Facts are truths that are objectively demonstrable. (Oxford: “A thing that is known or proved to be true.”)

Accordingly, a true religion must be in full accord with any known facts. If it is not, it is disproven.

Although all facts are true, not all truths are facts. I suspect Macdonald has never been taught, and does not know, the difference; for the error seems an uncommonly common one. The proposition that one plus one must always equal two cannot, strictly, be proven. That is, you cannot test it on every possible example of ones. It is not a “fact”; its truth is a priori. Never mind more arcane bits of truth like “murder is wrong.” Or “all men have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These are not things that can be proven. I know I am hungry now, too. This I cannot prove. So what?

And so on: all the most important things, actually, are truths but not facts. But they certainly are not arbitrary and random “beliefs,” or God help us all.

Macdonald goes on to express his generous open-mindedness:

“I am all for a person's right to believe in whatever he or she desires, to embrace foundational myths of aliens, or miracles, or extreme positions of love or hatred, as long as it remains in a place of worship, with the door closed.”

Basic problem here: Macdonald clearly presupposes that people simply choose what to believe: they believe what they “desire” to believe. This is true only if there is no truth. And that cannot be true, because the statement is self-contradictory. The statement “there is no truth” itself claims to be a truth.

A basic knowledge of theology, or philosophy, is lacking here. And so a basic inability to think coherently. Isn’t this s skill in which we should all be trained?

Leave aside the puerile suggestion that belief in the spiritual is comparable to a belief in aliens. (I wonder if Macdonald has a position on how many aliens can dance on the head of a pin? For this is just such a categorization error.) Even leave behind his misunderstanding that religion is simply a set of random “beliefs.” Even if all this were not involved, this view would still not be acceptable in any free society. One is not obliged to keep one’s opinions on anything, let alone truth, behind closed doors. We believe, even if randomly [sic], in freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

This also ossifies the error that religion is simply a set of beliefs. It is also, and is primarily, a way of life. Buddhism, for example, claims to do perfectly well entirely without beliefs.

Accordingly, it is not possible to practice any religion only behind closed doors, at a certain set time of the week, for an hour or so.

Moreover, religions people do not go to their places of worship to believe something, loudly or quietly. They go there to worship; meaning to practice a prescribed ritual.

“Religion,” Macdonald complains, “most often involves a deep commitment to telling other people how to live their lives. .... They push for laws that amount to moral dictation.”

Yes, they do. However, contrary to common assertion, and presumably to Macdonald’s own belief, this has nothing to do with “forcing their religion on others.” This is an issue of basic morality. If, for example, you see someone murdering someone else, you have a moral obligation to tell him to stop, and even physically prevent him, if you can. It is not noble or moral not to force your idea of morality on someone else, if morality means anything to you at all.

And morality is just as binding on an atheist as on a Christian. Does Macdonald really believe that, so long as he calls himself an atheist, he can freely and guiltlessly commit murder?

There are moral requirements, and ritual requirements. Ritual requirements are part of a religion. Moral requirements are binding on everyone.

If you are a Jew, you are required not to eat pork. This is not a moral issue; it is a religious observance, a part of your covenant with God. If a Jew demands that nobody be allowed to eat pork, he is indeed imposing his religion on others. If, however, he demands that nobody be allowed to commit murder, or enslave his neighbour, he is not imposing his religion. He is standing up for objective morality, binding on everyone.

This distinction is clearly understood in both Christianity and Judaism. It is basic and vital. As a Catholic, I am obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays. As a human, I am obliged to always tell the truth.

As Macdonald testifies, it is indeed the religious primarily who stand up for objective morality. This is strong evidence—factual evidence, if you like—that religious people are simply more moral than the rest of us. Yet Macdonald represents this as a criticism.

Macdonald might honestly disagree over the morality of abortion, or homosexual sex. Fine. Then he must argue his case. Not just condemn anyone who cares deeply about morality. Not just assert a personal belief without argument or evidence. Where would that leave us, if everyone did so?

Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly where we are heading. And the tunnel at the end of the light is already in sight.

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