thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Grim leaper

with 4 comments giant leap for mankind giant leap for mankind

It’s a funny thing, but if someone were to ask me what my number one reason is for being anti-religion, it’s that – in my humble opinion – religion just isn’t good enough. Ultimately it’s an ethical reason.

I’m not saying that ‘religious people are unethical’. That would be nonsense. It may even be that religious people are on average better than atheists. That’s not the point. Religion would still be not good enough. I cannot see that it is as good as it needs to be in order to be what it proclaims to be.

I doubt if I’m the only one who thinks this.

Some people would probably claim their number one reason for being anti-religion is that, for example, to believe in a God does not meet their criteria for justified belief – ie there’s just not enough good reason to think there is a God. They could say their reason is philosophical or epistemological. But even a reason like that could boil down to a question of ethics.

The ninth commandment (or eighth, depending on your tradition) is:

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Admittedly it’s a bit of a leap to get from here to thou shalt not lie full stop. And maybe another leap from there to thou shalt not present as the truth – even to oneself – that which thou hast insufficient justification to present as the truth.

But there are many who extrapolate the ‘false witness’ commandment into a general injunction against lying. Lying is also one of the prohibitions which derive fairly straightforwardly from Kant’s categorical imperative. For present purposes I am going to take it as given that, if there are any moral imperatives, then one of them is ‘do not lie’.

It does not seem unreasonable to call passing something off as something it is not a species of lying. We have words like ‘disingenuousness’ and ‘dissimulation’ which are to do with deception. The key is the intention. People misunderstand each other all the time, but not every misunderstanding arises from deliberate deception.

Let’s take this back to belief in God. If I genuinely believe in God, then I would be lying, or deceiving, or dissimulating, to let others – or even myself – think I do not believe in God. Conversely, if I genuinely do not believe in God, then I would be lying, deceiving or dissimulating to let others – or myself – think I do.

The addition of self-deception is important. It may not always be possible psychologically. But there are times when it is possible to deceive oneself deliberately, eg by refusing to question one’s own motives or thought processes, and therefore perhaps manage to deceive others all the more successfully.

But what about the relationship between belief and the grounds of belief?

If I have standards for what I am prepared to believe and not believe, but I arbitrarily relax those standards in the context of belief in God, am I guilty of deception? Well, not if I genuinely think the context of belief in God is a sufficiently different context, and perhaps a unique one. And not if I am not intentionally giving the impression (to myself and/or others) that I am applying my normal standards for belief and non-belief to my belief in God.

So I am not claiming that a believer’s belief in God is per se unethical.

But I am saying that it could be rational for a non-believer to see his or her own potential transition from non-belief in God to belief in God as something unethical. It will not always be unethical, and it will not be necessarily unethical. But it could be unethical, for that individual – and that is enough.

The 'leap of faith' is often associated with Søren Kierkegaard

The 'leap of faith' is often associated with Søren Kierkegaard

From the perspective of those inside a body of belief, the classic ‘leap of faith’ is seen as a good thing – ie a morally good thing. To transcend one’s ‘pride’ and put one’s trust in God is to do the quintessentially good thing. It is to obey one of the three theological virtues.

But from the perspective of the potential leaper the ‘leap of faith’ could seem unethical – as a betrayal of principles, as a ‘lie’: I do not believe in God right this minute, but I am going to make myself believe in the God I do not believe in, in the belief that this God will reward my trust by providing me, after the leap, with the conviction I do not have before the leap.

To get to the point of making that leap with a clear conscience one must either have reached a position of ethical desperation or be making the leap as a deliberate step in obedience to sincerely held, non-subjective but also non-theistic ethical values.

The position of ethical desperation could be characterised as: I cannot see any other sound basis for non-subjective ethical judgment other than by appeal to God. So if there is a God, my leap of faith will be vindicated because it will be towards the source of goodness. If there is no God then there are no non-subjective moral values anyway.

The second alternative is in many ways the more interesting one. The leap of faith is made in and from a universe in which moral values exist but which does not depend on God for the existence of those moral values. Within a universe like that, the individual must sincerely believe the leap is to a better state.

Religion in general, or the specific religion being leaped to, must therefore be worth the leap.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

29 August 2010 at 7:23 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Terry Sissons responded to an earlier post of mine with the thought: […]

  2. Chris –
    You may now know marginally more about Cardinal Newman than I. There is some objection here to the pope’s visit – partly because the security will be so costly. Apparently also there is some dispute about the validity of miracles which have been used to qualify him for sainthood. (That’s a oxymoron in my book, since I question the validity of miracles, period, but some miracles do seem more miraculous than others, and apparently some of Newman’s are quite iffy.)

    Yes, I can see from your point of view that High Anglican to Roman C is a pretty small dance step. Maybe not much of a dance either, if he took his slaves with him.

    Back to your original post, it occurred to me that one of the reasons I have so much trouble with children being taught the rudiments of religion by parents who are no longer believers (because, they say, they don’t know how to instill moral values in any other way) is that you are fundamentally teaching the children what you believe to be a lie. If they have rejected it, how can parents think it is good for their children?

    Rangers or Celtic: now that truly would be a conversion. At least Norman Tebbitt would think so.


    Terry Sissons

    29 August 2010 at 9:55 pm

  3. Chris –

    It would be interesting to hear your application of these thoughts to Cardinal Newman (ie: he whom the pope is soon arriving in Britain to put up one more step on the ladder to sainthood). Newman himself seems to have been quite aware of his limitations and would not have been among the self-sanctified of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

    So I have often puzzled at his conversion. I have no reason to think he was not sincere. And no reason to think he regretted or doubted his conversion to Roman catholicism. Which makes his conversion even more mysterious to me. Why would he have converted? I cannot understand it. I simply have no theory that makes sense of it. I am not of the opinion that people do not change or cannot change fundamentally, and perhaps Newman did. I’d love to know in what way because on the surface it looks like such a regressive move to me.

    But it happened. Newman converted to the RC church. Quite clearly there is something missing in my understanding.

    What does it look like from where you are?

    Terry Sissons

    29 August 2010 at 8:57 pm

    • Thanks Terry,

      I’m afraid I know very little about Cardinal Newman apart from what I’ve just this minute skimmed in Wikipedia.

      If it really is true that in 1863 he could not bring himself to publicly condemn slavery as ‘intrinsically evil’ (on the grounds that it had been tolerated by St Paul – thus asserting that slavery is ‘a condition of life ordained by God in the same sense that other conditions of life are’) but still managed to climb to Cardinal by 1879, then I guess that could constitute the requisite miracle that I gather is part of the qualification for sainthood?

      I suppose from where I am the transition from High Church Anglican to Roman Catholicism looks more a soft shoe shuffle than a leap in the dark. He didn’t move from Rangers to Celtic as well did he? That would have been something…


      Chris Lawrence

      29 August 2010 at 9:38 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: