Is Religion Worth Arguing About?

This post by Stephen Hicks, Ph.D., originally appeared at EveryJoe.

My answer is: Absolutely, yes, religion is worth arguing about.

We have all heard that in polite company we should not discuss sex, politics, business, or religion. Those topics are too troublesome, so we should stick to safer topics.

Of course such topics are inappropriate sometimes. One doesn’t hand out business cards at a funeral. Teachers shouldn’t hit on their students. And even if it’s the day before a big election, one doesn’t make campaign speeches at a four-year-old’s birthday party.

But we are human beings. To be human is to grapple with the big questions and the crucial values of life. And we must decide – we all need to make up our minds what our lives will be about. Solo reflection is the most important part of this process. But discussing major issues with others can and should be a useful learning experience.

I sometimes think of it this way. Suppose you are approached by a 15-year old girl who knows and trusts you. Perhaps you are a family member, a coach or counselor, a teacher, or a good friend of the family. She knows that you are a thoughtful and decent adult, so she has come to you for advice.

What should I think about religion? she asks. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about it, she continues, and I know there are many answers – from atheist to agnostic to many kinds of belief.

She pauses, which gives you a few moments to get your thoughts together. And I’d really like to know your opinion, she says.

How do you respond?

One might feel an impulse to avoid the question. The topic is uncomfortable. Or difficult. Or might lead to social unpleasantness.

All of that may be true. But it’s also true that part of the pleasure of aging can be imparting one’s hard-won wisdom to those starting out on their journeys. Especially in the case of parents and teachers who explicitly choose to become nurturers and guides of the young, preparing young people for life’s big challenges – and being a role model for dealing with those challenges – is built into that choice.

So in this best-case scenario – with a thoughtful, questioning, open-minded young person who actually wants to talk seriously with you – those are the moments one should prepare oneself for, hope for, and look forward to.

We know how some adults have dealt with young people. They indoctrinated their children long before, making it clear what the child must believe and even undercutting the growing child’s capacity for thinking about those beliefs.

Other adults react in authoritarian fashion. They tell children who ask questions that they are not competent to think about such things and that they should trust and believe what their elders tell them.

Yet others use threats and actual compulsion. They inflict verbal abuse upon questioners, and their harsh words may be backed up with a slap or a beating or confinement or threats of future pains for deviance.

But some adults – happily, in my judgment, a growing minority – reason with their children. From an early age, kids ask Why? and How?, and the grown-ups in their lives think through the issues with their children. They do their best to present the facts and explain the reasons in a way that the child can grasp.

Only the reasoning method is legitimate. Indoctrination is beneath contempt. Appeals to authority prove nothing. And to respond to questioning with threats or compulsion is a pathetic confession of intellectual weakness and an evil.

The truth about religion – or any issue – can be known only by a mind that assesses the evidence and judges it independently. As issues become more complex – that is, as the amount of evidence that must be considered grows and as the number of interpretive possibilities that must be evaluated increases – explicit attention to argument and counter-argument must be engaged in. The mark of a responsible mind concerned with truth is a commitment to going where the best arguments lead.

It is sometimes said that before the age of reason, children must be told what to do and that their cognitive and physical habits must be formed by authority. Why they need to bathe or eat vegetables or not run into the street – those cannot be explained to a two-year old. So adults must make them do the right things and develop good habits in their children by conditioning.

Fair enough. Sometimes. But the capacity for reasoning is developmental in a child from day one. So parents must also be sensitive to what the developing child can and cannot grasp. When the child can understand, then reasoning and not conditioning is appropriate. Simultaneously, the cultivation of the child’s reasoning enables him or her increasingly to understand the reasons for the earlier conditioning. Part of coming to intellectual maturity is re-evaluating for oneself the beliefs and habits one acquired from one’s parents.

All of this is especially true on matters of religion. Religion is a kind of philosophy, with answers to life’s questions about who we are, where we came from, and what really matters.

Answers to those questions are vitally important to each of us, and the adequacy of the various religions’ answers is naturally a critical issue for all thinking human beings. But the only way to evaluate their adequacy is by looking at the evidence, by assessing the religious claims’ fit with the evidence, and by comparing the competing religions’ arguments with each other.

That is a lot of work.

Some people are put off by the difficulty of the task. So they fall back on an easy faith of believing whatever beliefs they happen to have been raised with. But obviously an accident of social geography does not prove or even make likely one’s beliefs.

Some people are put off by the fear that they might discover that their beliefs are wrong. They might have to admit mistakes, and they might have to change their minds to a belief they currently find repellant. So they become subjectivists. But obviously believing something because you want it to be true or rejecting something because you don’t want it to be true – both of those practices are anti-truth.

And some people are put off by the social difficulty of the task. Independent thinking can and often does put one at odds with prevailing beliefs, and others can make one’s life a social misery by inflicting punishments for deviating from the crowd. So many people fall into a compliance with whatever most people in their social circle believe. But we are human beings, not sheep, and a follow-the-herd-mentality is also anti-truth.

We have likely all had the experience of trying to discuss religion reasonably with someone and learned that it does not often go well. The problem is that – to use a dance metaphor – it takes two to tango, and rare are the occasions when both dancers are good at it. Reasoning is a complex set of skills, and reasoning together is even more complex. Frustration along the way is also to be expected. But as with tango, when the skills are mastered the results can be beautiful.

In my judgment we are getting better at thinking about religion, individually and socially. Compared to generations and centuries past, more people now know how to think. More people are aware of the alternatives. More information is more easily available, and more discussion and debate forums are now used by increasingly more people. We are going up the learning curve – often messily, but upward even so.

A whole new generation of thoughtful 15-year-olds is also arising. What should we say to them, those of us who have thought much about religion?

We present the arguments clearly, passionately, and civilly. We do our best to assess their merits and demerits fairly. We encourage young people – and anyone who is still thinking through the issues – to do the same. And, in the final analysis, we respect their need to make their own best judgments.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Stephen HicksStephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy and the Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship. He is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy, 2004), Nietzsche and the Nazis (2010), and he is the co-editor of The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis (W.W. Norton and Co., second edition, 1998). He has also published in numerous magazines and scholarly journals, including Review of Metaphysics, The Journal of Private Enterprise, Teaching Philosophy, and The Wall Street Journal. You can follow his work at StephenHicks.org, and on Twitter.

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