Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Becoming Progressive about Religion?

In a piece called Beyond Progressive Religion, Ivan Petrella (associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida) makes a bold suggestion. He recommends we take the best parts of progressive Christianity and of Atheism, and discard the unpalatable parts, in order to formulate a new spiritual outlook.

So, what does Petrella consider the good and the bad of progressive Christianity?

He says:

From progressive Christians, I’d rescue the commitment to progressive understandings of faith and politics. But I’d reject their reliance on the Bible and Jesus. Here they are no different from the religious right, picking and choosing what suits them while ignoring what doesn’t.

Okay, that's not too bad, although it's a bit vague on the particulars of what exactly a progressive understanding of faith and politics is.

Patrella's ideal goal is for people to pick and choose from various religious traditions, smorgasbord fashion.

He makes this claim:

But religions need not be viewed as mutually exclusive and monolithic structures. Instead, they can be resources to tinker with and borrow from. We’re usually born into a religion, but as human beings all of them are our inheritance. To embrace this view is to become a multi-religious individual, someone who draws from more than one religious tradition to forge a spiritual path.

Perhaps Petrella hasn't noticed, but we already have such a thing, and it's called New Age religion, with its pickings and choosings from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Celtic pre-Christian religions, and a bunch of novel ideas seemingly made up on the spot.

None of this bothers me too much, but what irks me is Petrella's ideas about what we should take and leave from Atheism.

He says:

From atheists, I’d rescue the commitment to reason. Like them, I’m unwilling to abdicate the use of my rational capacity in the name of faith. Unlike atheists, however, I don’t believe religions are false. Billions of people practice religions; in that sense they’re true. Billions of people believe in God; in that sense God does exist. Religions are true, but they’re not sacred. We need to be as self-reflective and critical of religion as we are of any other part of life.

The last sentence is intelligible (and I agree with it), and the bit about being unwilling to give up reason for faith makes sense to me too, but the rest is unintelligible.

So, let's get this straight: What does it mean to say that, "Billions of people practice religions; in that sense they’re true. Billions of people believe in God; in that sense God does exist"?

The problem is that believing something doesn't make it true, regardless of how many billions of people believe it. I'm baffled at how Petrella can champion rational thinking in one sentence, but then immediately after say something so utterly irrational.

At one time the majority of people believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but that didn't make it true that the sun revolved around the earth. And in the same way, just because the majority of people believe in God and religion does not make those beliefs true.

It would indeed be a strange universe if truth was simply a matter of what the majority believed. In fact, this would make science and rational thinking impossible, because if you wanted to know whether some claim is true or false you wouldn't have to actually do any experiments, make observations, gather evidence, check for logical inconsistencies, and so forth. All you'd have to do is have a vote, and whatever the majority voted for would be true.

And this bit from Petrella just seems wrongheaded (although at least it's intelligible):

In a world that’s becoming more religious rather than less, atheism can’t be the answer. Advocates of atheism remain tied to the discredited secularization thesis, making them a minority condemned to insignificance except within circles ever more out of touch with global reality. In addition, their strident tone feeds the culture wars and strengthens the right’s belief that Christianity is under siege.

I'd like to see some empirical evidence that the world is becoming more religious rather than less. Even if it's true, that's no reason to give up in the culture wars struggle. We fight these battles because we don't want to live in a society whose institutions are controlled by the religious right and their antiquated views.

And what makes the "secularization thesis" discredited? The ideas of secularism come out of the Enlightenment, and they go a long way to informing how governments are designed to work in the United States and Europe. I wouldn't want to give up that "thesis" at all.

This all sounds like wishy-washy muddle-headed thinking.

1 comment:

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

"Billions of people practice religions; in that sense they’re true."

That is some pretty crummy reasoning, as you point out! So if I believe the Earth is at the center of the solar system it's true? If I believe 2+2=98, it's true 'in a sense'?