Is Religion the Problem? Or Epistemology?

There are two kinds of people: those who think that there are two kinds of people and those who do not.

Studying the history of philosophy, I had a colleague who was a jazz aficionado. He said there were two kinds of people. There were those who liked jazz and those who preferred classical. He said that those who didn’t like jazz had a “univocal concept of being.” Those who did had an “analogical concept of being.”

That is pretty silly. It’s silly to divide people in two types. I hate it when someone puts me on a side. And it’s really silly to divide people into jazz vs classical music lovers. Especially when many of the greatest jazz musicians studied classical music. And some of the best classical music has incorporates jazz. Now even hip-hop.

There is however some basis to his silly division of humanity. He had learned, like most of us in philosophy, the difference between the Platonic/Augustinian notion of knowing reality as mirror in contrast to the Augustinian/Aquinas notion of knowing reality as analogy.

The Platonic/Augustinian notion is that there are ideas out there, truths in the mind of God or in Nature, which our minds can see. “Idea” comes from the Greek word “to see.” Knowledge for these folks is looking at eternal, clear, and distinct ideas that are already there in divinely created nature. Univocal means that there is one real meaning and that is it. You just have to see it.

The Aristotelian/Thomistic concept is that knowledge occurs when humans use their imagination to fashion forms by which their experiences of things can be gathered based on similarities and then examined to discover the formulas by which they work. The mind here constructs forms which relate things it encounters in the world and then verifies these forms by experimentation.

In other words, there are the look-see and the image-making theories of knowledge. Look-see people tend to be dogmatic and true-believing. Those who don’t see things their way can’t or won’t see. In other words, they are either stupid or evil. Image-makers tend to be indefinite and ambiguous. Those who don’t consider things their way are naïve and rigid; i.e. simpletons.

And this, I argue, is an important distinction that affects our lives, our morality, and our politics.

Many educated liberals today, committed to social justice, warn of the danger of religion in relation to human progress. Religious faith, they assert, impedes policies based on science including human rights, health care, global warming prevention, family planning, criminal justice, economic growth and equity. Religious people are dogmatic simpletons. And dangerous to boot.

I’m working my way through two biographies of Leon Trotsky. I had watched the Russian film “Trotsky” presented on Netflix and was fascinated. Although he eventually lost out to Stalin who first exiled and then had him assassinated after Lenin’s death, I find him the most brilliant and talented of the founders of the Bolshevik Russian Revolution. Trotsky was an extraordinary writer, speaker, visionary, and the most courageous of leaders. He is for me the template of the Revolutionary.

He is also the paragon of the look-see theory of knowing and the univocal concept of reality. But here I have to be careful. Trotskyites charge that the film is a travesty. A con-job by Putin and a distortion of the man who wrote The Permanent Revolution, History of the Russian Revolution, and The Revolution Betrayed. (That’s why I am reading biographies of the man.)

At one point in the film, Trotsky admits that he was as monstrous as Stalin in his treatment of counter-revolutionaries and of anyone whom he judged was or would be a threat to the Revolution and its New Order. But he acted, not for personal gain, not even for his own power, but in subservience to the “Idea.” He saw himself on the side of History, as the instrument of Destiny, the carrier of Liberty and Justice.

Trotsky, like many other revolutionaries, disdained religion as the tool of oppressors. Religion sanctified the existing class system in which the few (the masters, the bourgeoisie) held a monopoly of force to maintain their advantage over the many (the slaves, the proletariat). The revolutionary advocated a scientific concept of the history of the universe and humanity over against the superstitions of the religions.

But I argue that it is not religious faith that is the danger to humanity today. It is whether and how we think. If we profess that we have the Truth whether it revealed itself to us in Nature or was revealed to us by God, that’s the problem. Religious and aesthetic imagery is critically important to scientific, philosophical, and all forms of thinking.

For sure we all have beliefs. We need to believe. That’s part of thinking. Thought culminates in beliefs which are organized in a system of beliefs. But not a belief or belief system that is absolute, i.e. unlimited, unchanging. And not one that neglects our and others’ roles in the making of our beliefs.

When the Revolutionary is fixed on the Idea, when liberals are fixed on the belief that vaccinations cause autism, when politicians disregard the evidence of global warming by human activity, when businesses insist on selling products that threaten the health or safety of people in the name of free enterprise, when religionists sanctify class inequality, when corporations use their belief in free market to maintain colonization and exploitation, when nations use the notion of national interest to withdraw their responsibilities to the rest of the world, and when all of us refuse to even consider alternatives, then belief systems are a danger to the human condition starting with our very earth.

That dangerous behavior is not the result of religious faith or of religion itself, but of beliefs held religiously, that is, without thinking, without thinking about our thoughts, and without thinking about our thinking.