Thursday, December 29, 2011

Do religious beliefs matter?

To my dear friend religion is just another personal choice, like who to date or whether to have coffee or tea for breakfast.  It doesn’t matter what religion you choose to follow if it works for you. But that is not what Catholicism is.  It is not just another choice on the buffet of beliefs.  He thinks my stubborn persistence that Catholicism is the True Faith founded by Christ to be nothing more than a desire to be right.  [In the previous paragraph, “He finds it elitist a Catholic’s claim of belonging to the One True Church.”]

What our friend the Crescat is describing, in her post on dating outside the Faith, is described in the old Catholic Encyclopedia as “restricted indifferentism”: “all religions are equally worthy and profitable to man, and equally pleasing to God. … God looks only to the sincerity of intention, and that everybody can serve Him by remaining in the religion in which he has been brought up, or by changing it at will for any other that pleases him [i.e., the worshipper] more.”[1]

This is not an uncommon position to take.  In fact, a very dear friend of mine holds (or at least held at one time) this position almost exactly as stated.  If there’s anything enviable about the position, it allows one the benefit of having religious convictions, even strong convictions, without either the uncomfortable imperative of examining them for flaws or the equally uncomfortable need to challenge the beliefs of others.

Let me grant as much as I can:

First, studies do show that religious practice is much healthier than irreligiousness.  “So impressive are the health benefits of religion, in fact, that after reviewing more than a thousand studies on the impact of religion upon health, Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center recently told The New Republic, that ‘Lack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to forty years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day.’”[2]

Second, while we are given the ideal of all men worshipping the one true God as part of the One True Faith, we live and operate within the reality of religious heterogeneity as a result of the political ideal of religious freedom.  Compelled worship is inauthentic worship, a fraud perpetrated on God and the community at large.[*]  We may lament religious apathy and agree that some participation is better than none, but if it’s wrong to force a young Coptic woman to convert to Islam, then it’s wrong to compel a Moslem to go to Mass.  Compelle intrare (cf. Lk 14:23) should not be interpreted so literally as a command to frog-march people into the pews.

Having said that, though, the charge that the Catholic claim to being the One True Faith is “elitist” is not only misdirected but not a little bizarre.  Just how exclusive can a club be when it seeks to make everyone a member?

Next, if the ‘Cat’s description of her non-Catholic friend be accurate, then he speaks of the “desire to be right” as if it were a bad thing, as if it were some unreasonable impulse deleterious to health and society at large.

A little over twenty years ago, I read an essay by Isaac Asimov titled “The Right to be Wrong”.  In essence, it was a plea for the recognition that to be wrong is not equal to being evil, defective or insane.  While this is true enough, it still doesn’t follow that to be wrong is desirable or inconsequential; indeed, even meteorologists can’t afford to be wrong all the time.  The number of possible examples in which to be wrong would be to invite and even create disaster simply boggle the mind.  The desire to be right is not only natural but a necessary component of our thinking; a person who’s just not that fussed about getting his information straight is a potential candidate for a Darwin Award.

But there’s a more invidious implication than mere carelessness about facts.  By saying that our stubborn persistence is “nothing more than a desire to be right,” ‘Cat’s friend is indirectly saying that we’re engaged in wishful thinking.

Some logicians have gone so far as to define wishful thinking as an informal fallacy.  But while the desire to be right can lead to cognitive bias, too often the charge of “wishful thinking” is itself a kind of fallacy, a circumstantial ad hominem attack of the kind C. S. Lewis called a “Bulverism”:

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.”  You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition.  Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself.  When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not.  If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time.[3]

Ideas have consequences: nothing demonstrated this fact more thoroughly, or with such devastation and horror, as the history of the twentieth century did.  It’s precisely because ideas have consequences that orthodox Catholics, like other people, struggle so hard not only to maintain and promote the authentic faith but also to make their voices heard and votes count in matters of public policy.

Frankly, it’s not necessary to be religiously indifferent to treat other people’s religious beliefs with respect.  At the same time, whether you hold theology to be a subset of philosophy or philosophy to be a “handmaiden” of sacred doctrine,[†] the fact is that both attempt to answer “three questions that every reflective person must ask.  Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then shall I live?”[4]  Because ideas have consequences, these questions not only can but must have right answers — at the very least, best possible answers.

Religious beliefs matter, in a way that choice of breakfast beverage never could.

[*] This argument doesn’t pertain to the question of basing laws on religious morality, which is another subject entirely.
[†] Per St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1:1:5 A, RO2.

[1] Fox, J. (1910). Religious Indifferentism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 29, 2011 from New Advent:
[2] Newberg, A., D’Aquili, E. & Rause, V. (2002).  Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief.  New York: Ballantine Books, pp. 129-130.
[3] Lewis, C. S. (1941). Bulverism. Retrieved from God in the Dock:
[4] Sacks, Jonathan H. (2012, January/February).  The Limits of Secularism.  Retrieved December 29, 2011 from Standpoint Magazine: