08.20.18 | Religion as Philosophy

Talk about your high stakes. In the back corner of the club's music room, propped up by the lamp, is The Divine Comedy, by Dante. Open it to the "Gates of Hell" (p.5, line 4 - "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" ) and then to ix-x for an index to the Circles of Hell from The Inferno. In order: Unbaptized; Carnal Sinners; Gluttonous; Misers and Prodigals; Wrathful and Sullen. Cross now the River of Styx and you will land in the Sixth Circle, dedicated to The Heretics. This is where you -- you non-believers -- will be sent. Believe it.

Or not. The focus article for Member Monday(8/20) is Atheism And The Philosophy Of Religion, a conversation with Graham Oppy, atheist and philosopher of religion, about books by Bertrand Russell, David Hume and others. It would seem counter intuitive to start a discussion about religion as philosophy by citing the work of five atheists, one of whom actually lived a kind of double life as a Catholic priest.

On the other hand where better to embark on a largely philosophical chat when it comes to "the battleground between theists and atheists" than from a platform which at least starts out without being first burdened by the respective faith-based commitments? Those elements may then be separately studied, evaluated, and factored in on their own merits. Otherwise we'd first face the internecine battles among the incompatible and (sometimes) warring faiths before we could even begin to embrace the wider discussion. And, remember, when we're addressing religion in general, we're talking about not only the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) but Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and the other major belief structures as well.

Five works and five reckonings of religion as philosophy -- often with a wider lens to encompass things like cognitive anthropology, psychology, existential anxiety, evolution. Some of the familiar philosophical arguments are cited -- e.g. first-mover, cosmological, design, Pascal's wager (belief as game theory), and the problem of evil -- but the article does not get bogged down by them and you will be pleased to note neither will we in our discussion.  There would appear to be few conversions that come by way of argumentation alone.

So, then, comes the faith-based piece. Per Bertrand Russell, articles of faith are essentially implanted beginning from infancy. We may explore and share the parental, social, and cultural influences on our own belief system. That may lead to the question of what it is that makes the belief in God just so hard to resist as a universal matter, given that the intellectual arguments for such belief are shaky at best. Particularly intriguing is the evolutionary advantage theory i.e. serving to bind the tribe.

Religion as an in/out marker suddenly came to mind with Sarah Palin some years ago asserting the fundamentalist view that the earth was created 6,000 years ago per the bible and dismissing any and all scientific evidence to the contrary as simply God's way of testing our faith. The point is not to make fun of her but to illustrate the power of group binding -- the greater the absurdity of the shared belief system the tighter the tribe. Such likely served one time as a significant evolutionary advantage.

May we maintain an open mind as we discuss a challenging topic and be somewhat more sensitive than Jean Meslier, the previously-cited Catholic priest who lead a double life as an atheist (but maybe a deist), when he asserted, "Common folk will not be free until the last of the nobles is strangled with the intestines of the last priest." Strong memo to follow.

- Steve Smith.

Dustin SimantobComment