Thursday, November 26, 2009

Religion: some definitional problems

Jacinta: I just want to point out that this concern with 'the existence of evil' or 'the problem of evil', a concern that maybe Williams has, and Plantinga and other theistic philosophers, is itself a problem for secularists - and a major one.
Canto: Yes, we tend to look beyond good and evil. Nietzsche's title resonated with me from an early age, and I've been deeply suspicious of those terms ever since.
Jacinta: Yes and this is by no means a rejection of morality, it's a recasting of morality - not so much in less objective terms, but in less transcendent terms. And it goes back a long way. The ethics of Aristotle, as I recall, were all about human flourishing - what he called eudaimonia. Examine what it is that humans need in order to flourish, to be at their best, and try to create those conditions. That's at the heart of morality.
Canto: Yes, and even religious intentional communities follow that advice. They create all sorts of rules and prohibitions, while also accentuating the positive forces required, to create what they see as a harmonious, flourishing community. Of course, the problem is that many outsiders see those communities as stifling and deadening. In other words there is disagreement about what makes a community truly flourish. Essentially, a disagreement about morality.
Jacinta: Ok, let's get back to the Williams essay. The idea that nobody has ever established that the existence of a BOO is logically inconsistent with the existence of 'evil' - supposing this to be true - would surely only excite a confirmed theist. The fact remains that the existence - in spades - of unwarranted suffering, not only for humans but for every other species capable of suffering, is a huge problem for believers in BOOs. Why would a creator-BOO create such an extraordinarily messy, painful, harsh, frustrating world in which, to take, one example, billions of sperm cells are released to their deaths on a regular basis in order that a few occasionally manage to fertilize egg cells?
Canto: Ours not to reason why, mate.
Jacinta: So enough about evil...
Canto: Williams next looks at Grayling's definition of religion. Now, definitions of religion are notoriously disparate and contentious. Grayling doesn't attempt anything too comprehensive, but the definition he provides is fine as far as it goes - and I might add that his definition is clearly an attempt to focus on what he sees as the problem of religious belief:
 ‘by definition a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it [etc.]’[7]

Unsurprisingly, Williams takes issue with this definition, but his reference to non-theistic Buddhists, Deists, Aristotelians, Pantheists, etc, as examples of the 'religious' who sit outside Grayling's definition, seems to me ridiculous. Anti-theistic Buddhists are probably not religious by definition, Aristotelians surely aren't, and I'm not sure at all about Pantheists. The point is, Grayling is looking at the heart of religious belief, not at the flaky, intellectualized edges. And certainly he would be backed up by many an analyst of religion in terms of the centrality of the supernatural entity's intense interest in human affairs. This isn't just the case for BOOs, but for ancestor spirits and other forces and entities in religious belief systems around the globe.
Jacinta: Yes, religion may be notoriously difficult to define, but we've come to know well enough what its most unhealthy aspects are. You're not likely to find them in Deism, Pantheism or Buddhism.

Text being criticized: 'Contra Grayling', by Peter S Williams

Reminder: BOO = Benevolent Omnipotent One.

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