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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

You know the idea associated with Dostoevsky, that without God, everything is permitted – or as I once put it myself, “There is no virtue if there is no immortality.” Since you always claim to be concerned about virtue and the soul, why, then, are you so down on religion?


Dear Ivan,

As I have indicated several times in this column, I am not ‘down’ on religion as such, but only when it presumes to be opposed to philosophy. What do I mean by philosophy? Very simply, rational inquiry. Thus, it is only when religion resists rationality that I resist religion.

Why do I place so much importance on rationality? Because it is the most trustworthy guide to truth of which I am aware. Thus, it is really truth to which I profess allegiance, and this compels me to be faithful to rationality in turn.

Ivan replies:

But religion does not resist rationality, Socrates. It bases its conclusions on its own premises, that is all. You may disagree with some of those premises, but that does not mean that they are false or that the conclusions do not follow from them.

Socrates replies:

You are right about that, Ivan. However, what I mean by rationality is not only the giving of arguments, but also engagement in dialectic. In other words, one must be prepared to defend one’s premises as well as one’s conclusions in light of criticisms by others. True rationality takes place in a context of dialogue, which means seeking to make one’s arguments acceptable in the minds of one’s interlocutors. Discussion occurs in a public space, as it were; figuratively, or literally, like the agora where I plied my ancient trade of philosophy.

But your premises must appeal to your interlocutors’ minds too, surely? Yet in the case of religion there is not always going to be a meeting of minds about the most fundamental assumptions, such as the existence of God. However, I often find that the conclusions of disputants harmonise fairly well, as in the matter of esteeming virtue, which religious and non-religious people hold in common. So why even worry about arguments and fundamental assumptions?

Would that were so, my dear Ivan. But I think you will find that there are disagreements at all levels. And this is precisely why I cannot abide irrationality, for there is always more at stake than any particular argument or issue. Thus, if I approved someone’s conclusion but their reasoning were defective, the ground would have been laid for future disagreement and error.

Here is an example. I recently came across the following statement: “All animals have an irreducible worth because God created them.” This is a stirring assertion, and furthermore it tends to support a position that I myself favor, namely, respect for all living things. However, as an argument it is utterly deficient. First of all, its logic is suspect: what does being created by God have to do with something’s worth? Indeed the very meaning of the assertion is obscure: what is ‘worth’, not to mention ‘irreducible worth’? That is, what specific, concrete consequences for our treatment of other animals are implied?

But let us suppose that all of that can be explained by the arguer. We are still left with the bald assertion that God created all animals. Here again, at a minimum, we require further explanation , for the truth-value or plausibility of the assertion can vary vastly depending on its meaning. For instance, if it is meant to imply that the Biblical Creation story is to be taken literally, such that all existing species came into existence ‘in the beginning’ without subsequent evolution, then any well-educated person today would simply lose interest in the argument.

If the assertion has a more flexible interpretation, allowing for the possibility of biological evolution, it still begs for justification: on what basis would we accept the claim that God created all animals? Have we even established that God exists? Obviously the proposition won’t wash if one’s interlocutor is an atheist or agnostic. But if the arguer were to reply, “My argument is only for believers,” then it sounds to me more like rhetoric than argument and is not truly rational. A real philosopher must be prepared to take on all comers.

But again, why does any of this matter? So a religious arguer may not be a philosopher. So what?

As I suggested, there can be practical upshots. For example, if the religious argument about animals were accepted on the basis of uncritical faith in the veridicality of the Bible, then on some other occasion the same basis could be (and has been) used to justify the mistreatment of animals; not to mention the mistreatment of humans, including slavery, bigotry, you-name-it.

I must admit that sometimes the whole tenor of religious argumentation astonishes me. Let us return to your idea of the importance of immortality for morality. In an interview in a magazine, a prominent religio made the following admission: “If death is the end, shoot, I’m not going to waste another minute being altruistic.” Now, however disarmingly modest that statement may seem to many people, it struck me as an indictment of this person’s virtue, and, in fact, his religiosity. But I don’t believe his self-assessment is even correct. Essentially, the psychology it presumes is false. There are as many good, empirical reasons to believe that human beings are as innately altruistic as that they are innately selfish, both from observation of how we behave and from the theory of how our behavior evolved.

My examples are merely of bad religious arguments. They do not show that religion is of necessity irrational. There can be bad philosophical arguments too. Therefore I recommit myself to truth and reason, and welcome religion to the dialogue.

As ever,


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