Once again: does religion produce knowledge?

May 4, 2011 • 9:06 am

Patrick McNamara is the “Science, Religion, & Politics Examiner” for the Examiner site, and has a long history of atheist-bashing and accommodationism.  His philosophy can be summed up in a line from one of his articles:

Religion itself needs to be studied and treated with respect, not just because it sometimes serves positive purposes but also because it may allow us to access truths otherwise unavailable to the Human Mind-at least that is what its adherents believe.

(You can also see from that sentence that he’s not a very good writer.)  McNamara has previously gone after the Four Horsemen, and in his latest column he’s after one of the Stableboys: “Jerry Coyne’s ‘No dialogue is possible’ stance.”  It’s a short column that doesn’t warrant a long response, but I do want to mention two of McNamara’s accusations. Both are based on a statement I made in my Guardian piece about Martin Rees and his Templeton Prize, to wit:
And although science and religion are said to be “different ways of knowing”, religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything – it’s a way of believing what you’d like to be true. Faith has never vouchsafed us a single truth about the universe.

MacNamara responds in two ways:

1.  Religion does not involve believing things that you’d like to be true.

I find it bizarre that Coyne can believe that religion is a way of believing what you’d like to be true. This is a very common mistake and misconception of religion by aggressive atheism. Religion is a crutch to avoid looking at the stark realities of the world etc etc  It is tiresome to have to deal with this sort of view of religion as it has been falsified so often by scientists and scholars who study religion on a full time basis. For every religious belief that might be characterized as wish fulfillment there are a thousand religious beliefs that do not. Did pre-modernized African tribesmen want to believe in the literal reality of demons? Do the ancient Jewish purity regulations and rituals seem like a wish fulfillment exercise to you? Do catholic [sic] beliefs regarding ‘sex only in a marriage’ seem like a ‘way to believing what you’d like to be true”?  Do Calvinist and Lutheran beliefs in the fundamental sinfulness of humankind sound like something we wish were true? I could go on but you get the point. All this characterization of religion as child’s play and wishful thinking is mere distraction.

My response: there’s a difference between “wish fulfillment” and “believing what you would like to be true.”  Yes, I have read Pascal Boyer and other anthropological discussions of religion, and I know perfectly well that in some cultures “religion” doesn’t involve going to heaven or other wonderful fates, but represents instead a personification of unknown forces—a turning of the unknowable into supernatural agents.  But even in those cases the explanations give one a way not just to explain events, but to avoid the bad ones. I doubt that their adherents would prefer not “understanding” things than to have their own supernatural explanations.

“Belief in what you’d like to be true” is most evident in the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, where there are explicit rewards—eternal afterlife—for good behavior.  (Jews aren’t so clear on this, but many do believe in eternal rewards.)  As for the bad stuff—threats of eternal damnation and the like—we’ve covered these before, and they can be seen as both things that people want to believe as fates for others (i.e.,  eternal damnation for people who behave badly), or as forms of control by religious authorities, perhaps those that evolved from earlier strictures for regulating societies (no adultery or wanton fornication, and so on).

Religions have both carrots and sticks, but the whole package is certainly one that many adherents swallow as a whole.  Can anyone deny that the thought of a benevolent sky father, one who, if you behave yourself,  will take care of you and help you obviate death, is something that people want to be true?  And although MacNamara characterizes the human construction of faith as a “mere distraction,” it’s the central point of Gnu Atheism and of the sociology of religion: if religion is a human construction, and its tenets not true, what purpose does it serve?  Are those essential purposes? And, if so, can they be fulfilled by secular institutions. (I tend to think “yes” based on widespread atheism in Europe.)  Regardless, however, MacNamara avoids the question that all accommodationists avoid: are the tenets of faith true?  If not, should we avoid pointing that out lest we damage the fragile psyches of the faithful?

2.  Religion can too produce knowledge.  

But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind. After all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge for humankind or that poetry does? What about novels? Surely science is not the only reliable way to knowledge that there is? If poetry, novels, music and the arts more generally can be said to POSSIBLY yield some form knowledge for humankind why can’t religion do so also? Why the preculiarly [sic] aggressive animus against religion?

Three responses.  First, music, literature and poetry don’t produce any truths about the universe that don’t require independent verification by empirical and rational investigation: that is, through science (broadly interpreted).  These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment.  All of the other “truths” from the arts fall into the class of “emotional realizations.”

I may, for example, feel a oneness with humanity from reading Tolstoy, or a feeling that I need to “seize the day” from watching Never Let Me Go. While one might consider these things worthwhile knowledge, with “knowledge” defined broadly, they are not what we atheists—and many of the faithful—mean by “truths.” Religious “truths” of the sort we’re talking about are statements about how the universe really is, like these: “You will find eternal life by accepting Jesus as your savior.”  Or “There is a celestial being in Heaven who answers prayers and regulates the world.”  Or “A Jewish prophet, the son of God, was crucified two millennia ago and, by so dying, redeemed us from sin.” Or “You will find virgins (aka raisins) in heaven if you die a martyr to the faith.”  Or “Mohamed flew up to heaven on the back of a white horse.”

Other forms of religious “knowledge,” like “Do unto others as you would have them to do you,” or “Thou shalt not kill,” are not facts or realities but guides for behavior, and all of them are (and have been) easily derived from secular morality.

Second, if MacNamara thinks that we can get worthwhile knowledge from religion, what is it?  Why has he never given an example?  And is that knowledge uniquely derived from religion, or is it available elsewhere? What are the eternal verities that we can get only from faith?

Finally, when you read a novel like Anna Karenina, you know it’s fiction: if from the endeavor you realize things about yourself, or about human emotions, you are not required to sign onto the genuine physical existence of Count Vronsky or Karenin.  In contrast, emotional realizations that derive from faith require absolute belief in a number of ridiculous, incorrect, or unverifiable propositions.

Christopher Hitchens has offered his challenge to the faithful, and I have offered mine:  tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.  Like Hitchens, I still have not received an answer.

121 thoughts on “Once again: does religion produce knowledge?

  1. “one of the Stableboys”

    I think you probably qualify as a Squire by now.

    “Did pre-modernized African tribesmen want to believe in the literal reality of demons?”

    WTF? Is he claiming demons are real?

    “These fine arts don’t convey to us anything factual about the world unless those facts can be replicated by reason, observation or experiment.”

    Nail on the head, right there. You can’t actually confirm anything just using religion.

  2. “This is a very common mistake and misconception of religion by aggressive atheism”

    Of course it isn’t a mistake. I was once religious, and I, and everyone else I knew who was religious, believed for many reasons but one was because we didn’t want death to be final. Other reasons for belief included wanting to have meaning and not wanting to feel insignificant.

    The way to find out what the motivations are for religious belief is to ask the believers!

    As for knowledge, if religion does produce useful knowledge about reality, isn’t about time it did so? Every single belief about reality that has come from religion has been superseded by scientific truth many times over, and we are STILL at a stage with theism where “you can’t prove a negative” is considered by some believers to give them intellectual space to believe in God. This is a pretty damning record after thousands of years.

  3. I think the biggest religious “truth” common to most believers is the idea that “everything happens for a reason”. It’s the statement I hear most often from believers of all stripes, from fundamentalists to newage types.

    1. “Everything happens for a reason.” Isn’t that similar to a deepity? In the trivial but true sense, could it be interpreted as “every effect has a cause?” In the deeper (but false sense) it could be interpreted as “everything happens for a purposeful/meaningful reason?”

      1. Deepity, indeed, but I fear it will be one of the hardest of the widespread wishful beliefs to dissuade people of.

        IMO the concept of the perfect afterlife rises directly from the early realization of just how much of life is “unfair.” For many, the idea of accepting that something horrendous happened to them purely by accident and that it can never be righted is apparantly too much to live with. Watching one’s child die of cancer, say. Or being born into and stuck with the wrong caste.

        Thus it’s not merely escaping one’s own death that makes an afterlife appealing–it’s the need for a concept of eventual, absolute justice and recompense in response to the inescapable observation of the huge inequities amongst the only lives we’re given.

        1. for the word origin, please credit this Darwin / Santa look-alike:


  4. Pigliucci (Massimo!) offered one answer to this question in the past. I can’t remember where I read or heard his point but I’ll try to paraphrase it as fair as I can.
    What he suggested was that the process to derive scientific knowledge has several stages, one of which is essentially a hypothesis generating stage. This does not require prior facts and as such can come from any source (the most famous example being Kekule’s dream about snakes catching their tails – which led him to figure out the structure of the benzene ring).
    I think Massimo’s point here was that religion can be one source of such a hypothesis. In such it is no different than any other source that involves simply guessing or speculating – works of fiction, myths, songs, poems etc, all become possible sources of hypotheses that can then lead, following the application of the scientific method, to the discovery of facts or knowledge about the world.
    I think I’m putting his suggestion accurately here but I think there is a rather obvious flaw to the argument, namely the ‘knowledge’ aspect absolutely requires the application of the scientific method.

    1. Um…well…with respect to Massimo!, that’s not answering a question. That’s asking one.

      Talk about moving the goalposts.

    2. I think that’s a fair point. Religious folks produce an endless line of guesses and conjecture. But the thing to realize is that they don’t go any further. Simply saying “couldn’t it be true that…” and “who are you to say this claim is false?” is good enough for them. They’re stuck in permanent speculation mode.

      1. That reminds me of a criticism of von Däniken, something along the lines that, in his books, “such and such could be true” too easily becomes “such and such can only be true”.

      2. I would be satisfied if religion were seen on a par with dreams and hallucinations as sources of “knowledge.”

    3. I think Massimo’s point here was that religion can be one source of such a hypothesis.

      but not a unique source. Indeed, the very example he used of dreaming suggests a similar source.

      sorry, fail.

      1. I didn’t say I agreed with his argument!
        I’m afraid his more recent philosophical leanings have diluted some of Massimos arguments such that he frequently gets rather caught up with matters of a rather pedantic nature when discussing religion.
        As a prime example is his argument that you cannot say that christianity is incompatible with science.
        Massimos argument on this point is not the usual accomodationist one (Francis Miller is a christian – therefore christianity is compatible with science)
        No, his argument is the following:
        Some people who call themselves christians do not believe in a supernatural Jesus or in miracles. They simply think Jesus was a good example of a kind and moral teacher but without any aspect of supernaturalism.
        Since this belief doesnt contradict science it follows that there are some christians that have a belief that is compatible with science.
        Therefore it is incorrect to say that Christianity is incompatible with science!
        I think his argument is logically correct but is highly misleading since it is based on a misleading interpretation of the word christianity that is different from the commonly understood term (where belief in supernaturalism is necessary).

        1. That’s like an inverted No True Scotsman fallacy:

          Massimo: “Religion and science are compatible”

          Person X: “But religion as commonly defined and understood assumes supernatural agency as a premise, which is incompatible with the naturalistic premise of science.”

          Massimo: “Ah, but that’s not my definition of religion.”

  5. When religion makes claims that are unpleasant-like sin, hades, etc-it is indeed answering a question, albeit incorrectly. In doing so it takes away the inconvenience of having to admit to one’ ignorance. As such, it is indeed a fullfilment of an inner desire.
    Literature, art, music etc are pleasant to engage in, but they are not ways of learning about the reality. Studying them in a scientifc way, of course, is. But that only bolsters the claim that the scientific method is the only way to discover the objective truth.

    1. I’ll disagree with you, but only to correct your misconception about art.

      To pick perhaps the easiest example to explain, painting is most emphatically a useful way to learn about reality. If you’ve never tried to accurately draw or paint a subject, I can assure you that you’ve never really seen that subject.

      What’s the proportion between the width of the eye and the height of the nose? How does perspective change those proportions? That shadow over there — is it merely darker, or is it a different color as well? How is the light reflecting off the blue shirt changing the color of the neck and chin? What emotions are the subject experiencing, and how are those emotions reflected in the subject’s expression?

      I hope you get the idea.

      And, let me assure you, it’s the same with all art forms.



        1. That’s just the beginning.

          Our brains do an amazing job at creating a three-dimensional model of the world from the two-dimensional projections it receives — but they struggle to translate back to two dimensions.

          Find a four-legged chair — a dining room chair is perfect. Stand a bit to the side. Close one eye. Hold a pencil between you and the seat of the chair and grasp the pencil so that the angular dimension is the same. Turn the pencil and hold it at the same distance from your eye, lining it up with each of the legs in turn.

          Your brain “knows” that they’re all about the same size, and so that’s how you’ll want try to draw it. In reality, one of the legs should be drawn as twice as long as the back of the seat and another leg as a tiny little stub. Even when you’re aware of the phenomenon, it takes practice and training to do it right.

          Chances are excellent your city’s adult recreation department offers drawing classes; if not, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the nearest community college does. I can’t recommend highly enough that you should enroll in one.



          1. IIRC, one way to draw better is to turn the item to be drawn upside down, in an effort to cancel out our entrenched knowledge of how a thing “should” be.

            (Bit tough on the models, tho!)

            1. Surprisingly, it does work — or, at least, it helps.

              But if you can’t get your models to turn umop-ep!sdn, you can always stand on your own head….



              1. btw, I think the cheapest and easiest way to get a decent-sized/good quality Fresnel lens would be to hunt for old rear-projection TVs.

                Most of them are just considered junk now, and if you can find one, cannibalizing the lens should be easy enough.

            2. ¡sıɥʇ ǝʞıl dn spuǝ ʇı puɐ ‘ǝdʎʇ puɐ uʍop ɥɔɐǝɹ uǝɥʇ ‘uɐɟ ƃuılıǝɔ ǝɥʇ ɟo sǝpɐlq ǝɥʇ ɹǝʌo sƃǝl ʎɯ ʞooɥ ʇsnɾ I ¡ʎsɐǝ s,ʇI

              1. Addressed to Ben & subsequent comments–y’all are too funny!

                And clever.

      1. If the creation of works of art can be said to produce knowledge at all, it is only to the extent, and in the ways, that it incorporates the methods of science — observation, experiment, rational inquiry.

      2. True to a point. But it is my understanding that the value of a work of art has little to do with how much information it conveys about reality. The most valuable works of Impressionism may not be the best representation of the real world and this has little to do with their aesthetic appeal. In fact in this day and age if the goal is to get an accurate picture of the world (no pun intended) we dispose of art altogether; a cheap digital camera would do.

        1. I think there was another point in your comment I missed. Yes, trying to draw something helps YOU learn about it. But not for anyone other than you to learn about it! Thus it doesn’t serve as a “universal” way of learning things, as religion claims to be.

          1. On the contrary. The artist presents his or her perspective on the world and preserves it for all who view the art.

            In the most simplistic of examples, an anatomist who sketches an idealized representation of the circulatory system can help countless numbers of surgeons understand how to save lives. Yes, in so doing, the artist learned a great deal about the circulatory system — but, at the same time, the artist passes that knowledge on to others.



        2. Does the fact that mathematicians explore non-Euclidean geometries with insane numbers of dimensions mean their work doesn’t convey anything about reality?

          Why should artistic explorations of what might be theoretically possible with different initial premises be considered any different?


              1. Ah… clearly I read it wrongly.

                It reminds me of a likely apocryphal story about Boole, that he was motivated to invent his eponymous algebra because he disliked math[s] being used for practical purposes… and now we’re having this conversation.

          1. In fact, non-Euclidian geometry is the mathematical basis of the Theory of General Relativity. Thus, the effects of gravitation can be understood as the result of space being curved due to the presence of massive bodies.

              1. Actually, the Earths’ surface is a two dimensional space embedded in a three dimensional world.

                Incidentally,the notion of 11 dimensions is a consequence of what is erroneously called string theory. As we sit here today, in no way, shape, form, or regard can it be said that the branch of mathematics called strings has application to physics. Thus it is a hypothesis of physics, not a theory of physics.

              2. @ SLC : Ah, yes, I take you’re point. But it’s definitely non-Euclidean. (Got the spelling right this time!)

                Hmm… isn’t a hypothesis a “way, shape of form”?

                But, you’re right: These physicists are cavalier with “theory” in “string theory”, “M-theory” and so on.

                I kind of poisons the well when you’re trying to defend the “theory” of evolution.

                But what would you call the physicists that explore those hypotheses, if not “theorists” – ”hypothesists”?

    2. To riff on Ben’s point, you can download Jerry’s photo of Chicago at dawn (from a day or two ago), and download Ben’s post-processed version of the same photo (linked in that thread, where Ben pulled the dark parts up to be more visible), then look at both photos on your monitor at the same time, and ask yourself — “Which image did Jerry see when he was there?”

      The answer is Jerry saw neither image, because our visual perception extends into shadows in a way that neither photographic representation conveys. So the more you practice a form of art (e.g., photography), the more you learn about reality (human perception being a reality).

      Personally, I have more experience making music than photographs. I knew Nat Paella (who played 1st trumpet in Boston’s Colonial Theater) and Herb Pomeroy (who played 2nd trumpet to Nat), and Herb told me they worked out how Nat would double-tongue parts while Herb would single-tongue bits of the parts, and it would sound like two trumpet players double-tonguing all of both parts. You might say they generated an illusion (which might sound pejorative), or they generated a perception (which might sound more neutral, or artistic).

      Not to prop up McNamara’s essay (about religion), but arts are fields where you generate perceptions, and a perception is a reality. And if you get people to agree on a perception, doesn’t that agreement fit a definition of objective?

      1. Ah, that reminds me of George Shearing, who created a new timbral effect by having a guitar or vibraphone double what he was playing on the piano, so precisely that listeners perceived what they took to be a new instrument.

        (h/t Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music)

  6. The misuse of ‘truth’, ‘theory’, ‘fact’, and ‘faith’ seem to be 90% of people arguing for religion. When non-religious people use them, it means whatever makes them look stupidest, and when they use them, it means whatever is most authoritative and steely.

    None of it has the same level of potency in my eyes as the first time I saw a magnet work, or sulfur burn a different color.

  7. (You can also see from that sentence that he’s not a very good writer.)

    My first instinct was that you were perhaps being a bit uncharacteristically uncharitable — but damn! My freshman-year high school English teacher would have flunked us if we dared to hand in an “essay” that bad. None of teachers in other disciplines would have tolerated it, either.

    …and he gets paid for this?




    1. Sadly, one does not need to know how to write in order to be a professional in that discipline. Especially in the rough-and-tumble world of journalism.

      The paper I worked for (back when Jesus rode dinosaurs) divided its staff into two unofficial categories: the writers and the reporters. It was a rare bird who could do both, and if you did one, you were by default not good at the other.

      We had far more reporters than writers.

      1. You remind me of one morning in my high school civics class, also in the time when Jesus rode dinosaurs.

        The teacher handed out copies of a clipping of a front-page USA Today article titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” There were three or four grammatical or stylistic errors in the first six column inches alone.



    2. …and he gets paid for this?

      I hear Jonathan Wells has another book coming out… supposedly on the topic of “junk” DNA.

      that liars get paid to lie is hardly new, though it never does fail to disgust.

      1. Besides, McNamara is not a philosopher, professional or amateur. He’s an associate prof of neurology at Boston University.

        So much for your manners, logic, due diligence, research skills, and knowledge of what you don’t know.

  8. Second, if MacNamara thinks that we can get worthwhile knowledge from religion, what is it? Why has he never given an example? And is that knowledge uniquely derived from religion, or is it available elsewhere? What are the eternal verities that we can get only from faith?

    This. It’s not just MacNamara who fails to give an example. Not one theist ever has provided an example of a truth that was completely and solely discovered under the umbrella of religious thought.

    “We can ask the tough questions,” they say.

    Well sure, I reply. Now, give me an answer to any of those questions. After all, organized religion has been around for 3,500 years or more. Shouldn’t there be one question answered by now that could not be arrived at via secular reasoning and/or empirical investigation? Any question?

    Crickets chirp.

    I’m just finishing Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”. And he makes the point there that religion might have served a purpose millennia ago — but that it’s long since passed it’s “use by” date.

    1. But… but… Newton! and Galileo! And ALL THE OTHER Name-Droppable Scientists that were the founding fathers of TEH SCIENCE were all religious! Are you saying they were wrong too?!!?!!!?!

    2. Glendower:I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
      Hotspur:Why, so can I, or so can any man;But will they come when you do call for them?

    3. I’m just finishing Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves”. And he makes the point there that religion might have served a purpose millennia ago — but that it’s long since passed it’s “use by” date.

      Which concept, with all due respect to the esteemed professor, is something anyone with half a brain and some knowledge usually arrives at independently…

  9. To answer at least one of these silly questions, if “African tribesmen” are anything like modern fundamentalists, they wanted desperately to believe in demons. If there are demons, and you can oppose them, your otherwise pathetic life takes on a purposeful narrative and has meaning. Living that fantasy is what gets a lot of fundamentalists out of bed in the morning.

    I suspect that even more than being happy, people want their lives to be *meaningful*, and the religious generate all sorts of fanciful adventures in their head to maintain that illusion. No wonder fundamentalists have railed against Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, and World of Warcraft–elaborate good vs. evil fantasies were once exclusively tied to religious belief. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien accidentally created more atheists than Dawkins ever will.

    1. And it’s not just opposing them that makes life meaningful. It’s that setbacks in life or barriers to the good life, or an individual’s “sin” or wrongful act, are the result of demons, thereby relieving the individual of any responsibility. Gods/demons are the great exculpators.

    2. Evil spirits can in principle be appeased through offerings or thwarted by appealing to a more powerful spirit (e.g., “god”). Believing in them gives one a feeling of control over life.

      Having a loved one get sick of an impersonal disease for which there’s no cure is much more dismal reality. At least with the demon, you had a chance of controlling the situation.

  10. music yields a form of knowledge for humankind

    Music provides a form of knowledge, but religion has nothing to do with it. In a deliciously ironic account of this, Dan Barker, composer of acclaimed Christian (now atheist) music wrote about what motivated his Christian spiritual music, even while writing it as an atheist:

    I have never seen Manuel Bonilla again (the Mexican Christian singer), but we did talk on the phone a couple of times. He told me that he just “knew” that the spirit of God was on my life, particularly since I had arranged and recorded an especially inspired version of a religious song on one of his albums in late 1983, playing the piano with conviction behind his singing. I asked Manuel if he would be surprised to know that while I was arranging and playing that song, I was a secret atheist and that my inspiration was musical, not spiritual. He didn’t say a word. When I talked with Manuel again in 1985, he was friendly, but told me that he would be willing to offer me some counseling to help me get through my struggles. The only thing I could think of was to say that I was happy, and to thank him for his friendship.

    tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.

    Unlike Hitchens’s challenge, yours is unlikely to be answered.

  11. Funny, judging by some people’s reactions of late, I’m pretty sure a number of them WISH that hell and eternal damnation is true…at least for one guy. So, yeah, wishful thinking on the negative stuff is possible.

    1. Evil people often come to an easy end in life. It’s tempting to wish they could be punished after death.

      Conversely, good people often come to painful and brutal ends, and one could wish that they would be rewarded for their goodness after death.

      Of course, we naturally wish the reward bit for ourselves.

  12. Every time I see this argument (MacNamara’s), I think that the proponent has confused experience with truth.

    For example, an individual may have experienced a cold tingling feeling all over their body at the same time they thought about their dead grandmother. I don’t doubt the “truth” of their “experience” but that doesn’t mean that their “experience” demonstrates that their grandmother communicated with them.

    “After all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge”
    I would not agree with this, despite enjoying music as much as the next person. I enjoy the _experience_ of music, and some times I learn about the experiences of others via the lyrics, but that isn’t the knowledge we’re looking for. We’re looking for knowledge about the universe and how it works, not just that some dude’s dog got run over by his ex-girlfriends pickup truck. Music conveys and creates human experience, not knowledge.

  13. But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind.

    It’s also POSSIBLE that monkeys MIGHT fly out of my butt, but I’m not losing sleep over it.

    McNamara’s argument on this point seems to be a variation of Eagleton’s whole thing about how religion gives us so many powerful cultural metaphors. Fine; great. I can allude to “an eye for an eye” without believing in the divinity of Jesus! At the risk of being a bit Godwin-esque, Nazism also gives us many powerful cultural metaphors, and in that limited sense our tapestry of expression is “the better” for it, but that’s irrelevant to whether it’s a good idea!

    Our cultural background is built up from a plethora of sources, some good, some bad, some just neutral. The fact that a lot of our metaphors and narratives have an origin in religion doesn’t really say anything at all about anything, except that religion has been a powerful force in our culture (which nobody is disputing). Human creativity is endlessly resourceful, I’m sure if we have no more religion we’ll find something else to base our metaphors on.

  14. Very strange article. He almost agrees with us, in that it concludes:

    “The real issue is whether religion produces any kind of knowledge for human kind. At present no-one knows the answer to this question…though of course everyone has an opinion.”

    I’m sure most of us agree with the first sentence, while the second in effect admits that religion hasn’t produced any knowledge so far.

    Maybe if we just give it another thousand years?

  15. Why, when I click on the link to Hitchen’s challenge, am I being taken to WorldNutDaily? Has the link been hijacked?

    1. I don’t remember whose law it is, but I’ve recently seen the “law” that “if an article title asks a question, the answer is always ‘no’.”

  16. The link to Hitchen’s quote goes to the WND and is hugely misquoted/ out of context. Straw man from the get go

  17. One of the problems is that religion not only goes with a simplistic answer (e.g., “The gods did it”) then sticks with it, even in the face of contradictory evidence. No religion would ever come up with a postulate like Clarke’s Third Law. I’m reminded of a time when I was quiite little, and my parents kept telling me that thunder was the sounds of “…angels bowling.” Little did they know that by age four, I had somehow learned to read (pre-Sesame Street, yet), and had plowed my way through most of the Golden Book encyclopedia that belonged to my older sister. Finally, I got tired of their lame excuses and told them I knew exactly what thunder was.

    On another point, from the post: “After all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge for humankind or that poetry does? What about novels? Surely science is not the only reliable way to knowledge that there is? If poetry, novels, music and the arts more generally can be said to POSSIBLY yield some form knowledge for humankind why can’t religion do so also?”

    Well, golly gee! If fiction is just as good as science, I think I’ll just fire up my Federation shuttlecraft and spent a few hours chasing the Cassini probe around Saturn (and giving the photo analysis crew at JPL heart attacks).

    1. “…poetry, novels, music, and the arts…”

      …and religion–all human constructs.

      Own goal, McNamara.

  18. “fter all would not Coyne agree that music yields a form of knowledge for humankind”

    Speaking as a music fan and a musician, absolutely not. Music does not yield knowledge and it is not supposed to.

    As for literature, it is a method of sharing knowledge, not of discovering new knowledge.

  19. I think that you are right on the money Dr. Coyne.
    Belief in what you’d like to be true is distilled into; their belief that they are different, chosen, and special. So yes, they do have their beliefs that they’d like to be true. Or else they’re plain and normal like the rest of us. This way they can snub us unbelieving buggers!
    Secondly, his belief that religion can TOO produce knowledge. (love the childish tone that the emphasis on ‘too’ adds) Even without the fact that if music or literature DOES inform us of anything, it has to first draw on the science realm who has studied it, in order to do so; he is conceding that the Bible is simply “stories” and art. And like you said, just because something moves me, it doesn’t mean I am going to go out and rearrange my life to live in it’s shadow.

    1. Sorry, but that remark about music and literature having to draw on science if they are going to inform us about anything is a bit silly. What did Homer do, or all those many artists who lived before the rise of modern science? What is often a characteristic of a great writer is the quality of his or her observation of human beings, their relationships and their feelings. Think of Shakespeare or Jane Austen.

  20. The writer seems to be under the mistaken impression that what people desire to be true – the stories that provide some kind of satisfaction for them – is always what will be advantageous to them.

  21. If poetry, novels, music and the arts more generally can be said to POSSIBLY yield some form knowledge for humankind why can’t religion do so also?

    Well yeah but nobody knows what you mean by that. Nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about. We could grant your point or maybe we couldn’t. Who freaking knows.

  22. Religion is also about control; control of individuals; control of societies; control of thought.

  23. We really need to pin down what is knowledge. From reading epistemology texts it seems (but isn’t undisputed) that knowledge is propositional (that is it is true or false), needs to be true, and that there is some justification for believing this to be true.

    This rules out anything to do with knowing how. A dog knows how to crap, but it does not know about crapping. So, as far as knowing how to paint or enjoy art, they are not knowledge.

    A lot of the problem seems to be the vagueness of what we’re talking about.

    1. I entirely agree – actually, this question came up on another thread yonks ago. I think it is a problem if one is going to define knowledge only to mean public and propositional knowledge that has been arrived at through application of scientific knowledge so that the use of the word in ordinary life becomes suspect.

      1. Incidentally, the zoologist R. Dale Guthrie in his good book ‘The Nature of Paleolithic Art’ indirectly addresses this question when he speaks of the kind of knowledge a hunter needs and also of the knowledge, derived from careful observation, of animals that is apparent in Paleolithic art, as well as in rock-paintings by the San people of southern Africa – paintings that, let it be said, were made from memory. The quality of observation is often what moves us, and informs us, in the arts.

        1. And, serendipitously, I have just come across this, in a book I am reading, Walter Burkert’s ‘Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion’, which has been greatly praised by, among others Daniel Dennett:

          ‘…what moves people, what they experience, recount, and recall, are stories…. Personal knowledge about life usually takes the form of a tale, and that is how it is stored and communicated…. Ever since Aristotle, it had generally been assumed that knowledge takes the logical form of statements, predication on a subject…. What we learn in tales is knowledge of a different kind: that a certain person has done this, or that, and this is what came of it. Although it is difficult to explain how such personal knowledge can be generalized, it can still be said that tales are understandable; they call for empathy; they often dominate communication. The tale is the form through which complex experience becomes communicable.’

  24. Surely science is not the only reliable way to knowledge that there is?

    This kind of argument puts the cart before the horse. There is no “manual of science” that explains exactly what specific procedure to perform in order to answer any of the infinite number of questions we may ask. And this non-existent manual is not one of many manuals – manuals of music, manuals of poetry, etc.

    When we set out to explain a phenomenon, as long as we take precautions to ensure an objective, reliable result, whatever we do will be science. This is why I like the broad conception of science Jerry mentions in the OP.

  25. It is abundantly clear that religion has produced a mountain of rubbish.We don’t need to beat that dead horse.Lets start here.What exactly is religion.Lets define our terms-frame the discussion.It is painfully obvious that doesn’t even compare with the scientific method as a means for discovering the nature of reality.Maybe a word from Bucky Fuller would help here-“life is not a noun,its a verb”

  26. Jerry-you’ve got to respond to Vincent Bugliosis new book-The Divinity of Doubt.His chapter on atheism,and evolution are horrible.Surprisingly,he demolishes the catholic church.You wont have any problems there.I suspect he is a Deist in agnostic clothing.I look forward to your eloquence in demolishing his arguments on evolution,and atheism.

  27. tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.

    Okay, I’ll give it a go – but a little help first, please.

    Could you define ‘religion’ here – and a little less important but maybe useful, let me know whose definition you are using and why you chose it. Seriously.

    Then, also if you could say a little about what counts as ‘knowledge’, how it’s acquired and when we’re in possession of it (or not). And maybe what is almost knowledge, or like knowledge, but not quite (e.g. a warrented belief – or similarly, whether something derived from reason, e.g. an inference, counts as knowledge).

    Again, I just want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

    I’m just looking

    1. whoops – that “I’m just looking” is debris from a failed sentence that I thought I had gotten rid of. Ignore it, please.

    2. Tim:

      Knowledge = justified true belief.

      As for religion, there are many definitions. I like Steve Bruce’s:

      [Religion is] beliefs, actions and institutions predicated on the existence of (supernatural) entities with powers of agency (that is, gods) or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose (the Hindu notion of karma, for example), which can set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs

      You can quibble about any definition, but I think this one covers all the major religions and pretty much all belief systems generally recognized as religions.

      So, now that you have some definitions, I’d be interested to see your examples of knowledge produced by religion.

  28. I thought it might be worthwhile pointing out that saying “If poetry, novels, music and the arts more generally can be said to POSSIBLY yield some form knowledge for humankind why can’t religion do so also? ” is essentially from start to finish a category error.

    The standard analysis of what knowledge is, is a justified true belief. What this means is knowledge is when I believe something about the world, when what I believe is in fact true about the world and finally that I believe the true belief for non-accidental reasons.

    MacNamara’s problem is that generally things like music or poetry fail to fit any of the criteria. Hell, it would be hard for instance to conceive of what kind of concept music for instance would be able to express about the world in order to meet the belief criteria. Essentially there doesn’t look to be anything we can judge as true or false unless we take a sort of external view where instead of talking about knowledge about the world we talk about knowledge about music itself or about people’s response to the music. The problem is that then this is a case of a very prosaic form of everyday knowledge about people and about music and not some special form of knowledge as MacNamara proposes.

    I’ll also point out even if we grant more credence to the argument that music or poetry provide knowledge, maybe by somehow magicking in some of the propositional content that it doesn’t seem to have, that doesn’t do anything for the suggestion that “religion provides knowledge” simply because religion is already in the game of providing very ordinary, run of the mill, largely batshit crazy and obviously wrong truth claims. We don’t need to grant it any special licenses to let it join the game.

  29. Jerry, are you sure that you want to strongly defend the idea that religion is just “believing what you’d like to be true”? I think that, without conceding that religion has any value at all, one can concede that religious beliefs might also include things you fear are true, for example. But, so what? If that’s the case, it doesn’t bolster the validity of those beliefs at all – they would simply spring from a different unreliable origin (or, if you prefer, a different neurosis).

    Your central point remains the same, “religion isn’t really a way of knowing anything”.

  30. “tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.”

    Religion is crap. That’s knowledge enough, derived directly from religion…

    What did I win?


  31. The short McNamara:

    1. Religion isn’t about believing what you want because religion has other roles as well. Apparently McNamara is incapable of even the simplest reasoning.

    2. “But surely it is POSSIBLE that religion MIGHT yield some sort of worthwhile knowledge for humankind.”
    Oh yeah, bozo – prove it! Over 6000 years of superstition has yet to yield any valuable god-derived knowledge.

  32. I heard a public radio report (quasi-transcript at http://www.gpb.org/news/2011/04/21/webs-content-farms-grow-audiences-for-ads) on “content farms,” did some semi-random checking of pages at examiner.com, and concluded fairly quickly that I should not pay much attention to any search result that sends me to an article or essay by an “Examiner.”

    A “content farm” is a web site set up and run for the principal purpose of exposing the surfer or reader to the ad content. A shallow and quickly written (and often badly written)short article or “how to” piece is the “hook” that draws the surfer or reader to the web page. The proprietors of content farms pay tiny amounts to the writers for their work, and the more quickly a content farm writer can turn out a piece, the more quickly he or she can get paid and begin to write another one. The radio report included interviews with some freelance content farm writers. My impression is that the finished pieces are posted without much (if any) copy editing. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of writing pulp SF hackwork for Ray Palmer and being paid a penny a word.

    For content farm operators, the objective is to deduce what key words will be focused on by Google’s secret algorithms, to build web pages with cheap, low-quality “articles” that will be triggered by those key words, and then collect payments per click for surfers who are exposed to the ads on those pages. “Google arbitrage.” Google periodically updates and “improves” its search algorithms, many of the content farm pages suffer a reduction in traffic and ad revenue, and then the content farms adapt by attempting a new round of reverse engineering.

    A February 2011 technical analysis, which I confess I don’t completely understand, ranked examiner.com as among the 25 content farms that were adversely affected by Google’s most recent update of its algorithm. http://www.sistrix.com/blog/985-google-farmer-update-quest-for-quality.html

    Just count the ads on the page containing MacNamara’s “article” and note the variety of them. I clicked on the “become an Examiner” link, and the “default” list of topics on the linked page corresponded closely to the content of the ads and did not include “Science, Religion and Politics.” For me, this was a dead giveaway.

    I suppose that some good, thoughtful writers who really need the money could end up writing for examiner.com, and that the finished product from these writers would constitute diamonds among the dross. But playing the percentages, I doubt this happens often.

  33. Just found your site. Following you on Twitter now.

    I like what you’ve said; it is very well written and, I might add, thought provoking. I found myself first thinking about the human condition and people needing to believe there is justice – a probable assertion for why religion, created by man, is wish-thinking.

    Then I found myself justifying the somewhat blunt and aggressive methods with which arguments must be presented to theists and the religious.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your work.


  34. Thank you for that splendid challenge question for theist to consider I suspect they won’t be able to proffer a response to the simple and elegant way that you expressed it.

  35. I support Jerry’s post, I just want to flesh out a point that goes back to Russell Blackford’s original musings.

    On one hand, there’s knowing that (e.g., I know that the Earth goes around the Sun). I’ll call this “P” for “propositional” knowledge (and there’s a “p” in “epistemology” too).

    On another hand (leaving room for more than two hands), there’s knowing how (e.g., I know how to wiggle my left ear, but I don’t know how to wiggle my right ear), and I’ll call this “H” for “how”.

    P and H can work together. For a clear example, after Harry Houdini died, a medium claimed to know how to communicate with him (claiming H), so Harry Houdini’s widow tested if the medium knew a prearranged message (testing for P), and the medium failed. For a more subtle example, your knowledge of the proposition 1+2=3 (P) is related to how you know how to add two numbers A+B=C (H). But another example means more to me personally.

    My dad created the program for a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) at the Catholic University of America. A DMA is a terminal degree, like a PhD is a terminal degree (i.e., no degree is higher), but for musical performance. A DMA program involves coursework in music theory and analysis (my dad created the courses for analysis) plus a DMA recital performance (to show the candidate knows the literature). The result is a synthesis of P and H, like the Hermann Hesse novel Der Glasperlenspiel (that I’ve read as the Winston translation, The Glass Bead Game).

    Up this thread at 26, Brian was rightly searching for definitions, and when he considered knowing how, he came up with an example of a dog crapping. I totally apologize to Brian in advance for what I’m about to write, because Brian was being a good guy, playing nice with everyone, and being open-minded, looking for ways to think about the topic. It’s just that what he wrote about a dog crapping articulated what I’ve seen on WEIT and RDnet responding to Blackford’s original musings.

    A DMA recital is not a dog crapping. A DMA recital is not expressing a personal preference like chocolate or vanilla being equally valid choices. A DMA recital is not expressing a personal experience like your favorite song makes you feel a certain way that only you know. A DMA recital shows the candidate knows the literature by playing to the standards the DMA committee expects. A DMA recital shows the candidate’s synthesis of knowledge.

    Sorry for going off, but my rant relates to my irritation with the trope that improvising musicians “don’t know what they’re doing” which relates to the trope of the Magical Negro connecting white people with their feelings and existential issues. I’m white by the way, my point is these tropes live on ignorance. Plus I am coming down from Tina Fey’s Bossypants (read by the author) and feeling her sleep deprivation vicariously. Would rage again.

  36. For a contemporary religion to possess useful knowledge about our world, wouldn’t that institution need a mechanism for self-correction to ensure its Truth hasn’t become contaminated by misinformation?

    Faith of the individual adherents (or their revelations) doesn’t seem to be the answer, since it introduces discrepancies to be reconciled via some independant method of arbitration.

    In general the story of religion seems to be increasingly one of schisms, rather than a convergence on specific religious truths.

  37. Hi whyevolutionistrue,

    You ask, “tell me exactly what “knowledge” religion has provided that is not derivable from secular reason.”

    I agree I cannot do that, but I think I can show how religion, or at least an ideal type of religion, provides a field of knowledge that does derive from reason. That would shed a different light upon the question of whether engaging in religion can be a worthwhile activity, if properly subject to the requirements of practical reason.

    It is my suggestion that practical reason is the foundational form of reason, and that both science and religion are justified as “bodies of knowledge” to the extent they are justfied by practical reason.

    Practical reason begins with something like the golden rule (treat others as you wold want to be treated) or Kant’s categorical imperative (act so that you could want that the maxim of your action would be a universal law of nature). In effect, these rules treat different conscious beings that have cares and concerns as being equal “ends in themselves” in the sense of being due equal consideration when we are determining what we should do.

    For convenience, please let me refer to these conscious beings who have cares and concerns as “spirits”. I do not mean to imply that spirits can float around without bodies. It may well be that the only way that consciousness or spirit exists in our physical reality is as an epiphenonmena of bodies.

    Among the things that we do is label some things as being knowledge and other things as not being knowledge. I suggest that this activity, like any other activity, is subject to the same moral requirement that we must treat all spirits as being equal “ends in themselves” in the sense of being due equal consideration when we are determining what we should do.

    This requirement has implications about how we should speak about things and what we should be allowed to be called knowledge. It requires that knowledg need to be more than subjective, it must be intersubjective. More precisely, it must be ideally intersujective. It would include that set of propositions whose acceptance would maximally benefit the entire community of all spirits.

    Scientific method has grown out of this aspiration for ideal intersubjectivity. Religion, during its best moments, is driven by the same aspiration. Talk of what an ideal spirit would be like, when subject to fundamental moral requirements, would similarly be driven by an aspiration toward an ideal intersubjectivity.

    Since both science and religion grow out of the same rational requirement, they must be consistent with each other. The attempt of religion to negate science as in creationism is antithetical to the purposes of justifiable religion. But, perhaps religion has a place in discussing the ideals implied by practical reason: What would an ideal spirit be like? What would an ideal spirit community be like? In what ways do we and our communities differ from the ideal. What roles do such ideals play in helping us to decide how we should act? Does an ideal spirit exist? How is it possible that an ideal spirit could exist given what science has taught us about our intersubjective reality? What could prophesy (speaking for the ideal spirit) be, if there could be such a thing within our intersubjective reality as worked out by science?

    An example of an appropriate knowledge claim for religion would be that the ideal spirit (God) would be omnibenevolent, and would be omniscient and omnipotent except in so far as omniscience and omnipotence are inconsistent with being omnibenevolent. This claim is grounded in practical reason but concerns the subject matter of religion.

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