Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Fake Humility of the Religious

It really bugs me when religious dogmatists claim to be "humble", in contrast to us "arrogant atheists", because they "trust in God" rather than their own judgments. What bollocks. These deluded hypocrites deride human reason for its fallibility, all the while failing to realize that religious belief is simply their - fallible - choice. Consider the central insight of existentialism: that we are "doomed to freedom". One may decide to defer to another's judgments, or even to do nothing at all, but this remains one's decision all the same. You can decide to treat a musty book (or, just as plausibly, a magic 8-ball) as the infallible word of God. But don't pretend it wasn't your fallible choice to do so.

Stop That Crow! makes a related point:
The problems of positions which are taken to be infallible should be largely obvious. We would typically call any person who takes their position to be infallible to be insufferably arrogant, but religious infallibility is taken in such a way as to almost reverse the situation. The infallibility lies not in our religious neighbor, but in the God which is supposed to be omniscient, thus allowing the religionist to not feel at all arrogant in their claims. Furthermore, any person which disagrees with the position of an all-knowing God is thus by very definition wrong, and inasmuch as they cling to their views THEY are the ones who are seen as arrogant.

Of course to claim to know anything with absolutely infallible knowledge is arrogant, however. Even if God does accept something with infallible certainty, the idea that the religionist knows God’s mind does seem to be less than humble to put it mildly.

Further, once we recognize our own fallibility, the idea of committing ourselves absolutely and inflexibly to some particular set of guidelines has little to recommend it. What if we pick the wrong guide? That's surely very possible, given our fallibility. An absolute commitment presupposes certain confidence; thus the "faithful" religionist is the very epitomy of arrogance, as they must hold that their initial decision to commit to their religion was an infallible one. True humility entails a degree of skepticism, i.e. the acknowledgment that one's beliefs and commitments might possibly be mistaken, and hence a willingness to revise one's positions in light of new evidence.

This is the very opposite of religion, which lauds the false certainty of blind faith over reasoned doubt and sensitivity to evidence. Thus, contrary to the propaganda, religion is essentially a call for arrogance, not humility. It asks us to forsake all future opportunities for learning or self-correction, and instead pretend that we are now in a position of such perfect knowledge that we could justifiably make the absolute commitment religion demands. Needless to say, we are not in such a position, we do not have perfect knowledge, and so we are not justified in making such a reckless decision. It is sheer arrogance for the religious to think otherwise, and outrageous hypocrisy for them to claim "humility" in doing so.


  1. Excellent post. I am similarly bugged when theists accuse atheists of being "dogmatic" for insisting on not believing something for which there is no evidence.

  2. I'm a little puzzled by this whole line of argument, since I'm not sure who you are talking about. Take this vague, unqualified claim in the post you link to, about religious appeal to infallible knowledge. What evidence is really on the table for it? How adequately is it being examined? For instance, which religious people are in view? Southern Baptists? Liberal Catholics? Muslims? Sikhs? What statements made by these people are interpreted as appeals to their own infallible knowledge? Is this purely an occasional-anecdote type of situation, or are we supposed to have in view a general practice on the part of 'the religious' (whichever subgroup of this extremely diverse group we are supposed to be thinking about). It's not possible to say from any of this discussion, which shows no sign of actual investigation into the evidence about what appeals, if any, religious people (whichever ones are being thought about) are making to infallibility; but there certainly seems to be a lot of certainty in the air about what these unmentioned statements by this undefined group of people definitely mean. Where are the religious people claiming that they cannot possibly be mistaken?

    Further, the argument in the Stop that Crow post is simply bad. Take, for instance, this argument that even if God knows something infallibly, to claim to know God's mind with our fallible minds is arrogant. This is as utterly sophistical as the very similar skeptical/relativist sophism that even if there is something certainly or absolutely true, to claim to know something with our minds, which easily fall into mistakes, is arrogant. (It astounds me, in fact, how exactly parallel some of the arguments in that post are to easily refutable relativist and skeptical arguments. For instance, the atrocity claim is often made by relativists against non-relativists. In both cases it's a red herring.) And it seems to me that this is carrying over into your own post, because your claim about inflexibility sounds suspiciously similar to arguments that are sometimes made against the acceptance of general moral principles.

    In any case, this line of argument is dancing around the real issue. Things break down, I would assume, in something like the following way:

    (1) It is arrogant to believe that you certainly know something when you have no adequate basis for believing this.
    (2) It is not arrogant to believe that you certainly know something when you do know it and have adequate reason for thinking you do.
    (3) It is arrogant to reject evidence you have no adequate reason for rejecting.
    (4) It is not arrogant to reject evidence if it is not good evidence and you have adequate reason for thinking that it is not.

    So the real issue is miles away from all this vague talk about infallibility; the real issue is one of who has the adequate reason and who doesn't -- and what standard of adequacy should be accepted in the first place.

  3. Brandon,

    That passage which Richard quoted, when taken in context, isn't as presumptuous as it seems out of context. The claim "who claim to know God's mind are arrogant," in context, is meant to convey that "those who claim that their position is God's position and all others are wrong are arrogant". This seems pretty reasonable to me.

    Furthermore, I actually grant that a theist, for all I know, might actually be privy to God's will on some subject. The problem is that lot's of people claim this same thing while arriving at differing conclusions. The remidy, in my opinion, is humility. My post wasn't meant to be primarily anti-religious, but was simply meant as a plea to humility on the part of religious people.

    Regarding your question of what kind of religion, the answer is that it really doesn't matter so long as an appeal is being made to the infallible knowledge of some god. Thus, it doesn't matter what the doctrine or idea is that is being promoted, but rather the nature of the claim which is being presented by the religionist. This is why religion is being singled out here, because the nature of their arguments from authority are so unique.

  4. Hi Brandon, as my introduction explains, the post is primarily a (polemical) response to religious people who claim that their dogmatism is a sign of humility. (Are you not familiar with this group? I hear such claims all the time.)

    While I suppose it would be possible for a person to judge that the bible was infallible whilst recognizing that this judgment itself may be mistaken, it's not something I've come across in practice. Such a theist would be open-minded in a way that most fundamentalists quite plainly are not. At least in my (admittedly limited) experience, most cling to their beliefs with a dogmatic psychological certainty -- encouraged by the religion itself -- and are not willing to consider the possibility that they might be mistaken. It is this which I am criticizing as arrogant.

  5. Richard, I really can't believe you are resorting to the old "blind faith" strawman. You (should) know better than that.

  6. Macht, it's not a straw man when millions of people believe it. (Obviously, millions of people don't hold to the most intellectually rigorous version of Christianity. If I wanted to refute Christianity, I should instead talk about the latter. But since the current post is instead a critical response to popular attitudes and positions, it is entirely appropriate for me to discuss popular rather than elite views. You should be able to see that.)

  7. Richard,

    There are certainly many theists who hold ridiculously dogmatic views and who are willing to bite any bullet that comes their way. We don't disagree here in the slightest.

    One thing that I like about your blog is that you don't often say things that are blatantly false, even in the midst of polemical rants. In this post, however, you seem to do just that. In my "humble" opinion, you should delete the first three sentences of the last paragraph. Although some people do give up reasoned doubt and sensitivity to evidence in favour of blind faith, religion doesn't demand this of anyone (no mainstream religion anyway). It is not essential to any religion that people believe with absolute certainty and hence is not a call for arrogance of the type you are considering. Finally, although some people may "drop their brains at the door" there is no religious precept that requires this of them.

    I get as angry as anyone, maybe more angry, at the person who stands on the street corner telling people they are going to hell, but all the same, I will not claim that their religion requires this of them. Maybe their bastardized interpretation of it does, but not the religion.

  8. Well it's pretty clear in your first paragraph that you are talking about a particular group of the religious but your last paragraph seems to switch to religion in general (that is, you switch from talking about "religious dogmatists who do such and such" to "religion is such and such").

  9. As I said, Richard, I'm puzzled because I don't know who it is you have in mind. I don't know anyone who explicitly takes their dogmatism or certainty as a sign of humility; and that would seem to be what's required for this line of argument.

    The fallibility of human judgment in interpreting scripture is something one comes across all the time in written discussions even by very rigorous scriptural inerrantists. I would agree that there are almost certainly people who conveniently forget this when it suits them; but a distinction needs to be made between (a) appealing to something infallible and (b) acting as if you were infallible on a given point. There's no doubt that (b) is arrogant; but nothing about (a) implies (b). Likewise, there's nothing particularly religious about the motivation involved in (b); anyone who has engaged in a lot of discussions with fellow academics will have met more than a few instances of (b) that aren't religiously motivated. So to that extent the introduction of religion seems simply to blunt the force of the argument by making it seem a domain-specific issue rather than a domain-general one.

    Jeff, I read the original post when making my reply; I think it still holds that it is dancing around the point. It can only be arrogant to think that your position is God's position if you have no adequate reason to think that your position really is God's position. So the real issue is miles away from the mere fact that they attribute their own position to God.

    Your suggestion that it really doesn't matter what the religion is, i.e., that it's just a matter of appeal to an infallible knowledge, just increases my worry that the argument looks like a selective use of relativist nonsense. Infallibility is not a feature of what is believed; it is a feature of the mode of believing. Since the people in question aren't claiming that they themselves believe with infallibility (I must presume since I don't know who in particular is in view), infallibility really just drops out of the primary argument, since all it is doing is marking a particular body of truths (namely by indexing it to God's infallible belief): so the argument seems to be attacking people who appeal to what is true. (The singling out of 'the religious', whoever they are, appears arbitrary as far as the argument is concerned, because the argument is not about the nature of authority, but about the appeal to a body of claims that are said to be marked out by the beliefs of an infallible believer. In other words, truths.) Perhaps I'm still just missing something.

  10. This is a classic example of how one takes terms with negative connotations and tries to dump them on the other side.

    You could repeat the debate replacing it with the word bold confidence instead of arrogance. There might be somthign there to talk about but I thinks it is the empty connotations everyone cares about.

    What is particularly ironic is that Richard positively seethes with "arrogance"/"bold confidence".

    (I also note the irony of this coming from my nick)

  11. Mark - I'm simply taking religions as they are generally presented and practiced in our society. It's a sociological fact (I take it) that they tend to praise blind faith over rational consideration of evidence. You might quibble that these "bastardized interpretations" aren't the "true" (read: ideal) religion, but that's not what I'm discussing here.

  12. Brandon,

    I should first note that my original post was not really about arrogance vs. humility, but was simply meant to should why appeals to religious beliefs in politics and science are problematic. The issue of humility was simply meant as a remidy to such problems and the label of arrogance was imply used in passing.

    I also think that your account of having sufficient reason to belief that you understand God's will isn't as effective as you want it to be. A person doesn't have to be all that sure that what they believe is really God's will simply because nobody can verify or falsify it to any degree at all. We simply can't argue about such private experiences. Additionally, the very fact that the issue has shifted from science or politics to personal religious conviction is itself problematic. In the U.S. this isn't a trivial problem, isolated to a few radicals.

  13. I should also note that while I personally think that all religious faith claims are in the end wrong, whether the faith of a person is seen as blind or not isn't really that important to the discussion at hand. (Isn't it amusing that I consider my other post "at hand"? Sorry about the threadjack Richard.) Indeed, having been raised rather religiously, I know that characterizing faith as "blind" probably isn't the most accurate or charitable.

  14. "It's a sociological fact (I take it) that they [religions, in general] tend to praise blind faith over rational consideration of evidence."

    I don't think that's true at all. I think atheists talk about "blind faith" (in reference to the religious) more than most religious people do. And I would say that most religious people who do accept on blind faith tend to be uncritical of most of their beliefs anyway, so singling out the religious ones doesn't seem right. So I guess I agree with Brandon on this aspect, too, that singling out the religious just seems arbitrary.

  15. Yeah, I'd grant that the underlying problem is more general. It just seems to me that religion provides a particularly salient example. Also, the hypocrisy aspect seems quite particular to religion. While people can be dogmatic about almost anything, they don't usually try to pass it off as a form of humility! (Brandon: the people who do this are the ones always going on about how human reason is flawed and fallible, hence the need to simply "trust in God" rather than rationally assessing the reasons or evidence for oneself. I'm surprised you've never come across this.)

  16. Even if the fundamentalists which devalue human understanding so much are few and far between (and I'm not convinced that they are), I think that most of the religious which we come across do have this tendency within them. This is what is commonly called the priestly tradition as opposed to the prophetic tradition.

  17. Jeff,

    I agree that most of your post wasn't about arrogance and humility; my point is simply that your use of the concepts seemed to make a bad argument, since I see no way to distinguish it in a principled way from relativism. I think I may not be grasping your full meaning in the last paragraph of your comment, but the verification/falsification argument there strikes my ear in just the same way. If the terms are taken strictly, the ability to verify or falsify is irrelevant to the question of whether one has good reasons to believe anything; in no field are good reasons restricted to those that verify or falsify. If the terms are taken simply to mean confirmation and disconfirmation generally, the claim is obviously false from your own point of view (since to accept it would require one to say that no one has any good reason to disbelieve it). (I don't know what you mean by my 'account' not being 'effective' -- effective for what?)


    I have never come across any such people, nor indeed have I heard of them before now. Indeed, while they generally have a faulty understanding of evidence and how it works, just about every genuine fundamentalist I've met is very insistent on examining some form of evidence yourself. It would be odd for a Baptist fundamentalist to make the claim you are making: the Baptist tradition is one long tradition of assessing things for yourself. (That's one reason why there are so many fundamentalists of a Baptist persuasion.) Calvinists, like Reform Baptists and Presbyterians, tend to push the limits-of-reason point very hard, and tend not to be evidentialists, so they look like they might be in the ballpark; but I've never come across anyone making the argument you are summarizing. When Calvinist fundamentalists talk about the presumptuousness of reason, for instance, they usually mean the presumptuousness of rationalism, i.e., artificially high standards of proof requiring that everything be derived from certainly true principles. And while the arrogance of atheists is a common enough trope, when it's put forward it's usually put forward on the basis of a charge of anthropocentrism: as one fundamentalist I've come across put the charge, atheists, having conveniently made a firm denial of the existence of anything infinitely more important than themselves, give themselves too much credit. But that's a very different sort of argument; and, as far as I can tell, it looks like it was picked up from agnostic criticisms of atheism, rather than being anything religious in particular. So I've never come across the argument you are suggesting is out there.

  18. Richard,

    Let me be more explicit.

    Nothing about religion entails that the believer must do any of the things you mentioned.

    That many religious folk do the things you mentioned is a sociological point, it is a point about the people who are religious, not about the religion.

    I hardly think that this is quibling. My point is that you misidentify the object worthy of criticism.

  19. Or, at least the object worthy of criticism on these grounds.

  20. Brandon,

    The post wasn't about arrogance/humility or knowing/doubting. It was about argumenation in the public sphere. My point is that appeals to religious beliefs when it comes to science or politics is an almost complete conversation stopper which either removes the stasis of the argument entirely from the subject at hand (this is a best case scenario) or it shifts the stasis to a point where all relavent evidence is of an entirely internal nature.

    I don't have a problem with religious people believing that their experiences gave them some insight into divine truth. The point I was trying to make is that this experience contributes absolutely nothing to public debate.

  21. I can see that the point of the post wasn't arrogance and humility, Jeff; the arrogance/humility line is just where it seems to me you made a wrong turn into relativist territory. In a context like public discussion, it seems to me that arrogance can't be indexed to content, but only to certain types of attitude. That appeal to infallible authority isn't necessarily a conversation stopper can be seen by the fact that it almost never actually does stop the conversation; people just keep conversing -- or arguing -- all the same. I'm not sure why you think it shifts the matter to purely internal evidence. (It seems simply wrong, in any case, to assume that purely 'internal' reasons are irrelevant to public discussion. Even in very hard disciplines like mathematics the actual discussion can often involve appeals to things like hunches and the way things seem to be. It's just that no reasonable person in a mathematical discussion confuses a hunch or an appearance with rigorous mathematical proof; he simply takes it as a starting point for further discussion. And so it is with everything else.)

  22. Brandon,

    I think that you are being perhaps a little over-generous. It's true that conversation in which private religious experience is the ultimate reason for one side's belief to continue, but they don't go anywhere. I just put up a post which is meant to supplement a lot of what I said in that other post here: My main point is that once an appeal to an infallible authority is made, whether explicitly done so or not, argumentation has essentially ceased. (Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule, but inasmuch as something is an exception, I'm simply not talking about it.)

    In a comment above I said that there is a tendency in religious toward devaluing human understanding in favor of the infallible guide. This could be misunderstood. What I meant is that religion tend in that direction, not that religions or religious people tend to be that way. The reason for this is not that religious people are bad or arrogant themselves, but simply that the very nature of source which is attributed to religious claims (infallibilty) as well as the nature of the justification for these claims (inscurtibly internal) to allow for an unchecked degree of overconfidence in these beliefs. There is a constant pull in the direction of arrogance with little if any pull toward humility in these claims. Thus I am not really talking about the people themselves being arrogant, nor am I talking about the beliefs themselves being arrogant. Instead, I'm talking about the role which these beliefs play in the lives of the religious as well as those of us around them.

    I should also mention that I have no qualms at all with ideas originating from within a religious context just so long as it is then taken to the public sphere wherein it is not treated with any special delicacy. If the beliefs cannot with stand scrutiny, it should be abandoned in all aspects of the public sphere. People should not vote according to what they and only they know in their hearts to be true despite all appearances, because their vote does not only influence the their life and only their life. Nevertheless, they can continue to believe whatever they want personally. I simply don't want to be subjected to the beliefs of others, being left without any way to defend myself by way of argument.

  23. I think we are, allowing for differences in detail fairly close. I still don't see how the appeal to infallibility is supposed to end argumentation more seriously than (say) appeal to facts. After all, they are isomorphic appeals -- that's why there was the concern about relativism above. Indeed, it can be argued that one is just a more specific version of the other: the infallibility is really incidental to the appeal, except to indicate that the claims are taken as facts. (An infallible authority yields truth, by definition. The reason the appeal to authority is a more specific version of an appeal to supposed facts is that all it is doing is making the appeal by way of an authority.) So if the conversation is ending it would seem to be ending only because the two people in the conversation don't agree with regard to facts and the respondent has no way to defend his position as to what the facts really are (or are not). If that's the way things are going, then it's not those making the appeal (whether to infallible authority or to facts) who have the problem. Of course, this is on the assumption that the distinction I mentioned in one of the above comments is kept: i.e., that the persons in question are not acting as if they were infallible, but are simply appealing to something they regard as infallible under an interpretation that in their best judgment is the right one. It's certainly true that this is often not the case in actual conversations, both inside and outside.

    One of the difficulties I had with your original post was the example of ID, which didn't seem to fit your diagnosis well at all. For instance, IDers, who, I would agree, often talk as if they were infallible, aren't appealing in their argument to something infallible. This is where they differ from, say, the occasional ordinary lay person who is suspicious of evolution because he sees no way to reconcile this with what he regards as an infallible authority -- e.g., what he thinks is the best interpretation of Genesis -- but recognizes that there are a lot of issues involved, some of which he may be mistaken about (let's call him the simple fundamentalist). The latter case, which fits some of your descriptions of arrogance better than the IDer, is actually the more humble case; the stubborn IDer who forms the example in your more recent post claims to appeal only to facts available for public discussion, and eschews the appeal to infallible authority. But it is the former, the one who is appealing to an infallible authority, who is more rational and humble. I think this becomes clearer with your newer post, because it is clear that the simple fundamentalist fits the suggested criteria much better than the stubborn IDer, despite the fact that the former rests his case on infallible authority, and the latter rests it on claims about scientific facts. (It also shows, I think, that appeal to an infallible authority obviously does not on its own end the discussion. For the simple fundamentalist, while he obviously thinks his position the right one, is open to being persuaded by deeper discussion of the issue.)

    (Likewise, it seems to me that the isomorphism continues into the issue of pull toward arrogance or humility. You see, I still am not giving up on the position that arrogance and humility don't seem relevant here!)

  24. Brandon,

    Perhaps you could put up a post over at your site that would provide a more detailed response to my posts. I think that the back and forth in this thread has become not only a little exclusive, but also a bit out of focus.


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