May 31 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 5

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 pm

This is part five of a series. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part four is here.

In the last post, I talked about the “Practical Approach” to religious claims. In this concluding post, I expand on this further and talk about adopting a reasonable approach to religion.

Toward Reasonable Religion

When you follow the practical approach, you accept that no matter what church you belong to, it is important to update your religious views to be fully compatible with our modern understandings of the world – to move toward more reasonable religion. Reasonable religion integrates the wisdom of the ages about morality, spirituality, and enlightenment with our modern scientific understanding of the universe and reality. It means adopting a reasonable approach to religion within whatever religion you practice. We should never be afraid to change our beliefs in the face of new evidence. We should never be afraid to reject religious teachings that are contradicted by new discoveries and better information.

At the same time, even in our modern age, we need not limit religion to an empirically based, scientific undertaking. Questions of feelings and finding beauty and meaning in life are important too. One of the main values of religion is cultivating a sense of wonder and peace, an understanding of our human frailties and imperfections, and a respect for the mysteries of the universe. Human reason and rationality are responsible for the amazing advances in our culture, knowledge, and standards of living. But our brains are finite and surprisingly predisposed to irrationality. What this means is that all of us – even the smartest and most rational among us – have hidden biases and predispositions that we cannot perceive. This human trait affects both the brains of the religious and the atheists. Reasonable religion means trying to clarify our thinking and act more rationally, but it also means having some humility about our conclusions and beliefs and not losing sight of the importance of feelings and human relationships.

Reasonable religion acknowledges at least the possibility of a higher power and the unseen world, but it even more enthusiastically encourages man’s attempts to further understand unseen forces and unknown domains by using our rational understanding. Reasonable religion lauds the benefits of rationality, but acknowledges that we as humans are incapable of perfect understanding. Our ability to perceive is limited, as is our capacity to understand. Reasonable religion is not concerned with the unprovable, such as the existence of God or with questions about life after death. Instead, it is a tool that we use to make things better here and now.

Whether or not the supernatural claims of religions are true (and based on their track record of being wrong about the things that we can prove, it is not unreasonable to treat them with some skepticism), religious teachings about morality and spiritual practice can lead us to concrete benefits apart from their supernatural teachings. Yoga is a good example of this. Yoga has become so popular in the United States that it is considered a completely mainstream activity. But yoga was originally a Hindu religious practice. Many western yoga practitioners derive significant benefits from their practice and many, if not most, of them consider yoga to be little more than a form of exercise. Few of them accept many (if any) of the supernatural teachings of Hinduism. Meditation is another example of a religious practice that has become accepted for its practical benefits by many people who reject the original supernatural reasons for the practice.

The archeological evidence shows that religion has co-evolved with us since even before behaviorally modern humans emerged 50,000 years ago. Most scientists agree that our tendency for religious behavior evolved early in our history. There are two explanations for how religion evolved. The first is that religion itself serves an adaptive purpose that confers a selective advantage and that it thus arose through natural selection. The second view is that religious behavior is merely a byproduct of other adaptive traits, such as agent detection, theory of mind, and understanding causation.1 Based on the ubiquity of religion in every human culture, and the many cross-cultural similarities in religious belief and practice, I think that the first explanation is probably correct: religion evolved through natural selection because it conferred selective advantages.

Religion probably evolved because it serves three important practical purposes:

  1. Serenity: to assist people attain enlightenment, which means achieving sustained periods of emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude;
  2. Morality: to provide a moral code and framework for our interactions with each other and the world and provide outlets to exercise moral goodness towards others;
  3. Sociality: to encourage group cohesiveness and provide a social outlet for people to interact, become acquainted, learn from each other, and support one another in their lives and beliefs.

Just like almost every human trait, our religious tendencies can become unhinged, turn maladaptive, and lead to negative outcomes. And just like any human trait, each person’s natural religious tendencies vary in the same way that every human trait varies. Some people are more naturally angry or happy than others and some people are naturally more religious than others and some people are naturally areligious (although they seem to be a small percentage of the population). But because religion is an evolved part of human nature, for most of us it is nearly impossible to completely remove our natural religious inclinations. It is easy to see innate human religious tendencies even among the ostensibly non-religious. In our modern Western societies, many secular people who have eschewed religion unknowingly adopt quasi-religious attitudes about the norms and beliefs of their peers and surrounding social groups. Two obvious examples are 1) the strident self-righteous piety of the New Atheists2 and 2) the concern for ritual purity of environmentalists.3 I don’t mean this as an attack on atheism or environmentalism; both movements have strong arguments to support their positions. The point is that for psychologically healthy and normal human beings, it is difficult for us to escape religion, no matter what church we do or don’t go to. Whenever a social group coalesces around strongly held beliefs or ideas, their religious natures usually emerge, whether it be around Christianity, sports, or Star Trek.4.

Reasonable religion recognizes our innate religious nature and seeks use it to our benefit. The three purposes of religion can be fulfilled by taking the useful and reasonable parts of religion and jettisoning the unreasonable and cosmologically suspect parts. Everyone, even the religious fundamentalist, does this. It is impossible to believe in most major religions without picking and choosing which parts to believe in and practice (indeed, sacred works like the Bible are filled with contradictions5 which make it impossible to literally believe everything they contain). Rarely, though, do we do this consciously and systematically.

Determining our religious beliefs in a casual and ad hoc fashion frequently leads to suboptimal results. Without thinking deeply and carefully, too often we end up keeping the bad parts and jettisoning the good ones. We end up with suboptimal and inconsistent belief systems that do not maximize the potential benefits our religion can bring to ourselves and others. We should each consider our religion (whether it is an explicit denomination or merely the core practices and ideals we have adopted from our peers and social groups) and jettison the bad parts, keep the good parts, and study the religions of others so that we can co-opt their useful parts and practice them ourselves. This should be an ongoing process – it is easy to fall into a rut and develop bad habits and rely on our past conclusions; reasonable religion is a lifelong approach of continual reevaluation, a never-ending accretion of positive religious practices and outlooks. Religion evolved because it conferred real benefits. Reasonable religion means thinking carefully and acting wisely to maximize those benefits.

So what is the best way to practice reasonable religion? Study the wisdom of the ages; compare, think, and explore; integrate what you find with modern scientific knowledge. Make the effort to discover and synthesize truth. Different, valuable approaches and perspectives often develop outside of your “group” that often end up being better than what you find within your normal range of experience. If you only ever look within your own tradition and social groups, insularity and groupthink will often lead you astray into false beliefs and conclusions. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber: read and experience teachings and traditions outside your occupation, your field of study, or your religious tradition – you will find new insights and knowledge unattainable without venturing outside. Keep the good you already have, and look for more wherever you can get it.



3 Environmentalists’ concerns for ritual impurity and achieving ritual cleanliness merely trades religious objects for a new set of secular objects. Their quasi-religious concern for avoiding “ungreen” products and using ritually pure objects often comes without rationally evaluating their behavior to figure out how they can actually make the most impact. The important thing to them becomes the ritual purity, and only secondarily achieving the most environmentally positive outcome. For example, animal loving environmentalists hold SUV drivers in contempt for their unclean gas-gizzling behavior even though many of those same environmentalists keep pet dogs and cats that have a greater adverse environmental impact than the SUV ( Their attitudes are more shaped by a reverential awe for “nature” than for actually minimizing their environmental impact. Another example is environmentally conscious drivers who gain ritual purity by driving their Prius, even though the energy used to build and operate a Prius may make it worse for the environment other simple gasoline-powered options like the Scion xB ( (PDF)). Many in the environmental movement also display ascetic tendencies that in previous years might have led them to a monastic life: the act itself of sacrificing is what they value most, rather than rationally evaluating the evidence and making the optimal choice. Their environmentalism becomes an excuse to display their innate religious tendencies.

May 22 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 4

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 6:01 pm

This is part four of a series. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part five is here.

Last post, started talking about the first three of four possible reasonable approaches to religious claims: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. In this post, I talk about my favored approach, the practical approach (presentist eclecticism).

The Practical Approach (Presentist Eclecticism)

The practical approach is to take the beneficial parts of religion to maximize its present practical benefit. You do not approach religion trying to find a reason to believe or disbelieve all of the unprovable stuff. Things are neither “true until proven false” nor “false until proven true.” You do not try to pigeonhole problematic religious teachings into a palatable symbolic reinterpretation.

Applying the practical approach, you readily jettison the parts of religion that are demonstrably untrue. You look to science and other fields of intellectual inquiry to learn about the universe and our place in it. But you also do not reject religion either. For the parts of religion that have not been proven false, you search religion and religious teachings for tools to lead you to feelings of elevation, enlightenment, gratitude, peace, and transcendence, and to virtuous acts. Religion has, after all, proved itself quite effective at helping us achieve these states. You take an eclectic approach to religion. You sift out the valuable parts of the world’s religions and leave the rest.

The practical approach also means not worrying about unanswerable (at least at the present) metaphysical questions like the existence of the soul or our fate after death. It means not concerning yourself with questions of future eternal rewards or punishments. In Matthew, Jesus says “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”1 Practitioners of the practical approach take Jesus at his word. They care about the here and now, not abstract, indistinct, and indiscernible futures.

Virtually every religion has a moral core required of followers. Religions generally guarantee future rewards in the afterlife for moral behavior. When you adopt a presentist approach to morality, you approach moral questions concerned with an action’s effects within our current sphere of existence, rather than concerning yourself with how that act will effect some future reward after death.

Conveniently, an approach to morality that is only concerned with our current mortal existence results in a moral code that closely approximates the core moral precepts that we find in all the major religions. Presentism leads to the same moral behavior that the world’s great religions teach as being required to achieve a beneficial outcome after death. Living morally will definitely make your life better now, and if there is an afterlife, it will probably lead to a good outcome after death too. Concerning yourself with religions’ cosmological claims becomes less important, since you get the benefits of the moral behavior either way.

The teachings of the great religions have great value in helping people transform their lives for the better. The parts of religions that do this are the parts that are based on real universal moral principles. They are the parts that help people live more virtuous lives, discern truth, and achieve emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude. To derive these benefits of religion, however, we do not need false cosmologies or superstitions based on inaccurate world views.

Some people may argue that the value from religion comes from their cosmologies and superstitions. There are some interesting counter examples that contradict this view. Buddhism is often described as an atheistic religion because it makes no claims about god or divinities. There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists who find tremendous value in their practice of Buddhism. Even more lacking in metaphysics is Confucianism, which makes few if any supernatural claims and makes no theistic claims at all (although there is still debate about whether it should be classified as a religion). Confucianism has been a dominant and positive force in the lives of people in East Asia for mny centuries.

Now, some might claim that good behavior is not enough, that you have to perform the sacred rites of a particular religion, or accept Jesus into your heart, or follow the Five Pillars of Islam, etc. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t – and even if you do, which religion’s practices are right? So long as your religious practice does not prevent you from engaging in objectively moral behavior, it does not hurt to entertain Pascal’s Wager, choose a religion, and follow its rites and requirements. But the practical approach never accepts demonstrably untrue religious claims.

In the next post, I’ll conclude this series with some thoughts on adopting a reasonable approach to religion.


1 Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)

May 21 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 3

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This is part three of a series. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part four is here. Part five is here.

Last post, I talked about the problems with adopting a literal approach to religions’ claims. As alternatives to the literal approach to religious teachings, I listed four reasonable approaches to religious claims beyond just relying on statements from purported authorities: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. In this post, I talk about the first three approaches.

The Gaps Approach

With the gaps approach, you re-interpret as being symbolic the teachings about cosmology that have been contradicted by modern science, but continue believing in the teachings that have not been challenged by science. You create space for belief out of the gaps that science has not, or cannot, address. For example, you might discount the idea of a creation in six days, but continue believing that God created the Earth using natural processes over millions of years.

The problem with this approach is that as scientific knowledge continues to grow, the space for religious belief continues to shrink. Moreover, it is epistemologically dubious and self-serving to accept as true the parts of your religion that science has not been able to disprove. It requires that you to ignore the glaring problem that in the areas where scientific inquiry has yielded applicable results, it has disconfirmed and rarely (if ever) confirmed any of the religion’s cosmological teachings. But inasmuch as some of religions’ claims will almost always be unprovable, this is a completely legitimate approach. Most educated religious believers in the West, whether knowingly or not, adopt this approach.

The Symbolic Approach

The symbolic approach is to look at all of the cosmological teachings in the religion or sacred text as being symbolic. This is fine as far as it goes, but it raises the issue of the value of devoting time to study teachings that you acknowledge as being untrue. In most cases, the cosmologically suspect teachings were originally put forth as being literally true. Why shoehorn meanings into the teachings that were not even intended by the original authors? There are cultural and social reasons to adopt this approach (if you live in a society dominated by a certain religion, you may have no choice but to remain affiliated and try to make the best of what you have), but it is not ideal. Even so, it is a perfectly respectable way to approach religion and has been applied by many people.

The Rejection Approach

The rejection approach is to conclude that if verifiable religious claims are usually contradicted by scientific discoveries, then perhaps there is not much reason to continue reinterpreting religious beliefs and teachings to retain a faith in the gaps – if the verifiable claims are untrue, then the unverifiable religious claims probably are not true either. Someone applying the gaps approach might conclude “well, since we have proved that there is no heaven directly above us in the sky, it must mean that heaven is somewhere else,” whereas a rejectionist might instead conclude “if the ancients were wrong about heaven being a literal place above the sky, then maybe there is no heaven at all.” While those who apply the gaps approach tend to be theists, rejectionists tend to be atheists. Many intelligent atheists have adopted this approach and it is an entirely defensible approach.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my favored approach, the Practical Approach (or Presentist Eclecticism).

May 18 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 2

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This is part two of a series. Part one is here. Part three is here. Part four is here. Part five is here.

Last post, I talked about the great benefits that have come from religion, but also about how many of the great religions’ cosmological claims have been proven false. In this post, I’ll talk about the problem with adopting a literal approach to religions’ claims.

Much of what our ancestors believed about cosmology is plainly contradicted by what we have discovered about the universe. When the teachings of the great religions are based on the premises of a false cosmology, then the teachings themselves should be suspect – there is no reason to believe a conclusion based on a false premise.

Religious believers who take a literal approach to their religion’s sacred books or to the teachings of their religious leaders may appeal to authority and argue that the words of god, as contained in their scriptures (or as transmitted by their holy leaders) are the ultimate authority and therefore modern cosmological claims must be wrong. There are two problems with this approach.

First, believers base their claims about a text or leader’s divine authority on circular and subjective arguments. Believing in a leader or a text’s divine authority merely because the leader or the text says so is circular: we have no reason to believe in the leader or the text’s claims unless we already believe in their claims – there is no external reason to believe in their authority. Believing in a leader or a text’s divine authority because of our subjective emotional responses to them is almost equally problematic. As I have discussed before, spiritual feelings are very subjective.1 People from wildly different religions – religions with contradictory and mutually exclusive teachings – describe the same sorts of spiritual feelings confirming their belief in the religion. Some followers may isntead place their trust in stories about a teacher’s or a leader’s miraculous or supernatural abilities. Such stories invariably lack objective verification and are nearly always told second or third hand; I have never seen such stories stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Things like a religious text’s or leader’s own claim to authority, pleasant feelings, or stories of dubious veracity are not be enough to validate the claims to authority of religious texts or teachers, especially when some of their claims are directly contradicted by our modern observations of the world.

Second, it is a logical fallacy to believe in a statement’s truth merely because it was uttered by an “authority.” None of us can know everything. There is nothing wrong with relying on experts. And there is nothing wrong with arguing that a statement made by an authority is true. The problem arises when we argue that something is true because it was uttered by an authority. If something is true, then it is true whether or not it was uttered by an authority. Any statement made by an authority, therefore, should be able to stand up to criticism and independent verification. If an authority’s statements are true, it should be consistent with our knowledge of reality.

As alternatives to the literal approach to religious teachings, I present four reasonable approaches to religious claims beyond just relying on statements from purported authorities: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. Next post, I’ll talk about the first three.

May 17 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 1

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This is part one of a series. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part four is here. Part five is here.

Over the tens of thousands of years of human existence, human cultures have developed much knowledge about creating and maintaining good relationships and building communities. In the development of human society over the last 100,000 years, humans moved from simple hunter-gatherer tribes to societies of increasing complexity and size. The large and complex societies of the last few thousand years do not function well without moral principles such as charity, empathy, honesty, and respect for life and personal property.

The great religions of all the major cultures have accumulated insights into human living and interactions over the generations and developed the moral rules that are essential to modern society and as more people more fully live these moral principles, people’s lives have significantly improved. The moral teachings of the great religions have tremendous value in teaching us how to live together, and how to attain enlightenment, contentment, and happiness. Religion even provides much value and meaning to even non-adherents – secular notions of morality originally started from religious ideas about morality.

But in spite of the great value we can derive from religion, the great teachings of the world religions are also intertwined with ancient pre-modern cosmologies (cosmology is the study of the universe and humanity’s place in it) of decreasing relevance to us in light of modern scientific discoveries. The world’s major religions were founded in pre-modern times by people with radically different cosmologies than our modern conceptions. Many of the doctrines, practices, and teachings of modern religions are thus based on pre-modern cosmologies founded on superstitious beliefs and practices; they are based on false premises and assumptions about the world which we now know to be wrong.

For example, at the time of the founding of the great religions of the world, many of those religions’ adherents believed that the world was flat or that it was at the center of the universe. Biblical cosmology presupposes that the Earth is a flat disc floating in water.1 For biblical writers, heaven was a literal place just above the sky and hell was a literal place just below the ground. In Acts in the New Testament when Jesus ascends to heaven, Jesus is going to a literal place just above the sky. When John writes in Revelation about Jesus returning to Earth, he is talking about Jesus descending from a literal place located just above the sky. When the Bible talks about hell, it is referring to a literal place just below the ground that is the abode of departed spirits.2 The Bible presupposes a geocentric model of the universe, in which the Earth sits at the center and everything else, including the Sun, revolves around the Earth.3 Many of these types of passages are now interpreted metaphorically, but their writers’ literally believed them.

Our ancestors based their cosmologies on rudimentary observations of the world around them and then combined their observations with doctrines from religious teachers and culturally-inherited superstitious notions about unseen actors and forces. Modern scientific cosmology is based on fields such as astronomy and physics. The breakthroughs in modern cosmology frequently require advanced math; sophisticated tools, such as telescopes and particle accelerators; and a knowledge of past discoveries (because one lifetime is not enough for one person alone to figure out all the wonders of the universe).

Much of what our ancestors believed about cosmology is plainly contradicted by what we have discovered about the universe. When the teachings of the great religions are based on the premises of a false cosmology, then the teachings themselves should be suspect – there is no reason to believe a conclusion based on a false premise.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about the problems with taking a literal approach to  religious teachings




2 See, for example, Ezekiel 31:15

3 See, for example, Joshua 10:12-13 and Psalm 104:5