From: email@example.com (Russell Turpin)
Subject: Re: Is religion different from the other disiplines?
Summary: Getting down to the real issues,
Mr Wingate (seems to) grant my points.
Date: 1 Jan 90 21:22:27 GMT
References: <8121@cbnewsm.ATT.COM> <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com>
Organization: U. Texas CS Dept., Austin, Texas
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com (Charley Wingate) writes:
> Let us suppose that the prophet Bob tells you that God establishes thus and
> so as the standard of proof for religious belief, a standard which you would
> be loathe to accept in other fields. OK, then: how do you make a judgement
> on this principle?
Good question. Do you believe every prophet Bob? Since you are
a Christian rather than a Moslem, it would seem not. Why not?
> These questions do appear in christianity. The scriptures do endorse faith;
> in some places they endorse what appears, at first reading, to be a
> paradoxical faith. Attacking this on the basis of principles which you
> prefer is illogical and prejudicial.
May I presume that you would consider criticisms of Islam from
Christian principle also prejudicial and unfair? You have
already enjoined me from criticizing religion on the basis of the
'atheistic' standards that apply to all other realms of
knowledge. You previously suggested that I cannot even
make a fair reading of the Koran until I adopt Islamic
principles. Given Islamic principles, I imagine the Koran looks
pretty good. What does that leave us to criticize the words of
Given your strictures, selecting a religious belief becomes an
exercise that, from the intellectual point of view, is totally
arbitrary. One may prefer one or the other because of one's
culture, from how one encounters a religion and how it affects
one's life, from the religious experiences it engenders, or
because of one's emotional makeup, but as far as reasoning about
the validity of one religion over another (or none), there is
> Well, basically you are saying that, because there are problems with the
> kinds of hypotheses presented, you refuse consideration. The whole problem
> here is how to proceed in *spite* of these problems.
Mr Wingate, you have several times stated that thinking about
religion requires principles not used when thinking about other
things. I will comment on this idea below. But if you are going
to continue with it, you should at least propose what you intend
as religious reasoning. In short, how do you plan to proceed
with *thinking* about these issues in spite of declaring
'prejudicial' the principles that apply to every other realm of
knowledge, and insisting that the only fair way to read a
religious text is after having adopted its assumptions. Note
that I am not asking how to think within a particular religion's
tradition, but about how to think about all the various religious
beliefs, so that one may determine which one, if any, is likely
to be true.
> The third problem is more subtle. Religion is different from the sciences,
> and indeed from every other realm of knowledge, in that it concerns not just
> the things that can be known, but the mechanisms of knowledge and the stuff
> of truth itself. ...
You will have to fight the philosophers over this turf.
More seriously, you are engaged in something very common in
religious argument, and something I consider quite odious because
it verges on the dishonest. You ask, what happens when god
"establishes thus and so as the standard of proof for religious
belief, a standard which you would be loathe to accept in other
fields"? There are two issues here, and they must be separated.
In one sense, the question is personal or perhaps ethical: When
god says believe this way, do you do so? I will discuss the
normative issues of belief in my next posting.
In another sense, the question is epistemological: What if god
says knowledge means this-and-that? An easy answer is that we
now have a word with overloaded meanings. Knowledge means
what god says it means, while knowledge is what we meant by
knowledge all along, and we just have to keep the two straight.
(Knowledge is religious knowledge; knowledge is ordinary
Unfortunately, religious folks won't keep the two meanings
straight. When they say they know something, they expect the
rest of us to treat them as if they know something. When an
atheist comes along and talks about knowledge, and why various
religious arguments do not provide us knowledge of god, the
religious folks do not respond, "That's true. We only know
god, which is something very different from knowing."
Instead, they try to confound their knowing with knowing so
that people will accord the same respect to their religious
knowledge as is given to the usual kind of knowledge. To a
large extent, all I am trying to do here is point out the difference.
Knowledge (in the ordinary sense) of a belief does not mean just
believing it, even when it happens to be true. It also means
knowing, in some sense, why the belief is (likely) true. To know
a belief is also to know its good provenance, or at least to know
where to find its provenance. You can gain belief in many ways,
but knowledge is harder to come by. And just because prophet Bob
declares that god tells everyone "know such-and-such", doesn't
mean that you can really know such-and-such. You must first have
an argument from "prophet Bob declares that god says X" to X.
So far, Mr Wingate, you have not even made the first steps.
> I think the reason rational justification hasn't progressed further
> is that it's basically a finished process, at least for now. ...
So where is the rational justification? Theologians may have
finished their search, but that doesn't mean their search was
successful. From what I see, mostly they are frustrated and have
given up the attempt as futile. To cover this, they talk around
it. They rationalize that justification isn't desirable when
talking about the gods, or that it doesn't mean the same thing
that it means everywhere else. Sound familiar?
[On the unimportance of religion to other fields]
> That's mostly a function of the determination of the other fields
> to ignore religion as an issue. ...
Or perhaps of religion to spurn the kinds of criticism which are
necessary to these other fields?
> Three defects of argument appear in virtually every atheistic criticism
> of christianity. First, there is the trivial problem that some people
> here seem to think that raising a question is tantamount to a disproof.
> This principles of this sort of argument are questions of formalism, the
> sort of thing that is NOT covered by the list of possible errors, and
> the kind of thing which does vary greatly from field to field. ...
It doesn't vary from field to field at all. Unless you can put
justification behind your belief, it isn't knowledge, just your
guess. This is called "the burden of proof", and in *every
field* its onus is on the person making the claim. This is one
of those basic principles of reason to which I have referred.
This one you will find this discussed in almost any freshman
logic and composition text.
If I were to claim that I know no gods exist, you would be right
to step back and say "go ahead, hot shot, give me knowledge".
But I don't do that. What I say is something more subtle, that
there is no reason to believe a god exists. (And I have
explained to you elsewhere just what this "there" means: I have
found no reason, no one I have read or listened to has been able
to provide such reason, and you -- so far -- have failed to do
so, though you claim the theologians have done so.) You make the
claim that you know there is a god: it's your onus to put up or
The nature of your objections and why they dodge the issue
becomes clear if you try to apply them to any other subject.
Consider the dialogue below.
You: I know there is a planet with pink unicorns on it.
Me: How do you know this?
You: They're pictured in this crystal ball, which I call
Me: Yeah, so? That's hardly evidence.
You: It is for pink unicorns.
Me: If you make special rules for pink unicorns, then you
don't really know what you claim.
You: What it means 'to know' pink unicorns is different from
what it means 'to know' other things.
Me: You're playing with words, and not very honestly at that.
You: All you do is ask questions and criticize the answers.
Can you prove pink unicorns don't exist?
Me: No, of course not. But you claimed the knowledge, not me.
You: Ahh. You're criticizing me from an ordinary point of
view. In the field of pink-unicornology, I don't have
the burden of proof.
Me (disgusted): Feh.
More and more, we are talking in circles, despite the fact that
we almost agree. You claim it takes special kinds of 'reasoning'
to 'justify' religious belief, and that these lie outside what is
reasonable in talking about anything else. You claim religous
'reasoning' is excepted from the criticisms that apply to every
other field of thought.
I agree with you. In fact, these are precisely my points.
It may come as a surprise to you, Mr Wingate, but I am not going
to tell you how to think. If you don't like the 'atheist'
prejudice that pervades the ordinary reason used in every other
field of thought, by all means choose your own rules. All I want
is a certain amount of honesty. Use whatever rules you like, but
when you claim that you 'know god exists' and that 'religious
belief is rational', have the honesty to admit that you are using
the words 'know' and 'rational' in a way that is very different
from their use everywhere else. Don't deny an atheist's charge
that yours is a bald faith, because the ordinary sense of 'bald
faith' matches pretty well your use of 'knowledge'. You don't
need to dress religious belief in words that have gained honor
and respect with ordinary meanings very different from those you
attach to them. Religion has quite enough impetus and success
without this kind of tactic.