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)

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