Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/08

6

How Much Religious Falsehood Is Acceptable?

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 I am returning to the Ed Feser exchange because it relates to a question I have been pondering about sophisticated Catholics and other Christians.  

 I had asked Mr. Feser if he could suggest an experimental design to test the efficacy of petitionary prayer, in light of his claim that religion is “scientific.”  He pointed me to his book, where I will find sophisticated arguments for the existence of God as the “uncaused first cause,” he says.  

The answer was nonresponsive, and not only for the “courtier’s reply” problems so ably set out by Bradlaugh and several readers.  I’m not asking for a logical proof of God, but simply for a way to verify an oft-praised sign of his love for mankind: his response to believers’ prayers.   “Rational arguments” for God’s existence answer the question of how to test the efficacy of prayer only if answering prayers is a necessary attribute of God’s existence as the “uncaused first cause.”  That assertion strikes me as an even more imaginative leap of theology than usual. 

Mr. Feser displays an impatience with the practice of religion, so I will remind him of one of the most frequent topoi of Christians: If someone recovers from a devastating heart attack, say, it’s because God answered the prayers of friends and family (we won’t ask why the cardiac patient in the next hospital bed, equally prayed-over and–we should surely assume–equally worthy, died).  After nine miners were pulled from a collapsed mine in Pennsylvania in 2002, believers posted a sign:  “Thank you God, 9 for 9. (Either God was busy or the prayers were defective in 2006 when twelve miners died in a West Virginia mine explosion). 
 I was not asking for an empirical test of God’s existence, but just of his effects in the world, which are claimed to be real.  The Templeton experiment, while crude in its details, was at least a start.

  
       

(Perhaps the apologist’s response is: well, we can’t measure the incidence of prayer efficacy, because it happens on such a random, sporadic basis.  But if that is the case, then the claim that “God is just” falls apart.  A just God would treat equally meritorious petitions alike—the bare minimum standard for justice.) 

 
 Mr. Feser is equally miffed to be asked about the Fra. Galvao pills, which contain tiny scrolls with prayers written on them.  The Vatican attributed a live birth following multiple miscarriages and a recovery from kidney disease to the ingestion of the pills, when it canonized the Brazilian eighteenth-century friar Antonio de Santa Ana Galvao last year.  Mr. Feser can’t even bring himself to name the pills, referring instead to the “magic pills or whatever the hell it is she was going on about.” 

 
 In dismissing my questions, Mr. Feser chastises me for taking my cue from “unsophisticated religious believers,” whose understanding of religion is “always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base.”  But the religious beliefs that I have asked Mr. Feser to explain are not some fringe behavior of untutored yokels, they are propounded by Church authorities themselves.   It is ministers, priests, and pastors the world over, not just their unwashed flock, who thank God for answering prayers.  And the Fra. Galvao pills are manufactured and distributed by nuns, with the presumed blessing, so to speak, of the Vatican, not to mention being officially recognized by Rome in canonizing their namesake. 

 Several readers have suggested approvingly that the church “spoon-feeds drivel to the masses” in order to bring them into the fold.  I can’t tell if Mr. Feser shares this cynical view of the priesthood.  Perhaps he thinks that ministers and priests merely tolerate “partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base” beliefs, rather than actively promote them.  (Though the Fra. Galvao pills and petitionary prayer are official practices.)  But whether the priesthood solicits or merely allows false beliefs, shouldn’t sophisticates like Mr. Feser (and also Michael Novak, who has said that he does not “like” the Fra. Galvao pills) strive to combat them?  Doesn’t it matter whether someone lives in truth or in falsehood?  We hear that God is Truth.  Why, then, not make sure that everyone has a shot at it?   Maybe Mr. Feser or any other religious sophisticate could put together a list of the “partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off base” beliefs of everyday believers, so that the Church can correct them. 

 
Unlike Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, I don’t take a consequentialist approach to religion.  Hitchens and Harris argue against religion on the ground that it has caused great harm in the world.  That line of reasoning does not interest me.   Even if it could be proven that on balance, religion has done more good than harm—and clearly, religion has achieved great good–I would still argue for religious skepticism, simply because I believe that it is better to live in truth than in delusion.  The idea that we are superintended by a loving, just God strikes me as a delusion, in light of the daily slaughter of the innocents. 

 

 But maybe sophisticated believers think that certain delusions are acceptable in the service of a greater Truth.

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65 comments

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 7, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    As far as taking the time to read Feser’s book, I’m in the same position as someone who has to decide if they have the time to read the latest book about perpetual motion machines. But I’ll think about it.

    Sir,

    Come now. I haven’t followed this thread, but isn’t that ungenerous, and dare I say, un-Christian? :-)

  • Panopaea · December 7, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    >Reference, please. Give me a link or something.

    Not being a fan of Borat type humor I don’t take pleasure that you took that seriously. Luke Ford is a famous-for-not-being-famous internet personality/writer based in Los Angeles (associated with 1. porn industry, 2. Dennis Prager, 3. Carpenters (musical group), and 4. interviewing Heather MacDonald (right after he interviewed Victoria Hart).

    I was just being silly, knowing Ms. MacDonald would pick up on it.

  • Deogolwulf · December 8, 2008 at 3:15 am

    I was hoping, Mr Karamazov, that you could give us the Kantian-Schopenhauerian proof in a short blog-comment, since you seem to know as little about Kant and Schopenhauer as you do about Dostoevsky.

    “if you are interested in Schopenhauer’s views on all this, you must, as he himself says, read ‘all of him’. ”

    One step at a time, Mr Karamazov; I recommend simply that you read some of him. (Googling for quotes doesn’t count.)

    “But Schopenhauer (quite the rascal) himself cautions the reader, ‘A book is like a mirror. If an Ass peers in, you cannot expect an Angel to peer back out.'”

    That was Lichtenberg (“Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinsieht, so kann kein Apostel herausgucken.” F.111 from Sudelbuch F), not Schopenhauer. (Perhaps you should google more carefully.)

    “Never mind Kant, answer Schopenhauer ( if you’ve read him) . . . ”

    Breathtaking. You dare to presume that a philosopher such as Edward Feser has not read Schopenhauer when you yourself are pretending to have read him!

    By the way, if you knew something about Dostoevsky, then you’d know he had your type pegged a long time ago. (It would even help if you had actually read the book from which you take your name.)

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 8, 2008 at 4:52 am

    David Hume :
    As far as taking the time to read Feser’s book, I’m in the same position as someone who has to decide if they have the time to read the latest book about perpetual motion machines. But I’ll think about it.
    Sir,
    Come now. I haven’t followed this thread, but isn’t that ungenerous, and dare I say, un-Christian?

    Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought his book was claiming proof of an un-caused cause, in which case I would liken it to a perpetual motion machine claim.

    Second, I guessed in him an unfamiliarity with Schopenhauer, which if so would, to me, be like being unfamiliar with Darwin, but claiming evolution to be bunk.

    You write in a recent post that “Philosophy has ceded to natural science much of its ancient ground, and the intuitions and rationales of the savants of yore have been found wanting.” That would not apply to Schopenhauer, who’s intuitions, though shackled by early 1800’s science, never-the-less anticipated Einstein on the composition of matter, Darwin on evolution, and Freud on the unconscious. Yet one often finds Schopenhauer dismissed off-hand as a Kantian Pessimist. Well, a Realist is a Pessimist, no? :)

    But, I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I’ll give Feser’s book a look see, soon. It is the Christmas season after all.

  • David Tye · December 8, 2008 at 4:53 am

    Gotchaye,

    I’ve enjoyed the exchange and this will be my last in it.

    What I am objecting to, and I think Feser was objecting to, was the logical jump from his statement denying that religion is “irrational and unscientific” to the conclusion that prayer must be scientifically testable. Nor am I saying that ALL religious claims are untestable in principle. I think that some are testable, and some are untestable… as is the case with most things in life. The efficacy of prayer is not something that I think is scientifically testable… it does not follow that religion can be dismissed as unreasonable simply on that basis.

  • A-Bax · December 8, 2008 at 6:32 am

    Mr. Feser:

    I am actually intrigued to think that there could be daylight between the claims of Anselm (ontological), Leibniz (windowless monads, etc.), and the giants they stood on (Plato, Paremenides), and a REJECTION of Kant’s demolishing of “Rationalism as a viable method for obtaining truth about the world of fact”, if I may boil it down so far.

    Put simply, I find it hard to believe that you have found a way “around” Kant’s considerations in these areas, or “out” of his conclusions that would not commit you to some kind of Rationalism (with a capital “R”.) In short, you seem to be both rejecting Rationalism-with-a-capital R (insofar as you’re not down with Leibniz, Anselm, etc.) and accepting it (insofar as you seem to accept a kind of modified Thomistic first-cause argument, if I understand you correctly.)

    I may be being unfair to your ideas, and I know that you spell them out in your book. But, and this may be narrow-minded of me (but again, there’s only so much time in the day, with many books to read and a *real* job to do), I hesitate to give your book serious consideration because you seem to be both rejecting Rationalism and accepting it simultaneously.

    Last question (and thank you for answering these, BTW), do you believe that there are “synthetic apriori” propositions, the classic example being “Water = H20″? I’m hoping that you’re take on this issue will help me decide if your book is worth pursuing, from my perspective.

    Thanks again.

    Best,

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 8, 2008 at 7:10 am

    Deogolwulf :
    I was hoping, Mr Karamazov, that you could give us the Kantian-Schopenhauerian proof in a short blog-comment, since you seem to know as little about Kant and Schopenhauer as you do about Dostoevsky.
    “if you are interested in Schopenhauer’s views on all this, you must, as he himself says, read ‘all of him’. ”
    One step at a time, Mr Karamazov; I recommend simply that you read some of him. (Googling for quotes doesn’t count.)
    “But Schopenhauer (quite the rascal) himself cautions the reader, ‘A book is like a mirror. If an Ass peers in, you cannot expect an Angel to peer back out.’”
    That was Lichtenberg (“Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinsieht, so kann kein Apostel herausgucken.” F.111 from Sudelbuch F), not Schopenhauer. (Perhaps you should google more carefully.)
    “Never mind Kant, answer Schopenhauer ( if you’ve read him) . . . ”
    Breathtaking. You dare to presume that a philosopher such as Edward Feser has not read Schopenhauer when you yourself are pretending to have read him!
    By the way, if you knew something about Dostoevsky, then you’d know he had your type pegged a long time ago. (It would even help if you had actually read the book from which you take your name.)

    First, I recommend that you change your handle to “ad hominem”. Perhaps this site should have a rule against such attacks. You know nothing of me. I would wager a significant sum of money that I know more about Schopenhauer than Feser. It is foolish to assume that just because someone is a philosophy professor, they know the arguments of the giants. If he HAS read Schopenhauer, it appears he hasn’t understood him, then.

    Also, Schopenhauer DID write the “mirror” sentence. Perhaps it was original to neither man. And, I don’t google quotes ( though it appears you do), I go to the source. And I have read The Brothers Karamazov, etc, etc, etc., so you are wrong on all counts. Congratulations.

    You prove the point that any fool can make unfounded assertions, and the anonymity of the web protects you.

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 8, 2008 at 8:29 am

    Deogolwulf :
    “But Schopenhauer (quite the rascal) himself cautions the reader, ‘A book is like a mirror. If an Ass peers in, you cannot expect an Angel to peer back out.’”
    That was Lichtenberg (“Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinsieht, so kann kein Apostel herausgucken.” F.111 from Sudelbuch F), not Schopenhauer. (Perhaps you should google more carefully.)

    As I said, I own everything important ( his theories on vision were wrong, so I skipped that) that Schopenhauer has written ( including the hard to come by – at least I found it so – in English, On The Will In Nature ), and was quoting him from my memory of all his writings. It would take me quite awhile to find where exactly I read that quote, but your making a point of it was petty and insulting, in any event.

    Meanwhile, at your suggestion I did a quick google for the quote and got these 3 hits:

    http://quotationsbook.com/quote/4787/

    http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Arthur-Schopenhauer/1/index.html

    http://www.cybernation.com/victory/quotations/authors/quotes_schopenhauer_arthur.html

    Perhaps they’re all wrong. “Going from memory”, as I did, can be dangerous. Never-the-less, the sentiment still stands, and the Johnson quote is a little more civil anyway.

  • Frank Wilson · December 8, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Perhaps this will help.

  • Frank Wilson · December 8, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Well, let me try again. Perhaps this will help.

  • Deogolwulf · December 9, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Mr Karamazov, since I presume you are human, and since I was intending to attack you, or rather specifically what you wrote, “ad hominem” is entirely appropriate. Indeed, anything else would be off-target. I am more than happy to continue so long as you maintain your imposture.

    Regarding your quotation of “Schopenhauer”, perhaps I can suggest you do not put much faith in popular quotation-sites, or think them a source to be taken in earnest. (On such sites one can find all the usual fabrications and misattributions attached to the names of Burke, Diderot, Voltaire, etc.) The lack of source-attribution alone should give you pause for doubt. Lichtenberg’s aphorism is contained in his Sudelbuch F written between 1776 and 1780. Schopenhauer was born in 1788. The latter was a great admirer of the former and mentions and quotes him several times in his works. (You would of course know that if you knew your Schopenhauer.) Perhaps it was in the works of Schopenhauer where you found Lichtenberg’s aphorism, rather than on one of the many sites that misattributes it.

  • Ivan Karamazov · December 9, 2008 at 4:58 am

    Deogolwulf :
    Perhaps it was in the works of Schopenhauer where you found Lichtenberg’s aphorism, rather than on one of the many sites that misattributes it.

    I said that very thing. Try to pay attention.

    And if it weren’t your temperament to be so quick to look for opportunities to insult folks, you’d understand that what was said was more to the point that who said it. It remains my contention that Feser, and perhaps you, may have read some Schopenhauer, but you clearly didn’t understand him.

  • Eric · December 9, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Ivan: “It remains my contention that Feser, and perhaps you, may have read some Schopenhauer, but you clearly didn’t understand him.”

    Did you read my comment about the logical compatibility between your remarks about Schopenhauer and Feser’s? Did you see my example about Aristotle and Aquinas? You have no grounds whatsoever to make such a claim about Feser, yet you persist. Would Schopenhauer have approved of such slip-shod thinking?

  • Richard Saunders · December 10, 2008 at 7:15 am

    A-Bax
    :

    Heather: Thank you for stating, so clearly, a nearly unanswerable objection to religious sophisticates’ “bad-mouthing” their own co-religionists beliefs without actually having the nerve to disown or at least challenge those beliefs directly.
    It is intellectual cowardice or disingenuousness for them not to do so. For a Catholic apologist to hide behind “the throne” here will not do, unless they then bite the bullet and give up on their claim that all of the official beliefs and/or practices of their religion are consistent with rational principles. (Or, alternatively, bite the bullet and reverse themselves of their implicit derogation of these beliefs and practices.)
    Indeed, until such a list as you describe is produced (preferably by Rome), we should consider Feser’s and Novak’s rejection of these “lower” sorts of beliefs and practices as illegitimate. They bought this farm, they’re stuck with the slop as well as the silo.

    Some hours after reading your post yesterday, I was struck by the analogy

    Secular Right : Republican Party : : Theologians : Catholic Church

    Perhaps we are as “stuck with the slop” as the theologians are.

  • A-Bax · December 10, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Richard Saunders: I’m afraid you may be right, unfortunately. But….given that W was largely NOT conservative in practice, and that a Religious-Right dominated GOP would likely keep heading in the direction set by W (read: Huckabee & Palin, i.e., big-government Jesusry), I wonder if it’s not in the best interest of the Secular Right to vote Libertarian, or something.

    I myself voted for Bob Barr this past election, even though that might be characterized, as Stuttaford put it, as “pissing in the wind”. But I could not bring myself to vote for McCain, given his immigration miscues and a host of other issues.

    I realize that voting Libertarian is something of a losing proposition – that it’s at best a “protest” vote. Well, fine. I WANTED to protest the direction the GOP has veered, and Barr was the only candidate on the ballot that 1) didn’t support Iraq Attaq, 2) was for strict border enforcement, 3) was for limited government & spending, 4) was against quota set-asides like affirmative action.

    My method of getting “unstuck from the slop” is to SELL the farm, then. Maybe I lose the Silo (seats of power), but at least I won’t be complicit in the degeneracy of conservatism.

    I refuse to buy into the zero-sum thinking of our two-party system, so long as the whole shebang is shifting Left (RACING left, actually.) Call it a “wasted vote” if you will, but from where I’m sitting the GOP forced my hand. I wanted badly to vote against Obama, but a vote for McCain-Palin was not a substantially “conservative enough” to count for much (in my humble opinion.)

    Best,

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