June 2002

Reading Kay Kay's thoughts on religion and your subsequent response made me want to chime in with a few thoughts myself. I've often heard the arguments offered by Kay Kay. These would be a nutshell:

1. The religion is only a system of beliefs argument

Religion is a system of beliefs.
A system of beliefs is not inherently bad.
Therefore, religion is not inherently bad.

2. The religion is not to be blamed for societies' ills argument

China has banned religion.
China represses its people.
Therefore, religion cannot be blamed for repression (in China).

3. The societies are repressive (not religions) argument

Societies have killed novel thinkers.
Novel thinkers think for themselves.
Therefore, societies may kill those who think for themselves.
New religious leaders are novel thinkers.
Therefore, societies may kill religious leaders (and by inference adherents).

I hope I've summed up the arguments correctly here. I won't write a huge document deconstructing these arguments pointing out either correctness or logical/factual errors, however I will follow your response with some more thoughts.

Let's first start with the definition of religion you gave in your response: "any set of practices or beliefs which require adherents to give unquestioned obedience to a self-appointed authority OR scripture." If the words "self-appointed" were removed, then I largely agree. However, most people when defining religion do not have such a broad notion; typically, there is a theological or at least deistic component. Also, many people believe that morality cannot be extracted from religion.

I like what you started by differentiating an open-belief system from a closed-belief system though I'm not sure I would choose those appellations. I'm surprised Kay Kay didn't bring up "the science is a religion argument". This is frequently proffered in popular culture today as a reason for all sorts of specious belief systems. Here are a few things to consider before one jumps into any belief system.

1. Testability
Can a given belief be tested? Does the belief system allow for testing of its compositional beliefs?

2. Falsifiability
Can a given belief be falsified? Does the belief system allow itself to be falsified either in whole or in part?

3. Reliability
Does a given belief have an emprical basis either directly or indirectly? Is the given belief system composed of such beliefs?

4. Predictability
May a set of beliefs in a belief system be combined in a new way and if so, do they predict an outcome that can be tested or falsified?

One might make the case that these four points are themselves a belief system and should be scrutinized under their own microscope. I agree and I believe that they do pass their own tests.

Actually, points 1 and 2 are the most important especially in reference to theological beliefs. Statements about god are neither testable nor falsifiable. This to me makes such beliefs not very useful. It's only because such beliefs have been around so long that we continue to accept them. Societies don't hold beliefs about god to the same standards as even beliefs about Newtonian mechanics. Why is this?

To me though it isn't religion per se that deserves the finger pointing for evil in the world; it is fanaticism -- be it nationalistic, ethnic or religious fervor. It is fanaticism that creates the neo-nazis and blows up the federal building in Oklahoma City as well as women's reproductive care clinics. It is fanaticism that engenders McCarthyism and the Spanish Inquisition.

History has shown, however, that fanaticism arises most often from religions. Because of this, all religions should be viewed with exceptional skepticism, even cynicism. Religions have a lot of history to overcome and the recent spate of events does not help their case.