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"It is in the face of death that the enigma of the human condition reaches its crucial point." [GS, #18]
(Francisco de Zurbarán. The Ecstasy of St. Francis. Source)
2) Excessively Brief Overview of Philosophy
3) The Inability of Ethics to Make us Happy
4) The Dangers of Religion
5) What Needs to Be Done Before Studying Religions
6) Some obstacles to the study of religions
7) True Religion's Data Sheet, if it Exists
Why waste time with religion? Why even talk about it, whether the Catholic religion or the others?
It's a complex problem, but in my opinion it has a solution. I'm going to try to sketch this solution, but keep in mind that it is only an outline, not the actual argument. The argument as such takes about two thousand pages (it's the length of the book "Précis de philosophie" by F.-J. Thonnard, the best Philosophy textbook I've found so far, but the "OSThoPhiT" doesn't exist yet). This outline can seem long (about 4000 words), but it is very, very brief compared to the real argument.
There is no use talking about religion, unless that discussion is grounded in science. What is science? Knowledge through causes, as opposed to ignorance, or superstitious belief, or superficial knowledge, which doesn't drill down to the causal explanations.
Is there one science, or many? There is one general science, Philosophy, and many particular sciences, like Mathematics, Modern Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Psychology, Sociology, etc. The particular sciences are not simply "chapters" of the general science of Philosophy, because they have their own laws, objects and methods. Nevertheless, they mesh with the general science of Philosophy, and Philosophy unifies the particular sciences and defends their principles.
The particular science called Mathematics asks questions like: "What are the square roots of this quadratic equation?", or "How can we represent a complex periodic function using simple periodic functions (sine and cosine)?", or "How can I find an approximation for this differential equation which cannot be solved analytically?", etc.
The particular science called "Chemistry" asks questions like: "What is the separation energy in electron volts between levels 5 and 6 for an electron in a 1.0 nanometer-wide box?", or "What is the molar susceptibility of CuSO4-5H2O at 25 degrees Celsius (spin-only)?", etc.
The general science called Philosophy asks questions like: "What is a good demonstration?", or "What is science?", or "What is the meaning of life?", or "Does God exist?", or "Why religion?". Notice I didn't assert: "Philosophy answers all these questions". No, Philosophy, as all the other sciences, asks questions and tries to answer them.
What is Philosophy, more precisely? It is the love of wisdom, which in turn is the science that proceeds using first and universal causes, under the light of natural reason.
Often these days people refuse to grant Philosophy the status of a science. In a way, those people are right, since what they have seen on the shelves tagged "Philosophy" of bookstores were probably not Philosophy books. Somebody like Nietzsche who presents himself like some kind of a prophet ("I have come to teach you the Übermensch!") doesn't do Philosophy strictly speaking, but (bad) religion. We also often see books that confuse Philosophy with History, or Philosophy with Pop Psychology, etc.
A tip to handle people who refuse the status of science to Philosophy is to ask them which science asserts that "Philosophy is not a science"? In order to assert such a thing, you first have to know at least a bit what Philosophy is, then which science is, in order to judge that Philosophy is not a science. But, particular sciences cannot say anything about such problems. For example, a biologist as such cannot take a sample of Philosophy and put it in a Petri dish with agar, to see if Philosophy will multiply like a bacterial culture, or like a scientific culture! Same goes for the Mathematician, who can't count the number of algebraic equations it takes to have a science. And same goes for the Physicist, who cannot determine the mass of science in kilograms, or its width in millimeters. (See also: "Isn't believing in Science anti-scientific?")
Only a general science, which would consider things from a "higher vantage point" than the particular sciences could justify their principles as well as its own, and assert that "Philosophy is not a Science". Except this general science is Philosophy itself!
Lets suppose that you grant me that Philosophy is the general science. What are the parts of Philosophy? Philosophy is roughly divided into four parts: Logic, Physics, Metaphysics, and Ethics. A good Philosophy textbook normally has a Table of contents similar to this:
1) Logic (how to attain truth quickly, easily and without errors) Formal Logic Material Logic 2) Physics or Philosophy of Nature ("Physics" = "Nature" in Greek) Cosmology (first part): Change, causes, act and power, time, place, etc. Mineralogy (non-living corporeal beings) Phytology (non-sensitive living beings) Zoology (non-rational sensitive beings) Anthropology (rational living beings) Cosmology (second part): the Order of the Universe 3) Metaphysics (the study of being as being) Criteriology (what is truth?) Ontology (being, causes, essence and existence, etc.) Natural Theology (God, His existence, nature and attributes) 4) Ethics (How can we get closer to Happiness?) General Ethics The Meaning of Life Law and Conscience Virtues and Vices Special Ethics Economics (money, work, etc.) Bioethics (abortion, euthanasia, cloning, etc.) Politics (national, international, etc.) The Problem of Religion
You now have a better idea of just how excessively brief this essay is. The actual book is about 2000 pages. The first 1900 have just been summed up! And the remaining 100 (The Problem of Religion) will be summed up by the next 5 pages!
Let's now assume we've acquired all the particular sciences (at least enough to have an all-round education), and that we've done a thorough study of Philosophy, except for the very last chapter.
The problem of religion often appears in the face of a tragic event in the life of the philosopher, or of a close relation. For example, the philosopher's brother has just gotten married with a woman he loves, and the newlyweds have purchased a nice house, a nice car, etc. They are ready to "have many children and live happily ever after". Except his brother comes down with a brain cancer which leaves him with only a few months to live.
Faced with such a situation, our philosopher takes his "shoebox" containing everything that men have been able to discover concerning happiness (i.e. that part of Philosophy called Ethics), and desperately rummages in that box, but can't find anything that could help him. Of course, there is a lot of very good and very beautiful knowledge in that "shoebox", but nothing that can stop death. "It is in the face of death that the enigma of the human condition reaches its crucial point. Man is not only tormented by pain and the gradual falling apart of his body, but worse, by the fear of a definitive destruction". [Gaudium et Spes, #18]
At that moment, if the philosopher didn't have any other information available, all he could do would be to resign himself to this situation. Except there are some people out there who tell him that the situation is not without hope, that God has revealed Himself to men, and that He has told us how to obtain eternal happiness.
The philosopher is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he knows he must remain with truth and science, and avoid snake oil and superstition. On the other hand, he can clearly see that Ethics is insufficient, and he hears some people tell him that salvation is possible, if one can find the true religion.
Should the philosopher jump on the religion bandwagon? No! Of course not! Leaping before you look is acting in an unreasonable way, and Philosophy proves that acting well is acting in conformance with reason. Must the philosopher reject offhand all religions? That depends. If the science of Philosophy tells us that all religions are false, then yes, we must reject all religions, before even studying them.
Except that Philosophy proves the existence of God. (That might not be obvious to you as we speak, but remember we are assuming years of philosophical study with a good teacher. If you meet somebody who claims otherwise, please invite us both over for supper, and you will be able to judge for yourself. You can also consult texts like: "The Proofs of God's Existence: Some Preliminary Groundwork"). Since our philosopher knows that God exists, and that one of the attributes of God is Almightiness, then it is clear that, in theory at least, God could start a religion, and reveal to us how to attain eternal life.
It therefore appears that the door leading to religion is ajar. Should a good philosopher walk through that door?
Our philosopher has heard about religion and "Eternal Life". But he has also heard about, and probably even seen with his own eyes, incredible stupidities perpetrated in the name of religion. Basic wisdom tells him not to walk through that door, unless he has good reasons to think he can do it without harm.
What danger is there on the other side of the door leading to religions? We can come up with a fairly clear idea. In the part of Philosophy called "Physics" or Philosophy of Nature, we have studied man (or "Anthropology"), and more specifically human reason and will.
We therefore know that the human will normally tends to what is presented to it as a good. Notice we didn't say: "The will necessarily tends toward good", because if that were the case, no men would act badly (which is obviously not the case). If reason makes a mistake, and presents a pseudo-good to the will, then normally the will tends toward that evil.
We also know that as reason presents something as being a greater good (rightly or wrongly) to the will, then so much more will it be attracted to it. We desire more to save our life during a fire, then to continue to quietly enjoy our chocolate bar, for example.
Finally, we know that there are sometimes mysterious connections between will and reason. Perhaps you once got up late, because you had forgotten to set your alarm clock. At the very moment you woke up, and that you saw that you were very, but very late for work, maybe you felt a kind of denial: "No, no, that can't be true! It cannot be ten o'clock in the morning!" For a few moments, your reason was perhaps "twisted" by your will. If so, your perception of reality was modified by your desires, which is a cause of great concern.
Why? Because our reason can see in itself what it is to be alive, and because of its powers of abstraction, our reason can conceive the idea of eternal life. And because our reason can conceive the idea of eternal life, then our will can't avoid being attracted to this great good, the supreme good. And since our will can in some cases "twist the arm" of reason, then walking through the door leading to religions is dangerous.
We've derived that conclusion "analytically" by starting with philosophical data. But we can obtain the same result "empirically", by looking at the conclusions of another science, Sociology of religion. Sociology of religion can show us many examples where men acted in a completely irrational way.
You could argue that such and such a cult wasn't really that bad, or that the journalists exaggerated, etc., but you would still have to admit that overall, the list of horrible things done in the name of religion is long, bloody and dark.
Philosophy tells us that walking through the door leading to religions, without an adequate preparation, is a bit like walking up to a "Black Hole". If you walk through that door, then with a bit of bad luck, you'll be caught up irresistibly in the tractor beam of a superstition (how could you resist the most compelling thing imaginable, Eternal Life?), and this Black Hole will prevent you from escaping its darkness (how could you see the light of truth, if your will "twists the arm" of your reason?).
Can we do anything to protect ourselves from the dangers inherent to the exploration of religions? A good philosopher must ask himself such a question, because he knows that Ethics doesn't cut it, that death is imminent, and that it is at least theoretically possible that there is a true religion.
The good philosopher is not defenceless, on the contrary! He has a very powerful weapon: Truth. A good philosopher is equipped to distinguish between truth and falsehood. He knows that truth is good, desirable, soothing. He knows that error, even when it is apparently enjoyable, always ends up by disappointing, wounding and even killing us. He knows that science contains a lot of truth, and that Ethics helps him move closer to happiness. He can therefore see that given the choice between a false religion which promises absolute happiness, and a real philosophical science which actually but imperfectly moves us closer to happiness, its a no-brainer. A bit of real happiness is infinitely better that an infinite amount of imaginary happiness.
That is the Unshakable Rock our philosopher can hang on to, in order to avoid the "Black Holes" of false religions. Now, he needs the equivalent of a good climbing rope (like Edelrid 11 mm tested for 13 UIAA falls), a good climbing harness (like an Arc'Teryx Vapour with a Rock Empire torso harness), and good carabiners (like DMM BelayMasters tested for 25 kiloNewtons).
In Philosophy, there is no high-resistance nylon, or forged titanium. But there are virtues and resolutions. One of the cardinal virtues is Temperance, which lets us resist the attraction of pleasures when they are contrary to reason. But isn't that one of the dangers of walking through the door leading to religions? The idea of an Eternal Life is very, very compelling, but if it is an illusion, we must resist it.
Another cardinal virtue is Courage, which lets us press on and even charge forward, despite the worst dangers. But isn't that one of the threats of false religions? If all religions turned out to be false, we would have to claw our way back to Philosophy, and bravely take our stand in the face of death.
The good philosopher had been actively using the virtues for a long time, and he knows from personal experience that he is able to resist the attraction of great pleasures, and charge forward despite great dangers. He has a harness built of Temperance and Courage. But he still needs a "climbing rope" with which he could pull himself back into Philosophy, if ever all religions turned out to be false. (Please note here that we are speaking somewhat metaphorically here: a philosopher must specifically not abandon science while he explores religions!)
This "rope" is a resolution, and a resolution is the strongest "moral climbing rope" you can get. Our philosopher knows what they are, since he often takes resolutions, and keeps them. (See among others "New Year's Resolutions: A Satanic Plot?")
The preparations are now complete. To the Rock of philosophical science is solidly attached the resolution to come back to Ethics if ever there was no true religion, and this "rope" is fixed to the harness of the virtues of Temperance and Courage. Is our philosopher now ready to walk through the door leading to religions? No.
Before listing some attributes that a true religion would have, we must talk about at least three obstacles we can encounter when studying religions:
6.1) The reliability of our source of information. Anybody can claim to be a member of any religion, so we have to filter our sources, and try to get our information from the official teachings of those religions. For example, if you hear during the evening TV news that such a religion encourages its members to commit acts of terrorism, you must not take that for granted. You have to go see the official teachings of that religion (journalists are sometimes ignorant, and often paid by biased bosses).
6.2) The issue of the correct interpretation of those teachings. Let's take a quick example. Suppose a religion teaches that Earth is the "center" of the universe. What "center" is it talking about? If a pretty girl walks into the ballroom, for example, and all heads turn toward her, she might be the "center" of that room, even though she is geometrically in a corner. In the same way, Earth could be the most important place in the universe, even though geometrically Earth spins around the Sun, and not the other way around.
6.3) The lack of consistency between the official teachings of a religion, and the behavior of some of its members. We know through our philosophical studies that talk is cheap, and that it's easier to list good behaviors than to actually behave that way! It is therefore quite possible that the true religion would have members who wouldn't totally respect the teachings of their own faith.
Common sense tells us that it's no use trying to find something, if we have no idea what we are looking for! If we go to the shopping mall to buy a good woodworking clamp, we might not know which clamp is the best, but at least we have an idea of the desirable qualities it must have: maximum clamping pressure, adjustment speed, comfort (especially upon release, which tends to knock the fingers). So, when we compare the different products, we'll be able to choose the best (Wolfcraft's 21" Quick Jaw clamps, forget the other junk).
Another metaphor is that of the lock and key. If you want to know if you have the right key, you need a lock! If you want to find the true religion, you need to already have a "lock of truths", which can be compared to the claims of the various "religious keys".
What would the true religion look like, if it existed?
7.1) It would have a solution to our problem! Don't forget that we're talking about religion only because Ethics can't give us the perfect happiness we absolutely desire! This religion would therefore need to teach us a "Recipe of salvation" revealed by God, and which would let us attain perfect happiness. (Only God, the Infinit Good, can satisfy all our desires, and only God almighty can save us from death.)
7.2) Rational and supra-rational, but never irrational. One of the first attributes that a true religion would have would be to neither be totally accessible to human reason, nor contrary to it. If a religion taught things that were all provable by human reason alone, then this "religion" would simply be Philosophy, and we know Ethics can't make us perfectly happy. But if on the contrary this religion taught things that were contrary to reason, then it would be bad. Don't forget that Philosophy has already proven that acting well is acting in conformance with reason. The true religion would have to be partly rational, and partly above our reason. (If you've ever had a Math whiz sit next to you in school, you know what it means to be above your reason, without being irrational!) Watch out! Being above our reason doesn't mean being absurd. If it is absurd, it cannot be true.
7.3) One. For a thing to exist, it must be "one", so another attribute of the true religion would be that it would be "one". A true religion would have teachings that would be identical temporally (its teachings would be the same from its foundation up to today, and forever, without any interruptions or deviations), and spatially (it would teach the same thing here, on the South Pole, and in Timbuktu).
7.4) Internally and externally coherent. A crazy man who believes he is a grain of wheat, and who runs away when he sees a chicken, has internal coherence, since chickens eat grains of wheat. But he doesn't have external coherence, since his body has two arms, two legs and a head, not a grain of wheat. A true religion would of course have both internal and external coherence. In other words, each one of its teachings would be compatible with all its other teachings, and the set of all its teachings would be compatible with reality (including History, Physics, etc., but especially Ethics).
Let's not forget we're talking about a religion which would be founded by God, infinitely wise and knowledgeable. If a true religion founded by God exists, then it certainly can't teach things contrary to science. There is only one truth, whether it is the result of our scientific efforts, or the result of divine Revelation. Not only would this religion be totally compatible with science, but it would defend the great value of science.
7.5) Disseminated all over the world. Another attribute of this religion would be that it wouldn't be a small religion. If God has founded a religion, He certainly hasn't done it covertly. This religion would be well known, and as far as possible disseminated all over the Earth.
7.6) Producing holiness. Effectiveness would be another attribute. A religion is a bit like a kind of "medication" for the soul. If this medication is good, then this religion will generate saints. Of course, if you don't take the medication, or if you take it incorrectly, it cannot be effective. But a tree is judged by its fruits, and a true religion, if its teachings were followed consistently, would necessarily lead to holiness. (Of course, this especially applies to the founder of that religion. For example, if the founder is bloodthirsty and sexually perverse, that religion is not true!)
7.7) Confirmed by miracles. Miracles would be another attribute of the true religion. Let's not forget that a true religion would be founded by Almighty God! When we cut a check, we add our unique signature to prove to whom it may concern that it is really us who wrote that check. The signature of God is to be able to suspend the Laws of Nature. If somebody claims to be a prophet, and claims to have a message for us coming from God, we have the right to ask for God's signature.
We could certainly find other attributes, but these already give us a fairly good idea of what the true religion would look like, if it existed.
Our philosopher has slipped on his harness made of Courage and Temperance, and has solidly attached himself to the Rock of Philosophy by his resolution to come back whatever the cost, if ever Eternal Life was only an illusion. He has in his packsack general science and the particular sciences, as well as the true religion's Data Sheet. He is ready to wisely walk through the door leading outside Philosophy, and perhaps into the true religion.
Here ends Philosophy. Happy climbing!
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