Tag Archives: Objective Truth

Michael Murray explains how to talk about religion in the public square

In this post, I want to discuss a research paper by evangelical Christian philosopher Michael J. Murray. The title of the paper is “Who’s Afraid of Religion?”

Murray begins with a distinction, as philosophers love to do:

…we would be perfectly happy to have a discussion of claims like…”Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century BCE with the appearance of the Mahayana sutras.” … It is OK to speak of religion… as a historical phenomenon or a socio-cultural influence. It is something altogether different to discuss religious commitments that one owns. That is the sort of religion that troubles us.

People who aren’t religious feel discomfort about hearing about the religious beliefs of others, because those beliefs influence public policy, but (they think) those beliefs are based non-rational factors, such as place of birth, parental beliefs, peer groups, emotions, prejudices, superstitions, etc. They are uncomfortable living in a government that was voted in by people whose views are based on irrational religious beliefs.

Murray has some illustrations of this “theo-phobia” here:

…think about the last time you heard a devoutly religious person argue, on explicitly religious grounds, that gay marriage should be banned, or that intelligent design should be taught in the public school biology curriculum, or that abortion is murder and thus should be outlawed.

He thinks that arguing for views on pureliy religious grounds makes people uncomfortable.

And I agree with that. I feel uncomfortable when people argue for positions from faith-based premises, especially if I don’t believe in their religion. But do discussions of religious beliefs necessarily have to be about faith-based personal preferences? Or is there another way to discuss religion that doesn’t make non-religious people squirm with discomfort?

In the remainder of the paper, Murray explores five reasons why theo-phobia exists in academic settings:

  1. Religion supports oppression, violence, and tyranny and is thus best ignored, excluded or perhaps even actively opposed.
  2. Religion is a personal or subjective matter and as a result can’t be subjected to canonical standards of rational scrutiny. It thus has no place in the academy.
  3. Religion can’t have a role in scholarly inquiry since it at best plays a balkanizing role in the scholarly world.
  4. If religion is allowed to have a role in the academy it will quickly intrude into domains where it does not belong.
  5. Reason #5 is kept secret until the end of the paper.

Regarding point 1, Murray argues that religious excesses can be controlled by falsifying the religion using reason and evidence, because religions make testable claims. So, if academics are afraid of the excesses of a dangerous religion, they should falsify it by arguing that its claims are false. There is no reason to be afraid of expressions of religious belief when you are free to argue against the testable truth claims of that religion.

I repeat: different religions make different claims about the external world. Either the universe had a beginning (Christianity) or it didn’t (Mormonism). Either Jesus died on the cross (Christianity) or he didn’t (Islam). If academics are worried about the effects of some religion, they can argue against it! If a religious person is not willing to defend the testable truth claims, then they are discredited anyway by refusing to engage.

For the remaining 4 points, especially the last one, I recommend you read the whole article. Give it to your friends, religious and non-religious, who believe that faith is fundamentally different from other academic disciplines. Some truth claims of different religions can be tested. And Christians especially should help others to feel comfortable talking to them by sticking to testable truth claims and publicly accessible evidence.

I’ll give you a hint about reason #5, from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University. Nagel is quoted as follows:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.
(“The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)

So we learn from Murray that religions stand or fall based on logical consistency and empirical validation against the external world, just like any other academic discipline. So long as you stick to discussing the public, testable claims of religions, there is no reason to be uncomfortable about discussing religions. Don’t discuss the parts of a religion that can’t be tested, only discuss the parts that can be tested.

(Note: Nagel isn’t all bad, he defends intelligent design as science in a research paper summarized here).

If you would like to see how you can discuss religion in a public forum, check out this debate between a Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and an atheist Christopher Hitchens:

It can be done. Theists just have to learn to stick to discussing things that can be tested and proved using public knowledge.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Michael Murray explains how to talk about religion in public

In this post, I want to discuss a research paper by evangelical Christian philosopher Michael J. Murray. The title of the paper is “Who’s Afraid of Religion?”

Murray begins with a distinction, as philosophers love to do:

…we would be perfectly happy to have a discussion of claims like…”Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century BCE with the appearance of the Mahayana sutras.” … It is OK to speak of religion… as a historical phenomenon or a socio-cultural influence. It is something altogether different to discuss religious commitments that one owns. That is the sort of religion that troubles us.

People who aren’t religious feel discomfort about hearing about the religious beliefs of others, because those beliefs influence public policy, but (they think) those beliefs are based non-rational factors, such as place of birth, parental beliefs, peer groups, emotions, prejudices, superstitions, etc. They are uncomfortable living in a government that was voted in by people whose views are based on irrational religious beliefs.

Murray has some illustrations of this “theo-phobia” here:

…think about the last time you heard a devoutly religious person argue, on explicitly religious grounds, that gay marriage should be banned, or that intelligent design should be taught in the public school biology curriculum, or that abortion is murder and thus should be outlawed.

He thinks that arguing for views on pureliy religious grounds makes people uncomfortable.

And I agree with that. I feel uncomfortable when people argue for positions from faith-based premises, especially if I don’t believe in their religion. But do discussions of religious beliefs necessarily have to be about faith-based personal preferences? Or is there another way to discuss religion that doesn’t make non-religious people squirm with discomfort?

In the remainder of the paper, Murray explores five reasons why theo-phobia exists in academic settings:

  1. Religion supports oppression, violence, and tyranny and is thus best ignored, excluded or perhaps even actively opposed.
  2. Religion is a personal or subjective matter and as a result can’t be subjected to canonical standards of rational scrutiny. It thus has no place in the academy.
  3. Religion can’t have a role in scholarly inquiry since it at best plays a balkanizing role in the scholarly world.
  4. If religion is allowed to have a role in the academy it will quickly intrude into domains where it does not belong.
  5. Reason #5 is kept secret until the end of the paper.

Regarding point 1, Murray argues that religious excesses can be controlled by falsifying the religion using reason and evidence, because religions make testable claims. So, if academics are afraid of the excesses of a dangerous religion, they should falsify it by arguing that its claims are false. There is no reason to be afraid of expressions of religious belief when you are free to argue against the testable truth claims of that religion.

I repeat: different religions make different claims about the external world. Either the universe had a beginning (Christianity) or it didn’t (Mormonism). Either Jesus died on the cross (Christianity) or he didn’t (Islam). If academics are worried about the effects of some religion, they can argue against it! If a religious person is not willing to defend the testable truth claims, then they are discredited anyway by refusing to engage.

For the remaining 4 points, especially the last one, I recommend you read the whole article. Give it to your friends, religious and non-religious, who believe that faith is fundamentally different from other academic disciplines. Some truth claims of different religions can be tested. And Christians especially should help others to feel comfortable talking to them by sticking to testable truth claims and publicly accessible evidence.

I’ll give you a hint about reason #5, from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel of New York University. Nagel is quoted as follows:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.
(“The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)

So we learn from Murray that religions stand or fall based on logical consistency and empirical validation against the external world, just like any other academic discipline. So long as you stick to discussing the public, testable claims of religions, there is no reason to be uncomfortable about discussing religions. Don’t discuss the parts of a religion that can’t be tested, only discuss the parts that can be tested.

(Note: Nagel isn’t all bad, he defends intelligent design as science in a research paper summarized here).

If you would like to see how you can discuss religion in a public forum, check out this debate between a Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and an atheist Christopher Hitchens:

It can be done.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Profile of Canadian pro-life debater Jojo Ruba

Here’s the article. (I linked to the printable version)

Excerpt:

Before Jose “Jojo” Ruba spoke at St. Patrick’s Church last night as part of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform’s Northern Ontario Truth Tour, he conceded he has a tough task ahead of him; making parallels between the civil rights movement and the abortion debate today would be tough for anyone.

That’s what Ruba, a graduate of Carleton University’s Journalism and Masters of Political Science programs, has set out to do on the Sudbury stop of his tour of Northern Ontario with his talk Injustice Interrupted: From the Civil Rights Movement to The Modern Abortion Debate.

Ruba, who’s approaching his 10th year as a public speaker, debater and educator on pro-life issues, said his talk examines the legacy of the civil rights movement and the lessons that can be taken from the social reform movement as it relates to the pro-life movement.

No stranger to controversy, Ruba said he knows it’s tough to draw comparisons, but added that he wants to give people some ideas as to why he thinks comparisons between the civil rights movement and the modern abortion debate are justified.

Ruba said his presentation focuses on an important question central to the argument : what are the unborn?

“If unborn are human beings like us, just as the civil rights activists fought for equality rights of human beings who were different, but still human beings, we say the same thing about the pre-born child.”

Ruba said that’s what he does as a “pro-lifer,” and a challenge he presents to other pro-lifers.

“If we truly believe there are 300 deaths every day of Canadians through legal abortion, how should we act? With gentleness and respect, of course, following the laws, but without compromise.”

Like those who fought for equal rights in the civil rights movement, Ruba is aware of those who would try to silence him.

Ruba recalled a time when he was giving a lecture at St. Mary’s University in Halifax when prochoice audience members shouted him down for 45 minutes.

“At McGill University in Montreal, they shouted me down for two hours,” Ruba said. “They started singing all 99 verses of 99 bottles of beer on the wall and also sang happy birthday for abortion.”

Ruba said that even in such a hostile environment, he was happy to stay afterward and answer questions.

“In fact, one of the protesters who started off chanting as part of the protest group, after hearing a bit of what I’d had to say, said he’d wished he’d heard more of the presentation. Even when it happened in Halifax, more people showed up at the next university on the tour because of the controversy.”

Ruba said it’s a person’s right to disagree with him, but argued the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is “a good thing, a democratic right.”

Here’s another video featuring Jojo Ruba that I featured previously.