If You Want To Be A Relativist About Truth, Fine – But Be Consistent.

In recent years the push-back against those who argue against religious faith in public arenas (those people commonly classed as the ‘new atheists’) has become clouded by what I class as a pseudo-intellectual way of thinking, where all too often the person arguing on behalf of faith will turn the tables on the sceptic and equate their rational, scientific beliefs with their own faith in the Gods and the Heavens. It is not uncommon to hear these people say things like ‘trust in science involves just as much faith  and susceptibility to dogma as religion’; such statements are not only asked by undergraduates. In the last couple of months, two respectively written articles have appeared in the New Statesman based around the topic of religion, faith, evidence and reason, which I argue are essentially guilty of what I’ve just talked about: one is titled ‘Giant Leaps for Mankind’[1] by John Gray. The other is ‘The Goebbels of the English Language’[2] by Alan Moore.

In his review of Brian Leiter’s book ‘Why Tolerate Religion?’, John Gray discusses the difficulty in defining religious belief: ‘there is nothing particularly irrational or otherwise lacking in religious belief. After all, what counts as a religious belief?’. Defining a nuanced idea of religious belief may certainly be no easy task, but we can at least form an idea of some of its necessary conditions if we are to get anywhere in the English Language: religion must involve some belief in a supernatural creator of the World, and/or Universe. If this is not so, the belief does not accord with any recognizable or traditional interpretation of the original three monotheisms, the ones with which I’m sure Gray is primarily preoccupied. Gray then goes on to rather strangely and irrelevantly conflate the motivations behind certain acts and events in history to those acts committed by people because of religious motivation. For instance, he says that the horrors of Soviet Russia imply that ‘faith’ claims about the workings of communism are flawed, and that the 2003 American intervention in Iraq was a secular ‘faith’ driven adventure. Meanwhile he also invokes the ‘hunger for oil’ argument. But surely there either was an evidential reason to go into Iraq or there wasn’t, regardless of whether it was the right moral decision; Gray wants to affirm both at once, and in addition to this seems greatly confused about what we might term as the ‘a-religious’ faith that is supposedly the motivation behind this . The arguments have nothing to do with what secularism in the philosophical or intellectual sense means and Gray is determined not to acknowledge that some ‘faith’ is more justified than others. This may be because he doesn’t believe this to be true. But the point is elementary; the faith I have that I shall be nourished by my lunch today contains far more merit than the faith that an overseeing, all-powerful spaghetti monster awaits my death so that I can transgress into heaven (…just for example). So there are different kinds of faiths and they can be judged on their weighting and merits on a case-by-case basis.

Is Gray seriously claiming that belief in a God who created the world and everything in it, observes our earthly movements and who judges us upon our death (for sins which were brought upon us without our having any say in the matter), contains the same level of rationality or faith as the study of empirical, observable evidence to make judgements and decisions in the here and now?  Gray, to me, rather condescends the layman in bringing what are often absurd religious claims on a par with complex but reliable scientific ones (that is to say, these claims are brought about through a reliable method). Aside from annoying this ‘militant’, ‘new’ atheist, mainly by employing the facile oxymoron in the first place (how can one be ‘militant’ in their unbelief of something? What classes as religious militarism and atheistic militarism is considerably different in public terminology), Gray never actually explains how and why ‘most of  our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted’, one of his mains failures in the article.

This leads me onto the second article I mentioned by Alan Moore. The subtitle of Moore’s piece is ‘We cannot state conclusively that anything is true’; this is a fairly accurate summary of the theme of the piece and intentions behind it. His main beef with the concept of evidence seems to be that its validity relies on, well, evidence. This appears at first to be true – such a proclamation is indeed, self-evident and in a sense grants itself – but in terms of pragmatics, real life day-to-day stuff, the concept is not so circular. We could not live without evidence. We need it for helping to solve crimes, create life-saving medicines and conduct scientific experiments. And yet Moore seems to define the concept of evidence in strange, anthropomorphic terms, as though it were an individual event or quantifiable foe: ‘A glance at evidence’s back-story reveals a seemingly impeccable and spotless record sheet…’. What? All things in the world can be evidence; literally anything. Precisely what is he pointing to when he says ‘evidence’s back-story’? Is it evidence for things he doesn’t like?

Moore is within his rights to make the distinction between ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’ (though the former often constitutes the latter), because proof can be had without evidence. But when Moore invokes philosopher Karl Popper’s theory of falsifiability, he commits an error of categories. It is certainly true that nothing can conclusively be proven to be true, for we would have to have infinite time and ability to assess it all, and that the principle of falsifiability – that we can only demonstrate at most that a hypothesis has not yet been falsified – is the best way to go about conducting scientific enquiry. However, religion is primarily a scientific question, for it makes bold empirical and perhaps eventually, testable claims; one should not take the jump of making a truth claim about god’s existence simply because it hasn’t been proved he does not exist. This is the principle of falsifiability in action; the burden of proof is not to show that things do not exist but that they do. Doubly so with grandiose claims about the nature of the Universe and the things that happen to us when we die. Again, there is nothing new about what is being said here. Evidence is crucial and it is absolutely right to ask for its consideration, especially when so much is at stake as it surely is with religion.

The verification principle is useful for questions of scientific enquiry, but it cannot really be put into practice with regard to supernatural claims. Such questions certainly are not meaningless (there has to be a truth-function to these claims, unless you are a relativist), but by ignoring the distinction between ‘faith’ and beliefs based on reason, Moore falls into the same trap as Gray. Do these two Gents not trust science, or the concept of evidence? If not, they are kindly invited to climb to the top of a ladder and jump off to test their ‘unreasonable’ faith in gravity – ah, but of course neither would want to do any such thing. The basis for their attempts to create a level-playing field for reason and faith, for skepticism and credulity are flawed, and they really ought to not be so disingenuous. If they want to be relativists about truth, they should be consistent and come out with what they really mean.

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1 comment
  1. I think it may be difficult to explore the truth as a relativist without getting influenced by the culture and the history that you’re using to establish context.

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