PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, April 04, 2019

The need for religions in the 21st Century

By Lawrence JC Baron

The need for religions in the 21st Century

Religion is a topic we have covered in various contexts in the past. Religion and religions are relevant to philosophy because of their methodology and logic that is applied to persuade people to abide by the will of the religious leaders many times contrary to their personal conviction.

Let us be clear, the methodologies applied by religions to justify their authority are not philosophical or scientific methodologies. A methodology that excludes within its set of beliefs the possibility of a proposition to be false is not a philosophical or scientific methodology. In this respect we cannot say that the set of beliefs of a religion are about statements of facts in our universe. And we only have access to our universe.

However, this is not to say that “religions” cannot be the subject of philosophical investigation.  Firstly because the question of our topic is asking us to make a value judgement on the need of religions this century.
- The most important philosophical aspect of investigating religions is that religions are based on a set of beliefs (descriptive beliefs) that purport to claim facts about the world or our universe as I said earlier. (god is omnipotent).
- Religions justify their prescriptive tenets by appealing to the descriptive veracity of propositions about our universe. (Obey the will of god).
- Tenets based on the set of beliefs of the religion are given the status of physical imperatives. (Obey god or else you will be stoned).
- Although religions are inherited cultural memes they present themselves as holders of political power or influence out of right. In effect religions, through their prescriptive tenets, compete with the legislative power of the state. (Abortion is wrong even though parliament recognises this right).

Unfortunately, there is another set of concepts that religions employ to exclude themselves from the realms of empirical reality and these are basically: spirituality, transcendence, supernatural, divine etc (see Wikipedia); and I’ll call these the spirituality set. But the most important claim made by religions is that they and only they have the key to morality. And since morality is about value judgments this is clearly a philological domain.

So by excluding such ideas as spirituality and divinity from religions, by virtue that they cannot be subject to falsifiability since these concepts are the source of the descriptive set of propositions of religion and not propositions themselves: god is omnipotent because he or she is supernatural. The supernaturality of god is what gives and confers the properties of godness. Compare this with all swans are white. This is a proposition purporting to claim something is a fact in our universe and, therefore, falsifiable. “Swans are animals because they are part of biology,” the concept biology is not falsifiable because it is not a statement about our universe but a function of our language.

But by excluding the spirituality set from our analysis we are open to widen our scope of what is a religion. If a religion is a set of untested and unverified (or falsifiable) set of beliefs that purport to be the source of physical imperatives then we can include as religions such things as: political ideologies, economic models, membership organisations such as the free masons and so.

Focusing on the traditional meaning of religions, to answer our question we have to look at what we mean by “need” and why the 21st Century. In a way, philosophy has little to say about what I have been calling the descriptive set of beliefs. People can believe whatever they want and whatever their brain tells them to believe.

Our domain as I said is the prescriptive and imperative tenets of religions because these purport to have special claims to morality and political power. Religions do not have any automatic legitimacy to morality and political power without being subjected to a methodological verification process and being subjected to falsifiability.

Normative and practical ethics cannot be based on human conceptual beliefs (eg divine, spirituality) but on verifiability methodologies to ascertain the validity or not of religious prescriptive tenets.

Let us take the narrative of the Ten Commandments in Christianity; seven of these commandments are practical tenets which no self respecting rational person would question. Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery etc etc are principles that can easily be verified as valid rational principles. In a way we do not need to invoke any supernatural power to confirm their validity. But the commands do not tell us anything about self defence, mercy killing, capital punishment and so. The set of prescriptive beliefs in Christianity, although some are valid, they don’t cover all aspects of human life.

Compare these seven commandments with the other concept of charity. Indeed many religions justify their virtue by their proclamation to offer charity to the needy; see for example, Why Give? Religious Roots of Charity (Harvard Divinity School) .

If we look at the Hebrew Bible injunction, "love thy neighbor as thyself" later mentioned by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan we see a common moral principle which today we also call the golden rule/categorical imperative. The problem with this rule is not that we should or shouldn’t help others, that’s not even in doubt, but that I (subjective person) am hardly the gold standard of how people should be treated. If it was up to me all fresh dairy products or lactose additives will be prohibited because I am lactose intolerant; but even I recognise this is absurd. Except today many people who are seriously allergic to common day products such as nuts fall victims of maybe negligent producers who include these ingredients without warning.

The golden rule not only fails because it does not treat people as individuals with different needs and conditions but also employs the bad methodology of creating a universalisable principle from a subjective sample of one! This is why we have a myriad of legislation controlling quality standards and information on goods we buy. In effect the golden rule has today been replaced by scientific evidence and judicial duty of care. Today the Good Samaritan would have been helped by a phone call to the ambulance and police authorities and in a civilized country the victim would have been medically treated for free and not first asked for a credit card.

The following document from the Purdue University site by Darlene Ann Levy December 3, 2012 ( ) gives a very brief outline on the idea of charity in different religions. What is clear here is that charity is a well established religious imperative either as a law or as a moral principle.

The problem with imperatives is that they do not question the facts or the alternatives. Help the poor, does not question the idea why are there poor people who need charity? The principle does not consider the possibility that some people are poor because their human rights are being abused or at the very least not protected by their government. Nor does the principle offer an alternative such as setting up a more equitable wealth distribution in a country. Why do we collect money to provide food for the poor, but not to take companies to court to pay people a reasonable remuneration for their work?

In conclusion what we need in the 21st century are prescriptive ethics and morality based on accepted and proven methodologies and not on unaccountable tenets. In the 21st century we are still entitled to our beliefs but we are not entitled to impose our beliefs on others without proper accountability and justification.

 Best Lawrence

The Need for Religion(s) in the 21st Century –by- Ruel Pepa

The need for religions in the 21st Century –by- Lawrence JC Baron

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