|Print This Post
September 12, 2012
EVALUATING THE MERIT OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Christianity has two sides, as do most religions: a metaphysical side and a secular side. I use the term metaphysical in the sense of supersensible or transcendent—meaning that it is not a part of the natural world we experience from day to day. The secular side of Christianity describes the natural world where beliefs based on metaphysical claims play themselves out in life from day to day.
There is no right or wrong, or truth or falsehood to ideas based on metaphysical claims that shape religious beliefs—there is only opinion strongly held. One claim about the metaphysical is no better or worse than the next. What possible proof could be offered to demonstrate that my metaphysical claim is better than another’s metaphysical claim? Usually religious beliefs rely on a so-called spiritual world that is transcendent, and accessible only through faith. But a spiritual world is “somewhere” only if you believe it. What is asserted about life after death is another claim based on the metaphysical. One “promise” for the afterlife is as good as another (streets paved with gold, angel choirs, or 72 virgins). Likewise there is no truth or falsehood to claims about the afterlife. There is only strong opinion and denigration of another’s claims.
I realize that many believe what I have characterized above as an absolute break between postulated metaphysical and natural worlds is simply mistaken. They believe that the metaphysical is permeable and their evidence for this belief is likewise metaphysical (angels, miracles, apparitions, prayer, etc.). That the perceived border between metaphysical and natural worlds is porous is itself a belief, and to use metaphysical evidence to assure the existence of the metaphysical is only convincing to those who believe.
Hence religious beliefs can be evaluated as to merit only in terms of how they affect human welfare in the world. If a belief improves human life, that belief is helpful. If it impairs human life that belief is harmful—no matter how strongly held. Looked at in this way religious beliefs can be good, bad, or neutral—i.e., neither good nor bad.
By these categories Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is a harmful idea. In this passage Israelites are directed by their legal code to present their stubborn and rebellious sons to the elders of the city declaring: “Our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard” (Deut 21:20). Then all the men of the city are directed to stone him. The authority behind this religious law is the belief that God ordained the law and hence it should be followed. But there is no way of confirming the metaphysical claim that God authorized it. Hence their metaphysical claim is neither helpful nor harmful in itself, but that belief supported by the metaphysical claim and acted on is genuinely harmful because of the loss of human life.
Matthew 19:10-12 attributes to Jesus the idea that castration “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” and hence self-mutilation, becomes a perfectly reasonable, if irregular, way to serve God in Christianity. What drives the idea is the metaphysical claim that Jesus is the divine son of God. Self-mutilation for religious reasons, however, can never be a good thing because of the physical and psychological harm that it brings to the individual who chooses that path of Christian service.
Mark 12:31 attributes to Jesus the statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Actually it is a Jewish idea (Leviticus 19:18) in which “neighbor” means fellow Israelite (Deuteronomy 15:2-3). The idea has been brought over into Christianity (Romans 13:8). The idea of loving one’s neighbor has merit in itself quite apart from any imagined metaphysical authorization; practicing it would result in helpful consideration to those in one’s own circle. The shortcoming of “love your neighbor,” however, is that it does not go quite far enough, for it does not necessarily include the broader human family in the area of extended kindness.
Here is the bottom line: religious beliefs are not protected from criticism and censure by appealing to metaphysical sanctions. In short, the claim that it is in the Bible or it is God’s will does not protect a harmful religious belief from censure no matter how sincerely and firmly one holds it. Assuming the ideas in this essay have merit, how would you, gentle reader, evaluate the belief of the writer of 1Timothy 2:11-13: harmful, helpful, or neutral (neither helpful nor harmful)?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:46am
Silencing women’s voices is harmful to women, but it is much more harmful to the church. The church loses the critical (in both senses) voices that point to a better understanding of metaphysical things, of God. This is the loss that attends any silencing and repression of any voice from the Underside if only for the simple reason that these voices come from perspectives that are removed enough from the center, from the dominant voice, to enjoy a novel view of metaphysical, historical, practical things. I think this is what is meant by Assmann’s ‘epistemological privilege of the poor’.