Cafeterias

I’ve mentioned before that I believe organized religion is superior to some kind of spiritual free-for-all, and promised to write a post on that subject. I’ve been planning the post for a while, and today, after listening to a lecture by Brother Guy Consolmagno (a Jesuit) about “how scientists and engineers view religion”, I finally have the inspiration to do it.First of all, I’ll say something about the bad reasons for organized religion. I was somewhat disturbed, actually, by some of what Br. Guy said about “techies” (as he called them) and religion, specifically why the ones that are religious are religious (note that Br. Guy didn’t endorse their reasons, just said that this was what they believed).

Many people (not just techies) are religious not so much because they think their religion is true as because they like the sense of community they get from it, or they want to instill virtues in their children, or some nonsense like that. Those are horrible reasons to belong to an organized religion. If you want a community, join a book club or something. If you want to instill virtues in your children, then first think about why you believe one ought to be virtuous, then instill virtues in your children using those reasons – and if you can’t, perhaps your reasons aren’t very good any you should rethink them. But don’t try to convince your children of something you yourself don’t believe is true just to make them good people.

And people who don’t believe in any organized religion often have decent reasons. Br. Guy gave several common (techie) responses to the question of, how do you decide between the myriad possible religions out there, many of which have compelling arguments for them? I think they boil down to essentially three different ways of looking at religion.

    1. Clearly, since they can’t all be right, they’re all wrong. This is not a logical argument, but it resonates emotionally, even with me, a committed Catholic. And unfortunately logic isn’t really applicable when trying to decide between axiom systems. This way lies atheism.
    2. Clearly, since they all seem to be right, or at least make sense, they are all in some sense right. So just pick one, it doesn’t really matter which one. If you disagree with some aspect of that religion, no big deal. You don’t actually have to agree with the beliefs of the religion you supposedly profess. This way lies what is often called cafeteria religion – just try to find a religion community you can fit in well with, that you mostly agree with, and don’t worry about what you disagree with them about.
    3. Clearly, there is one truth, and every religion is an attempt to approximate this truth. They may all seem equally true, but they cannot be – after all, they contradict. So one ought to find the religion that converges most closely with the truth. This leads to a more sophisticated form of cafeteria religion – you pick the religion you find most true, but if you think you know better than it in some way, you follow your variant rather than the standard.

      The first two I find it hard to argue with. To one who rejects religion out of hand, the only response, I think, is to point out the rather illogical nature of the claim that because it is impossible to determine which religion is actually true, no religion is true – but this really doesn’t get anywhere. I think with these people you have to abandon reasoned discourse – you cannot change someone’s axioms with logic unless you prove them inconsistent. The second I simply cannot respect. If you do not care about truth, what can I say to you to convince you to change your mind?

      But the third is actually interesting. Why shouldn’t one be allowed to be Catholic but disagree with the Church over contraception, or women priests, or papal infallibility, or whatever your particular complaint is?

      My answer: because organized religions are not simply collections of like-minded people. The Catholic Church sees itself as a Church. The organization itself exists, and you’re either in, or you’re out. You can’t disagree with the Church about something it has definitively settled (like any of the things I mentioned above) – if you do, you’re not actually in the Church. Perhaps you are in name, but I would say that you’re really already excommunicated – you excommunicated yourself, by deciding not to actually be in the community of Catholics by believing what the Catholic Church teaches. This applies to a lesser degree to other religions. It doesn’t make any sense to be Jewish and reject the Torah, or to be Muslim and disagree with parts of the Qur’an.

      So what do you do if you like many of the teachings of a religion, but disagree with others? This is where many people say that it’s OK to believe what you want to believe. Just don’t be a member of any church or synagogue or mosque.

      But I think doing so is hubris. You claim, essentially, that you yourself have found the truth while no one else ever has. You might say that you think religion X was close to the truth, and you’re just trying to get closer to the truth – religions evolve to converge closer and closer to the actual truth, which no religion has. But this strikes me an nonsense. Religions don’t just offer a set of unconnected beliefs, some one which you can take and some of which you can throw out as outdated – they offer comprehensive systems of belief. Systems like that don’t “evolve” or “converge”.

      That is my essential point. If you disagree with one part, you basically have to either be humble and say that perhaps the combined weight of hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of tradition just might have gotten this right and you wrong, or you have to throw out the entire system and build a new one with different premises – or prove conclusively that your religion’s original axioms do not lead to the conclusion you disagree with. Which is damn hard to do.

      [Note: As I was writing this post, I realized that “spiritual free-for-all” can really mean two things – cafeteria religion, on the one hand, and gnosticism, meaning here not the Manichean spirit-body dualism but the idea of hidden knowledge, on the other. These two are really different, and require radically different arguments against them. This is an argument against cafeteria religion. I’ll hopefully write something about gnosticism in the near future. But I think this is an adequate, if not extraordinary, response to the question of, why organized religion?]

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      One Response to Cafeterias

      1. biff says:

        Another interesting point is that given that there are so many religions with almost all of them proclaiming to be the one true faith, why do so many people maintain that the religion of their parents is in fact that one true faith. Did they really think it through?

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